I want to write about something different this time, instead of my usual diatribes on the stew of unbridled capitalism, gleeful ignorance, and racial resentment that causes so many ills in modern society.

Over the last few months, I’ve been immersing myself in chess. I remember playing as a kid in school. I showed some aptitude for the game, and I even won the (very poorly attended) chess tournament held in 7th grade at my junior high school. (My prize for winning was a gorgeous frosted glass chess set, which still sits in my mom’s cabinet to this day. She is very proud of the fact that her two know-it-all boys have filled this cabinet to its bursting point.) At some point, I realized that while I was an above-average chess player relative to my peers, I was objectively not very good at all. I attended one or two tournaments with serious chess players, from all over the Phoenix area, and I achieved middling-to-poor results. I believe my ELO (which measures a player’s rating, based on their results against other rated players) was something like 1300, which placed me well above a beginner (800) but well below an “average” player (1500). I ended up devoting my energy to other extracurricular pursuits, such as spelling, and at some point I abandoned chess without ever truly making a conscious decision to do so.

Perhaps the highlight of my short and unsuccessful chess career was finally beating my dad at chess. After this incident, he decided never to play me again. He and I possess a similar trait: we are loathe to show weakness. In the context of hobbies, this means that I rarely try things that I envision I won’t be good at. So rather than joining my friends in playing Fortnite or Apex Legends or the latest Call of Duty game, I’d rather read books and write essays, where, rightly or wrongly, I’ve at least convinced myself that I am better than average. (Such self-delusion is impossible to sustain in games that have an objective measure of skill and success.) So the fact that I’ve returned to chess after a 15-year hiatus is yet another sign that 2020 is a truly bizarre year.

Like many others, I rediscovered chess by watching the Youtube videos of GM Hikaru Nakamura. “GM”, in this context, means that Nakamura is a grandmaster, the highest title that a chess player can attain. Indeed, Nakamura is not just a grandmaster, but one of the very best to have ever played the game. His peak ELO in classical chess was 2816, which is tied for 10th best in history. His results in shorter time controls (known as “rapid” and “blitz”) are even more impressive. At the time of this essay, FIDE, the official chess governing body, puts him at 4th in the world in rapid chess, with a rating of 2829, and 1st at blitz chess, with a rating of 2900. (Higher ELO ratings are easier to achieve in games with shorter time controls partly because these games tend to have fewer draws and more decisive results.). These are just numbers, of course; to grasp how insanely good Nakamura is at chess requires watching him in action. If you have several hours of spare time, I’d recommend his “blitz speedrun” series. The premise is that Hikaru sets up an alternate account on with a rating of 1200, and then tries to progress as fast as possible to a rating of 3000 (online chess ratings are inflated for reasons I don’t quite understand, but there are only ~20 accounts on with a rating of 3000 or higher, two of which are Nakamura’s). To put it another way, he progresses from the level I’m currently at to an almost unfathomable level in the span of about 16 hours. (Over the course of the speedrun, his record was 262 wins, 6 draws, and 8 losses.) What is genuinely unbelievable is how little concentration he seems to require, particularly in the early stages of the speedrun. He glances at the board, makes a move, returns to reading his Twitch chat, continues a train of thought that had been interrupted by the chess game, or thanks one of his subscribers for renewing. His grasp of the game is so immediate, so visceral. The way I play chess is to examine my various alternatives, try to calculate my moves and my opponent’s responses, and select what I perceive to be the best option based on that calculation. I often start and stop when I lose my train of thought, and the whole process probably seems excruciatingly slow to an outside observer. It is unclear whether Hikaru’s brain works the same way that mine does, except ten times faster, or whether his intuition is so well-developed that he can know, without explicitly thinking, which alternatives are likely to be promising and which ones aren’t. (And, I should mention, in cases where he is forced to calculate, he does so at such a speed and with such depth as to be almost inhuman.)

