Friday, July 26, 2013

Isaac Asimov on his failure at Chess

I am reading Isaac Asimov's autobiography I.Asimov: A Memoir with immense interest. In the first quarter of the book, I came into a short chapter called Chess. I can't resist myself but share it with you here -

Failure at physical sports has never bothered me...What bothered me, though, was my failure at chess. When I was quite young and had a checkerboard, but no chess pieces, I read books on the game and learned the various moves. I then cut out cardboard squares on which I drew the symbols for the various pieces, and tried to play games with myself. Eventually I managed to persuade my father to get me real chessmen. Then I taught my sister the moves and played the game with her. Both of us played very clumsily indeed. 

My brother, Stanley, who watched us play, learned the moves and, eventually, asked if he might play. Ever the indulgent older brother, I said, "Sure," and prepared to beat the pants off him. The trouble was that in the first game he ever played he beat me. 

In the years that followed, I discovered that everyone beat me, regardless of race, color, or religion. I was simply the most appallingly bad chess player who ever lived, and, as time went on, I just stopped playing chess. 

My failure at chess was really distressing. It seemed completely at odds with my "smartness," but I now know (or at least have been told) that great chess players achieve thier results by years and years of studying chess games, by the memorization of large numbers of complex "combinations." They don't see chess as a succession of moves but as a pattern. I know what that means, for I see an essay or a story as a pattern. 

But these talents are different. Kasparov sees a chess game as a pattern but an essay as a mere collection of words. I see an essay as a pattern and a chess game as a mere collection of moves. So he can play chess and I can write essays and not vice versa. 

That's not enough, however. I never thought of comparing myself to grand masters of chess. What bothered me was my inability to beat anyone! The conclusion that I finally came to (right or wrong) was that I was unwilling to study the chessboard and weigh the consequences of each possible move I might make. Even people who couldn't see complex patterns might at least penetrate two or three moves ahead, but not I. I moved entirely on impulse, if not at random, and could not make myself do anything else. That meant I would almost certainly lose. 

And again - why? To me, it seems obvious. I was spoiled by my ability to understand instantly, my ability to recall instantly. I expected to see things at once and I refused to accept a situation in which that was not possible. 1