After the workday, far too many of us come home and turn on our televisions or our computers. But some of us indulge in more traditional, non-electronic hobbies, and these hobbies have rituals, which seem mystifying to the outsider. For example, the now-defunct North American popular culture trivia championship awarded the winner a championship belt, which was acquired somehow from a defunct minor wrestling league. One of the nights of the American Homebrewers Association convention is “club night,” where homebrew clubs compete against each other not only on the quality of their beer, but the eccentricity of their costumes.
Gary Alan Fine, a Northwestern sociologist, specializes in analyzing hobbyists and other strongly cohering subcultures. An important early study of his was Shared Fantasy (1983), about people who indulge in role-playing games. But his other books include analyses of mushroom pickers, Little League players, and high school debate teams. His latest book is about chess players.
Fine is a reasonably good writer and does a diligent job in what he would call “field research” and we would call reporting. He attended tournaments and did a great deal of interviewing. His goal, he explains, is to see chess as “a social world with history, rules, practices, emotions, status, power, organizations, and boundaries.” He says “this book is arguably written by the weakest player who has ever spent years analyzing the world of chess: a patzer among patzers, a fish in a school of sharks, a committed pencil pusher but not a dedicated wood pusher.” Nonetheless, as a sympathetic outsider, Fine does a good job of describing the intricate rituals of the world of chess.
Most of us know a little bit about the world of chess. Many of us either played the game in high school or made fun of the nerds in the chess club. Most of us know about the achievements of the American world champion Bobby Fischer; the current world champion, Magnus Carlsen, gets mentioned occasionally in leading newspapers and magazines. But Fine reminds us that chess has a deep and colorful history. A saying attributed to the 12th-century Pope Innocent I I I suggests that “the whole world is nearly like a chessboard, one point of which is white, the other black, because of the double state of life and death, grace and sin.”
Fine also shows that chess has made surprising appearances in politics and culture. Except for Bobby Fischer’s three years as world champion (1972-75), Russians retained the world championship of chess between 1948 and 2000, and Russian players and emigrés dominate chess today. During the Cold War, chess was so strongly associated with Soviet intelligence efforts that when the longtime Russian ambassador in Washington Anatoly Dobrynin offered to play a friendly game with Henry Kissinger in the 1970s, Kissinger refused—for security reasons. (“The KGB doubtless thought that they could deduce from my play the characteristics of my personality,” Kissinger once recalled in a television interview.)
Sociologists call a community with a deep and rich heritage a “sticky culture,” and chess’s history is exceptionally sticky. Chess players review old games as eagerly as baseball fans peruse ancient box scores, and the greatest chess players have an encyclopedic knowledge of the strengths and weaknesses of the most brilliant players of the past, including the differences among the romantic, classical, hypermodern, and new dynamic methods of play. Garry Kasparov, world champion between 1985 and 2000, observes that “a grandmaster needs to retain thousands of games in his head, for games are to him what the words of their mother tongue are to ordinary people, or notes or scores to musicians.”
In the 19th century, chess was a game for players with plenty of patience. In the first major international chess tournament, held in London in 1851, several games lasted for 12 hours, and one lasted for 20. Players prized themselves on their ability to sit patiently for hours—what Germans call Sitzfleisch—while their opponents pondered their next move. Legend has it that, in an 1858 match between American grandmaster Paul Morphy and Louis Paulsen, the two players sat for 11 hours until Paulsen asked, “Oh, is it my move?”
Clocks were introduced to tournaments in 1862, and by 1883, players had to make 15 moves in an hour. The pace of chess has increased since then: In the 1990s, some chess clubs introduced “rapid transit chess,” where a referee banged a gong every 10 seconds for players to make the next move. The American international master Marc Esserman says he is the creator of one-minute, or “bullet,” chess, where games are completed in a minute. Through bullet chess, Esserman told Fine, “young people were treating chess as a video game.”