Is science a bloodsport?

When I was a kid, I played chess competitively and decently well, though I say it myself. At the time there was a slick saying once again doing the rounds – chess is not a game, it’s war. Playing against anyone one-on-one has a large psychological component, and despite what you might think, chess is no exception to that consideration. After a while, I could spot the ones who really bought into that chess is war idea. It wasn’t too difficult.

They leant over the board, the top of their head in your face, slammed their clock timer right after they slammed down their latest move – always forward – and then started vibrating impatiently for my response. They just couldn’t wait. The worst thing you can ever do in that situation is to get sucked into that level of tempo, aggression and impatience. If you don’t need to, don’t. Let them burn rubber and spin their wheels while you take your own sweet time. They’re just using up energy while you’re working on a firing solution.

They couldn’t play the game well, because they couldn’t keep control of their emotions. Grownups acting with the immaturity of children. It’s the degenerate version of the game where you end up playing them rather than the board.

So be it.

I’d take my time, long after I’d worked out what they were trying to do. They were coming at me so fast and so hard, all that needed to be done was let them seemingly develop their blitzkrieg attack, start crumpling in the face of it but insert a single innocuous response which was bound to be overlooked by them in their hurry, as they smashed straight through my poorly constructed pawn screen. As long as they missed the implications of that first move, I knew I had them, because it confirmed my assessment of the personality I was playing.

They’d ignore it and roll on with the plan; they were just three or four moves away from getting both of their hands around my scrawny throat. My second move they sort of picked up on but were so close to finishing me off, they didn’t stop to examine their vague unease about it. When the hammer blow of the third move dropped on them, they suddenly recognised they were in deep trouble.

You could see the shock in their faces. I could present an immediate threat to their king in fewer moves than their master plan could do to mine. By that stage, the trap had snapped shut; it was all over for them. They were overextended, off-balance and I was through their lines. Mate coming at them with nothing to stop it. Flick the king over.

In effect, all I’d done was held out a dagger in front of me and spun an illusion inducing their own aggression to impale themselves on it, which they duly did.

It’s human nature to analyse why you lost any contest, and that’s a good thing, but what’s more interesting is thinking about why you won. More specifically, if you’d utilised weaknesses in your opponent, to recognise those self-same things are to some degree present in you as well, and just as exploitable. Those are the chinks in your own armour you have to keep an eye on.

Never kid yourself, you will always be the weakest link in your own game. Let’s look at the takeaways from winning using that particular strategy.

First off, I was a new raggedy-assed kid who’d just learnt to play, up against older players who’d been studying the masters like Alekhine, Fischer, Capablanca and Kasparov since they were knee-high to a rook. In a sense, they were relying on their seniority and knowledge to carry the day and it didn’t. They’d done all the hard studying, so they just knew they deserved to win. They were entitled and I should have no such expectation. I wasn’t aware I should have already read those books, I should have given up straight away; somebody should have told me. I whupped their ass anyway. Does that sound familiar to some citizen scientists out there?

Since each individual match was the best of three games; I was constantly amazed that they’d fall for exactly the same trap twice in a row – again and again. They were too arrogant to learn. Sure, I wasn’t helping by doing things like deliberately wedging a forefinger up one nostril for a good old rotating root, like an ignorant brat after winning the first one. Double motive disgusting really, but when you’ve got small hands it did prevent a few bone-crushing handshakes from the germ-averse bad losers when the match was over.

I was dissing their great expertise but more importantly, stopping them thinking about what had just happened. Pride blinded by irritation comes before a fall.

The real lesson at the heart of the thing was their cursory glance at that first move of mine. It seemed at face value irrelevant to what was happening on the board; superfluous displacement activity, a curious but obviously irrelevant move to anybody who really knew what was happening on the board. They wouldn’t think too deeply on it.

I learnt the value of not dismissing strange and new moves at face value, binning them because they might not fit in with some great plan I was frog-marching towards some goal. Take a pause, turn it over in your hands, think about it. Entertain a doubt. Park your ego and your opinion of the other person and concentrate on the board itself. That’s all that actually matters.

If you look at the sheer amount of technical literature published about chess, it’s easy to get the impression the game has been analysed to death. There’s nothing new to be learnt. Whole shelves are devoted to the relative merits of your very first move, or your optimum response to any one of those particular openings.

That impression is totally wrong. There are always new opening moves, new responses to them, new defences, new middle games and new end games. That’s why the game has survived in one form or another for centuries and will continue to do so. If you’re arrogant enough to think you know everything about it, it merely shrugs, mutates and slithers out of your hands.

