Friday, November 30, 2007

Chess Amateurism

"Amateurism seeks the development of the total awareness of the individual and the critical awareness of the groundrules of society. The amateur can afford to lose."
-- Marshall McLuhan's "The Medium is the Message"

I recently discovered an excellent essay by Federico Garcia that has gotten me thinking about the history of chess amateurism and its implications for today. In his paper “Steinitz and the Inception of Modern Chess” (2003/2005), Garcia argues that the break between romantic and modern chess should be understood as marking the difference between amateur and professional play. He begins with a very interesting question: why is it that the Romantics so rarely defended (accepting every offered sacrifice, for instance), most evidently in games like the Evergreen or the Immortal? To this Garcia responds:

To find an answer we must turn back to the social conditions that influenced chess at the time—in fact, the answer is closely related to what has been said about professionalism. The ethics of the amateurism, that ethics which finds so offensive any material, ‘mundane,’ interest, is also the ethics of ‘what matters is competing, not winning.’ A passive defence, or a passive attack for that matter, would be seen as cowardice. If you are attacked, anything other than a counterattack is an offense to chess and to your opponent. It is a matter of fair play not to escape your opponent’s bright combination with fastidious stubbornness (should the occasion arise, look for an even brighter combination!) In Romantic times, “you either won gloriously, or you succumbed to a counterattack and lost gloriously.” At stake, amateur decorum required, was honor—fairly independent from victory or defeat. Now, what is decidedly not independent from the victory or defeat is the accorded prize for the winner. The establishment of chess as a profession, one of whose consequences is an upheaval in priorities (for, no matter what, money, when needed, will always be a higher priority than honor), is probably the major factor at play for the appearance of defensive play and technique. Again, the fact that Steinitz was the first to assume his professionalism helps explain why it should be he the first to develop the defence. For even if Zukertort and the rest were professionals (in the sense that they earned a living through chess), they were—tied to the received scale of values—still ashamed of it, and they would not pursue the ignoble business of not fighting with knightly disinterest.
To look back at chess history through the lens of amateurism vs. professionalism is very compelling. Was it his amateurism that made Paul Morphy indulge in a sometimes unsound and tactical mode of play that causes some to devalue many of his games today? Was Mikhail Botvinnik's completely scientific approach to the game simply a natural expression of Soviet-era professionalism, and practically an extension of his work as an engineer? Was Frank Marshall's well-deserved reputation as a tactical swindler due to his occupying a liminal position, having absorbed the romantic ideals of the past but needing to make a living as a professional?

I am less interested in the answers to these historical questions than I am in thinking about the meaning of amateurism today, especially since I think we are entering a new era of chess amateurism, not just among players (since it seems very few U.S. players live as full time chess professionals) but most importantly among those who are promoting, writing about, and generally contributing to the game. This new form of chess amateurism, encouraged by the transformations of the internet, can only have a positive long-term effect on chess. After all, the word "amateur" (Latin root amat = "to love") is related to "amoré," and an amateur is one who participates for the love of it.

I am not sure I can say what effects it has had on the type of game played by the top players. In fact, I'm not even sure that's so important any more. This is the new age of the amateur, and the professionals are not necessarily setting the audience's agenda. For instance, very few try to keep up on "main line" theory anymore -- how could they? The amateur game is getting more interesting for amateurs (certainly more worth looking at and commenting on), and amateur participation in the game more important to its continued evolution.

Chess in the schools (though it certainly provides some professional opportunities for coaches) is one institutional mechanism that feeds the growing tide of amateurism by creating more educated chessplayers. Ann Hulbert develops this point in her essay "Chess Goes to School: How, and why, the game caught on among young Americans" (Slate, May 2, 2007), arguing that "chess has held onto a certain purity, along with its penury" and that's a good thing:
In an era when sports in the United States are a big business, as well as a fraught element of college admissions, chess offers kids in our overprogrammed youth culture a rare exposure to the real meaning and value of amateurism—the mastery of something for its own sake. Chess isn't going to earn anybody much of a living, but it can teach kids about learning....
Chess is not only entering grade school, it is now becoming important at the college level as well, as described by recent articles: "Rah! Rah! Block That Rook!" in The American (regarding the recruiting practices at UTD and UMBC) and Dylan Loeb McClain's "Good Opening Can Be a Scholarship" (focused on academic chess scholarships at Texas Tech). Even Judith [Susan] Polgar, always on the cutting edge, has an academic appointment. And while you can argue that chess scholarships, like athletic scholarships, are a form of "pay for play," I think that having chess in the schools has only reinforced its amateur status. But schools are only one institution.

