Can Chess Help Adapt to Life?

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Mike Valvo

Sep 5, 1989, 9:57:07 AM9/5/89


by Michael Valvo

Michael Valvo is an International Chess Master and former New
Jersey State Champion who brings unique qualifications to the
subject he writes about. For the past ten years, he has been
heavily involved in computer education. He is the international
tournament director of the ICCF (International Computer Chess
Federation). He writes poetry, reads extensively and claims his
main hobby is pursuit of the meaning of life.

Chess has been very important in my life and I have often thought
about its potential value to others. It helped me grow up and
learn the ways of the world. "Could it help others learn aspects
about life?", I wondered. What would be its impact on a young and
impressionable mind? I know that much of what I learned about
life was through the filters of chess and the chess world. I can
remember that when I dreamed at night, that many of the things
that I learned was through dream dramas that often included
personification of the various chess pieces. And everything was
in living color!

In the process of contemplating on this, I reflected on society,
our values as expressed in morals and ethics, and our culture
overall. As one who has achieved considerable success in chess
and yet had never turned to chess as a profession, I felt I was
in a unique position. My observations, I felt, would be more
valid than an observing scientist who knew little of the heart of
what I was considering or a professional player who is totally
obsessed with the game. Each is over balanced in one way or

I reflected on the part that chess had in my life. I grew up with
chess all around me because my father was a master and chess was
his primary hobby. He was so infatuated with the game, he took up
correspondence chess to give himself something to do at lunch
times. He was fond of saying that I teethed on chess pieces. This
is true and my mother still keeps the mementos showing where I
bit off the ears of the knights. Chess was an integral part of my
childhood schooling and later, of my college life as well. In the
sixth grade, a chess set was kept on the side of the classroom.
During afternoon classes, the two who were allowed to play were
excused from classwork. In order to keep playing, you had to keep
winning! I played more than anyone else and surprisingly my
grades were higher than any other year from first grade through
my senior year in high school.

In consciousness I returned to the keyboard I was using to write
this article, and one question loomed in front of me: could I
communicate what there was to be said?

When I was old enough for my father to invite me to his weekly
chess club meetings, I found myself in a very different
educational setting. I was surrounded by individuals who were
each near the top of their fields. Some were top scientists from
the General Electric laboratories near Schnectady, N. Y., while
others were prominent lawyers, accountants, managers, salesmen,
etc. Not only did we play chess, but the background discussions
were an intensive course on psychology, management, people
handling and being successful in general. "Wasn't it chess that
was responsible for allowing me to partake of this rich
experience?", I mused. Intuitively I knew I had been privileged
to have been immersed in this setting and no school anywhere
would have been able to provide me with what I received there.
"But," I thought, "does this really differ from many other
growing up situations where a young man integrates into his
father's world?" Scenes of the other parents and golf, bowling,
and TV sports addition flitted across my consciousness. And as I
thought about it some more, I realized there was a difference. It
had not only to do with chess, but also with the surrounding
values and topics that were the focal points of the group
interaction. Chess, it is true, is only a game. But the broadness
of its scope and inherent richness attracted many other things of
importance into my formulating world.

And remember, I said to myself, there are more books written on
chess and a greater chess literature than all other games
combined! [This can be verified by checking with the White Chess
Collection in the Cleveland Public Library which contains 30,000
volumes on chess.]

While considering this article, my thoughts first drifted onto
the television program I once watched where children were asked
to participate in a psychological experiment. A chessboard was
placed in front of two of them and a single checker was placed on
the board. They were asked to play a game with each other.
Winning meant moving the checker onto your eighth rank. Each
moved in turn and you could either move the checker one square
forward or one square backward.

Two American kids played for an half hour and no one got
anywhere. One would move the checker forward, but his `opponent'
would cancel his progress by moving the checker one square in the
opposite direction. This went on and on.

Then two Mexican kids were placed in the same situation and they
immediately helped each other win: One would move forward and the
other moved backward! Boom boom boom, I win. Boom boom boom, you
win. It was the first time I understood what was meant by a win-
win situation. A slight distinction began to appear for me
between the goal of a game (winning) and the purpose of the game
(getting a checker to the eight rank).

