Hilton on Chess Cosmopolitanism
By Jonathan Hilton   
September 27, 2011
Two years ago, I dropped out of chess to become a college bum. While the previous sentence may sound backwards to some, it has a peculiar ring to it and it carries at least a kernel of truth. Right before I traded chess for college, I was turning out my peak performances at all the big tournaments. During 2009 alone, my last year of competitive play, I hit the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, Super Nationals IV in Nashville, the Chicago Open, the National Open in Las Vegas, the World Open, and the U.S. Open in Indianapolis, along with a handful of smaller events. I was winning a big enough share of the prize funds to keep me more than afloat financially as I romped around the U.S. tournament circuit. I felt focused and motivated. My rating was climbing, and the FM title was just within reach. I thought that soon, I would have a shot at getting some IM norms. After that, who knows where I would go in the chess world?

Jonathan Hilton with a friend outside the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao

That was then. These days, I'm a Spanish major at University of Cincinnati. (For those of you who find majoring in a language a dubious enterprise, you can find my response on my travel blog.) My other academic interests are Political Science, Linguistic Anthropology, and Immigration Studies. I'm more laid back than before, and I spend the better portion of my leisure time reading, hanging out with friends, taking seminars in philosophy, going out to dinner with my professors, and calling home to talk to my family. At some point, I slacked off and quit shaving. I have a beard now. I live completely off scholarships (fueled by high standardized test scores and GPA's), and I find grant money to continuously study abroad. I've visited about a dozen countries, gamboling about in Central America, South America, and Europe. Currently, I'm in Grenoble, France, at a French language school in the Alps. It's a different sort of life style--one based on having a broad range of experiences, without narrowing my focus down to just one thing. It's less driven and more meandering. 

Since this fall marks the halfway point of my studies as an undergraduate, I have decided to take time out to reflect upon what (and where) these past two years have brought me. In particular, I want to examine the role that chess has played in shaping my college experience. I once estimated that, between the ages of 8 to 19, I had spent some 17,000+ hours on chess-related activities: that is, during the span of twelve years, I spent the equivalent of eight years working forty hours a week, fifty-two weeks per year. (This fits well with the literature on becoming a chess master, which tends to suggest that at least 10,000 hours of chess study alone--not including tournament time--are required to reach the 2200 level.) Eight working years is a tremendous amount of time. Now that I'm off at college, I wonder, "How has all that time spent on chess affected me?" In this first segment, I will explore how chess has enriched my time studying abroad by helping me to form international friendships and to mold my philosophical outlook on the world. In the next segment, I will draw on my own experiences over the past two years to reexamine the age-old question of whether or not a strong background chess really improves one's academic performance in school. Finally, I will discuss how chess has directly impacted my life at University of Cincinnati, including my personality, reputation, and friendships.

For those of you who have read my articles in the past, you might remember that I previously used chess as a means of connecting with others during my first two study abroad trips in college--once in Nicaragua, and another time in Mexico. I've also mused about how a chess camp I attended in Germany during the 2008 Olympiad might help bring about world peace, and during the 2010 World Open, I explored the contributions of players from a handful of nations to what I've dubbed a sort of "world chess culture." More recently, in the current issue of Chess Life, I wrote about cultural differences between Chile and the United States when it comes to prize money at tournaments. Up to this point, I have mostly written about isolated experiences I have had, such as one-time trips or particular tournaments. Now that I have had a wider array of international chess experiences, I am looking to tackle the "big questions" when it global chess: What are the cultural elements shared by all chess players in every chess culture? What can all chess players agree upon, if anything? In what sense is a chess player, in the words of Socrates, a "citizen of the world" and therefore linked to all other chess players? In this article, I will begin to examine the issue of "chess cosmopolitanism."

Cosmopolitanism is a philosophical tradition which states that all the peoples of the world belong to one giant, common communityAccordingly, the concept of "chess cosmopolitanism" would seek to link all the chess players of the world together using the things that they have in common. In philosophy and politics, one draws upon cosmopolitanism to debate issues such as human rights, international law, humanitarian aid, Just War theory, and so on. In chess, I believe that a well-articulated and widely accepted understanding of "chess cosmopolitanism" could be used to bridge language and cultural gaps between chess players, encourage international chess travel, lead to increased sharing of chess knowledge and playing styles across cultures, raise the standards for sportsmanship, lower the level of mistrust between top players from different countries, and even possibly lead to a more generous and better-organized form of international chess governance.

So what exactly are these "common elements" that I believe all chess players may have in common? I have grouped them into three major categories, which I will now explain.

1) Chess players everywhere have identical habits.

While on a five-month study abroad in Concepción, Chile, I had the opportunity to become member of the chess community of the city for an extended period. It was during this time that I began to note how similar the everyday habits of chess players in Chile are to those of my own country. Chilean chess players played in the same places--at the park, at modest chess clubs, in hotel or dorm rooms, at the dining room tables of their humble abodes, and so on. They also had a marked propensity for getting hopeless sidetracked during their post-mortems, just like club players in the U.S. Most sessions that started as "serious" chess study among friends eventually broke down into playing blitz for hours on end, too. And our friends Rybka and ChessBase were ever-present as well. In fact, even in Nicaragua, the second-poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, the chess players have laptops that run these two vital programs.
Carlito Saez and Pablo Salinas

Finally, chess players also tend to show similarly high levels of hospitality to visiting players. In Chile, Mexico, and Germany, the local players treated me to meals at restaurants. In Concepción, I was many times the guest of expert-level player Carlos Saez, who introduced me to the other locals (such as 16-year-old Pablo Salinas, Chile's top junior player) and regularly invited me to dinner at his house.
More recently, during a two-month trip to Spain, I stopped for an evening to visit the Fifth International Tournament of San Juan in Pamplona and was treated to coffee and a beautiful bottle of wine by local player Enrique Cobbs, a fan of my Wojo's Weapons book series. Chess has given me the gift of having friends from all over the world--people who recognize me as a fellow chess player, as one of their own.

