Tulsa Fight Club
By GM Jesse Kraai   
May 5, 2008
Image courtesy John Donaldson
GM Jesse Kraai tied for first at the US Championship Qualifier in Tulsa, and will compete in the upcoming Championship - also in Tulsa. In a controversial article, Kraai offers his thoughts on who is in the field, or more precisely - who is not.

"So will you be able to take time off work if you qualify?" IM Joe Bradford, who asked me this question right before the final round of the Tulsa Qualifier, has a story he likes to tell. It was the summer of 1978. Joe had just graduated from college and allowed himself a Rumspringa, a period of time in which society's pressures (job, house, small yappy dog, really big car) are not felt so keenly. And so - as fight clubs had yet to go public - did he play in every small weekend Swiss he could. He improved faster than his mustache grew and the end of the summer saw him stealing the US Open championship from our country's first wave of East Bloc masters. His tournament winnings had even granted him a minor expanse of financial freedom. But a job was waiting back home and it was time to make a decision.

Joe is now retired - from working - and enjoys venturing to fight clubs all over the world. The more traditional rewards garnered from his chessless decades allow him to play the game "without the pressure." Every time Joe tells his story, he concludes with a wide Texas grin, booming with the kind of easy confidence that sells people stuff: "I'm sure glad I made that decision."

The decision has taken the gifted players of our nation away from the game. Behold an abridged list of the departed from my generation alone: Michael Wilder (Law), Patrick Wolff (Money), Stuart Rachels (University), Ilya Gurevich (Money), Alex Sherzer (Medicine). Whenever I sit on board one I realize that I am where I am because they aren't in the room. And in that nervous space right before the clocks are punched, I sense their desire to undo my pieces. But they aren't there. They can only occasionally send an elder statesman to enquire whether I can take the time off work to play in the US Championship.

The generation following mine found a further distraction: poker. Apparently, anyone who can make 2400 can run around like little bunny Foo Foo bopping field mice on the head at Pokerstars.net. And instead of battling in dirty basements for travel money to get back home, they amass vast sums sipping lattes in front of a computer screen wearing oversized bunny slippers. Comfy, but after having played high level chess, they soon taste the kind of existential despair that will fall upon Brett Favre when he starts playing touch football.

We tell ourselves that the decision is about the money. And to be sure, bemoaning one's financial plight is a reliable bonding ritual amongst chess players. But that's just standard fare.  Because she didn't leave you just because you don't make any money. She left you because you refused to talk to her when you were studying, and she can't get over her high school notions of the boys in the chess club.

But the singularity of our suffering has to be questioned when we reflect upon our mathematically inclined cousins. They were also encouraged to become young prodigies, and their exceptionality was likewise celebrated at national scholastic events. The difference was that they were told that their pursuits held the potential of economic advancement. Somewhere along the way, however, their mathematical aspirations were transformed into an hour commute from my city of Santa Fe, up a hill, through a security checkpoint, into the Los Alamos WMD factory. On their return to my town, they flash the cash for which they sold their talent, hoping to buy the affections of a nice young woman who just broke up with a chessplayer. But there's hope! Like our friend Joe, some mathematicians will retire to pure mathematics "without the pressure" - after three decades or so.

Our musical cousins share a related fate. They busk and hustle ‘friends' to their MySpace pages. But there is no record deal. And that kid you just taught the King's Indian is getting dropped off to learn the piano next.

We must note however that math and music lack the honesty of our game. The mathematician needs a professor and the musician needs a fan to tell them where they stand. But you always know where you stand at Fight Club. Your thought either rises above the superficial or you lose. That's why we really don't need rules. Sure, there's a rulebook. But at Fight Club it's not even clear if we're playing with Fide or USCF rules. Most of the players don't even have regulation clocks. One will often witness an ancient wooden clock with dials in a tournament that's supposed to be played with a digital increment. But that's never been a problem. You either win or you don't at Fight Club.      

Maybe that's why I've never witnessed a major breach of decorum at Fight Club. You're playing against someone who has also invested a great deal of effort into an enterprise whose only reward is itself. I suppose I did break decorum once. But my opponent had not yet tasted the culture of Fight Club, only the casual Swiss. He was playing a position that even General Lee would have surrendered. Perhaps I would have a heart attack and he could plant my scalp on the hood of his SUV. I enquired if we would play until I had five queens.

Now that I've gotten rules and decorum out of the way, it's time to let my bald eagle fly.

Some say that freedom is the ability to choose between Cheerios and Fruit Loops when you walk the aisle. And it is probably true that Joe had to choose between the handlebar moustache or the clean-cut look when he entered the work force. Whereas the stache wouldn't have cost him any rating points in the chess world.

Some say that freedom is the ability to make the just choice. But the just choice doesn't mean anything to a chessplayer. There are good moves and bad moves. We can even talk of beautiful moves and ugly moves. But how can we talk of just moves when the object of Fight Club is to reduce your opponent to a quivering ball of shame, graciously shake his hand, and then civilly discuss the part when you flew off the top rope and landed on his nose?

No, I don't know what freedom is. But Fight Club is what I would point to if someone asked me for directions. And it's because you can lose. That's a beautiful thing - despite the fact that your enemies will lick the pgn file of your loss like a lollipop. Because you can lose, chess is the one area of thought and abstraction where your failings cannot be flattered nor your successes relativized. Yes, I'm ‘more free' because I can choose to grow a stache. Yes, I'm ‘more free' because there is no rule against jumping off the top rope. But I point the freedom seeker to the Fight Club because only here can you bear full responsibility for the mess you find yourself in.

We need to look one move deeper, and this will require us to return to our mathematical friends. Educators at first encouraged us into a realm of thought in chess and math I like to call the mathetic. We were told to study math and chess with the expectation that the mathetic would prove useful in other areas of our life and education; that the mathetic was a beneficial ‘stage' through which we would pass. But some of us didn't want to leave. And our love for this world of magnificent abstraction produced an exceptional performance in contrast to our peers. But instead of praise for our virtue we found exclusion. Confused, we then encountered a constant refrain from the very same educators who introduced us to the mathetic: "you know you'll have to get a real job, don't you?"

Overcoming these conflicting messages is perhaps impossible. But when we confront the world of commutes, WMDs and shiny objects to which educators would lead us, we might just find our way back home to a dirty basement. At the very least we might have some understanding when we discover that hidden ICC account from which one of The Departed plays thousands of blitz games in the middle of the night; or when Joe tells us his story one too many times.

As the US championship approaches, many have suggested that a bigger prize fund or a fancier location would have brought out a stronger field. That may well be true, but that field has already been determined by the strict rules of the decision.

GM Jesse Kraai