Not all black and white

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In the context of three chess-centric movies, Viswanathan Anand debunks the culturally embedded stereotypes that chess-players usually suffer.

“If people ask me what I do, I might say IT engineer,” says Viswanathan Anand, “and that usually ends the conversation.”

If you are sitting next to Anand on a plane in the United States, this is the answer you might get. Different cultures perceive intellectual attainments differently; the way they perceive chess gives a snapshot of this difference. The casual conversations that Anand has — fellow travellers to taxi drivers — in turn reveal popular mindsets.

Three recent chess-themed films — Pawn Sacrifice, Le Tournoi and Wazir — got me thinking on this question. Seeing their trailers, I was taken by the assumptions each make of their audiences.

I first ask Anand about how he had to explain himself back in the days before he turned grandmaster. “Well, 30 years back it was slight bewilderment. Basically what you would expect. Can you make a living doing that? Or ‘I remember Bobby Fischer against Boris Spassky’. So it was a combination of these things and some utterly crazy questions.

I decide to take a digression and ask him about these. If he mentioned he was on the way to a training camp, a typical reaction would be: “But how do you train, you just make moves, what is there to train?” he says. “This kind of stuff is frustrating but you understand where they are coming from and something like that. And then it started to improve slowly”. What is the worst, I ask. “The most irritating one is: ‘Oh you can mate me in one move. Then you explain to them that it's not possible.”

 

He laughs, “Sometimes you get more fun versions of that. One of the questions would be ‘Could a complete beginner make moves that would throw you off, which you don’t understand at all?’ and I tried to explain to them that I would understand them perfectly, they would just be very bad”.

He connects this to why it is very difficult to make a chess movie.

“Essentially it’s a sport they found very very hard to visualise. And that was the problem”. What is the first thing he looks at in a chess film?

“I mean it is almost a legend in our world. The chess players look to see if the king’s rook square is the right colour [the right-hand square should always be white. Even in ad films you can spot this and then the chess player cringes”.

He concludes, “And that is the gulf between what the trained eye and the untrained eye.”

Pawn Sacrifice is structured around the world championship match between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky in Iceland in 1972. “After only 4 moves there are more than 300 billion options to consider,” intones Tobey Maguire who plays Fischer, “it can take you very close to the edge” as the trailer opens, stating the premise fairly clearly: Chess makes you crazy. “Bobby is displaying signs of paranoia and delusional psychosis” is the next nugget. And all this within 30 seconds.

To conspiracy theorists, who believe that America is ruled by a shadowy elite, this makes perfect sense. Popular culture must reinforce a preoccupation with surface. A message to the “sheeple” that thinking is a somewhat dangerous activity should be constantly reinforced.

 

“I’ve heard a lot of people say, ‘Ah, you are an Indian chess player. But of course you are good in IT, in maths, in studies, so you must be good in chess. I’ve heard that kind of comment all over the world. That association exists in public minds”.

 

Does this connect to the strong current of anti-intellectualism that runs beneath American public life? Anand points to mathematics as another link to insanity and pursuit of intellect. “John Nash, A Beautiful Mind and all that”.

If chess players are not insane — there is always another massive stereotype, the Nerd. Anand says, “In America, nerd generally equates with ‘you must be smart and you must lack social skills’. You can never pick up women.”

He doesn’t find this in other countries. “I would say broadly in Anglo-Saxon culture, the association with socially challenged was there, not so much in other cultures.” And he contrasts it with: “In Russia we tended to see a much higher chess culture — there they knew that you could be intellectual and pretty normal and there was no contradiction in that.”

Of course in Russia, even before Soviet times where the chess revolution took on an industrial scale, the game was always firmly part of high culture, at par with classical music or painting. The first Grandmasters were conferred the title by the Tsar himself after all.

Next on my list is the French film Le Tournoi structured around a teenage chess prodigy playing in a tournament in Budapest. Here everything is different: rock music introduces the opening moves, grandmasters are dressed in sharp suits, women throw themselves on the hero, and there are pool parties. A chess tournament is a venue of glamour and intrigue.



 

I ask Anand about this difference. There was a time, now steeped in myth, when Philidor played at the Café de la Regence in Paris, taking on everyone from Voltaire to Rousseau, from a visiting Frederick the Great to a young Napoleon, some of the greatest minds of that era.

“Yes, at least in Renaissance Europe — Spain, Italy — they remember that old connection — they would tend to associate it with high culture”.

In northern Europe, “Your mileage might vary,” he says. “I remember it was very easy in Holland. You would just say I’m a chess player and they would go, ‘Ah I’ve heard of [Jan] Timman or I’ve heard of [Max] Euwe’ and thanks to them it was quite easy to pass by there. In places like that it was just a good hobby, a good skill that you should have. And again they don’t necessarily associate it with insanity”.

In general, “recent perceptions are more important than ancient ones”. “In India they associate chess with me” he says, but, “30 years ago people would say Shatranj ke Khiladi or how it was played by Maharajahs or they would know the story of one grain of rice on the first square and two for the second and all that. But nowadays they associate chess with me and they actually don’t need to go back that far.”

In the Bollywood film Wazir released in 2016, Amitabh Bachchan is a paralysed grandmaster who helps Farhan Akthar track down a terrorist. This very much plays up the other trope — chess as a model of calculation.



 

“Yeah but this is a different thing from a prejudice or a stereotype, I think it is just the idea that you have to calculate phenomenally… but it is true a lot of people think that you just see 100 moves ahead but this is not a misperception because chess players are capable of phenomenal calculation, this is simply an inability to precisely say how much”.

Anand explains that when he is asked, “I would say, well, chess players can calculate phenomenal stuff, they’ve done amazing feats and it's still only 2 or 3 moves but believe me it's difficult enough. Whereas, to the average person who thinks chess players can calculate very far, 2 or 3 doesn’t seem very impressive, so they tend to put a higher number”.

In general, he says, chess is seen in a continuum — “I’ve heard a lot of people say, ‘Ah, you are an Indian chess player. But of course you are good in IT, in maths, in studies, so you must be good in chess. I’ve heard that kind of comment all over the world. That association exists in public minds”.

What is the biggest difference between these cultures and in India?

“When I was growing up, the only problem was me explaining to them that I can actually make a living out of this. That was the problem. So it was not 'what you are doing is weird' but 'can you really make a living out of that?' That was the line of questioning”.

And what about now? I ask. Anand thinks for a moment and says “Now I’ve moved on from stereotypes”.

When he is asked about what he does, “I kind of try to decide whether that person might understand or not and I take a call whether I want to say I’m a chess player. Or I just say I’m an IT guy and that usually passes muster. Once upon a time I would answer very honestly but nowadays I also see if I really feel like explaining everything again”.

(This piece has been updated since publication)

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