In an article I wrote in 2008 called “Saving the World” (you can read the whole article below) I stated:-
Improvement in the world must come from improvement in the people in it. It is statistically clear that better educated, more intelligent people are more productive, live longer and are happier than others, so if we can increase the number of these people, and they can help others to become better educated, this will begin a rolling movement which will eventually include the world.
It could be that education is far too important a matter to be left to teachers – or to the government. If we support the ultimate privatisation of education – down to the level of the child – this does not mean that the child should become antagonistic to the teacher. Far from it, the child would work with the teacher to learn as much as possible, but in this case the child is active rather than passive and can see the ultimate goal, not only of benefiting himself or herself, but also the whole of the planet.
If we substitute the word “pupil” for “child”, then the article is even more relevant today.
Recently, I wrote an article entitled “Invest in People – not Institutions”, (you can find the full article here) pointing out that despite our country having the appearance of democracy, we are still largely ruled by a governing system “of the few, by the few, and for the few”.
After I had written this article, and put it up on my Facebook page, there followed a brief interchange between myself and my old school friend from the 1960s, Roger Nathan which I reproduce here:-
The human race are opportunistic, aggressive and single-minded in pursuing individual goals. Had it not been so, Neanderthals would probably be the dominant species today. Any system is run by a small number of humans. Its institutions will eventually be taken over by the most aggressive, opportunist and single-minded humans. The solution lies not in changing the system, and not in educating the human race. I believe the solution lies in selecting and appointing humans to run our institutions according to their abilities and good-heartedness, furthermore to regularly change the leaders and decision-makers (as power corrupts). My only problem is that after years of thought I still have no idea how to implement this. Appointment by elections gives us the Boris Johnsons Donald Trumps and Bibi Netanyahus in power as leaders of nations. Maybe a computer algorithm continually monitoring a country’s population could select human leaders and decision-makers in future years, continually monitoring their performance. One thing is certain, if implemented today it could hardly do worse than the selection process in use today.
But who will select the selectors? The human race HAS to educate itself so it becomes more percipient. Right now few read my articles, though I would get hundreds of likes if I put up a picture of a puppy on my facebook page.
They find these articles too long, too boring, too abstruse or too unconnected to their everyday concerns in their lives.
I do not have the answers to the question of how to select the selectors – education can improve the human race. I have come to accept the bad with the good in humans and bless them all and pity if humans cause their own extinction.
I would not so much like to educate people, but try to get them to educate themselves. Unfortunately, if you have spoon feeding by the teacher, they may just receive predigested pieces of wisdom. In teaching my chess pupils I am trying to get them to do their own research so they come up with personal opinions before they hear mine. This method could be extrapolated to general learning. I agree with you, it is not easy, but I don’t think we have a quick fix to this problem, and no magic wand.
The humans constantly renew itself with the birth/death cycles. My generation were going to take over the world and make it paradise with sex, drugs and rock&roll. We did change the world but predictably not for the better.
The only permanent significant change in the last 10,000 years has been internet/mobile phone/social media which has caused an irreversible change in humanity. The biggest challenge for our future will be keeping the internet free and pure – this battle is even today in progress.
One of Roger’s ideas was to select people to run countries based on their qualities of character. I pointed out that this would not solve the problem, as the selectors of the selected would necessarily be only a few people who could wield too great an amount of power.
His other suggestion – to select by computer algorithm, could be even more hazardous; perhaps the computers might all decide one day that the kindest thing to do to humanity would be to obliterate it.
So we are left with the question of how to proceed to educate large numbers of people. In our current society we have a lop-sided situation which could be described as “dominance of the expert”. In this situation, the expert or teacher delivers his knowledge to the students at the front of a class or in personal lessons. This is often a one-way process because the teacher’s knowledge and presence can be overwhelming; the pupil receives all the information pre-digested and this does not involve his personal critical, analytical or research capacities. As a result the student can become an imitation of the expert, and many teachers attract to themselves disciples, even acquiring obedient cult followers.
Of course, the idea of pupil involved self-learning is not new and already occurs in many areas of life and education, but we are looking at outcomes, and in too many areas of politics, society and education, we still have rule by the few. We are looking for a real, not a cosmetic, improvement.
There needs to be a greater ebb and flow, greater dialogue between teacher and pupil, rather than the one way traffic that predominates today.
