Sunday, February 05, 2012

Kenneth Rogoff about chess

GM Kenneth Rogoff, Harvard economics professor and best-selling author with "This Time Is Different", talks about his passion for chess.

Talk of endgames and middle-games is a reminder of Rogoff’s first love – chess. He achieved grandmaster status in his mid-twenties and was the highest ranked player of his age in the world before retiring to concentrate on economics. Improbably, for a future Harvard professor, he was also a high school dropout. “A lot of my last years of high school, I essentially missed,” he says. “I just played chess, I did nothing else.”

His search for chess excellence led him to leave the US. “I moved to Sarajevo because Yugoslavia was the number two chess-playing country after the USSR – and going to the Soviet Union just wasn’t possible in those days. I was living kind of a bohemian lifestyle. I would be playing chess in top tournaments in five-star hotels and then sometimes sleeping in railway stations, because I wasn’t making much money. Or maybe just because I was stupid.”

Yet it was encountering some of the world’s greatest players that persuaded Rogoff ultimately to give up chess – on the grounds that he was unlikely ever to be number one. When he was 16, Rogoff met and played Anatoly Karpov, who was 18 at the time and later became world champion. “He was meant to be an English major, so I went up to speak to him, and it was quite clear he didn’t speak any English.” So how did they communicate? “I had taught myself some Russian, so I could read chess books. “Karpov,” he recalls admiringly, “just understood chess, so well.” Rogoff concluded that although he could certainly beat Karpov in individual games, he was unlikely to best him consistently.

Rogoff’s real hero, however, was Bobby Fischer, the American chess champion of the 1970s. He remembers following the games from the famous Fischer-Spassky world chess championship in 1972, and being awed by Fischer’s play – “It was like seeing the hand of God at work; the originality, the simplicity.” He shakes his head in delight and amazement. Fischer even paid the teenaged Rogoff the compliment of analysing and praising one of his games in an article. But Rogoff did not let that go to his head. “I took that to mean that he knew I could never beat him. Because I knew he was hyper-competitive. I completely understood the message,” he chuckles.

Full article in the Financial Times

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