Chess in cyber space: a smart move?

Parents are tapping the most brilliant chess brains in India, Bulgaria and Moscow to deliver online tutorials for their offspring via Skype

Image of Gillian Tett

A few months ago, on a glorious summer’s day in New York, I travelled to a stuffy school hall and spent many hours watching one of my daughters take part in her first chess tournament.

It was instructive on several levels. For one thing, my daughter was the only girl on her eight-person team, and in a stark minority in the hall. Second, she was also one of the few children who did not have a Chinese, Indian or Slavic surname. Never mind the fact that, in theory, chess should be one of the most gender- and culture-blind games in the world – like so many of the so-called “stem” subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths), this is a place where ethnic and gender cultural patterns remain rife.

But the third fascinating thing about kiddy chess – like the adult variety – is how it is being subtly overturned by technological change. Indeed, if you want to get a sense of how computing power is remaking our 21st-century economy, the trends with pawns, knights and kings are distinctly revealing.

Think about it. One hundred years ago, if two people wanted to engage in a chess match, they needed to meet face-to-face in a room, library, garden or so on. So, too, if anybody wanted to watch others compete in a chess tournament or get lessons. Chess was a real-world, human game.

Some of that “real-world” experience survives: hence the fact that in the US and elsewhere, children still congregate for hours in stuffy school halls, while their parents pace the corridors outside, drinking bad coffee and fiddling with their iPads. (Chess, I have discovered, is not a great spectator sport. Not only does it take hours, but the proud parents are not often allowed near the board.)

Irrespective of all those stuffy halls, this “face-to-face” experience is now only a tiny part of modern chess. Sixty years ago the concept of “watching chess” underwent one revolution, when it started to appear on television and the horizons of those watching exploded in size. (Remember how the televised images of the game between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky in 1972 caused shockwaves round the world?) Then, chess had a second revolution when scientists programmed computers to play with such skill that they started beating humans. When, in 1997, a computer called Deep Blue beat Garry Kasparov, the reigning world champion, it produced even more memorable televised images.

Now chess is experiencing a third revolution. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, when science fiction writers tried to imagine the future of the world, they usually assumed that robots would rule supreme in the 21st century. Self-standing computing machines seemed the most important frontier of technology. In reality, that was only half true.

These days, robots are indeed ubiquitous in our economy. So are super-powerful computers like Deep Blue. But the really revolutionary aspect of modern technology is not just the presence of standalone robots – but digital networks that allow computers and humans to communicate anywhere in the world. Thus, while people may play chess games on their personal computers, many more are also using a digital network to connect with other, like-minded humans – to play with them, in cyber space. Or, to put it another way, chess is not just about Deep Blue: it is about chess “apps” and numerous online games that connect people instantly anywhere on the globe. The world of chess has become “flat”, to adapt the phrase made famous by Thomas Friedman.

This has numerous implications. At my daughter’s chess tournament, for example, I listened to other proud parents explain that their would-be chess prodigies are being tutored by chess masters to improve their game. No surprise there – New York is a wildly competitive place. But these teachers are not sitting in Manhattan or even in America. These days parents are tapping the most brilliant chess brains in places such as India, Bulgaria or Moscow, to deliver online tutorials for their offspring via Skype. “It’s cheaper to get a tutor that way and you can get a real master,” one father proudly explained.

On one level this may be a good thing. After all, the beauty of a flat chess world is that millions more people can now play. And these days people such as Kasparov are involved in laudable philanthropy ventures to take chess education to places such as Africa, to promote “development” in a wider sense. But there is a dark side too. A hyperlinked world is also a hyper-competitive place. Kids can no longer assume that they are “good” if they are merely beating the kids in their local school halls. Hence the arms race among wealthy parents to buy the most brilliant chess teachers on Skype. That is exhilarating on a global level but it is also scary. Kiddy chess is now an education in every sense – and no longer just about how those pawns should move.

Illustration by Shonagh Rae

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