Saturday, July 18, 2015

Jerzy Kosinski on Chess

After surviving the Holocaust and escaping from behind the Iron Curtain to freedom in the United States, Jerzy Kosinski wrote two non-fiction books under the pseudonym Joseph Novak before embarking on a very successful career as a novelist. Kosinski is best known for his novels The Painted Bird and Steps, which won the 1969 National Book Award.

In a 1988 lecture at the Smithsonian Institution, Kosinski touched on a variety of subjects, including chess. Chess was a big part of the Jewish-Polish culture in which Kosinski grew up in the 1930s and 1940s. Kosinski lamented the rise of television as an opiate for the masses and dreamed of a future in which widespread participation in chess would benefit society as a whole:

Imagine a time when chess really is a sport not just for masters but for the masses--a time when boxers or wrestlers are no longer considered fun to watch and when chess is a Las Vegas-style event. Kids would notice. They would learn how to play it from television or the Internet. They could play with other people on video games or by themselves on computers. Playing against a computer could even help to raise their game. Perhaps the game that my father used to call a great Jewish game could become a national game. And the result would be a new generation of people who would know how to concentrate.

Concentration means focusing. It means making good choices. It means spirituality. It means knowing who you are, looking at yourself as if you were a chessboard, and assessing the options you have in life. Do you move to the left? Do you go to the right? The game of chess could open up other worlds--of creativity, of big business, of politics, of Wall Street--all of which require a similar level of concentration. 

That brings me to the end of my private fantasy: that one day kids everywhere will be masters of concentration, not slaves to a television set.

Kosinski's vision is quite prescient. When he wrote those words, the internet was in its infancy and the use of chess computers as a serious training tool had only just begun. Now, the ubiquity of internet chess and the extraordinary strength of chess computers have given rise to a record-setting group of young chess phenoms. One of those phenoms, World Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen, has the right combination of skills, charisma and youth to lift chess to unprecedented heights. Carlsen is a magnificent player who is more balanced emotionally than Bobby Fischer, who created a short-lived chess boom in the 1970s that quickly went bust after he relinquished his World Championship title and went into a two decades-long seclusion.

Kosinski is right that chess can and should play a role in elevating our culture. Perhaps Carlsen as an active World Chess Champion and former World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov--who is doing great work to promote chess in the schools worldwide--will fulfill the vision that Kosinski so eloquently described more than a quarter century ago.

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