Academic journal article American Journal of Play

Strategy and Sociability: The Mind, the Body, and the Soul of Chess

Academic journal article American Journal of Play

Strategy and Sociability: The Mind, the Body, and the Soul of Chess

Article excerpt

Chess is a game of minds, bodies, and emotions. Most players recognize each of these as essential to playful competition, and all three are embedded in social relations. Thus chess, despite its reputation as a game of the mind, is not only a deeply thoughtful exercise, but also a test of physical endurance and strong emotions in its joys and failures. This exercise of thought, stamina, and feeling gets shaped, in turn, by chess's dependence on social arrangements among a player, a competitive other, and an audience. Like all forms of social play, games like chess rely on the community in which they occur. Having spent five years observing scholastic, collegiate, community, and professional chess and having interviewed players of various skill levels, the author argues that chess must be understood in light of the social relations and the communities that shape the competition. Key words: body in chess play; chess; components of chess play; emotion in chess play; mind in chess play; social relations

CHESS IS A GAME of contemplation, endurance, and action. It tests a player's mind, body, and emotions. These aspects of play seem highly personal, yet I argue that they depend on the presence and recognition of others. As a result, the game of chess remains, in every way, social. Chess requires a public identity, competition, and a real or imagined audience. Therefore, not only can cognitive psychologists and psychiatrists lay claim to understanding the game, so too can sociologists. A world may be biological and personal, yet it depends on social relations and community belonging, as is true of other worlds in which we participate voluntarily.

A surprisingly large number of Americans know how to play chess or at least understand its basic rules. According to Susan Polgar, a prominent grand master, there are forty-five million chess players in the United States. Others put that figure lower, but most estimates hover around forty million. In chess centers like Russia, Eastern Europe, Iceland, Cuba, and Argentina, the number grows far higher. Polgar guesses that there are seven hundred million players worldwide. Even though many of these millions are not seriously committed to the game, the United States Chess Federation boasts a paid membership of some eighty thousand.1 Chess constitutes an extensive world of play.

Having studied Little League baseball, high school debate, Dungeons and Dragons, and mushroom collecting,2 I wished to examine a more exten- sive leisure world. For five years-from 2006 to 2010- I observed at tourna- ments, interviewed players, and read books, magazines, and websites. I wanted to examine the diversity of chess, and to this end I visited the Marshall Chess Club in New York, the open chess tables in Washington Square Park, several elementary school chess programs in New York and Chicago, weekly meetings of a suburban Chicago chess club, a collegiate chess team, a high school team, a private adolescent chess group, the games of a professional chess team in the United States Chess League, and several dozen tournaments of various sizes, including the World Open and the United States Open. During these years, I met a dozen of the top one hundred American chess players and became friends with several of them. I conducted interviews with some fifty players at various skill levels from grand masters to players of modest abilities. I had also my own memories as a chess parent in the late 1980s and early 1990s when I took my son to elementary school tournaments and, for two years, organized a chess club at his elementary school.

The Social Mind

All agree that chess is a mental game. As Goethe remarked, "The game of chess is the touchstone of the intellect." Indeed its current popularity among ambitious parents stems from this belief. But just what is a mental game?

Scientists, philosophers, and scholars often treat the mind as something both individual and universal. We humans think as members of a species, and we individuals think through our own experiences-experiences, in part, shaped by our genetic endowments. …

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