Saturday, August 22, 2015

Gary Alan Fine's "Players and Pawns"

Gary Alan Fine is is John Evans Professor of Sociology at Northwestern University. He is the author of numerous books, including Difficult Reputations: Collective Memories of the Evil, Inept, and Controversial; With the Boys: Little League Baseball and Preadolescent Culture; and Shared Fantasy: Role-Playing Games as Social Worlds.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Players and Pawns: How Chess Builds Community and Culture, and reported the following:
Flipping through Players and Pawns to page 99, I wondered where I might land. In the rush of chesstime, I discovered: speed chess as blitzkrieg.

All social activities are organized through temporal rules. How we act results from how we allocate time. In competitive chess, each player is assigned a set amount of time to spend as he (rarely she) wishes. This might be two hours or five minutes, depending on whether one is playing traditional chess (long-form chess), as is often the case in serious tournaments, or speed chess, as is often found in evening events at tournaments, online, or in informal gatherings. These rules constitute the same game, but simultaneously they are very different games. Time defines them, creating distinct cognitive, emotional, and social worlds.

Much of Players and Pawns argues that we should not consider long-form chess as a purely mental or emotional game. It is social activity. Chess depends on the interaction of two competitors. They take each other into account, and in doing so repeatedly, game after game, create a community of players. This is intensified in the realm of blitz. By giving each player five minutes or, in the case of bullet chess, one minute, chess becomes a videogame, but a social one. Speed chess is the primary form of internet chess, too quick for players to research their moves, but enough time to intuit what one’s adversary is planning. One must reach inside an opponent’s head to determine how he thinks. Unlike traditional chess, one is able to do this contest after contest: ten minutes each. I quote the psychiatrist and columnist Charles Krauthammer who has for years hosted an informal weekly chess night, what he labels the Pariah Chess Club. Krauthammer argues that it is precisely the rapid-fire multiple games that prevent players from regretting losses and permitting the possibility of avenging defeat. It is mental health in action. Quick chess emphasizes that the experience of contemporary life is swift. Further, sharing these experiences together, not in isolation, one becomes part of a group, a world of common experiences and shared stories.

Chess promotes a joint culture and a vital community, and can do so because we mutually agree on temporal rules as a means by which we build enjoyment.
Learn more about Players and Pawns at The University of Chicago Press.

--Marshal Zeringue