Chess is increasingly being sustained by amateur involvement on the internet, where Web 2.0 and user paticipation has made it possible for amateurs to play extensively, produce knowledge (chess blogs have proliferated beyond measure, and amateurs even produce quality videos), join online discussion forums, and generally help to sustain chess culture. Some suggest that "the cult of the amateur," by producing lots of free content, is making it more difficult for the professionals to sustain themselves. But personally I think the rise of amateurism simply means that the professionals will have to raise the bar for what they do if they want to distinguish themselves from the rest.

In the short term, more voices online will mean more noise. But in the long term, more voices mean more varied and original ideas. As Sir William Haley argued in an essay on "Amateurism" (American Scholar 1976), in defense of amateur writers:
Mankind has benefited immeasurably from the cross-fertilization of ideas. It is from amateurs, and these include specialists straying out of their own domain, that cross-fertilization comes. Cross-fertilization is a desirable end.
As John Watson has argued, cross-fertilization is certainly a desirable end in chess theory. And while amateurs may not always unearth forgotten chess analysis or ideas, they will always enrich our cultural understanding of the game. You no longer have to be a professional chessplayer, after all, to write about chess, and amateur players have contributed a great deal
to cross-fertilizing and reframing our understanding chess in history and politics. Witness the work of Daniel Johnson, Paul Hoffman, and David Shenk, to name just a few amateur players who have nonetheless made very important contributions.

It's a mistake to think that the decline of professional chess in the U.S. suggests that the game itself is in decline. Nothing could be further from the truth. Perhaps the possibility of a lucrative professional U.S. chess circuit built from the top down basically "jumped the shark" in 2005 with the $500,000 HB Global Chess Challenge. There may be more top-down developments (such as the US Chess League's promise to pay top players) that make life a little easier for some professionals. But America's titled players make more from poker these days than they do from chess and that "Tournament for the Rest of Us," the US Amateur Team, will always be much bigger than all of them and more important to the longterm health of chess...and of professionals. It seems to me that to focus on professional players of the game in the U.S. is a mistake until we have built up the amateur base significantly. The places to focus our attention, then, are the amateur institutions: amateur tournaments, the schools, the web, and literature. If you focus on the amateur institutions, you will be very hopeful about the future....

Labels: ,


Blogger Ryan Emmett said...

Great blog. I'd never thought about the implications of the growing levels of amateur chess play online in that way.

Sat Dec 01, 04:08:00 AM EST  
Anonymous chessdad64 said...


Yet another fascinating entry! Keep up the great work!


Sun Dec 02, 12:03:00 AM EST  
Blogger Chess Teacher said...

I am very hopeful about the future, but I think it would be nice if more professional players were able to make a living out of chess.

Chess Teaching

Sun Dec 02, 01:31:00 PM EST  
Blogger Wahrheit said...

Simply, an outstanding essay. I have pecked on and off at a post tentatively titled "Does Money Ruin Chess?" about how the game (and individual moves, for instance in last round games) are distorted by prize money. While this essay isn't coming from exactly the same direction I can feel some serious cross-fertilization coming on...

Mon Dec 03, 04:44:00 PM EST  
Blogger katar said...

Amateurs are absolutely necessary to sustain (economically) the professional chess scene. Besides a handful of patrons (who are themselves amateurs), absent amateurs the flow of chekels to professionals would dry up quickly. However, the reverse is not true! Amateurs could get on reasonably well without following the European mega-tournaments and toilet-room squabbles of professionals. Amateurs have endless sources of inspiration already-- namely, other amateurs (eg, the blogosphere) and the rich historical tradition of the game. Promoting amateur following is the best way to promote chess professionals. Related comments at this post.

Tue Dec 04, 04:23:00 AM EST  
Blogger Michael Goeller said...

Thanks for the comments, especially katar's note that while professionals need amateurs, "the reverse is not true!" That seems very profound to me.

Tue Dec 04, 04:49:00 AM EST  
Anonymous Sciurus said...

Great post! I also totally agree with katar on the point that amateurs do not need the pros. In fact, I prefer reading the blogs of amateurs over the writings of professionals - reading about the troubles and thoughts of my fellow amateurs is more inspiring to me than seeing grandmasters playing a perfect game ending with a draw. BTW, I mentioned your post here on my blog.

Tue Dec 04, 04:17:00 PM EST  
Blogger Chessaholic said...

Great essay. I agree with previous comments, amateurs are the lifeblood of chess. There is such a rich treasure trove of chess blogs and other websites out there that offer tons of help to the improving amateur , including interactive feedback that may not be as easy to get otherwise.

Mon Dec 10, 12:34:00 PM EST  
Blogger Greg Shahade said...

Please note that the US Chess League already pays the teams. In fact this season, the teams were paid at least $100 per match (Expansion teams must be part of the league for 2 seasons to receive sponsorship money). This money goes to the team managers/owners and then they use it to pay their players how they see fit. The only thing I hope to do is increase this amount. I never promised that I would do so, I have only promised to try. I think there are good chances of success however.

