Chess rebels: inside the mind of the Covid militants

Why do so many chess players resist society’s demands that they take precautions against the pandemic?

Stephen Moss

Are chess players naturally libertarian? Given that many players – often men of a certain age, sedentary, not very fit, sometimes large of stomach, with a passion for beer and fried breakfasts – are in the vulnerable group for Covid, and indeed quite a few people from the chess community in the UK have succumbed to the pandemic, you might think there would be an across-the-board (in every sense) commitment to vaccination, mask-wearing and other anti-Covid measures.

But you would be wrong. I heard from one club official that when he raised the subject of mask wearing at a committee meeting just before the return of OTB chess, he was mocked for mentioning the possibility of playing in masks. People just wanted to get back to the board as if nothing had happened, despite the fact that thousands were still being infected and hospitalised and hundreds dying every day.

The discussions on the English Chess Forum have been instructive. The respected chess arbiter – and decent player – David Sedgwick started a thread labelled “Facemask openings”. “I am looking for an opening repertoire for games where I am obliged to wear a facemask and therefore want to get the game over quickly one way or another,” he wrote. “Does anyone have any suggestions? Dubious but not hopeless gambits or counter-gambits are one obvious possibility. So are lines which more or less force the opponent to acquiesce in a draw.”

Other contributors did have suggestions, including the rude (a not uncommon phenomenon on the forum) “play your usual stuff”. But what was interesting, to me at least, was that no one seemed to question Sedgwick’s premise: that mandatory mask-wearing was an imposition that should be resisted, or at the very least mocked by playing a style of chess that would guarantee as quick a finish as possible.

There is a huge thread on the forum called “Chess life returning to normal” – it currently runs to a whopping 159 pages – and while there are some naysayers who argue that we are still gripped by a pandemic and have to tread very warily, mostly you sense a desperate desire to return to the world we knew pre-Covid – a world without restrictions, and, in the case of the libertarian chess wing, without masks or Covid passports or any of the paraphernalia of what they would see as the nanny state. People calling masks “nappies” is a sure sign of this privileging of personal freedom over public safety.

In the US last spring, this battle between the health lobby and the libertarians found a lively focus in chess. The famous Marshall Chess Club, on West 10th Street in Greenwich Village, banned members who had not been vaccinated against Covid from using its historic premises and said you could only play there if you could show you had been vaccinated – if, in other words, you carried a vaccine passport.

The club’s stringent policy led to demonstrations outside the venue, a lovely townhouse bequeathed by former US chess champion Frank Marshall. The demos were organised by longstanding member Anthony Kozikowski, who considered the banning of anti-vaxxers to be authoritarian. While some of his fellow members were trying to play quietly inside the club, Kozikowski led a raucous rally against the restrictions in the street outside, and in response the Marshall revoked his membership for five years.

“I am heartbroken that I have been thrown out of this club,” the New York Post reported him as saying (shouting actually) at one of the demos he led, “but I would be thrown out of this club 10,000 more times if that’s what it takes to stop vaccine passports in this country. I will not live in a country of vaccine apartheid.” The club president, Noah Chasin, was unabashed. “Our sincere desire lies in ensuring the safety of the club for the greatest number of people,” he wrote to members, “and at this time we believe that guaranteeing an environment exclusively for vaccinated people is the most prudent way to begin the transition back to business as usual.”

It is a classic battle between liberty and those who argue that liberty can sometimes become licence. You are not free, say those who demand tight restrictions and precautions, to put the health of others at risk. Chess is uniquely a game that pits healthy 17-year-olds against vulnerable 70-year-olds, and, worse, puts them in close proximity for three hours or more. Yet chess players, who you might think would be alive to the dangers of being dead because of Covid, are often among the foremost opponents of what they see as the heavy hand of state bureaucracy.

The question is why. Chess is a game with carefully laid down rules and conventions, built up over hundred of years, so players are clearly not anarchists, even if their awful behaviour at the board can sometimes veer towards to anarchic. But chess players are also natural rebels. When I was researching my book The Rookie, I played at the Marshall Club and in Washington Square Park. Chess in New York, indeed throughout the US, is aggressive and money-oriented, with lots of trash talking. Many of the players, especially the hustlers in the squares and parks, are tough nuts who are set apart from conventional society. Chess, certainly in the US and I suspect elsewhere in the world, is the preserve of rebels and free-thinkers, contrarians and trouble-makers, who have disconnected themselves – or perhaps were already disconnected – from conventional life. They are living life on the margins, and see every action of the state as an imposition.

I would like to claim this as a profound observation which I arrived at entirely on my own, but it was really prompted by reading Arnold Denker’s amusing memoir, The Bobby Fischer I Knew, on an Amtrak train from St Louis to a tournament in Chicago. “As I mentally rummage through the years and try to capture with memory’s eye the great players of the last several decades,” wrote Denker, “I find one characteristic common to almost all of them: a bitterness about and rebelliousness against the inequitable social and economic conditions of the real world … For them, playing the royal game was a purely personal statement against social injustice.” The royal game, in other words, is actually the plebeian game: cast out of the “real” world, chess players have created their own world, an esoteric, enclosed landscape in which they have mastery.

In the memoir, Denker tells a funny story about the chess and poker hustler Jacob Bernstein, one of a rich cast of characters active on the New York chess scene from the 1920s to the 1950s, a period summoned up evocatively by Denker, a US champion who died at the age of 90 in 2005. Bernstein was at a Woodrow Wilson-for-President rally. “Mr Wilson, is it true that if you’re elected, every man will have work?” asked Bernstein. “Yes”, replied Wilson. “But Mr Wilson, I don’t want to work!” Spoken like a true chess pro, many of whom have spent their whole lives scraping a living from the 64 to avoid the rigours of more conventional labour.

Alexander Cockburn, in his 1974 book Idle Passion, made this rejection of convention explicitly political. “Chess is par excellence the pastime of a disinherited ruling class that continues to crave political domination but has seen it usurped. Just as, in psychoanalytic terms, chess is a way of sublimating oedipal conflicts, so, in social terms, it is a device for sublimating political aspirations; the empty omnipotence exercised by the player over his pieces is consolation for lost power.”

Now, it is fair to say that parts of Idle Passion are rather pretentious, and some may choose to write off Cockburn’s psychoanalytically inclined musings as twaddle. But I find that phrase “empty omnipotence” telling. Chess players are often hugely intelligent people who have decided to devote a large chunk of their lives to shuffling wooden pieces around a board. Albert Einstein berated world champion Emanuel Lasker for wasting his mathematical genius doing just this. Dutch grandmaster Hans Ree countered by insisting that chess was a game “beautiful enough to waste your life for” – a bitter-sweet conclusion if ever there was one.

Chess players have either made a conscious decision to opt out of conventional life or they feel as if society has excluded them, done them down in some way, is a hostile force from which they must protect themselves. Either way, they are marginalised and see the 64 squares as a form of protection. It is little wonder that when society fights back and demands they obey the norms of conventional living, they resist the routine restrictions they are being asked to accept. Their whole life has been lived in opposition to normality, and they are not about to start conforming now. The only norms they are interested in are GM norms.

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