Counterplay: An Anthropologist at the Chessboard

Counterplay: An Anthropologist at the Chessboard

Counterplay: An Anthropologist at the Chessboard

Counterplay: An Anthropologist at the Chessboard


"Chess gets a hold of some people, like a virus or a drug," writes Robert Desjarlais in this absorbing book. Drawing on his lifelong fascination with the game, Desjarlais guides readers into the world of twenty-first-century chess to help us understand its unique pleasures and challenges, and to advance a new "anthropology of passion." Immersing us directly in chess's intricate culture, he interweaves small dramas, closely observed details, illuminating insights, colorful anecdotes, and unforgettable biographical sketches to elucidate the game and to reveal what goes on in the minds of experienced players when they face off over the board. Counterplay offers a compelling take on the intrigues of chess and shows how themes of play, beauty, competition, addiction, fanciful cognition, and intersubjective engagement shape the lives of those who take up this most captivating of games.


You know, comrade Pachman, I don’t enjoy being a
Minister, I would rather play chess like you, or make
a revolution in Venezuela.

—Che Guevara

Khan’s got a bishop aimed at my kingside. He’s staring at the guts of my position, looking for weaknesses. He wants to slice my pawns open to get at my king. I watch as his eyes scan the board. He sees how his queen can take action. He grabs that potent piece, slides it three squares forward, swings his arm to the side of the board, and hits the chess clock, stopping his timer and starting my own.

It’s my move. There are two minutes left on my clock. I take seconds to decide on a good response. Khan’s on the attack. I’ve got to get some counterplay going, some active maneuvering to keep his initiative at bay. I drop my knight onto a square in the middle of the board. The move looks good, but I’m not sure. I hit my clock. It’s back to Khan, his eyes trained on the board.

We’re playing five-minute blitz games on a damp summer night at a chess club that convenes Monday evenings on the ground floor of a Pres byterian church in the crowded suburban city of Yonkers, New York. We’re tossing pins and skewers, forks and double attacks. We’ve been at it a good hour now, each of us winning and losing playfully cutthroat games, but I’m starting to fade. I’m trying to hold on, but it’s not easy playing Khan. He has a sharp eye for tactics. He’s infinitely resourceful and thinks and moves fast. I feel like a middle-aged jogger trying to keep pace with a track star.

The position is fraught with possibility, but neither of us has the time to consider it closely. We’re down to a few seconds each. A fierce tension heats the board; something’s going to break. Khan snares my king in a . . .

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