29 May 2016

A Way Station on the Journey Through Life

The previous post in the 'Chess in School' series, Nearly Two Decades Later, discussed the documentary 'Chess Kids' (1996 & 2011) and ended with a question about scholastic retention.

Of the eight players in the photo, only Judit Polgar was still playing chess at the time of the second interview. Is there anything to be learned here?

The 30-minute follow-up portion of the film is structured in three parts: first the former child chess stars reminisce about the 1990 World Youth tournament in which they took part, then they discuss the impact of the full length feature film 'Searching for Bobby Fischer' (1993), and finally they talk about the force of chess on their lives as children and as adults. In this post I'll quote from that last part.

G.Schwartzman: 'I kid my Dad all the time that he taught me the wrong game. If I'd become as good at golf as I did at chess I would be set financially for the rest of my life. [...] That part of it stinks a little bit.' (1:00:18 into the video)
J.Waitzkin: 'I was winning and winning and winning and everyone told me I was such a winner. [...] If you lose then it must mean that you're a loser.' (1:05:29)

Also relevant are two quotes from long-time celebrities in the chess community.

B.Pandolfini: 'Some of these youngsters who took off very nicely had trouble living up to that additional expectation.' (1:06:30)
F.Brady: 'Some people might find the pressure is so great -- "I'm a prodigy, now I have to win every tournament, I have to win every game..." -- that psychological pressure might be a deterrant.' (1:06:37)

Back to the former 'Chess Kids'.

V.Fossum: 'I got a lot of pleasure out of just engaging with the game on this level that was completely un-self-conscious. As I progressed as a player I became more conscious of my performance and I struggled with this tension between the original reason that I was drawn to play chess, which was purely for fun and at the same time feeling that I had suddenly become caught up in this very intense, very high pressure environment.' (1:06:57)
M.Pehme: 'It's a bizarre experience being at the top of a field when you're so young. When you're at the top of your sport everyone knows who you are and everyone's gunning for you. You have nowhere to go but to maintain your position. It makes things stressful and difficult and I wasn't always appreciative of how much fun chess can be.' (1:08:45)
G.Schwartzman: 'When I was 17 I became a grandmaster. [...] I won the U.S. Open in 1996. I was 20 years old at the time. [...] When I graduated college I went to work. That's when chess definitely suffered. It's a tough game to play competitively, preofessionally at a grandmaster level while also working.' (1:10:25)
M.Pehme: 'To win the [1993 National Junior High School Championship] as an individual was a great personal accomplishment. In a lot of ways at that point was when I felt ready to leave chess. I felt that I had attained the mark I set out for.' (1:11:14)
J.Conlon: 'Chess, the games are over in four hours. The problems you encounter in the game, you think about the problem for 20 minutes, you decide what move to make, you try and win. The problems in physics might take 20 years to solve and they need the efforts of hundreds of people. The sort of idea that takes 20 years to crack compareed to the sort of idea that takes 20 minutes to crack. You can see which one is more satisfying.' (1:13:07)

In their active days these youngsters weren't average child chess players. They were among the best in the world for their age group. All of them left chess behind and went on to become successful adults in various careers. Isn't that what school is intended to do for young minds?

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