Counterplay: An Interview with Robert Desjarlais
By Dr. WIM Alexey Root   
April 7, 2011
RobDesj250.jpgOne of Robert R. Desjarlais' previous books, Shelter Blues: Sanity and Selfhood Among the Homeless, featured the stories of homeless men and women. Considering his past interest, I was curious if the Inwood Seven and other street chess players would be the focus of Desjarlais' Counterplay: An Anthropologist at the Chessboard (2011).

But blitz chess in NYC's parks gets only two paragraphs in Desjarlais' 251-page book. Desjarlais' primary locations are chess clubs within 25 miles of his home in Bronxville, New York; tournaments on the East Coast; and his computer, which accesses Fritz and the Internet Chess Club. Currently the Alice Stone Ilchman Chair in Comparative and International Studies at Sarah Lawrence College, Desjarlais conducted his chess research by participant observation. That is, he played and studied chess as "other chess players do." His five-year return to tournament chess, after 20 years away, frames his book.

Desjarlais cites a USCF rating of 1876 near the beginning of his book and one over 2000 by the end. Desjarlais quotes from Jakob Stockel (1759) and Polly Wright (1706), but no tournament player under 1700 gets mentioned by name. Quotes of a paragraph or more are from high-rated players: WGM Rusudan Goletiani, GM Larry Kaufman, GM Jesse Kraai, GM Jonathan Rowson, GM Alexander Shabalov, IM Greg Shahade, GM-elect Sam Shankland, WFM Elizabeth Vicary, IM John Watson, FM Sunil Weeramantry, GM Leonid Yudasin, and assorted NYC-area 1900-rated players, experts, and masters.

counterplay.jpgDr. Alexey Root (AR): When you interview a USCF-rated chess player, it's always someone rated at least 1700 and often over 1900. Why select above-average players?
Robert R. Desjarlais (RD):  That's an interesting question. To be honest, I hadn't noticed that I did not interview many players under 1700, and little mention of them is in the book. My working research strategy was to interview professional players and to converse with friends of mine on their experiences of the game, and most of those are in the same rating range as me (roughly, 1800-2200). It's also the case that I was quietly anticipating a potential and predictable critique of the book, that, since I wasn't an especially strong player myself, I didn't have the knowledge to speak in an informed way about the subtleties of chess. Perhaps that helps to account for the focus on "above-average players," as you put it.

AR: Please explain this quote from your book:  "Hooking up is to going steady as online blitz chess is to classical over-the-board play."
RD: This analogy came from a conversation with an undergraduate student who worked as a research assistant for me at Sarah Lawrence College. After she read an earlier version of the chapter that discusses playing blitz chess on the Internet, she told me that it reminded her of how many people of her age relate amorously with others. There is a quickness and casualness and impersonality to online blitz chess which is similar to the "hooking up" with which her friends are familiar. Classical over-the-board play, in contrast, is more akin to the commitment and steady intimacy associated with the "going steady" known by earlier generations.

AR: What did you learn about chess or about chess players that you didn't expect when you started your research?
RD: I think there were many things that I was led to think intently about through the research. For one, I came to realize how much themes of play run through people's experiences of chess - and how rich, in turn, the medium of play is in people's lives more generally. It's foundation to how we imagine, create, and relate to others. I was also struck by the passion that people have for the game. While this passion might waver through the years, it's clear that people have a fondness for chess that never fully fades. I also came to appreciate the many different reasons that people play chess and invest their efforts in competitive chess. For some, the competitive thrills of tournament play keep them at the board, while for others it's the delight in appreciating the truth and beauty of chess - of being witness to it.

AR:  What do you think Chess Life Online readers will most enjoy about Counterplay?
RD: I would hope that they would be able to identify with the passions, challenges, joys, dilemmas, and intrigues chronicled in the book. I tried to write the book in such a way that it is authentic to how amateur players engage with the game. I would also think that Chess Life Online readers might appreciate the many anthropological observations to be found in the book - how, for instance, themes of ritual, play, sociality, flow, narrative, empathy, devotion, and interpersonal competition and camaraderie so often course through our experiences of playing chess. The book also offers in-depth discussions of how computer technologies, from on-line chess servers to chess analysis programs, are shaping the way people play and think about chess.

AR: You mention that your illusio for chess was from roughly 2002 to 2007. What is your illusio now?
RD: As I note in the book, some sociologists and anthropologists have drawn on the concept of illusio, a Latin word which in this context means "source of interest in life," to speak of the interest that a person holds in a particular field in life-be it scholarly work or religion or football-or in life in general. It's the investment and commitment people have for the activities that give meaning to their lives.

