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Counterplay, An Anthropologist at the Chessboard

Utgivelsesdato Mai 2011
Pris 255 NOK
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En professor i antropologi har blitt entusiastisk sjakkspiller og utforsket i perioden 2002-09 også sjakkspillet, eller snarere sjakkspillerne og blant annet hvorfor de spiller sjakk. En fenomenal bok som virker både veldokumentert, velskrevet og vesentlig.

Det handler blant mye annet også om sjakkspillet og spillernes i dagens informasjons- og computeralder. Her er det kanskje noe pessimisme inn i alt det sjakkpositive i boka. Den serbiske stormesteren Predrag Trajkovic sier:

It's not real chess. It's turbochess." ? "Turbochess is where the players have booked up a lot of theory, where they've investigated a lot of forced lines. And once they know these well, it's possible to beat much stronger players. I hate this.


  1. Blitzkrieg Bop
  2. Notes on a Swindle
  3. Psych-Out
  4. Sveshnikov Intrigues
  5. Son of Sorrow
  6. Ambivalence
  7. Cyberchess
  8. 24/7 on the ICC

  9. Endgame

  10. Appendix 1. Note on Chess Annotation
  11. Appendix 2. “Life is touch-move”
  12. Notes
  13. Glossary
  14. Acknowledgments
  15. Index

Et utdrag fra første kapitel

That's how I thought of professional anthropology for some twenty years. But by 2002 I had become disillusioned with the academic routines and status rites that came with the profession; I was coming to see it as a shallow game of note-taking and hat-tipping. When I started to play chess again that summer, a new interest took shape for me, with a force and intensity comparable to a religious conversion. Chess emerged as the main illusio in my life, much as it has for countless chess buffs. I became absorbed in chess, preoccupied by it, and took it seriously-so much so that I was willing to submit to a social death in the anthropological profession.

An Anthropology of Passion

Chess remained a priority for me over the next few years. At the same time, what sparked my interest in anthropology in the first place-a desire, chiefly, to understand what people are up to in their lives-led me to reflect on the personal and social dimensions of the game. My efforts in chess came to be motivated by two chief aims. I wanted to learn how to play better, so I could appreciate the game's depths and compete at a consistently high level of expertise; and I wanted to gain a better sense of the realities of chess in the early twenty-first century. I also sought an angle on why so many chess players are so passionate about the game.

A few years back I attended the graduation at Sarah Lawrence College, where I've taught since 1994. After the commencement ceremonies ended, family, friends, and faculty were milling about the main campus lawn, congratulating the new graduates. I ran into a former student of mine as I made my way through the crowd. He had graduated two years before but had returned to campus to see a friend receive his diploma.

"By the way, I've kept in touch with Shahnaz since I've left here," he said, referring to another former teacher. "She tells me that you've been spending a lot of time playing chess."

"Yes, that's true. I've been playing seriously for a while now."


"What's that?"


Taken aback by his blunt question, I muttered that I found the game fascinating, but my answer was vague and unconvincing. The man soon walked away, no doubt wondering what had become of his former teacher, who a few years before had been expounding on cultural relativism and non-Western medical systems.

The more I gave thought to the question, the more it intrigued me. Why play chess at all? Why take up a game-if game is the best word for it-that can be so exhausting, so demanding, so maddeningly frustrating? Why spend summer weekends holed up in an airless hotel convention center, shoulder to shoulder with similarly single-minded chess enthusiasts, staring for hours on end at an array of wooden pieces on a stretch of cloth? Why devote one's energies to a time-intensive pursuit that is little valued or understood in one's own society? How is it that, in a world rife with social inequities, violence, economic upheaval, and fast-paced transformation, people are drawn to chess-playing? The anthropologist in me got to thinking: Why not conduct fieldwork at the chessboard and train an anthropological lens on the cultures and motives of chess players? Why not hang out with the locals and learn what they're up to?