In America, our culture is dominated by Coach Vince Lombardy and
"Winning is the only thing." This implies there must be a winner
and there must be a loser(s). If it occurs to you at this point
that I might be saying that `America is a game society', wake up
just a bit more: that is exactly what I am saying. We are deluged
from every direction with this win-lose polarity and everybody is
driven by the thought that `I am not going to be a loser.' Since
everybody obviously can't `win' in this scheme and must be a
`loser' at least part of the time, many carry a heavy sense of
frustration and low self worth with them everywhere. The sad
thing is people are no longer people, but are instead winners or
losers. Obviously, this game world philosophy does not work well
if applied to society. But isn't that what we have? A society
that doesn't work all that well?

There is a tendency in chess, too, for this attitude to dominate.
I actually see this tendency as being of enormous value, though,
because it bridges the values that the very young amongst us
learn from their life experiences and exposures. Behavioral
changes alone cannot combat the bombardment society rains on each
of us every day about `winning'. I have seen this `winning is
everything' attitude reaches its most shameful level in little
league baseball when my son was playing. Parents become animals
exhorting `their' children to win. This is not a healthy society
model for either individual or group activity.

Working with chess, if guided properly, can be the basis of new
and permanent values for these young and impressionable psyches.
It has been my experience that chess provides a valuable window
on life. It remains an individual contest, though, and anytime
that is the case, care must be exercised to limit the extremes of
this `winning is the only thing' attitude.

There are some in chess as there are in other sports or game
competitions, who feel that success is only possible if a player
or team is hungry. That we must feel deprived in some way to
generate the necessary motivation for winning. Kids watch coaches
get themselves deliberately thrown out of games to make
themselves martyrs and to artificially create a `cause'. Most
seem to measure greatness in a coach by their ability to motivate
and to foster a winning attitude above anything else. Let's face
it: we don't teach art appreciation through sports in America.
Instead we stress the brother of the `winning is the only thing'
attitude, the percentage play, and we are teaching people that
life is a gamble. The fact that our society is replete with all
kinds of ways to `support' this affliction is testimony enough
for what I am saying.

Chess is one way where it is possible to start with such
attitudes and use them as raw material to develop other more
useful life values: learning to solve problems and overcome
obstacles, developing patience, learning to focus and increase
one's attention span, appreciation of beauty, as well as many
others. Learning chess is especially effective with smart,
introverted children.

We live in a time where things move so fast that even values,
morals and ethics undergo radical transformations year by year.
What used to work last year no longer works now. It is as though
the laws of life are constantly being altered. As individuals
within that society, we cope by adopting the external values
taught by this madness all around us. It is clear to me that
society did reasonably well in my youth because its job was to
(1) to impress its values upon us and (2) teach us how to
interpret those values in the light of things that occur around
us. Now that we live in an age where the very values themselves
are rapidly transforming and are no longer reasonably static,
what society has taught has at best a fading appliciability. The
news media brings us evidence every day of the actions of society
through its politicians, prominent religious leaders, and
individuals obsessed with power and makes it clear that
distilling values from our environment is less and less reliable
with each passing day. What can we as individuals do?

It seems clear to me that each of us must examine this whole area
of values, morals, and ethics for ourselves. These value, moral
and ethical areas no longer carry a sense of the absolute and the
mystical as in the past. Increasingly, we are becoming aware that
these `things' are merely standards that we agree to just like we
agree to laws. They govern the interaction we have with the world
around us. I feel it is time we learned to draw such values out
from inside ourselves. Chess provides a laboratory by which that
can be done.

Many chess activities are emerging that can be used to help fill
this gap. There are chess programs in schools, team tournaments
like the US Amateur Championship, correspondence chess, chess
clubs, computer chess machines and programs, computer chess
communications, and people just getting together to look over
some things together. Or just to play. These are things that are
available today.

But this is not enough. The introduction of chess as a focus can
do much for young minds who need activities to occupy their
curiosity just as it is. I feel that in addition we have to do
something about the intense need of people in every walk of life
that need to be on top. It boils down to the end or the means to
the end viewpoint on life. Our eyes are so focused on the goal,
we never get around to living life in the meantime. This has to
be put into balance. Artists and musicians know this. They live
for the process. Chess is so rich that it could be used to teach
appreciation of subtler things available in life. If such a
specific focus was brought into play to address the societal
concerns brought up earlier, I feel even more effective programs
and activities could be organized.