I’m reminded a bit of my struggles learning a foreign language. My approach in that area is similarly mathematical, with similarly poor outcomes. I try to construct the English sentence in my head, translate its words or phrases into their foreign-language counterparts, and then utter the outcome. The problem is not just that the result is terribly stilted (in a way that reminds one of the earliest versions of Google Translate), but it is also slow to produce. It is difficult to have a conversation when one side has an intuitive grasp of language, a natural fluency, while the other is literally figuring his way through it. (These brain processes remind me of the distinctions drawn by Daniel Kahneman in his book, Thinking Fast and Slow.) The analogy to language is actually more apt than it appears upon initial inspection. It is well known that foreign languages are much easier to learn for children, perhaps because their minds are more plastic. In the same way, in fact, it is difficult, if not impossible, to excel at chess without starting at a young age. (Nakamura started playing chess at the age of 7, which is actually somewhat late by modern standards, became a National Master at the age of 10, and a Grandmaster at the age of 15.) To summarize a long digression, what I am trying to do at the age of 31 is achieve a standard of fluency in the language of chess that is so comically low that many bright 7-year olds have already surpassed me.

And yet, I find it rewarding. Over the last month, I’ve been devoting my energies to bullet chess, the shortest time control in chess. In the version I play, each player has 2 minutes total to make all their moves, and a one second increment added with each move he makes. (In this way, one cannot win simply by running out the clock in a losing position.) Bullet is the time control in which I attain the poorest results; to succeed in bullet requires a romantic, instinctual, flamboyant style of playing. (Those who know me would not describe me with any of those adjectives.) It is better to make a good move quickly than the perfect move slowly; on the other hand, one must create complications for one’s opponent, so that he is forced to spend his time thinking rather than quickly executing a straightforward plan. So, I’ve struggled mightily, and, more importantly, I’ve grown more comfortable with struggling. But I’ve also trained and gotten better. I’ve done tens of thousands of puzzles, memorized some openings in reasonable detail, watched far too many hours of chess videos, and tried to apply some of the skills I’ve learned to the chess board. I recently broke the 1100 rating in bullet, which, sad as it sounds, might be my top accomplishment during the quarantine.

Perhaps my favorite video is this one. The idea is as follows: a popular Twitch streamer who is at the ~1000 rating in chess — i.e., not a complete beginner, but not very good either — wants to become better and decided to study with a grandmaster. Both sides benefit: in particular, the latter gets an audience that is new to chess and automatically interested in this content. The grandmaster, Daniel Naroditsky, notices that the streamer is quite capable, but also very slow (in some respects, not too dissimilar from me.) So, in this video, he sets up positions for his pupil, Charlie White, that are completely winning, but time pressure is severe. Charlie has only 90 seconds to find the winning plan (and he has to contend with tenacious, grandmaster level defense). Charlie actually loses the vast majority of these games, squandering his time by thinking unnecessarily. He appears visibly embarrassed, and, while watching, I felt vicarious embarrassment for him. But, as Daniel explains in a moment of unplanned profundity, “The question, at the end of the day, that a lot of people actually say no to, is: do you want to feel good about yourself, or do you want to get better at chess?…You cannot prioritize the first and truly embrace the second.” Happily, Charlie accepts the temporary loss of face and eventually gets better at the exercise; I have tried to do something similar in my chess journey.

Most of my essays deal with “ponderous” questions, so it is worth asking: does chess have anything to do with those questions? Can it teach us anything about politics or society? The answer to that question, I think, is mostly negative. It is just a game, and, as Hikaru himself takes great pains to emphasize, the fact that he has devoted his entire life to this game does not mean that he is an expert on anything else (his honesty is refreshing compared to, for example, the titans of industry who think they ought to shape politics). What I find most rewarding about chess is not political, but personal. There are the moments of transcendence, of true beauty; the ones that occur not just as a spectator but also as an active participant (and, I should add, being an active participant enhances one’s enjoyment while spectating). It is true that I’ll never be a lightning fast calculator, and I will never achieve a proficiency even close to Hikaru’s standard. But, when I play a 3-move tactic that my opponent missed, I can at least bask in genius’s afterglow.


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