"Participant observation" is the main research method that anthropologists rely on when trying to learn about a particular way of life through ethnographic research. They participate in the everyday activities of the people whose lives they are attempting to understand, while making observations about their rhyme and reason. As a participant observer, I did what other chess players do: I frequented chess clubs, played in tournaments and informally with friends, read chess books, analyzed positions with the help of computer programs, took lessons, developed a repertoire of openings, sacrificed rooks and blundered away queens, lost sleep after tough games, and played countless blitz games with friends and on the Internet. I played a lot of chess, but I also gave thought to what it means to focus on the game in a serious, committed way. I also spoke with a number of chess players, at both the amateur and the professional level, about their experiences of the game. My guiding idea was that by undertaking such inquiries, I could put myself in a position to portray the lifeworlds of some chess players accurately-much the way anthropologists have attempted to understand and convey in writing why, say, Illongot people of the Philippines used to go on head-hunting expeditions, or how globalization has shaped the ethnic identities of peoples in Peru. Indeed, only through writing this book did I come to appreciate anew what anthropology can offer the modern world.

Considering chess through an anthropological lens makes good sense. Anthropology has been a holistic discipline from its inception in the nineteenth century, with anthropologists attending to the diverse and interrelated dimensions of humanity, from the biophysical and linguistic to the material and sociocultural. In studying the chess-playing world, adopting such a holistic focus helped me to tease out the interconnecting forces-social, psychological, technological-woven into contemporary chess practice. A popular conception of chess is that it's purely a mental activity, conducted in a bodiless, wordless domain by solitary thinkers who grapple with each other in a space of pure thought. But the game-like all human affairs-has always been a product of social, cultural, political, biological, and technological arrangements. A chess player is not a lone, heroic actor but is, rather, caught up in complicated webs of meaning and action. Chess is an ever-shifting tangle of neural networks, bodies, social relations, perception, memory, time, spectators, history, narratives, computers, databases. A combinational complexity fixes any human chess scene, not unlike the combinational interplay of pieces on a chessboard. Giving thought to that complexity, making a study of it, an anthropology of chess can attend to the thickets of forms and forces involved in contemporary chess practice-and, more generally, in life itself.

It makes sense to think of chess players as participating in distinct cultures or subcultures-or, more precisely, in sets of interconnected chess communities-for the social realities of chess players are defined by culturally specific practices, values, languages, and social relations. Backward pawns, weak color complexes, seizing the initiative, en passant, back-rank mates, weak masters: the game involves an arcane set of rules, concepts, and vocabulary that can prove inaccessible to the uninitiated. Stuart Rachels, a philosopher and former U.S. chess champion, deems this "the curse of chess"-the fact that "even a rudimentary understanding of chess takes time to develop, and until it is developed, chess seems utterly dull." For seasoned players, in contrast, chess is like some enchanted palace they have stumbled across, its beauty and astonishing intricacy known only to a few. "It's an amazing game," one player tells me, "but most people don't understand anything about it." While that may be true, it's possible to convey the complexities of the game to others. The conceptual stance I've adopted in portraying the lives of chess players is not very different from the one I employed a few years back while trying to grasp the cultural logic of shamanic healing practices in Nepal, or the felt immediacies of life in a shelter in downtown Boston for people considered homeless and mentally ill. Through an intensive engagement with the forms of life in question, I've tried to understand those forms well enough to explain their makeup to others previously unfamiliar with them.

There is no single chess culture, just as there are no singularly bounded "cultures" at work in people's lives. Any single portrait of an actual chess player entails a specific time, place, and nexus of people. The temporal setting of this book is the first decade of the twenty-first century, an age of weekend tourneys, fading neighborhood chess clubs, globalized networks of chess players, and rapid innovations in computer and media technologies. Global interconnectedness has made the already intense practice of chess even more fast-paced, information-rich, and cyborgian. The regional setting for this study is primarily the Northeast of the United States, where city dwellers and suburbanites find ways to cram in chess around the edges of hectic, cell-phoned lives. The people under consideration are, chiefly, a multinational mix of amateur, semiprofessional, and professional players, ranging in age from seven years old to eighty-two, from both the United States and elsewhere, whom I've come to know through my engagements with the game. Considering that those engagements are at a decidedly amateur level, the realm of chess I write about most intimately is that of people who do not make a living from competitive chess but are intensively involved with the game. Accordingly, I do not privilege professional chess as the most authentic and informed realm of chess experience (though professional chess is clearly at a higher level of mastery than amateur chess), but regard it, rather, as one of several fields of practice involved in a much broader theater of human action and interest.