So the kernel of this article is the launch of the Botvinnik-Basman Foundation which centres on the need to deliver excellent education. In the article above I outline my current ideas, based on 40 years of thought and teaching. My aim is to produce a better world, with finer people in it.
If you find you are in tune with the ideas in this article, and would like to participate more fully, you can join the Botvinnik-Basman Foundation by sending an enrolment fee of £5.
Please confirm your paid membership with an email to email@example.com with your full name for my records.
Alternatively, you can write a letter and enclose a cheque payable to M Basman,
7 Billockby Close, Chessington, Surrey, KT9 2ED
If you would prefer an alternate method of payment please contact us.
I will, of course, keep a record of all moneys paid and a list of members. If the Foundation takes off and attracts a large membership, it will definitely have an account of its own.
If you become a member, please also supply your name and address; email address would also be valuable.
Those who join the foundation and thus show a commitment to its ideas can be a pivotal part of this movement for change. They will be intimately involved in the process of improvement, both of them
selves and others.
Don’t delay – ENROL TODAY; let’s get started immediately.
All enrolees will receive a certificate of membership, and suggestions for work they can begin. We would also, of course, welcome your own ideas and suggestions for new avenues to be investigated.
THE BOTVINNIK – BASMAN FOUNDATION
I am today (23rd April, 2022) setting up the Botvinnik – Basman Foundation.
It is a type of think-tank, but not the usual sort, where you think you know all the answers and spew out articles telling people what to do.
No, this is based on the idea that we don’t know enough, and our thinking and analytical skills are not yet powerful enough to make a sensible stab at improving society and the world.
In an earlier article (“Saving the World”, October, 2008), I wrote:- “Ignorant people will produce an ignorant world, average people no more than an average world.” So our aim is to individually and collectively to improve the knowledge, thinking skills and moral qualities of every one of us so we can contribute to a better organised and more intelligent world.
There are many people who are quite pessimistic, and believe that they are no more than a tiny cog in a big wheel; they think that if they keep their head down and stay out of trouble, they will get through life with a little hassle as possible. On the other hand, there are some megalomaniacs who believe they and they alone are the centre of the universe, around which everything else revolves.
My own approach is summed up in the maxim “Everyone is the centre of the universe”. With this attitude you respect your own unique capacities and abilities, but you also honour other people and appreciate their individuality and importance.
Indeed, each one of us has a background, based on our personal history, our thinking patterns, our family and national environment, which gives us a singular way of approaching the world, and this cannot be replicated by any other person. In this way we can all contribute to the vast “mental biome” of interlocking thoughts and relationships which constitute the world.
So, never mind if you are 80 years old and feel that you are approaching the end of your life and have little value. Nothing could be further from the truth. Your experiences are yours alone; you can draw knowledge from them; you can work with other people, both younger and older, to share your ideas and take part in a great enterprise. The Foundation is open to all, from 6 years old to 600!
As well as being unashamedly optimistic, the Foundation is expansionist and inclusive. In a recent article “Modern Political Theory”, March 2022, I wrote that most political theory has been written by men. The question uppermost in their minds is “Who’s the boss?” However, if political theory had been written by women, the most important question would be “Who is looking after my family? Who will protect my children?” So women should also be able to take part in modern political life and bring their innate attitudes and experiences to the table.
My approach is democratic, in that anyone in society can contribute and also anyone should be able to run society if they develop sufficient skills. Here this approach resembles the Platonic and Athenian ideals of government from ancient times, but with certain differences. If we look at Plato’s writings, he imagines an elite group of “philosopher kings” – hardly democratic; similarly the Athenian models also excluded certain groups from their democracies.
This Foundation is a child of its time. We are currently in the middle of a polarised conflict with two radically different world views fighting for supremacy.
In a recent article (“Ukraine Solution”, March 2022), I pointed out the similarities between the foundation of the Russian state in 862 AD with England’s Civil Wars in the 1640s and the political theories contained in Thomas Hobbes’ book “The Leviathan”.
According to history, or legend, the original Russian tribes of the Ukraine could not stop fighting each other and asked a Viking leader from outside to rule over them.
This has been the liet motif of every autocratic theory, whether you listen to the claims of the Putin regime or the Chinese Communist Party – that you need a powerful central
government – if necessary, unaccountable, to keep the warring factions in a country in check.