An abiding illusio for me now is to write about life in ways that get at some truths about it. So I guess we could say that writing itself has returned as an important source of interest in my life. The writing of Counterplay, where I was trying to figure out how to write about the lives and yearnings of chess players in effective ways, had a lot to do with that. These efforts brought me back to the intrigues and value of writing about people's lives in anthropologically informed, non-fiction ways. I am currently working on a book that considers certain dimensions of death, mourning, and funeral rites in Nepal, and I have several ideas for other potential books once that that text is done, including one on friendship.

AR: You give chess diagrams and partial information about three of your over-the-board games: A win over National Master Vladimir Grechikhin, a loss to FM Asa Hoffman, and a loss to National Master John Riddell. Would you like to share one of these games with CLO readers?
RD: Perhaps a good game to share would be the one with Vladimir Grechikhin, which was played on a Saturday afternoon at the Marshall Chess Club in July 2003. This was my first victory against a National Master. As this game is a central focus of the book's second chapter, I thought it might be interesting to the readers of Chess Life Online to include selections from the running narrative account of the game in that chapter. As in a few other chapters, I use a second-person "you" voice in describing my experiences at the board, while exploring different aspects of chess, such as the competitive dimensions and the roles that complexity and "exquisite violence" plays in the game. Much of the narrative is presented here:

He's sitting across from you now. You're soon to embark on that weirdly intimate social encoutner known as a tournament chess game. Since Grechikhin did not overwhelm you in your last game, you feel you have a decent shot against him.

You're positioned elbow-to-elbow alongside other players in the room, which is the size of a small classroom and separated from the adjoining hallway by a red curtain. This ritual space holds several rows of tables, two or three chessboards to a table, with a numbered piece of paper taped next to each one. The highest-rated player is at the first board, playing the highest-rated player from the second tier.

Bodies and voices settle down in the room. Around you, other games are beginning; you shake hands with Grechikhin, and then start his clock. He's been assigned the White pieces. You have Black. You each have ninety minutes to make your first thirty moves. After that there's an additional "sudden death" hour until someone wins, someone's time expires, or a draw is agreed upon.

1. e4 c5
Grechikhin makes his first move. You write down the move on your game score sheet. With your own first move you try to steer the game toward a combative, double-edged defense known as the Sicilian Defense.
2. b4
You'd like to lead the game toward the Accelerated Dragon, a variation of the Sicilian you've been playing lately. Grechikhin wants nothing to do with that. He steers the game into an offbeat anti-Sicilian variation known as the Wing Gambit, where he proposes the sacrificial gambit of a pawn to gain good control of the center squares and scamper his pieces into play. He wants to mix things up and outplay you in a complicated melee. His game strategy throws you off; you were hoping for a more measured game, in waters you know better.

You flinch. You don't want to play against this.

You've seen this position on chessboards before, and have fought against it in blitz games. You understand that the chess theorists out there consider the gambit dubious, but you don't rightly know what to do against it, so you'll have to play by feel. You're already "out of book," as they say. You feel your heart pulsing in your chest. You're looking to survive the opening. You're reminded of a boxer who steps in for the first round only to be pummeled out of the ring.

Grechikhin's cavalier approach makes you wonder if he doesn't think much of his opponent's chess skills. He probably wouldn't wield the gambit against a stronger player. Perhaps he's aiming for a quick win against what he takes to be a patzer, an inexperienced player.
You give your next moves a lot of thought, as your clock ticks off precious minutes. There's no way you want to get your king caught in a lot of crossfire before it has time to find cover behind a row of pawns. You decide to play cautiously, aiming for a solid defensive setup, and decline Grechikhin's pawn offer. You figure there's probably not much established theory covering the positions that will result from your move, so you're both in uncharted waters. If your game were a theatrical play, it would be an experimental off-off-Broadway production.
3. bxc5 bxc5
4. Nf3  Nc6
5. Bb5 Bb7
Grechikhin makes a move. You think about how you want to parry, and make a move of your own. He does the same after a few minutes, as the two of you become embroiled in the syncopated, back-and-forth dialogue that makes up a tournament game.
6. 0-0 Nf6
7. Re1 g6
8. e5 Nd5
At one point, you see what you take to be a way that Grechikhin can launch an attack. You start to worry about him opening up the center before you can hide your king on the kingside. But he doesn't follow that course, either because he doesn't notice it himself or because he decides that it's not worth pursuing. The game proceeds along a less violent path. A sequence of carefully selected moves leads to a position where you're not badly off.
9. Na3 Bg7
10. Rb1 0-0
11. c3 Qc7
With your eleventh move, you nudge your queen from its starting position to a square that looks promising for it, and then sit back to take stock. You've survived the first onslaught. You've managed to develop your pieces and get your king castled safely behind a row of pawns, without giving up too much ground. Your heart beats less frantically.

