81.5 F

Davis, California

Monday, May 20, 2024

The Defining Moments

The recent World Chess Championship loss of American Grandmaster Gata Kamsky to the current world number one Veselin Topalov was, in many ways, a setback to the forward development of American chess and, in particular, a disappointment to Kamsky’s fans.

Yet what should have truly been disappointing was how inconsequential the match seemed.

In the past, as much as chess demanded individual intellect, it was also a competition between overarching national ideologies and cultural philosophies. For the observer, all the emergent dramasthe human emotion, national pride, absorbing intensity, trauma of unpredictabilitythose were majestic feelings as they were spectacles. At times, then, chess appeared to be less about two people competing than it was about the story of two conscripts battling for larger, underlying meaning.

And that is the problem: The very values that characterized the greatest chess matches are increasingly dislodged in the age of mechanical computation. With the invention and improvisation of chess programs, chess as a sport is in danger of losing its fundamental qualities. For a game that has persisted and lasted for centuries, a critical part of human history is under the threat of extinction. Chess risks becoming inconsequential.

Often, chess is about hierarchy and class. The rooks and bishops can seem impersonal, bastions of high privilege available to the very few, their rank condescending and their stature intimidating. For the learner, this order is menacing and distant.

But chess is also about redeeming human qualities. Through a focused resolve and unrelenting search for answers, chess can be bent to one’s will and skill. The greatest competitors internalize and master their fears, then transform their nervousness into vigorous moves; in turn, the pieces energize and influence. At its essence, thus, chess contains the intrinsic potential to emerge as a harmonic interplay of pawns and pieces, their inter-structural seamlessness acting and reacting with swift coordination. The play emerges as an art form.

Furthermore, for the chess player, life is embodied and captured in this interaction. The dynamism of chess offers a glorious permanence against the postmodern world that frequently seems more provisional. In the minds of some, the finality of the pieceslinear relationships can even be preferable to the more arbitrary vagaries that shape human relationships.

Computers have now displaced these human qualities. Through absolute precision, the element of unpredictability has been digitally removed. Instead, with the clarity of a perfect oracle, every move is now engineered toward exaction and perfection. The intangible factors that belie the grandest historical chess matchesthe magnitude of the occasion, the sense that something critical is happening, the confluent conditions that provoke actionare surreally disposed by a machine that recognizes no human qualities.

History is a transcript of significant human meaning, its annotation often the consequence of important events allied to defining acts. For many, insight into chess is a venture into a realm that seems forbidden, secretive and transitory. One peeks into the future, seeing what has yet to transpose, envisioning what has yet to happen. That clairvoyance is exciting and exhilarating; this creates meaning, as players get to shape their own personal destinies. Chess players become masters of their own directions.

For chess to come under assault; that is frighteningit endangers not only a game that is valued, but also a way of life that people utilize to construct their own histories and imprint their identity. The invention of chess-playing programs has ultimately emerged as a battle for the soul of chessand of national identities, cultural phenomena and individual worth.


Preserve chess by supporting National Master (NM) James Heiserman’s lecture onMiddlegame Strategyat the Chess Club tomorrow! Contact ZACH HAN at zklhan@ucdavis.edu for more information.


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