This has been debated, and will be debated for thousands of years, but my point is that, if we succeed in raising the general levels of knowledge, intelligence and moral integrity to a sufficient high standard, then the members of a country will not engage in constant in-fighting for personal power or financial gain, but will have a more reasoned approach.
Notwithstanding this crucial debate, the behaviour of Vladimir Putin, his barbaric conduct, his atrocities and murders, put himself outside the limits of this debate. In my most recent article
(I URGE ALL RUSSIANS TO DISOWN THEIR CITIZENSHIP DUE TO THE BEHAVIOUR OF THEIR RULERS, April, 2022) I identified the fundamental flaw in Putin’s behaviour and that of the regime that he presides over, as being due to a lack of honesty which has been nurtured for well over a century (almost from the foundations of the Soviet Union) by a relentless drive to brain-wash, deceive and misinform their own people and the wider world.
If Russia is to regain its honour and self-respect, it will have to abandon its toxic addition to dishonesty. Admittedly, this is a big ask for your common-or-garden dictator, for the ability to lie and dissemble is often one of the most powerful weapons in their armoury. But Putin will, nonetheless, need to take this step; and if he will not, others will do it for him.
The choice of naming the Foundation after Mikhail Botvinnik, the outstanding Russian Soviet World Chess Champion, is also deliberate, and is embedded in the travails and arguments of todays’ world. It is to show that, even in the time of greatest tyranny, under Stalin, there were beacons of excellence; it is also to draw attention to the fact that the original communistic ideas were also aspirational and idealistic, although also subject to corruption. The Soviet School of Chess produced many outstanding players and benefitted society enormously in educational terms, even in the darkest years. I would like to quote from the book “The Soviet School of Chess” to give an idea of Botvinnik’sapproach: “In his early period, Botvinnik preferred a calm positional style of play. He negotiated combinational storms when they could not be avoided, but he was clearly less at home in them than in calm positions with a well-defined centre and a manoeuvring battle. It was here that Botvinnik’smain feature as a sportsman revealed itself: he takes a clear, objective view of his shortcomings, even the slightest ones, and works persistently to root them out.
Realising that his weak point at that time was involved combinational positions containing numerous possibilities not subject to precise calculation, he deliberately sought such positions on every convenient occasion, in order to acquire maximum experience in them.”
So the message is clear; after discovering a weakness in his own play, Botvinnik did not resort to manipulating the system or try to blame the outside for everything as Vladimir Putin does. He took steps to work on himself to overcome his deficiencies and he held the world chess championship, under intense pressure, from nigh on 15 years. Botvinnik would therefore be a far better role model for young people than the present rulers of Russia.
I propose setting up a special webpage, where members can gain access to articles and news of events. There would be three types of people involved. First, those who are not yet members, the vast majority of the population, who we will try to attract. Secondly, the aficionados, who are interested in our ideas but are not yet full members. These will have access to the forum. Thirdly there will be the full members who subscribe to the ideas presented and wish to promote them. Of course, their support and assistance will be entirely voluntary. To become a full member, a fee of £5 will be levied; this will be a symbol of commitment rather than any attempt at fund raising. Let’s go forward together!
Mike Basman, 23 April, 2022
I am indebted to Martin Sixsmith’s book on Russia, published in 2011 as a remarkable source of information. I recommend everyone to read this book. I am also indebted to Chess Grandmaster Raymond Keene for his on-line Articles on chess and other topics – another mine of valuable information. You can contact him on firstname.lastname@example.org
Articles mentioned are:
Saving the World October, 2008
Modern Political Theory, March 2022
Ukraine Solution, March 2022
I URGE ALL RUSSIANS TO DISOWN THEIR CITIZENSHIP DUE TO THE BEHAVIOUR OF THEIR RULERS, April, 2022
“Meanwhile … the second dervish set off on his search for the Deep Knowledge. Instead of asking everywhere he went for the local sages or new exercises or postures, he just asked if anyone had heard of the Magic Mirror. Many misleading answers were given to him, but at last he realised where it might be. It was suspended in a well by a piece of string as fine as a hair, and it was itself only a fragment, because it was made up of the thoughts of men, and there were not enough thoughts to make a whole mirror.” Idries Shah, Tales of the Dervishes, 1967.
SAVING THE WORLD
ESSAY BY UK CHESS CHALLENGE ORGANISER MIKE BASMAN
Ever since the rise of mass communications, saving the world has become a prominent theme. Early prototypes were Dan Dare and his American counterpart Superman. Since then there have been numerous others, and the sprawling fantasygenre from Harry Potter to Eragon have all featured young, energetic heroes doing great deeds.
