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Counterplay: An Anthropologist at the Chessboard

Robert Desjarlais
Copyright Date: 2011
Edition: 1
Pages: 266
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    "Chess gets a hold of some people, like a virus or a drug," writes Robert Desjarlais in this absorbing book. Drawing on his lifelong fascination with the game, Desjarlais guides readers into the world of twenty-first-century chess to help us understand its unique pleasures and challenges, and to advance a new "anthropology of passion." Immersing us directly in chess's intricate culture, he interweaves small dramas, closely observed details, illuminating insights, colorful anecdotes, and unforgettable biographical sketches to elucidate the game and to reveal what goes on in the minds of experienced players when they face off over the board.Counterplayoffers a compelling take on the intrigues of chess and shows how themes of play, beauty, competition, addiction, fanciful cognition, and intersubjective engagement shape the lives of those who take up this most captivating of games.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-94820-4
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. CHAPTER 1 Blitzkrieg Bop
    (pp. 1-25)

    Khan’s got a bishop aimed at my kingside. He’s staring at the guts of my position, looking for weaknesses. He wants to slice my pawns open to get at my king. I watch as his eyes scan the board. He sees how his queen can take action. He grabs that potent piece, slides it three squares forward, swings his arm to the side of the board, and hits the chess clock, stopping his timer and starting my own.

    It’s my move. There are two minutes left on my clock. I take seconds to decide on a good response. Khan’s on...

  4. CHAPTER 2 Notes on a Swindle
    (pp. 26-54)

    July 19, 2003. You’re not sure how much English your opponent knows, so when you meet him at the board you nod and smile only, and he does the same. At least he’s not the gruff, unfriendly type. Vladimir Grechikhin is his name. He’s wearing a blue dress shirt unbuttoned at the collar, looks to be in his early sixties, and has the sturdy build of someone who has done manual labor during his life. He’s rated 2200, which is the baseline for a master’s rating. You suspect he has seen better days at the chessboard, that he’s not playing...

  5. CHAPTER 3 Psych-Out
    (pp. 55-81)

    July 20, 2003. It’s the day after your struggle with Vladimir Grechikhin. You’re making your way back to the Marshall to play your third-round game. You’re driving into Manhattan today, because it’s easier to find parking on a Sunday morning. As you pass by Yankee Stadium and East Harlem and then cruise south alongside the East River, your hands are flushed with excitement. Your body is already tense, primed to anticipate the narrative structure of the game ahead: the dramatic buildup, tension, release, and aftermath.

    Dramaticis the word for it, for players invest toil and sweat in the struggle...

  6. CHAPTER 4 Sveshnikov Intrigues
    (pp. 82-102)

    September 24, 2003. I’m in the midst of a love affair with the Sveshnikov.

    It wasn’t love at first sight. When I first met her I found her awkward, ungainly. Her features clashed with what I thought a good chess defense should look like. I was intimidated by her complexity, by the demands placed on anyone who wanted to engage with her. I steered clear. But the more I thought about her, and the more I saw her in action, my attitude changed. I became intrigued by her dark beauty, the geometry of her moves. I couldn’t help myself. She...

  7. CHAPTER 5 Son of Sorrow
    (pp. 103-125)

    February 9, 2004. John Riddell plays chess the way a hawk scans the ground for prey. He looks and looks; then swoops down and snatches up a lonely pawn.

    This hawk is seated across from you at a table in the far corner of a groundfloor hall of a Presbyterian church in north central Yonkers. It’s just after seven on a wintry Monday. You’ve both just arrived, having navigated icy streets and sidewalks to get here. You’re setting up the last of the pieces on a green and white rollup chessboard. John looks at his watch and asks, “Do you...

  8. CHAPTER 6 Ambivalence
    (pp. 126-151)

    June 27, 2004. I’m swimming in waters tepid and chlorinated on this late Sunday afternoon, at a hotel on the outskirts of Philadelphia. It’s an outdoor pool adjacent to the hotel’s gym, bounded by an array of concrete walls. I say “swimming,” but my actions can better be described as floating, drifting, sinking, with an occasional leg kick to restore buoyancy. Two boys occupy the shallow end, splashing, jumping. Their mother watches from the vantage point of a deck chair. Shadows hit the ripples on the water.

    In distant caverns in the hotel, scores of men, women, and children are...

  9. CHAPTER 7 Cyberchess
    (pp. 152-183)

    August 12, 2005. He’s intimidating. He never makes a blunder. He knows his openings like a book. He sometimes plays weird, irregular moves, which can lead to his downfall against the best players. But against your ordinary grandmaster he’s close to unbeatable. He’s hardwired for speed. Built on raw computational power, he processes millions of moves a second. He’s ruthless in victory, unfeeling in defeat. He never tires. Despite his cold, wordless demeanor, he makes for a great consultant. He’s willing to look at your games whenever you like, or analyze any position you throw at him and suggest inspired...

  10. CHAPTER 8 24/7 on the ICC
    (pp. 184-202)

    March 19, 2007. Twenty minutes before midnight, and if I know what’s good for me, I’ll be heading to bed soon, after a long, blustery Saturday. I go into my study to shut down the computer, which has been idling on standby. Like an alcoholic, I can’t resist the liquor in the cabinet. I log on to the ICC, the Internet Chess Club, an online chess server where members play games with each other, terminal to terminal. Just a couple of quick games, and then I’ll go to sleep.

    Shoeless, clad in sweatpants and a pullover sweater, I settle into...

  11. Endgame
    (pp. 203-212)

    Summer 2009. Jakob Stockel is a kindly man with a slim, athletic build and silver-gray hair whose passion for chess defies the fact that he’s now in his eighth decade.

    Jakob can be found most Fridays at the Max Pavey Chess Club in Briarcliff Manor, New York. He’s usually the first to arrive and the last to leave. While playing casual games he sustains a running commentary: “The man says ‘check.’ . . . The man says ‘check.’ . . .”

    I drove Jakob home from the club late one summer Friday. A wave of thunderstorms had hit the area....

  12. APPENDIX ONE Note on Chess Annotation
    (pp. 213-216)
  13. APPENDIX TWO “Life is touch-move”
    (pp. 217-224)
  14. Notes
    (pp. 225-238)
  15. Glossary
    (pp. 239-244)
  16. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 245-246)
  17. Index
    (pp. 247-251)
  18. Back Matter
    (pp. 252-252)