Chess doesn’t rank by age or any idea of seniority. I once played a very young kid in the old city part of Salzburg during a holiday there in its festival time. It was a lovely summer evening in the public square towered over by the castle and on one of those huge painted on the ground boards you can walk around on, moving giant chess pieces. Everyone stops to watch an interesting game and a grownup versus a pre-schooler attracts a big crowd. The poor little mite was dragging heavy wooden pieces around which were nearly as big as himself. Gee, ain’t he cute?

His Mutti interrupted the game because she knew from the way he was hopping from foot to foot, he was holding himself in just that bit too long. Things were getting critical. We all knew a potential disaster was in the offing. Of course, I magnanimously allowed her to carry the little kid away to do the necessary but when they returned from the local public convenience, the little swine proceeded to totally wipe the board with me. When it was all over, he shook my index finger. A real little gent.

Public humiliation by a barely potty-trained four-year old. Such is chess. All the old lags who were to be found there every evening had a good snigger at my discomfort, since he’d at some time or another whupped each and every one of their asses as well. They hadn’t nicknamed him Wolfgang the Terrible for nothing. By the way, thanks for the heads-up lads, late though it was. Bastards.

Chess, like most games, gives you a choice. You can play against the opposition, and sometimes you’re forced to by circumstances, or you can play your heart out against the game. The former is easy, but if you can truly commit yourself to the latter, it doesn’t matter who the opposition is; they might as well not be there. That’s how you become a great player.

Chess is competitive, very competitive and I wouldn’t have it any other way, but it’s there to have fun. Let’s keep it that way.


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12 Responses to “Is science a bloodsport?”
  1. stan stendera says:

    why am I not surprised you play chess. At one time in my life I was a member of the Georgia Tech chess team. Chess is a blood sport.


    • Colin says:

      I dont think this post has much to do with chess Stan.


    • Graeme No.3 says:

      There is always the Nimzowitsch variation on resigning.

      Instead of knocking your king over, you pick it up, climb up on your chair and hurl the king at the ceiling while shouting “Why must I lose to such idiots?”

      Somehow Aaron picked up a reputation as a bad loser.


  2. Colin says:

    You must be getting tired of being the responsible adult Pointy.


  3. Wolfgang the Terrible says:



  4. diogenese2 says:

    I should have known from your analytical thought processes. I played in my youth. 3 years after graduation I was working in a hospital which was world class in cancer treatment, when a young man with throat cancer was brought in for 6 weeks of post- tracheotomy radiotherapy. He was a fellow student of mine, far from home and alone. So I became a companion playing chess in the evening and watching Chelsea at the weekends. We both knew that it was just marking time. In the process I lost the will to win and he lost the will to live. I console myself that my contribution to that was at least less than Chelsea’s. I have not played since but it is my hope that when our great leaders go to Paris next year – they will be in zugzwang. I’m sure Putin will fix it.


  5. Pointman says:

    Happy birthday America.



  6. nofixedaddress says:

    I don’t know if science is a bloodsport but it certainly is littered with examples of ‘the mob’ hunting in packs to isolate and tear down individual thought that questions the mob concensus.

    And I find your analogy with chess interesting and in particular your description of opponents who knew the consensus ‘best’ chess moves but could be beaten by your rational individual thought… I liked that.

    Many years ago I read an article by a bloke that I found interesting and seemed to me to summarise much of academia… How To Deconstruct Almost Anything, My Postmodern Adventure by Chip Morningstar June 1993

    One of the last games of chess I ever played was against an opponent whom it finally dawned on me was playing for a draw, a stalemate.

    When he admitted it I stopped playing as there was no fun at all.


  7. M Simon says:

    I was playing chess in the lounge at UChicago with my girlfriend (my very first). A guy came over and asked to play her. Eventually he won her from me. I was devastated. I never played chess again.

    But she did do one thing for me for which I will be eternally grateful. She taught me “Game” (how to attract women). That was back in ’62-’63 before anyone had ever heard of game. The rules are basically those Feynman explains in “Surely You Are Joking….” . Of course a few years in an outlaw MC gang helped me greatly improve my “bad boy” image.

    BTW “Blood Sport” is getting ripped badly at JoNova’s. I’ve used some of the same moves on him that you used on W. Connolley. He is now so tied up in contradictions that he will never recover. Sad. But highly entertaining.


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