In 1965 the Beatles sang, “All you Need is Love”. Later John Lennon improved the message with “You say you want a revolution – we-ell – you know – we all want to save the world… but if you talk about people who hate – well, I’m telling you buddy, you can count me out! Revolution! etc…”
In 1985 Bob Geldof ran the Band Aid concert and repeated it 20 years later. There are various G-8 summits and at one of them Gordon Brown wrote off the Third World Debt. Nonetheless, “saving the world” has not graduated out of specific issues or fantasy worlds, and if you suggest the idea to any mature person, they will look at you from behind their glasses as if to say, “Who do you think you are?”
So, ever willing to say the wrong thing at the wrong time, I will make an effort.
Improvement in the world must come from improvement in the people in it. It is statistically clear that better educated, more intelligent people are more productive, live longer and are happier than others, so if we can increase the number of these people, and they can help others to become better educated, this will begin a rolling movement which will eventually include the world.
Many young people have idealism – witness the success of the “save the world/fantasy” theme already mentioned – but they do not see the link between this and their everyday life; they do not see that they are the key to improvement and just go through the motions of school life. The death of enthusiasm is particularly marked in the teenage years where an “us-and-them” mentality dominates. So the teachers bravely try to keep order and drum learning into them, and the pupils resist sullenly, and then go off and do their own thing. Yet if the pupils realised how important they are, that they are each at the centre of the universe, and that their striving for knowledge and self improvement, alongside their help to others, will be the salvation of the world, we tap into a huge source of energy, and one that needs no financial investment – only a change of attitude.
It could be that education is far too important a matter to be left to teachers – or to the government. If we support the ultimate privatisation of education – down to the level of the child – this does not mean that the child should become antagonistic to the teacher. Far from it, the child would work with the teacher to learn as much as possible, but in this case the child is active rather than passive and can see the ultimate goal, not only of benefiting himself or herself, but also the whole of the planet. This is an ideal to be given to young people, and one which, because of their natural exuberance and optimism (so frequently destroyed by cynicism) they will enthusiastically embrace.
The qualities of character needed at this moment are:-
4. Ability to work with others
5. Analytical power
6. Decision making ability
7. Ability to withstand pressure
The first four of these qualities I would call the primary virtues – they are the foundation of character, and notably only one of these – knowledge – can be directly acquired through school. Furthermore, any word used is an inexact symbol, even the word “knowledge” I use in a wide sense, rather than as representing “factual information”.
The first four qualities are to be acquired through life, through thought, through study, through experience.
The latter three qualities are a means to turbo-charge the character. They permit better assessments to be made, and also develop the sort of character which can put these assessments into action. What is the use of a great thought if it is not disseminated, or if the creator of the thought lacks the will power to put it into effect?
We can see throughout the world that great decision makers hold sway, but often they lack kindness and many people suffer needlessly; at other times the decision makers have poor analytical skills, poor knowledge, or are overcome with emotion and cannot assess a situation properly.
The importance of the game of chess is that it develops the last three qualities on the list to a remarkable degree. Thought, planning, concentration are improved, all important parts of analytical skill. Thought without action is powerless, and action without thought is mindless. So after deliberating a move, the player then has to put his or her money on it – not once, but 40 or 50 times in a game. There is immense pressure on the ego, and self esteem is severely tested during a long game; something that is often not evident to the onlooker who only sees two people sitting motionless at a board, but is very familiar to the players. This is the sort of pressure that is experienced by a politician or a businessman taking any decision that involves risk and can also be seen when an artist, actor, playwright, or composer produces a new work.
This article is not a pitch for chess as a means for saving the world; it could be pointed out that chess players have not always proved adept at organising their own lives, let alone those of others. But it does show how chess can fit in with the development of character. In this topsy turvy world, it is remarkable that chess is overwhelmingly popular in primary schools, but virtually non existent in secondary schools. It is precisely in the teenage years that the mind should be developing and where chess should be popular; but it is not. We are not developing the analytical powers of our youth. There are two other groups of people who could particularly benefit from chess – these are females and academics. Physical oppression over centuries has made females risk averse and unwilling to make decisions, but chess can address both these weaknesses and produce a more confident, decisive individual. The same goes for academics, the intellectuals who are more at home in their ivory towers than in getting down and dirty in the messy processes of decision making in real time and in the real world.
