Tuesday, April 20, 2010


Back in the mid-1980s, I was preparing for college entrance examinations and/or the Advanced Placement examination in English. I read lots and lots of essays that either tested reading comprehension or served as models of good writing. Reading those essays was the single most helpful thing that improved my own writing. One essay that remained stuck in my mind was one that compared and contrasted chess and fencing. As I recalled, the writer's main point was that the dominance of chess masters over chess beginners was much greater than the dominance of fencing masters over fencing beginnners.

Over the last few years as I wrote about chess, I occasionally thought of that essay from over twenty years ago and wanted to know exactly what the writer said and how he said it. I tried in vain to find the essay on the internet. My main method of searching was to plug the terms "chess fencing SAT" into Google. My efforts were fruitless, so I decided to write my own essay partly in hopes that a reader could help me find the original. But I was handicapped because I really knew nothing about fencing other than what I read at Wikipedia. Google did help me find two good quotes about fencing:

"I consider fencing to be a great art which raises men to Knights in their thoughts and behavior. Fencing is a school of humility and develops speed, perfect control of the body, balance, beauty, and strong grace. It should be recommended to all men wanting to master their feelings and actions during their lifetime. Through this art they will think clearly and act always with style in their decisions." - Marcel Marceau in the forward to Julius Palffy-Alpar's book Sword and Masque

"Using a sword is like sex. You can't get good by practicing by yourself or with your relatives." - Jack Sparrow

Here's my effort:


Essay Test Question: Compare and contrast chess and fencing.

Chess and fencing in their purest forms are one-to-one contests where the combatants employ a repertoire of discrete offenses and defenses in an attempt to outmaneuver their opponents. Both disciplines share some warlike features, but they differ in complexity and the degree to which they can be mastered.

Both chess and fencing owe their heritage to war and are some of the best examples of warlike abstractions. More than most other games, winning and losing are metaphors of life and death. Because both are played in the physical world, health and physique play their parts in the outcome, but each has a panoply of maneuvers and strategems that to a large degree push the contests into mental realms.

Fencing is played with one weapon per side, chess with thirty-two pieces per side, but fencing ultimately seems to have the greater number of variables. It has been estimated that the total number of possible moves in chess is on the order of 10^120 which is more than the number of protons (10^80) in the known universe. Even though chess has a very large space of possibilities, in a given position, the variables are largely within the chess master's ability to understand and control. Ultimately there are only 64 squares on the chessboard with quantifiable elements of space, force, and time. Also, the rules of chess are quite rigid as to what is a legal and illegal move. However, the fencing master has many real-world variables which are out of his control. Fencing includes the interplay of hundreds of unknown muscles, reflexes, angles, and material strengths. Additionally, wielders of the sword who don't fight by the "rules" conspire to reduce the fencing master's ability to control the situation. While players at tournament chess can spend an average of three minutes per move, the fencing master has only split seconds to parry and thrust.

A chess master can see an amateur coming from a mile away and can prepare. The Elo rating system predicts that Garry Kasparov, at his peak rating of 2800, has a win expectancy over an expert rated 2000 of 99%; against an adult beginner of about 1200 rating, the win expectancy increases to 99.9%. Chess thought involves a scientific process of collecting data, testing hypotheses mentally, and then acting. Preparation in chess beats improvisation and the role of luck is minimized. In Romeo and Juliet, Tybalt is usually represented as a skilled swordsman, significantly better than Romeo. But the deaths of Mercutio and Tybalt illustrate that Romeo's restraint of the former and Romeo's rage against the latter were pivotal to the outcome of the duels. Third parties who hold one's arms down or players who play in blind rage do not turn the tides of chess games very often.


As I looked back at this fourth paragraph, I noticed that I'd made the mistake of using a fictional example about sword fighting instead of fencing. This prompted me to consider that perhaps all these years I should have been searching for an essay on chess and swordsmanship, not chess and fencing. Using Google with "chess swordsman essay," I finally came across this:

White, Edward M., Assigning, Responding, Evaluating: A Writing Teacher’s Guide

"The best swordsman in the world doesn't need to fear the second best swordsman in the world; no, the person for him to be afraid of is some ignorant antagonist who has never had a sword in his hand before; he doesn't do the thing he ought to do, and so the expert isn't prepared for him; he does the thing he ought not to do; and often it catches the expert out and ends him on the spot." --Samuel Clemens

Write an essay that explains what Clemens means by his description of the "best swordsman" and the "ignorant antagonist." Relate Clemens' concept to an area about which you are well informed.

Further down on this webpage is one sentence referring to a student's essay mentioning chess that triggered my ancient recognition. I bought White's book for $6.50 + $3.99 shipping from an Amazon partner. It came in the mail today. Here is the student's chessay which scored the highest rating of 6 out of 6:

The Expert Is Always on Guard Against Checkmate

When Clemens speaks of the "best swordsman," he brings up the trained expert, the professional who has mastered the rules of the game. This expert is ready for antagonists who play by the rules. The "ignorant antagonist" stands for the untrained or rebellious outsider who reserves the right to make up his own rules. The opposition between these two ways of fighting, playing, or living applies in many different ways.