Enrique Cobbs and Jonathan Hilton


2) Every chess community features similar local "chess personalities."

Like most players, I feel that my chess is rooted in my local chess community. Every move that I have ever made has somehow been influenced by the thousands of games I played as a young teenager at the Hamilton Chess Club (now defunct), the Cincinnati Chess Club, and the Dayton Chess Club. But most of all, I remember the various local "chess personalities" that left such a mark on my childhood. There were Cincinnati's top players: NM Sergey Berchenko, the wise Soviet master who won the city championship a dozen-odd times; FM Hans Multhopp, the jolly giant who sometimes wore a hat shaped like a pawn; and the Karpov-loving Liberty Green, a fan of positional chess who once gave an entire lecture on the virtues of the Damiano Defense. Then there was Leonard Kelley, the retired spy turned chess organizer who let kids play free; Phillip Seitzer, who believed he was bound to be a "Class A" player for life until he left for college and returned an Expert; and NM Ramadake Lewis, the blitz and gambit master who had endless stories about Cincinnati chess in "the good old days." There was also the gentle NM Ed Ernst, a Kentucky player and a good friend of Jerry Hanken's who died in the months before Jerry did. I could list names forever.

Do I sound wistful to you? I am. The truth is, growing up, I hated to read nostalgic articles filled with references to members of the author's local chess community--people I'd never heard of and would likely never meet. Now that I've been so long removed from my own hometown chess roots, however, I often stop and think about the people that shaped me both as a person and as a player. 

If this gets me down, however, I can take comfort in the fact that there are thousands of such hometown chess communities all over the world. Whether I'm playing at the house of Carlos Saez in Chile, on the streets of Montevideo in Uruguay, or in the parks of Madrid, Spain, I find that there are the same types of "chess personalities" that make local communities so special. Everywhere, there is the chess book collector; the expert who just can't quite make master; the foreign IM; the promising young up-and-comer; the blitz and bughouse champion; the titled player who loves drawing a crowd during post-mortems; the 2100-rated opening theoretician... the list goes on. 

3) In progressing from beginner to master, chess players everywhere seem to have the same learning curves.

This last point alone could fill an entire volume. After having analyzed and studied with players of various strengths from around the world, I have come to the conclusion that, generally speaking, chess players follow similar growth patterns in their development. For instance, players in the 1900-2200 ELO range seem to be too hasty in exchanging pieces, no matter what country they are from. Everywhere, below the 2000 level, the main skill seems to be pattern recognition; after that, however, the ability to use logic, be pragmatic, and calculate accurately (and relevantly) seem to grow in importance. Players at the 1400-1800 level from all nations, I have observed, tend to make the same types of oversights in their calculations: focusing too much on one particular line; not correctly envisioning the final position of a calculated line; thinking for ten minutes about a single candidate move and then deciding to just "go for it" before considering any alternatives--and the like. And so many players at the 2000-2200 level often feel they should be able to "punish" odd-looking moves by their opponents (and wind up overextending their positions in the process).

Perhaps these generalizations will be rejected by some, since every player is unique in at least some way. I do believe, however, that there are some "typical mistakes" that can be associated with each class range, an idea that I developed during my time as a coach. NM Dan Heisman's book " The Improving Chess Thinker" in which he analyzes the thinking processes of dozens of players of varying strengths, also has influenced me in this regard. After having played in many different countries, I feel that these "learning curves" for players--that is, the kinds of mistakes that they fix in their games as they progress from one level to the next--are universal. Who doesn't remember being taught Scholar's Mate and Fool's Mate as an absolute newcomer to the Royal Game? Who hasn't worked through books filled with tactics puzzles before slowly moving up to studying strategy? And everyone has to learn to mate with king-and-queen versus king before reading books on rook-and-pawn endgame theory. The complex nature of the game of chess forces one to master certain elements before moving on to the next ones. And these elements, at least to some extent, are the same for everyone in the world.

GurevichHilton.jpgSo is there really such a thing as the global chess family, as expressed by FIDE's motto, gens una sumus? Given the amount that chess players everywhere seem to have in common, I think that there is. What does it look like? I'd like to conclude this article with a small example of gens una sumus in action: the recent chess adventures of 13-year-old American player NM Daniel Gurevich. During a one-day visit I recently paid to an international tournament in Pamplona, Spain, I had the good fortune of running into Daniel and his parents. Daniel had seized the opportunity to tag along with his father on a business trip to Spain so that he could play abroad in a couple of strong international tournaments, and what impressed me most was his attempt to speak Spanish with the local players. Before coming to Spain, Daniel had taken the time to learn as much Spanish as he could in order to better communicate with other players at the event. Using what he had learned, he was able to connect with fellow chess players of all ages and nationalities during post-mortem sessions in the skittles room. I joined in the analysis of one of his games, and the three of us--Daniel, Daniel's opponent, and myself--talked in the language of the tournament's host country.

Daniel's play has come a long way since I first met him back in 2008, when we split the point in the penultimate round of that year's High School Nationals. But more importantly, Daniel is using his time as an up-and-coming player wisely: by traveling the world and becoming a sort of global chess citizen. And that, to me, is true "chess cosmopolitanism": connecting with others members of our global society through a medium that allows one to learn, share, explore, and grow as a person. This is one way that chess has enriched my college years, and it is something that one can use to interact with others for the rest of one's life.

Find Jonathan Hilton's series Wojo's Weapons (co-written with IM Dean Ippolito) on the late Aleksander Wojtkiewicz's opening repertoire at USCFSales.com.