What is it about chess that makes it so appealing to so broad a
spectrum of age, sex, nationality and personality? And why is it
that the national sport of many countries like Russia is barely
known in the United States? Everything is a question of interest
and support. In these other countries, chess is recognized for
the value that it is and it is state supported. The politicians
have their finger in this, it is true, because they feel that if
they have the best chess players, they will be seen as the best
country. The same observations that can be made for the olympics
can be made here. Unfortunately, this has led to international
and national chess political struggles that have never had much
to do with the players. I am ashamed to admit that this power
motivated virus is rampantly prevalent in this country as well.

In many other countries, chess receives strong subsidies from
corporations and elsewhere. Chess is not only a required subject
taught in the schools, but there are also special schools and
private tutoring for those who show special talents. If that kind
of support were available in the United States, chess would
flourish here as well.

More and more universities are seeing reasons to include chess as
part of their curriculum and, in a growing number of cases, are
granting credit hours for chess towards degrees! [Hunter College
in New York is a local example.] Where this level of support is not
available, the support of chess clubs in schools and universities
is getting stronger and stronger.

A very important side aspect of chess is computer chess. It is a
primary component of most Artificial Intelligence (AI) schools in
the country. Writing programs on chess has been a standard by
which AI progress have been measured traditionally. Skeleton
programs are available on the commercial market today to give an
aspirant a head start in writing such programs. Not only does
chess help develop programming skills, but chess remains a
challenging unsolved problem for AI types as they claim that
their immediate goal is to develop a computer that can play on a
par with the World Chess Champion.

The influx of computers on chess has resulted in a special
computer communication link (Leisure Link) that only requires you
to have a personal computer and a modem. You can dial into this
network and play opponents you may never meet. Schools and
businesses could support team competitions in this manner. It
seems to me that a business could be established by organizing
national championships for groups and individuals who would like
to compete in this fashion.

I would like to close this article by discussing the dark sides
of chess. This really only pertains to serious players who
compete for money or prizes. I am not talking about the
professional player who makes his or her living from the game. I
am talking about the hustler mentality inherent in an objectively
weak player who has the opportunity to make thousands of dollars
in stratified tournaments because he can play in events that
shield him from the professionals and he can pick on individuals
weaker than himself.

This is a passionate plea to the chess tournament players who
have suffered with me so far. Do you now see how these
extravagant money prizes have driven everyone to strive for the
full point regardless of any other consideration? And how the
beauty and values inherent in the game are roughly trod upon? Do
you understand how this all ties into the winning is the only
thing mentality? Ask yourself this: "Why do I play chess? Do I
really play to supplement my income? Do I play to show off my
rating? What does chess mean to me? For me?

I recently was playing in a FIDE tournament where I had been
destroying my opponent practically from move one. At various
points he could have resigned with honor. I tired and allowed the
game to enter drawn channels. In a drawn position, I offered a
draw. He apparently sensed blood and refused. I had been
wondering just before his refusal if I should continue to play in
the event because I became aware of the resurgence of a health
problem. I knew that given my inability to cope with this intense
two game a day tournament, and the expectation that now that
everyone would realize it and treat me as fresh bait, I probably
couldn't continue in the tournament anyway. I resigned on the
spot. And I promptly withdrew. Purists will argue that he had
every right to play on. He wanted the point more than me, so I
gave it to him. It was clear he was unable to harvest anything
based on ability. Prior to the game, he had engaged in an irksome
form of gamesmanship and during the game he had the effrontery to
read a magazine sitting across from me while it was my move. I
wondered why he bothered to play chess. He was so driven, I
wonder if he will ever realize what he had made himself a
prisoner of.

This is not an abnormal example of what people can slip into. The
chess I grew up to love is endangered by rewards that lie outside
the sixty four squares. People are finding out what their price
is and they don't care if what they do is "within the law". They
support a win at any price attitude. Some even feel it is their
duty to get away with what they can like they are dealing with
the IRS. And when money is not involved, some individuals will
throw games to qualify themselves for a lower class where they
can be wolves among sheep again. I'll bet a rule that you can
never win money in a class lower than your highest lifetime
rating would have an effect.

If you are a serious player and would like to experience the
other side of chess, the side that first brought you to the game,
play postal chess, team chess or read a book on the endgame by
Jonathon Speelman. You can relearn the love and beauty that can
be realized from this noble game.

I realize I have bitten into a potentially broad subject and
there are probably many areas I could or should have examined in
more detail. Maybe one day I will.

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