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.


ChargingKing said...

I really liked this post and the angle you took presenting it!

Tony Chinnici said...

What kind of swordsman/fenceman was Samuel Clemens? Interestingly, during Mark Twain's lifetime Paul Morphy walked the earth and brought a new understanding to chess centered around ideas of central dominance and rapid piece development in open pawn structures (um, I think). The man brought new principles to the game, revolutionizing it.
For me, a better topic for comparison would be boxing, where optimal training based on certain well-defined principles offers the best chance of winning against ANY opponent. I am almost certain that fencing works the same way, as there are obligations stemming from the facts of time, space, and distance: keep your blade before you, my friend! Lest you be out of position as much as your brother at the chessboard, who just snapped up a b-pawn.

qxpch said...

Hi Ernie,
What a great post! I like your detective work, and the fact that you had to go a little bit beyond the Internet to find what you were looking for.

By the way, I think that anonymous student's essay is amazingly well written for a high-school student. Good metaphors, insightful analysis of the difference between chess and real life. He really brought a lot of original thought to his essay. No wonder he got 6 out of 6.