- Greg

Tue Dec 11, 11:52:00 PM EST  
Blogger SamuraiPawn said...

Great post!

Fri Dec 21, 05:14:00 PM EST  
Blogger Shawn Levasseur said...

Great post about the pro/am relationship, and great discussion so far in the comments.

Just want to add a tangent to the topic as food for thought:

I would say that most every profession in the world has an amateur component to it. And that the goals of that profession would be better served by a thriving amateur component.

Sports, Art, Journalism, Politics, Computers, Academics, all can all be looked at in this light.

Sat Jan 12, 02:11:00 AM EST  
Blogger katar said...

I wanted to follow up on Shawn's point that a pro-am relationship exists in all sports/arts. I feel that chess is unique in this aspect.

To watch boxing you need not know how to box; to enjoy paintings you need not know how to paint, etc. Chess is the opposite: virtually all chess "fans" compete at an amateur level, rated or unrated. More comparisons underscore this distinction: few NFL/NBA/MLB fans compete in an amateur league, few theater-goers perform, few newspaper readers write an amateur newsletter, etc.

The impact of all this is that chess professionals are highly dependent upon chess amateurs. NBA players are not dependent on the YMCA league. Chess amateurs comprise the only market with the capacity to appreciate the performance of chess professionals. This is an unavoidable relationship because chess relates only to its own rules (which exist in a vacuum), rather than to some sensory or intuitive aspect of the human experience. (put a ball in a goal/hoop/hole, knock a guy down, audio/visual stimulation, etc.) In some ways, chess, unlike TV/sitcoms or even hallucinogenic drugs, is a total detachment from reality.

Fri Jan 18, 03:12:00 PM EST  
Blogger Michael Goeller said...

Katar -- as always, a very perceptive comment! Why is it that you have never started your own chess blog?

In a piece I wrote a while back called Marketing Chess as Art I quote Jonathan Rowson who makes a similar point, noting that "aesthetic satisfaction is inaccessible to most spectators" of a chess game. Only those who know chess well can appreciate what's happening at the board. For everyone else it seems an odd sort of theatre. So you are absolutely right: without amateur players, there would be no chess spectators, and no support for the pro game. The same absolutely cannot be said of any other activities that I can think of (besides some, and not all, other games -- such as Backgammon, which apparently has a pretty good web following).

Fri Jan 18, 03:36:00 PM EST  
Blogger katar said...

Professor G-Unit,
Please see the below article which celebrates amateurism in the context of SCRABBLE. As in chess, defensive skills at the highest levels have the effect of stifling (punishing) creative play. Amateurs (let's say master level) play more enterprisingly than Super GM's not only b/c amateurs "don't know any better" but also b/c they can get away with flaky gambits and the like against their weaker opponents. The result is flawed but interesting.

Sat Jun 14, 08:57:00 PM EDT  
Blogger katar said...

i meant that amateur play results is flawed but interesting GAMES (as opposed to "GM Draws").

And i meant Professor G-Unit in a tone of deference. :)

Sat Jun 14, 09:01:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Michael Goeller said...

katar --
Thank you for linking to that wonderful Scrabble article! It makes a fascinating point, that sometimes the most incredible games are the result of "amateur" play -- sort of like the Evergreen and the Immortal games in chess, which modern analysts would totally criticize, yet they are still beautiful.

My wife uses the same Scrabble strategy as the fellows described in the article: she always goes for the high scoring Bingo and does not hesitate to trade tiles if that helps. And she usually wins...

As for the Prof G-Unit stuff: Maybe Special-K (for Kenilworthian)? Naah. No offense, but I think I prefer Michael or Mike.

Sun Jun 15, 11:58:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Mark Weeks said...

Thanks for reminding me about this post, which I read many moons ago. You make a strong case for a three tier system - pros, adult amateurs, and scholastic players. BTW & AFAIK, soccer was introduced into American schools several decades ago, but hasn't had much impact at the pro level. - Mark

P.S. Re 'Judith Polgar, always on the cutting edge, has an academic appointment', it's Susan Polgar who has the position at Texas Tech.

Fri Jan 29, 04:51:00 AM EST  
Blogger Michael Goeller said...

Thanks for the correction. Funny I did not catch that slip.

Yes, what you say about soccer is very interesting and does suggest, to me, that it is not enough to teach loads of kids a game to enlarge the fan base for it. Practically every kid I know plays soccer, but I don't know any who watch it on TV. Maybe the kids on the travel soccer teams do, but I doubt it, unless their parents watch. There are too many other well-embedded distractions competing for their attention.

Fri Jan 29, 09:47:00 AM EST  

Post a Comment

<< Home