So the message of this article is that all of us and all of our children are responsible for saving the world. If we concentrate on the self improvement and the improvement of others and our surroundings, in the space of 40-50 years the major blights on society – war and poverty – will reduce and disappear because these are the result of poor negotiating skills, lack of foresight. Stupid people will produce a stupid world, average people no more than an average world. Once our children understand that Superman and Harry Potter are imaginary characters, and that they themselves are the reality, they will realise the enormous power and responsibility they have; and they will not want to let others down.
INVEST IN PEOPLE – NOT INSTITUTIONS
We have seen how mental road blocks can arise, and one famous one occurred when it was suggested that “the workers should seize control of the means of production”. In theory, this should result in the rewards of industry being spread evenly throughout society, but what actually happened was that the state which arose after a revolution was essentially run by just a few people; as a result, despite the rhetoric, the few managed affairs to their own advantage, rather than for the whole of society.
In recent times a more subtle road block has arisen in the growth of institutions, into which our democratic elected state may often decide to invest the money it acquires through taxation. You can name such institutions as the NHS, the education service, universities, the police, town councils, etc. All of these have structures where decisions are made by a few people at the top of the organisation, and are then imposed on employees. Frequently the administrators at the top receive huge salaries, but the work of the organisations increasingly bear little resemblance to their original purpose.
I am suggesting that money should be invested in people rather than institutions.
What do I mean by this?
In 1970, Robert Ardrey wrote a book called “The Social Contract”. He stated that a society would flourish if it paid attention to three main factors – identity, stimulation, and security. These words need clarification, since nowadays, for example, the word “identity” has got mixed up with “identity politics”, which is a completely different thing.
Ardrey cleverly explained the meaning of these three words by contrasting them with their opposites – anonymity, boredom and anxiety. “Identity” therefore to him meant, significance, a sense of personal value particularly in one’s area of work; “stimulation” meant that you were enthused by the work you did, and by the direction and aspirations of your society. The human being is thus regarded, not as a passive consumer of goods, nor an anonymous peg in a hole, identical to millions of other people, but an important part in the progress and improvement of their society. In our current society, we can see exasperation by teachers, police officers, doctors and nurses, who are required to do jobs involving pointless bureaucracy or forced to reach bizarre targetsdevised by their superiors.
The third important element in a state is security. Clearly if your country is continually at war with others, this would lead to feelings of anxiety, unless your country uniformly won all its battles, which is unlikely.
So the idea of investing in people rather than institutions would mean paying attention to how much the individual worker felt involved and in control of the work that they did. We are not then, simply talking about higher wages, but greater involvement, agency and individual connection to their work.
The largest of our institutions, which is hampering the progress of our country, is the Civil Service. This venerable pile, established long ago, has hardly changed over the years. The current ethos of the Civil Service is to be able to draw salaries and ensure that no meaningful improvements ever occur in the service delivered. Under the cloak of “impartiality”, the Civil Service offers no inspiration or encouragement for British society to become the best of its kind, both materially and morally; indeed, the idea that the United Kingdom could become a beacon of light to the rest of the world, would be regarded, by the Mandarins of Whitehall,as extravagant and vainglorious. And whether you are waiting 6 months for a passport or driving licence to be delivered, or wrestling with your department’s 100 gender diversity initiatives, this moribund service shows no signs of self-awareness or any connection with its employees or wider society.
Many people are ignorant of the true reasons for Brexit. This was to disentangle the bureaucracy of Whitehall from that of Brussels. In this way with the bureaucracies separated and isolated from each other it would be easier to tackle the deficiencies of the Civil Service head on. So far this has not been done, because a single large bureaucracy is still a formidable opponent, even compared to the double headed monster.
Bringing this discussion right up to date, what does this analysis tell us about the choice of our next Prime Minister?
We can see that Rishi Sunak, despite his obvious intelligence and fine education, is totally unsuitable to lead the country, as he is wedded to the ideas of the Civil Service and the Treasury. He will continue to keep taxes high, and pour money into institutions, which waste it, and whose urgent reform he does not see as important.
Liz Truss, however, by lowering taxes, and putting money back into the pockets of people not institutions is a much better bet. If she can follow this up with a complete overhaul of the Civil Service and other institutions, delivering power to the people who actually work in them, rather than feeding the few administrators at the top, then we could see a real improvement in society.
