Last month in Moscow, when the Russian Mikhail Botvinnik regained his world chess championship, the display of ill temper and poor sportsmanship by the conquered defender, Vassily Smyslov, caused hardly a stir. What matter that Smyslov let spectators stand in line for hours for the final match before offering a draw to Botvinnik in a curt telephone call? What matter, too, that he gave no apology or even congratulated Botvinnik? The game was chess, and in chess, the championship variety anyway, contrary to the popular impression, there is nothing quite so ordinary as a breach of good manners.
This comes as a shock perhaps to those—and they comprise a majority of the people in the world—who consider chess a never-never land of decorum and model behavior. It isn't, any more than it is an exclusive fraternity for great minds. The popular conception of the anything-but-average chess player conjures up a picture of a strange and gifted creature, who is at once the possessor of infinite patience, courtly manners, a profound capacity for concentration, a phenomenal mastery of mathematics and a sweeping command of strategy that would rank favorably with the generalship of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The man never existed, nor did the game which he is supposed to have played. According to the widely held misconception, chess is immensely difficult to learn. Each single contest takes many hours to play, with interminable pauses between moves; and months after an ordinary game, both players can recall the exact sequence of moves.
Wrong again. No chess player, living or dead, would recognize this portrait as anything but a vulgar travesty of the game as it is actually played. Its correspondence to reality is about as faint as that of a Hollywood musical film to collegiate life. But where the gay parody of college attracts young people, the solemn caricature of chess unfortunately repels them.
Real chess differs in at least 10 important ways from the mythological game most people mistakenly believe in. Here, not necessarily in order of importance, are the facts.
1) Chess is, on the whole, a young man's game.
Larry Evans and Arthur Bisguier both won the U.S. Open championship by the age of 20. William Lombardy, world junior champion, is only 19. Max Euwe was the leading Dutch player at 20. And Wilhelm Steinitz represented Austria in the international tournament in London when he was 26.
Chess, on the other hand, is not the game of prodigies it is thought to be. There have been only a few in the last 100 years: Paul Morphy, the American Master, who began trouncing tournament players when he was 12; José Capablanca, who won the Cuban championship at the same age; Samuel Reshevsky, who toured Europe at the age of 8, beating as many as 18 opponents out of 20 in simultaneous exhibitions; Bobby Fischer, the 15-year-old U.S. champion, who evokes memories of both Capablanca and Morphy; and now 5-year-old Ernest Kim of Tashkent, U.S.S.R. (SI, June 9).
A LIMITATION OF GIFTS
2) Most chess experts are not especially gifted in other areas.