Chessplayers of the world unite

You do not have to scale the mountain alone.

You sit at the board, you shake hands and you move the pieces. From the moment a game begins you alone must take full responsibility for its outcome. Chess could hardly be a more individual pursuit. Despite this there is undoubtedly a chess community. Why?

Camaraderie can be observed as soon as competitive play concludes. Players exhume the game and examine what might have been. Recent adversaries lay down their arms and teach each other new tricks. The post-mortem is definitely one of my favourite chess quirks. As a junior I failed to recognise the value of this ritual and would decline to analyse when I had lost. Judging from recent tournaments I was not alone in this defective thinking!

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In 1978 and again in 1981 the chess world saw battles between two wildly conflicting characters. Victor Korchnoi, child of the siege of Leningrad, defector from communist Russia, fighter against the system, playing Anatoly Karpov, poster boy of the Russian regime, communist ideologue, a beneficiary of all that communism had to offer and a star chess player. The two could hardly bear to shake hands with each other. Yet after play they spent time together in animated discussion over the game. When asked why, Korchnoi famously replied, “he is the only other person in the world who understands chess the way I do”.

This is why a chess community exists. From the perspective of individual success it makes little sense to share information with your potential opponents. Poker players do not do this. If chess were simply about winning we would instead carefully guard every scrap of information. There would be no books, training videos or coaches. In this world the perfect chess player would be a selfish lone wolf.

Now think about who you know in chess. In any cohort of chessplayers almost all the people you spend your time with will be within about 25 ECF of your grade (or maybe 187.5 Elo). Sure, you will know a few stronger or weaker players, but you probably find you spend little time discussing the game with them. Plenty of strong or weak players are friendly enough to approach but in reality you hardly speak to them at all.

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Strong players recognise instinctively the importance of stratified community. They have built their own training networks comprising of similarly motivated players and coaches, selected consciously or unconsciously, to give a support network of exactly the right strength. Next time you play a game, and indeed every time you play a game, take a good look at your opponent and think about the network. Remember his face and speak to him next time you meet. Some will fit in, others won’t. But those who do will end up being your valuable allies.

Chess is the way we have all chosen to engage with the world and the presence of others helps to give meaning to our journey. I have long ago stopped trying to explain why I spend time on chess to those who don’t. I used to be met with creative variations of “what’s the point?” and never really had a satisfactory answer. Nowadays, I think it is a broader question of networking, support, interest and motivation. Chessplayers have a value system that underpins chess which goes way beyond boosting rating.

Although we each have to develop our own system, we do not have to do it on our own.

Many thanks to Jerry Humphreys for supplying the Korchnoi anecdote and his extensive notes.

(editors note – This article originally published on 19th February 2018 on Makepeace with Chess.  Republished with kind permission from the author)


Chris Russell

Chris Russell

Chris is a part-time member of Downend and Fishponds and formerly played for Bristol University. He is now based in London where he co-founded Makepeace With Chess.

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