Around 200 years ago a young country was enmeshed in civil war, and a certain president delivered a 72 word speech, in which he stated that the war was being fought so that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, should not perish on this earth”.
Seventy five years before this, that country had gained its independence through war, after being a colony. Although the revolutionaries claimed that they were fighting against a tyrannical monarch, in fact the dispute was over taxation, and resistance to the demands of a rampant Treasury. Now, 250 years after that seismic event, despite Britain displaying the trappings of parliamentary democracy, we still have agovernment of the few, by the few and for the few.
* I am grateful to my colleague Grandmaster Raymond Keene for information on Robert Ardrey in his article “Chess has its reasons, of which reason is well aware”, of September, 18th2021. You can access this fine article on https://www.thearticle.com/chess-has-its-reasons-of-which-reason-is-well-aware
Mike Basman, July, 2022
Chess has its reasons, of which Reason itself is well aware
My title this week, “Chess has its reasons, of which Reason itself is well aware”, is a homage to that great French mathematician and pre-Enlightenment thinker, Blaise Pascal (1623–1662, his adding machine pictured above). His Pensées (a collection of surviving fragments or “Thoughts”) refer to matters of the heart in similar, but reversed polarity: “ Le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne conna ît point ” (‘The heart has its reasons, of which Reason itself is utterly ignorant’).
So, with thanks to Pascal’s Pensées, this week I pose the question: is there any practical reason why we should play chess, or is it just a seductive and addictive waste of time? Of course, committed chess players do feel a compelling need to play the game, but are the grandmasters, and the many thousands of other enthusiastic players who derive such immense pleasure from chess, just simply a band of 21st-century lotus-eaters caught up in an entirely narcissistic undertaking which has no relevance to the proper functioning of society? In other words are we chess players enjoying ourselves with a non-productive activity at the expense of social responsibility?
This is an argument which I often hear levelled at chess players (by non-chess players of course) who tend to examine chess in a utilitarian framework (what use is chess?) and criticise chess players along lines such as: why don’t they get a proper job of work? The famous Russian chess Grandmaster Yuri Averbakh was once asked by a minor functionary, “What is your job?” Quick as a flash, Yuri retorted: “Chess Grandmaster. What’s yours?” Probably some chess enthusiasts at school might have suffered from similar discouragement.
My answer to these questions is naturally that chess and its players can be defended on a variety of levels: the aesthetic; the intellectual and simply as a means of giving pleasure and relaxation to many thousands of people, not just by playing but by enjoying master games with impressive sacrifices or artistic strategies.
However, the point I wish to make, as a stimulus to discussion of the whole problem of the relevance of chess to 21st century life, is rather different from this, and rather more ambitious. I would argue that chess is of positive and absolute social benefit, and that it would be a major step forward in the solution of social problems and unrest in urban civilisations, if chess were not only encouraged, but also added to school sports curricula, like cricket, swimming, hockey, football or rugby in England.
The American thinker, Robert Ardrey (1908–1980) in his work The Social Contract — not to be confused with the book of the same name by the 18th-century apostle of the Enlightenment, the French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) — suggested that in all higher animals, including humans, there are basic inborn needs for three satisfactions: identity, stimulation and security. Ardrey described them in terms of their opposites: anonymity, boredom and anxiety, maintaining that a society or government so designed, as to present its members or citizens with equal opportunity to achieve identity, stimulation and security, will survive, whereas one that fails in this psychological function will, in the long run, be selected out.
Ardrey wrote that, like some monstrous whale devouring plankton by the acre, so the organisation of modern life devours the individual. Specialisation reduces the individual to a needle lost in a bureaucratic and organisational haystack. Classification will place the individual with all beans of equal size.
In support of Ardrey, I challenge any reader who has had a complaint or a query directed to a large organisation, such as a bank, airline or some branch of government, to deny that they have been at some time ignored, or given a circular, quasi-Kafkaesque run-around, leading, via multiple buck-passing, back to the point of origin.
I propose that mind sports, such as chess, bridge and draughts, made available in schools and clubs, can help to solve such problems as erosion of identity. Winning a game does wonders for one’s sense of personal identity and victory does tend to cancel out memory of the losses. Likewise stimulation, and where the individual is personally committed, this seems to me a stimulation of a generally higher order than the vicarious variety provided by mass tribal attendance at, for example, a football match. What can be more stimulating than personal involvement in an intellectual struggle, where the result depends entirely on you alone and not on some umpire or referee or touch judge who might rob you of a well-merited victory by a fatuous decision, as so regularly happens in football for example, even with the dreaded VAR.
