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The Chess World Championship Match

Some times we can learn as much about our society from our failures as from our successes. An example is the chess world championship match, which is going on right now in Chennai, India. Chess certainly has the capacity for being a mass sport; it was and is so in Russia, and in much of the former Soviet Union. It is also one of the most exciting intellectual pursuits that exists, closely related to advanced mathematics and, of course, to war. Like everything else, chess has been commodified and the chess world had great expectations for the present match. The challenger, Magnus Carlsen is a twenty-two year old Norwegian, with enormous popular appeal. To be honest, he is a bit of a sex-god for young people: very good-looking, very articulate and a fantastic player. The world champion is also no slouch. He is a brilliant forty four year old Indian, Viswanathan Anand. In recent years, the technical advances in chess have been enormous, due in part to the use of computers, and in part to the work ethic that has become normal for ambitious youths today. Furthermore chess is being transformed by the entry of women. The chief commentator on the match is Judit Polgar, a thirty seven year old Hungarian and perhaps the best woman player yet. As these examples show chess, like tennis and like mathematics, is very much a young person’s game.

In spite of all this, however, it seems that the match has not gained the attention of the world the way Bobby Fischer once did, and the way the world series or the tennis championships have. The question is why? To be sure, there are probably many reasons, many of which I do not know. To be clear, I am not an expert on market behavior. However, I wonder if one reason is that chess has a feature that most popular sports do not have, and that is that it allows for a stalemate. In a way that many have found disappointing, the chess match so far has had four draws, no victories, no losses. I wonder if there is not something in human nature that especially values the tie breaker in tennis or the extra innings in baseball, something that says that at the end of this one person or one team will be left standing, and the other will be on the ground, defeated. Or perhaps it is only in a capitalist society that we need winners and losers, and cannot abide the idea that everyone is more or less equal, an idea which in our economic world suggests something like stagnation and entropy.

I do not know the answer to these questions, but I think it is interesting to watch two brilliant minds exhausting one another without— so far!– any victor. Perhaps the problem is linked finally to the intellectual nature of chess. One association I have is known to me from histories of the university I have read: athletic heroes are always seen by fellow students as working for the group, whereas intellectuals are seen as out for themselves.

Eli Zaretsky

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