Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Uses and Misuses of Chess

Via Pejman Yousefzadeh comes this amusing story about the (mis)use of chess by Colorodo's senatorial candidates to make themselves appear more "intellectual" in the eyes of the public.

Is there any move in chess worse than blundering away a queen or walking into a checkmate?
Yes. How about picking chess as your game for a front-page cover story in the state's largest newspaper three days before your senatorial primary and then setting up the board incorrectly.
On Aug. 7, Rocky Mountain News reporter Jim Tankersley wrote an entertaining piece about how each of the four Colorado senatorial candidates played a game of their choice played against a News reporter.
Republican Pete Coors picked a backyard washer game. Democrat Ken Salazar selected basketball.
Probably in an attempt to create an intellectual aura in the voter's mind, both Democrat Mike Miles and Republican Bob Schaffer picked chess.
From a chess perspective, amazingly, both the liberal Miles and conservative Schaffer made identical blunders.
Even a novice chess player will quickly notice from the front-page photos that both boards were set up wrong; the righthand corner square closest to the player should be white, not black.
Now that is an astoundingly elementary error to make, and strongly suggests that neither man has actually been in front of a chess board all that often; so why call it one's favorite game then? But looking at the actual games played by both candidates (presumably after the board was set up correctly for them) also turns out to be a revealing exercise.
Tankersley reported that both "lead with their queens but fail to seal the deal" and commented on each candidate's style and personality as shown by how they played the game.
As a chess master, perhaps I can add some additional insights. A chess player who leads with his queen hopes that the opponent will ignore her, perhaps resulting in a quick checkmate. This is a flawed, shortsighted plan. If the opponent pays attention, the queen will do little damage, and moving her about actually loses crucial time as the lady is chased around the board by opposing pieces.
In chess, and in life, it is smarter to assume that your opponent will play the best move, not the worst.
There's that Popperian falsificationism again, just as the Nature article I previously linked to noted. That aside, one doesn't need to be a chess master to realize the importance of speed of development in winning chess games, or the stupidity of risking your single most valuable piece at the very beginning of a game, when you ought to be trying to establish control of the center of the board.
The chess personality traits demonstrated in the strategy used by both Miles and Schaffer are impatience, disrespect for your opponent, lack of long-range vision, and a quest for immediate gratification . . . all traits commonly displayed by second-graders, but unbecoming of a U.S. senator.
This next bit is just plain funny.
Schaffer was supposed to be in a close contest with Coors, but by leading with his queen, he gave conservatives the impression that he was hoping for a handout from his opponent. It is hard to win a Republican primary by trying to get something for nothing. His strategy also suggests that he abandoned his traditional values platform by putting his queen on the front lines. Most conservatives were no doubt horrified to see their champion advocating that women take a leading role in combat.
I don't really believe that how well or poorly one plays chess is indicative of much of anything other than having a good memory and a love for the game; I don't even believe that it is in any way a mark of "intellectualism." That said, I do think that attempting to use one's supposed fondness for chess to project a false air of profundity says a great deal about one's fitness for office.