You step out of the room to get some water, and return to the board. You take a look at the game to your right. A man in his fifties (Russian, apparently) is playing a gritty game against a hormonal kid pushing sixteen at best.
12. Nc4 Rab8
13. Ba3 Nd8
14. Qa4 d6
15. exd6 exd6
A couple of other games have ended, in either bloody assaults or expedient draws. Ilye Figler has a pressing edge in his game against Katharine Pelletier, while Jay Bonin is beating up on his outclassed opponent. Jay sets up a nice mating attack, and then goes in for the kill as his opponent broods at the board, red-faced in defeat. Upon winning, Jay gets up and walks off with a canary-swallowing smile, score sheet in hand.

The room is quiet. The loudest sounds are the ticking of chess clocks and the hum of the air-conditioner. People have settled into the muted rhythm of tournament games: think, make a move, press the clock, write down the move made. Think, move, clock, write. Think.

You and your opponent are doing the same. Grechikhin is pressing against your position, while you're trying to hit on moves that give good counterchances.

16. Qa5
With his sixteenth move Grechikhin makes a decision that surprises you: he moves his queen one square forward, where it's operating along the same diagonal as your own queen, which stands a few inches away.

One small step by the lady, and the ecology of the game shifts. By posting his queen on a square that is in direct communication with your own queen, Grechikhin is offering to exchange queens. Once these mighty pieces are off the board, the game can boil down to an endgame.

What's going on here? you ask yourself. Reuben Fine, an American grandmaster and psychoanalyst, once contended that a leading chess player preferred opening variations that involve an early exchange of queens because he unconsciously desired to get "rid of women" in order to deny or regulate his sexual impulses. You know little about your opponent's psychodynamics, but your guess is that he wants to eliminate the queens not because of any psychosexual issues but because he thinks he can outplay you in an ending, especially since you collapsed at the end of your previous game. ("Yes. The endgame.") But in letting you exchange queens, and so getting his most powerful piece off the battlefield, he allows you to relieve some of the pressure against your position.
You do just that. Your pieces breathe easier. Exchanges follow. The position is simplifying into an ending in which you'll each have a couple pieces and a cluster of pawns. You're not sure who will be better off.
17. Nxa5 Ne6
[better would have been 17...Nxc3! with the idea of 18. dxc3 Bxf3 19. Bxc3, when the bishop is attacking both the rook on e1 and the knight on e5]
18. Nxb7 Rxb7
19. Bc4 Rxb1
20. Rxb1 Nb6
You play on. You're both trying to position your pieces on better squares, to try to gain some kind of advantage. As you concentrate, the world fades around you. You're unaware of anyone or anything else in the room. No sound. No movement. No opponent. You're conscious only of the possibilities on the board. Think, move, clock, write. Think again. At times you can't shake the feeling that a grandmaster or computer would make more precise moves, but that's a feeling you seldom succeed in shaking.
21. Bf1 Rd8
22. h4 Bf6
23. g3 Kg7
24. Bc1 d5
25. a4 Rb8

26.a5 Nd7
27. Rxb8 Nxb8
28. Bb5 Bd8
29. d4
It's an even game until he lets you grab one of his pawns on the queenside. To do so, you have to let your knight get boxed into a corner, where it risks getting trapped. You take time to calculate the "variations," the possible sequences of moves, and see that the knight is safe after all, and can come back into play if you play the right combination of moves.
You take the pawn, press your clock, take a breath.
30. dxc5 Nxc5
31. Be3 a6
Moves are made along the lines envisioned. You hear a faint gasp from your opponent. You take this to be his sudden awareness that your knight is safe after all, and he's down a pawn for nothing. The fact that you calculated all this better than your master-strength opponent injects a dose of confidence into your system. I'm seeing things well today, you tell yourself.
32. Bd4+ f6
33. Bf1 Ne6
You now have five pawns to your opponent's four. In question is whether you will be able to make something of this material advantage. Having a one-pawn edge can lead to a winning game, as a player can nurture that edge into a pawn that reaches the eighth rank, where it can be promoted to a queen. You'll try to do just that, while your opponent will try to generate enough counterplay to level the game again.

You both reach the thirty-move time control and add an hour to each of your clocks. Think, move, clock, write. Go to the bathroom. Get some more water on the way back. Think some more.
34. c4 Nxd4
35. Nxd4 dxc4
36. Bxc4 Bc3
37. Ne6+ Kh8
38. Nc7 a5
39. Bb5 Kg7
40. Kf1 Be5
41. Nd5 Kf7
42. f4 Bd4
43. Ke2 Ke6
44. Nc7+ Kd6
45. Na6 Nc6
46. g4 Ne7
47. h5 gxh5
48. gxh5 h6
49. Kd3 Ba7
50. Ke4 f5+
51. Kf3 Nd5
52. Bd3 Be3
53. Bxf5 Bxf4
54. Bd3 a4
55. Bc4 Bd2
56. Ke2 Ba5
57. Kd3 Nf4+
58. Kc2 Nxh5
59. Bb5 Nf4
60. Bxa4 h5
61. Bb5 h4
62. Bf1 Kd5
63. Nb8 Ke4
Soon it's late afternoon, some four-plus hours after you started out, with both of you having thought through countless variations that coincide with the sixty-three actual moves made. Only one other game is still under way. The game to your right ended some time ago, when the fifty-year-old Russian missed a crucial tactic, which ensnared his rook in a deadly pin. He moaned when he saw his fate. Faced with a lost position, he quit the game by standing up, flicking his hand in disgust at the board, and walking away, leaving the sixteen-year-old to reset the board and record the result. No handshake there.

