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Old Rules, New Game

By William Y. Yao, Contributing Opinion Writer
William Y. Yao '22, a former Technology Chair, is an Applied Math concentrator in Kirkland House. His column "A Memoir Of Our Own" appears on alternate Tuesdays.

This past year’s concoction of “The Queen’s Gambit” and quarantine boredom inspired me, along with millions of others, to dust off old chess sets or play online. It also led me to “Mind Master,” a memoir by former World Chess Champion Vishy Anand.

Through his memoir, Vishy brings us into the dynamic world of competitive chess. He colors the pages with rare stories from a lifetime of triumph and defeat, learning and unlearning, sportsmanship and gamesmanship. His integrity, humility, and wholehearted humanity emanates from his prose. It’s no wonder he’s so beloved in the chess world.

Modern chess can trace its roots back nearly 500 years, and its predecessors even further. In the generation of Fortnite and League of Legends, it’s remarkable that this grandparent of board games has held its own for so long and remained a fixture on household shelves. Reading Vishy’s memoir cast new light on this old game, and reminded me that the meaning of chess has always extended much further than the pieces on the 64 checkered squares. In chess and in life, we can find new meaning in the old.

The chessboard was a battlefront of the Cold War. Much like the “Space Race” pitted America and the Soviet Union against one another in space exploration and the “Miracle on Ice” represented the rivalry in the hockey rink — the chessboard was a place where the nations could launch attacks, build fortresses, and employ strategies and tactics.

But as the Cold War culminated in a stalemate of sorts, a new war was brewing. Computer chess engines were approaching the level of top humans. In 1997, IBM’s Deep Blue supercomputer contested a series of highly publicized matches against the then World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov. And it won, marking the first victory of a computer over a reigning World Champion. Ever since, chess engines have drastically outpaced top competitive players.

So, chess has been a simulacrum for American versus Soviet rivalry, a proxy for man versus machine, and its latest incarnation has taken on a new significance.

Modernization is the new name of this old game. Today, chess personalities live stream their games on Twitch and upload analysis videos on YouTube. For many, ChessTV is the new ESPN. Corporate sponsorship is flourishing; some tournaments are even offering bitcoin as prize money.

Perhaps chess isn’t a battleground at all. In this age of incredible interconnectedness, of virtualized communication and socialization further catalyzed by the Covid-19 pandemic, chess has brought a lot of people together. The moment the king gets checkmated or the clock runs out, your opponent is no longer your adversary, but perhaps they are a friend, family member, or someone sitting thousands of miles away who, if only for a brief time, was your companion. The growth of chess media and content creation has had a similar uniting effect, creating fan bases and forging new communities all around the globe.

At Harvard, it’s so easy to feel like we are competing with one another. Indeed, in some curved classes, we do so by design, assessed not by our grasp of the course material but by our relative performance. Perhaps it’s resemblant of a mentality that got us admitted in the first place. I’ve certainly had this feeling, and it can sometimes be really hard to shake.

But in this campus community that we all build together, it’s the collaboration, not the competition that makes it all work. In the semester’s opening moments, we need no prompting to begin forging new friendships, engaging with new ideas, discovering new joys. We study together in the Cabot Science Library, innovate together at the new Science and Engineering Complex, and, yes, even play chess together just outside the Smith Campus Center. At this university, indeed the oldest in the nation, it’s these fresh connections that make up some of the most valuable aspects of our shared experience.

These are some things that Vishy’s memoir got me thinking about. But I read a lot of other memoirs during this past Covid year, and in this column, I’d like to share some of the lessons I’ve learned and emotions I’ve felt while reading them. Memoirs have a way of expressing what truly matters to us, in all its beauty and ugly. They are a window into another’s story and a mirror into our own.

In the aftermath of Zoom University, let’s savor writing this chapter in our memoir. And though we are barely a week into the semester, if we remain committed to finding new joy in the old, I know it will be beautiful.

William Y. Yao '22, a former Technology Chair, is an Applied Math concentrator in Kirkland House. His column "A Memoir Of Our Own" appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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