In chess you can clearly see the outcome of your efforts and, above all, you are personally responsible for the result. In this sense, the Stakhanovite chess promoter, Malcolm Pein, with his charity Chess in Schools and Communities, has performed inspirational miracles in getting chess accepted in mainstream education.
With the problem of increasingly empty time (i.e. a potential stimulation-vacuum) we need an activity that occupies time in a meaningful, stimulating and identity-boosting fashion and that will also act as a counterweight to the often drab and repetitive tasks of mundane social existence. So why not encourage chess in the young? It will do more for them than “waste” mtheir time.
An article in The Times newspaper of September 7 Chess Mania lures millions of players to get on board helpfully hammered home many of these points. The author Jack Malvern pointed out that chess sets are selling out quickly, as the TV hit Queen’s Gambit and the pandemic , causing empty time, are together causing demand to surge in dramatic fashion.
Anya Taylor-Joy’s portrayal of the chess prodigy could have been a short-term boost, but insiders assert that enthusiasm is still growing at alarming speed, while the pandemic has forced people to find new ways to entertain themselves, and thereby driven vast numbers to play and follow chess online. Thus, Chess.com , the gaming platform, according to The Times, has 72 million members worldwide, up from 50 million in December 2020 and a colossal increase from the 20 million of four years ago. Lichess , a free chess gaming service, recorded 5 million games in March 2020, but had shot to 100 million a year later.
The annual Norway Grandmaster Tournament attracted 2.5 million television viewers, in Norway alone. The Times went on to catalogue a further series of plus points in favour of chess, including:
• The boxers Lennox Lewis and Mike Tyson, actors Arnold Schwarzenegger, Stephen Fry, Humphrey Bogart and Director Stanley Kubrick were, or are, committed chess fans.
• Chess players burn upwards of 6,000 calories per game during tournaments based on breathing rates, increased blood pressure and muscle contractions, according to Robert Sapolsky, a Stanford University researcher (2019).
• Learning chess improved reading test scores and reading performance in primary school pupils, a two-year study in the US found in 2011.
• Playing chess has the potential to raise a person’s IQ scores and strengthen problem-solving skills, according to research by Peter Dauvergne, Professor of International Relations at The University of British Columbia.
• Elderly people who engage in mentally challenging games, such as chess and bridge, are two and a half times less likely to develop dementia, a US study found in 2006 (Professor Joe Verghese of the Albert Einstein Institute of New York).
• Chess could even enhance the creative part of the brain. The Times article cites a 2017 study in India, saying it helped to give children “the ability to think divergently”.
From early times, chess had been recognised as a pastime for the nobility, Caliphs, Popes, Emperors and Kings, but during the 18th-century Enlightenment, the game broke through to become a resource for the common man or woman. This democratisation of the game, as prominent chess historian, Richard Eales, has pointed out, led to the rise of a middle class cohort of professional chess players, which gathered momentum during the 19th century.
In the context of the broadening democratisation of chess, an impressive manifestation took place as a vital component of an exhibition in St. Louis last year. This was the 19th Biennial Congress of Chess Collectors International in September 2020, which made this revolution in thought the highlight of Sapere Aude (Dare to Know), a tribute to the Enlightenment. This was organised primarily, against all pandemic odds, by the indefatigable Tom Gallegos, whose views I go on to summarise, quote and endorse. The inspirational centrepiece was known as the Encyclopaedia or the “Encyclopédie: dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts etdes métiers (English: Encyclopaedia, or a Systematic Dictionary of the Sciences, Arts, and Crafts)” famously and universally known as the Encyclopédie.
Gallegos concedes that the Encyclopé die , the prime engine of the Enlightenment, is not a chess book by any means. It is an encyclopaedia, first and foremost, but it contains an important and influential article on chess; and it also contains an illustration of one chess set. Overall, the Encyclopé die comprises a unique compilation of books, that came into existence against extreme odds, and thereby helped to revolutionise the world.
A basic wooden chess set, also displayed in the exhibition, and, as noted above, mirrored in the Encyclopaedia’s illustrations, was once commonplace during the French Enlightenment .It is the kind of set that would probably have been used by the philosophes and the encyclopé distes , precisely those bold writers who helped to shape our modern world.