When revolutionaries break diplomatic rules by engaging in acts of terrorism, the governments affected are often "caught out" and government leaders sometimes "ended on the spot." In today's world, the superpowers ready their defense for major confrontations with other superpowers or "second best" powers, but not for isolated and unpredictable acts of terrorism such as the taking of hostages, the assassination of political figures, or the hijacking of a plane - often for personal or even crazy reasons.

On the other hand, unconventional chess players don't have the slightest chance against an expert unless these outsiders are well beyond the novice stage. The brilliant innovations in chess have nothing to do with ignorance. No expert can lose to the novice opening with rook pawns or carelessly throwing his queen into opening positions. A brilliant amateur can win at chess, where nothing can by this time be entirely new, but the innovator cannot be ignorant. However, chess is here, as elsewhere, atypical. What Clemens says does not apply in this tight, square world, so unlike the disorderly real one.

Any proverb has a basic truth but needs to be applied with care. Maybe the very best experts are those most alert to the ways unconventional moves can work. Our swordsmen in foreign relations need to be ready for mobs, terrorists, and others who will refuse to acknowledge our rules. If the ignorant antagonist can do in the duelist, the swordsman has more to learn.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Serenity Prayer

Serenity Prayer for players of chess endings:

Grant me the Serenity to sacrifice the pawns I cannot salvage,
The Courage to save the pawns I should,
And the Wisdom to know the difference.

Saturday, April 10, 2010


She hung up and I set out the chessboard. I filled a pipe, paraded the chessmen and inspected them for French shaves and loose buttons, and played a championship tournament game between Gortchakoff and Meninkin, seventy-two moves to a draw, a prize specimen of the irresistible force meeting the immovable object, a battle without armor, a war without blood, and as elaborate a waste of human intelligence as you could find anywhere outside an advertising agency. - from Raymond Chandler's The Long Goodbye.

My brother-in-law suggested that I might like Mad Men, an AMC TV series about advertising executives of Madison Avenue, New York during the early 1960s. So I watched the series premiere. I liked the period style and the dramatic tension of ambitious people trying to out-create their co-workers and other advertising agencies. And I liked the debonair main character until it was revealed that he wasn't a very honorable person. Then I remembered that my brother-in-law told me Mad Men is noir genre.

Noir means black in French. But in English, it's used to refer to a black-hearted style or mood of film art. So nobody would say "I've got the noir pieces in the next round." Instead, it's more like the mood in Pearl Jam's "Black" when Eddie Vedder sings, "All the pictures have all been washed in black, tattooed everything. All the love gone bad turned my world to black. Tattooed all I see, all that I am, all I'll be."

The visual style of noir incorporates both black and white in high contrasts. One quote from Wikipedia's article on film noir uses one of my favorite SAT words: "The low-key lighting schemes of many classic film noirs are associated with stark light/dark contrasts and dramatic shadow patterning—a style known as chiaroscuro (a term adopted from Renaissance painting)." Chiaroscuro, light/dark interplay, is not unlike chess.

Film noir incorporates common themes of social desolation and existential survivalhood in a cruel, corrupt, crushing, and arbitrarily calamitous world. Not really being an authority on film noir, I'm going to resort to many more quotes. One blogger defines "Film Noir is that film genre in which a morally ambiguous and complex hero struggles against — and almost fails in — a corrupt world before he encounters a seductive and dangerous femme fatale who simultaneously challenges and saves him."

The heroes of noir are of a certain mold. Classically, they are private detectives such as Philip Marlowe of the above-quoted The Long Goodbye or Bogart's Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon. Encyclopedia Britannica Online says "The heroes of noir generally share certain qualities, such as moral ambiguity, a fatalistic outlook, and alienation from society. They also exhibit an existential acceptance of random, arbitrary occurrences as being the determining factors in life." Comic book writer Frank Miller said, "The noir hero is a knight in blood caked armor. He's dirty and he does his best to deny the fact that he's a hero the whole time."

I prefer to respect my hero for his adherence to honor. Because I have a pessimistic view and am usually a little south of balanced mood, I prefer my endings storybook happy and trite or at the very least redemptive so that they lift me up. Watching characters who are alienated from society gives me a feeling of alienation from them. However, I much prefer the flawed darkness of Batman to a perceived untouchable perfection of Superman. Show me a little human frailty and I'll relate to the character better. But the main character in Mad Men proves to be a philanderer, a liar, a flake, and an identity thief who smokes like a chimney and drinks like a fish despite the fact that he has a high-paying job, the respect of his peers, the house in the suburbs, a gorgeous wife, and beautiful kids. He has everything, but seems determined to be unhappy.

I was going to devote a post to my comeback from chess after a six month hiatus, and speak of the renewal of my desire to get lost in calculation, lost in the moment solving pretty chess problems at Chess Tempo and in my games. But I think I already described the beauty of the moment two years ago in this post. In my comeback, I had a great tournament where my chess seemed to flow. That six-rounder dovetailed into the 11-round championship qualifier which with some luck continued my good results, but even before my streak came to an end, I lost the taste of sharpening my tactics at Chess Tempo. I recovered some ganas after rediscovering my cruel side, but over Easter I discovered "How quick the sun can drop away, and now my bitter hands cradle broken glass." I'm not alone in this feeling, but Caissa has left me again.

