Sunday, March 13, 2011

Counterplay: An Anthropologist at the Chessboard

     Congrats to Bob Desjarles on the publication of his new book, Counterplay: An Anthropologist at the Chessboard, and on its glowing review by Rowson in New In Chess. I'm quoted and described in it, so I'm not impartial, but it's insightful, engaging, and will inform how you think about chess in relation to the rest of  life. You can buy it here.

an exerpt from Rowson's review:

Perhaps the main reason I feel charmed by this book is that it is so well-balanced. The author is as credible when describing his passion for the game as he is when he gradually falls out of love with it. There have been lots of non-fiction books about chess which convey the positive side of chess — the wonder of it all, but few that honestly face up to the experience of alienation that arises when players realize that the game is not the exis¬tential panacea they thought it might be. Life goes on, and chess doesn't always help us to live it well. Desjar¬lais highlights that the competitive spirit of the world, and the quest for chess status becomes strenuous after a while, and he had me laughing in agreement with the observation that “a hierarchy of dominance exists, not unlike that which can be found at a posh country club or among a troop of baboons.”

He also refers to the “trivial depth” of the game, but captures the alienation best through his own experience:

“Later, before heading out to my car, I walk through the tournament area. I step past the tournament directors' office, where two men are keeping track of results reported and complaints lodged, past the display of chess books, past the food vendors selling soggy hot dogs and crisp burgers. I stumble around three kids seated on the carpeted floor, placing pieces on a board, and I overhear two men discussing a game. `That's a nasty pin,’ mutters one of them. I stick my head into the skittles room and see pairs of players jousting over rooks and knights, and then walk into the playing hall, where all is quiet and somber and deadly serious, as though a world is at stake. I feel I should be seated at a board as well, fighting it out. But I don't care to be here. Playing now would be like counting pebbles in the sand. I feel discordant, antiheroic. Moments later I'm on the road, heading for home.”

I can’t quite say I know the feeling, but I identify with that sense of being “discordant, antiheroic” and I have felt it many times when I was, as a Grandmaster who is supposed to love the game, suddenly unable to muster any deep concern for the quality of my moves or the outcome they might lead to.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'm about two-thirds the way through Counterplay, and I can already say it's one of the best non-fiction books I've read. (I'm a history professor by trade, so the ranking has at least some validity.) Desjarlais writes extremely well, and his analysis is spot on. Highly recommended.