Gallegos writes: “This simple, even humble, wooden chess set is the set with the deepest possible meaning for fans of intellectual history, the one that best symbolises and encapsulates the entire Age of Reason. It is nothing short of a miracle that these books, and this chess set, still survive.“
Opposition from the Ancien Régime, combined with the subsequent storming of the Bastille and the French Revolution, contrived to destroy much important literature and many significant artefacts.
In the Zeitgeist of our current intellectual climate, it can often seem as if culture is celebrity-driven and ephemeral, while the last residue of human reason is composed of ultracrepidarian emotionalism, fuelling browbeating, cancel culture bullying, bluster and otiose knee-jerk knee-taking. Much of this largely emanates from young men, whose prowess at football has seemingly endowed them with miraculous omniscience, or hysterical teenage fulminations on so-called climate change which relies on pressuring relatively soft touch western societies, but largely ignores direct confrontation with the most prolific consumers of fossil fuels. Lamentably the hysteria has been endorsed by, for example, an overexcited British Prime Minister of mature age , who should know better. It is propped up by hordes of brain-impaired Zombies from The Woking Dead, determined to smash the memories and traditions of western society. A further irritating symptom is illogical unjoined-up thinking from our government, which not only fails to combat illegal immigration and wokery with sufficient gusto, but also raises taxes, hypothecated for the NHS, only to see this organisation immediately announce the appointment of a cohort of “Diversity Managers”, of doubtful use to patients, rewarded with salaries designed to make even the mouth of Croesus water with anticipation.
It can, therefore, as Tom Gallegos points out, be “comforting to turn to the past, and discover an age when surprisingly intelligent people were making huge strides in understanding the world around them” and in proselytising sorely needed changes to society, such as more equitable taxation, combined with abolition of automatic aristocratic or church privilege and the autocratic power of the king. “At our peril, we assume we must be much more advanced in our thinking than people from two or three centuries ago. We may find out too late that we are wrong; that our greatest problems stem from the fact that we have forgotten or never learned much of what they tried to teach us. To make matters worse, our modern ‘information overload’ tends to fragment and scatter our thinking, much more than to inform or edify it.”
The Enlightenment was mostly concerned with reason, and the role of chess within the Enlightenment was mostly about how to think, not what to think and certainly not what, or how, to feel. The game of chess is a perfect magnet for people who wish to approach problems through the principles of reason and tolerance.
“ Denis Diderot, Jean Le Rond d ’Alembert, Voltaire, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and all the other philosophers and encyclopédistes of 18th century France certainly found it to be so. So did George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and virtually all the other founding fathers… of The United States of America – chess players and Enlightenment thinkers, everyone of them.” In this context, I strongly recommend a re-read of Daniel Johnson’s piece from September 9 which differentiates between the French and American Enlightenments and highlights the dangers of wokery, both for free thought and for freedom of speech.
Gallegos concludes that applying reason to life outside of chess is always going to be hard work, just as chess itself is hard work. “We need only whisper the name of, arguably, our game‘s greatest player, Bobby Fischer , to be confronted with the most egregious example of a person who failed to bridge the gap between reason in chess, and reason in life.”.
Tom Gallegos concludes his peroration in The Temple of Reason with the assertion that Denis Diderot makes a far greater intellectual hero than Bobby Fischer, a verdict with which I wholeheartedly concur.
And here are the chess games for this week. Disillusioned as I was by Fischer’s dereliction of duty to his millions of fans, by refusing to defend his title, one cannot deny that, as well as being the worst world champion, Fischer was by far the best challenger. A game from 1972 , when, pre-Queen’s Gambit, chess fever last swept the planet, shows the ridiculous ease with which Fischer could dominate the world’ s finest.
Fischer finally made his comeback 20 years later, when his resurrection made negligible sporting sense, the championship baton having passed to Anatoly Karpov, Garry Kasparov and Nigel Short. Nevertheless, some isolated games from 1992 still exhibited a glimmer of the ancient flames which had burned with such incandescent force and energy two decades previously.
And finally a game to prove that even Bobby Fischer was not infallible .
Raymond Keene’s latest book “Fifty Shades of Ray: Chess in the year of the Coronavirus”, containing some of his best pieces from TheArticle, is now available from Amazon , and Blackwell’s .