Call it an anthropology of passion-of the ways that people are enraptured by certain endeavors and activities, and of the vectors of such fervor. Others have written about the passionate engagements of orchid enthusiasts and scrabble players and amateur boxers. I want to chronicle the passions and counterpassions of chess players. My aim is to explore the sinews of their interests and consider when their ardor veers into addiction or obsession. I also want to probe what happens when the zeal for certain endeavors runs dry and people grow ambivalent about their investment in them. Chess lays bare key existential themes in the lives of those touched by its energies. These themes are not unique to chess players; they underpin much of modern life. What delights, struggles, and ambivalences sway people? How do they manage competing interests and passions? What are the rewards and costs of obsessive focus?" ...

With passion comes purpose. Many competitive chess players work hard on their games. They study the game, sharpen their tactical vision, analyze past battles, steel themselves for competitive grinds, and try to promote effective modes of thought while playing. They engage in "self-forming" activities and devise certain "technologies of the self," to use the words of French historian Michel Foucault. As Foucault deems it, such technologies allow individuals to affect "their own bodies and souls, thoughts, conduct, and way of being, so as to transform themselves in order to attain a certain state of happiness, purity, wisdom, perfection, or immortality." Chess players employ, often with zealous discipline, a number of technologies of self and subjectivity-some physical and social, others cognitive, emotive, mnemonic. Appropriate to this current age of individualism and self-fashioning, the self becomes an abiding project in the drive toward mastery. Some also draw on chess to improve themselves as persons, to become wiser, more ethically refined beings in the world. Chess offers an education as much moral as intellectual, and that adds to their appreciation for the game.

These pages bid for a phenomenologically inclined, semi-autoethnographic approach to thinking and writing about chess, one that gives priority to the personal and social dimensions of people's involvements with the game. What are the roles of play, ritual, thought, feeling, imagination, memory, empathy, creativity, sociality, and technology in the lives of chess players? What are the lines of pleasure, the histories of pain? How, once the variations are played out, might the vagaries of chess add to our hold on what it means to be human? This book offers a "knight's tour" jaunt into the experiential, social, cultural, and technological expanses of the human play form known as chess.

Amatory Obsession

So what incites the passions of chess players? What do they find in chess, and why do they return to it time and again? While spending time among serious chess players I've found that, by and large, they love the game.

Take Joe Guadagno, a Bronx native and computer software engineer now in his early fifties. I met up with Joe and several chess associates one Sunday afternoon at a weekend tourney held in Stamford, Connecticut. We got to talking about the trials of tournament chess, how grueling it can be. "You know, I was just thinking about that when I was in there," Joe said, gesturing toward the playing hall. "{hrs}'Why am I here?' I asked myself. You've got to be a masochist to want to play competitive chess."

I spoke with Joe ten days later at the Northern Westchester Chess Club in Peekskill, New York. I found Joe more rested, and less masochistically inclined, than when I had seen him last. Joe started playing in his early teens, right after the "Fischer boom" in the early 1970s, using a chess set that he was given when he received his Catholic confirmation. No one else in his Bronx neighborhood knew much about the game, so to play at all he had to hop on a subway heading south to Manhattan, where he played at the Manhattan Chess Club. He developed other interests while in college, but then took up the game again in the late 1990s. "I love the game," he said, with a slight Bronx accent. "It's a source of endless enjoyment.... It's more than just a hobby, it's a passion at a number of levels." Joe's also aware of the game's addictive qualities. "I've had a couple of times in the past six or seven years where I've had to say, you know, if you don't cut a little time away from chess, you're jeopardizing a relationship."

The aesthetic qualities of chess hold Joe's interest. "Before I finish," he said, "I want to play at least a few games that are close enough to mistake-free that I can actually present them and say, 'Here's a chess game that's really worth showing to other people.' As if it was a minor work of art ... 'Here's a minor work of art, but a work of art nevertheless.'{hrs}"

"The cliché about the beauty of chess is, to me, not a cliché at all," Joe added. "It's an incredibly rich game. Everything that you see written about chess by its lovers, about how it's game, art, and science, is absolutely true, as far as I'm concerned. I see the artistic element.... So in that sense, the game is attractive to me in so many ways. It's an art form, and it's a challenging pursuit. It's a whole bunch of different things."

Detaljert info
Innbundet? Ja
Type Bok
Språk Engelsk
Antall sider 251