Almost everyone else has cleared out of the room. Some have gone upstairs to analyze their games. Others have stepped outside to get lunch or coffee. One man is asleep in a chair in the shaded courtyard at the back of the building. Another is reading a Russian newspaper. The lonesome hum of the air-conditioner can be heard. Someone walks over to check out your game.
64. Nc6
You have four minutes left on your clock, your opponent five. You've been swapping off pawns and pieces. He now has only a king, a knight, and a bishop left. You have a king, a knight, and a bishop as well, but you also have the one precious pawn. Your only hope for a win lies in advancing that pawn to the last rank and promoting it to a queen. That will give you sufficient forces to mate the White king. But if your opponent captures this pawn, even sacrificing a piece for it, then there's no chance for you to win either, as there's no way for you to gain a queen. The game will end in a draw, with best play from both sides.

While pondering this, you see a way to set up a trap. If Grechikhin falls for it, you'll win the game. With his last move, he transferred his knight to a square where it's attacking your bishop, which is standing aloof on the far side of the board, apart from the action. You can offer that bishop up as bait. If his knight captures it, you can use your king and knight to set up a shield and hurry your pawn to the finish line. It's like using a slab of meat to lure a guard dog away from its watch so that you can sneak a lamb past its chops.

A couple of people are standing by the table, watching. You're aware of this as you consider your options. If you don't set this trap, the game will end in a draw. You reach out, grab your king, and with a shaky hand move it to a new square.
That puts the bait out: a fat, juicy cardinal, ready to be gobbled up. If Grechikhin takes the bishop, he'll lose after a tricky string of moves. If he doesn't, it's a draw. [objectively better is 64...Bb6 65. Ne7 Ke5 66. Nc6+ Kf5 67. Kb3 Ng6, when Black is on the way to a win]
65. Nxa5? 
He picks up his knight, reaches out, snaps up the bishop, and puts his knight on the square where the bishop just stood. Knight takes bishop. The gesture surprises you, since by your calculations the move is bad. Maybe you've missed something. There's no going back now.
[Better would have been 65. Nd4+ when after something like Kg4 66. Ba6 Ng2 67. Bc8+ Kf4 68. Ne6+ Ke5 it's still difficult for Black to queen the pawn]
You move quickly, following through with your plan. Several bodies peer over the board to chart out moves.
66. Ba6 h3
Grechikhin is caught in the trap. It's simple but effective. Everything works together just right, like a precisely crafted poem. Exquisite violence.
67. Nc4 h2
68. Bb7 Ng2
Your opponent jerks his head back two moves later. He's up a piece, but there's no way now to keep your pawn from queening, and once you have the queen, you will be able to mate him easily. "The endgame is real swindler's territory," someone once noted.
69. Bxg2 Kxg2
70. Ne3+ Kf3
The older man sits disenchanted, looking at the last few pieces on the board, hoping for a way out, but there is none. A queen is a queen. His time runs out soon after you promote your pawn to a queen. "Your clock is down," you say, pointing. His eyes move from your fingers to the board to the clock, and then back to the board. You hold out your hand. He shakes it softly, looks down.

He has lost by time forfeit, but he was beaten. The onlookers walk away. Playing a serious game of chess is like walking for hours along a narrow footpath carved into a cliff side. One false step and you plummet to your death. "That's one of the things that's very upsetting about a game of chess," Nolan [Kordsmeier] once said. "You can be doing fine the entire game and then with one little mistake you lose the game. It seems a little absurd, a little cruel."

Grechikhin gets up from the table as a friend of his tells him, in Russian, how he should have played. They move to the back corner of the room and huddle over a board to retrace the game's last moves. You walk over to them to see what they're considering, but it's clear that this is a private wake.

Exhausted, you go upstairs and tell the director that you've had enough for one day and would like a half-point bye in the second round. You leave for home. On the 9:20 train you sink into your chair and take sips from a bottled water. You feel like a warrior returning from a long, hard battle.

Look for a review of Counterplay in the May 2011 issue of Chess Life Magazine.

See details on Dr. Alexey Root's books on her author page.