Saturday, April 3, 2010


The first time I saw Star Trek: The Original Series, I made fun of the cheesy sets, dated costumes and ham-fisted acting of William Shatner, but eventually I came to love the science fiction ideas played against a backdrop of sociology interpreted through the personality antipoles of Kirk and Spock. I identified a lot with Spock's struggle to fit in using intellectual means.

When The Next Generation came, Data became the logical heir of my character affections. Whereas Spock struggled to control his human half's emotions, Data sought integration with humanity despite being designed without emotion.

I credit chess with bringing me out of an oblivious shell I had inhabited for my first two decades of life. I thought only of pursuit of truth and achievement in a very egocentric manner. My manners must have been atrocious. But chess forces you to think about the mind of another. What is he thinking? What is he planning? What makes him tick?

For most of my life I've considered myself a man of science. Computers, medicine, science and mathematics were my milieu. Language arts and social studies were some of my weaker subjects. I did well and even had some moments like AP 5 on U.S. History, AP 4 on English, but only AP 3 in Spanish. But I once cried because I got a D- on a 6th grade social studies test on the French Revolution. But I find I care more now about music and writing and history and culture. I'm not exactly like Sting in having lost my faith in science and progress, but more often these days, I fall on the judgment that we're foolish in putting our efforts into technology that is within our reach, but beyond our grasp.

My brain has gone through changes the last few years. No longer is my memory as perfect as I remember and I find myself using shortcuts more and more to grasp things that my steel trap twenty-year old mind would have stored in entirety. As I've grown impatient on my way to becoming the grumpy old man I expect to be in twenty years, I also dump a lot more information into the recycle bin. Don't need to know that. This trumps that, so forget that. Information management in my mind seems to involve throwing out yesterday's papers to keep a clean and orderly workspace.

One consequence of these changes is that I think my Myers-Briggs personality has shifted. I took a web-based personality test at humanmetrics.com and was informed that I was INTJ. The N, which stands for iNtuition, was the weakest attribute at 12% while Introversion remained 100%. I had always thought of myself as ISTJ before where sensory information dominates my perception. But now this test says I'm more intuitive. Am I becoming more an artsy-fartsy and less a scientist?

What exactly is intuition? Is intuition seeing more of the forest and less sensing the trees? Is intuition of higher order or BETTER than sensation? Zbigniew Czajkowski, a fencing master, seems to place sensation near the bottom: "To look is not the same as to see, to see is not the same as to perceive. We perceive, really – on a higher, conceptual-functional level – only what we know, understand well and can give a name to."

A month ago I visited Alaska with the express purpose of seeing the Aurora Borealis. I was lucky that the terrestrial and solar weather cooperated on one of the six nights and I got to see one of the tamer versions of the Northern Lights. I bought a DVD that included a nice ending paragraph that I wish to quote both for its beautiful imagery about the aurora, but also for its separation of senses and intuition.

From "Aurora - Rivers of Light in the Sky" written by David John Rychetnik.
There are many secrets yet to be revealed about the forces that create these majestic lights in the northern sky. Like many things, we see these events in the heavens very differently depending on our worldly point of view. When the physicist and astronomer, the scholar and mathematician look skyward, they see energy and matter, motion and time weaving together, helping make visible an infinitely variable process normally hidden from the human eye. When the poet and storyteller, the mystic and the artist gaze above, they see revelation and meaning, mystery and imagination weaving together, helping make visible infinitely variable expressions normally hidden in the human mind. But anyone lucky enough to witness the aurora will above all find beauty and hopefully be thankful that this tiny fragment of the invisible has been revealed and that the infinite variety of nature's creative hand has touched us once again, stopping us for the moment to enjoy this marvelous and mysterious universe from our simple place within it. This is the aurora, the magnificent rivers of lights in the sky.

Besides Intuitive Perception, Feelings seem to have usurped some of the power I had given to Thinking in my Judgments. I think that I was always a little moody, but like Spock I could push those feelings into a dusty corner. Now I feel more acutely aware of feelings and allow them to rise in value relative to my thinking processes.

I'm still oblivious to all kinds of things. If the Blue Fairy one day turns me into a real boy, I hope I can still recognize the man in the mirror.

Thursday, April 1, 2010


With sadness, I read that one of my heroes died in my town a couple days ago. The movie Stand and Deliver tells the true story of how Bolivian immigrant Jaime Escalante set high expectations and transformed a tough Los Angeles school into an advanced placement calculus powerhouse, exposing as myth that inner city kids can't learn.

I'm not a teacher by trade, but the part of me that wants to teach is mostly inspired by Escalante's story. I remember the movie sometimes when I'm struggling to find motivation as a student of chess. I can hear Edward James Olmos' gravelly voice as he spoke of having "ganas" - the desire to learn.

We all begin as students. It is a rare blessing to encounter a teacher who inspires not only students but also other teachers to continue the tradition of passing on knowledge to those who follow.

Rest in peace, Mr. Escalante.