Eliot Hearst and John Knott blog about blindfold chess
Monday, July 05, 2010

Economist Kenneth Rogoff and Blindfold Chess

The financial crises of the past few years have adversely affected almost all of us. Of course they are among the most common topics that politicians, bloggers, newscasters, Main Streeters and Wall Streeters, and just about everyone else discuss endlessly and debate vigorously. The publication last year of This Time Is Different by world-renowned economists Kenneth Rogoff and Carmen Reinhart offered a historical investigation of disastrous monetary decisions from 66 countries over the last 800 years, not focusing on the application of recent economic theory but presenting data that many contemporary economists neglect, are ignorant of, or think are irrelevant to today’s major issues. The book is a best seller, having sold nearly 100,000 copies since last September’s publication.

So the book is basically non-theoretical in focus, unlike most current economic tomes, and is very factually oriented. An article about it by Catherine Rampell was featured in The New York Times of July 4, where she describes it as a “quantitative reconstruction of hundreds of historical episodes in which perfectly smart people made perfectly disastrous decisions.” Readers of our website can find the article here. Or they could have seen Rogoff in person on one of his numerous appearances on CNN and other television channels. However, they may be surprised that Rampell devotes some space to Rogoff’s chess career, which I think certainly did merit mention.

At the age of 17, Rogoff played first board for the United States team that won the Chess World Student Olympiad in Haifa, Israel, in 1970. He finally gained the grandmaster title in 1978 and soon afterward completely gave up serious chess! He decided to devote himself to the field of economics and after graduate work at MIT, he eventually became chief economist at the International Monetary Fund and later accepted professorships, first at Princeton and then at Harvard, where he is now located.

Speaking to Rampell, he said that after he received a chess set for his 13th birthday he soon found that he was something of a prodigy, something he decided to hide so he wouldn’t get beaten up in the school lunchroom. “I think chess may be a relatively cool thing for kids to do now, on par with soccer or other sports” ... but “it really wasn’t then.” After becoming a GM years later, he left chess because he realized he probably would never be ranked No. 1 in the world. He remarked that “To this day I get letters, maybe every two years, from top players asking me: ‘How do I quit? I want to quit like you did, and I can’t figure out how to do it.’” Rogoff tells them that “it’s hard to go from being at the top of a field, because you really feel that way when you’re playing chess and winning, to being at the bottom—and they really need to prepare themselves for that.”

Rampell notes that Rogoff sometimes wore a blindfold while playing many opponents simultaneously to support himself while wandering from one competition to another in Europe, but she does not mention that he is one of only nine players since 1954 to play more than 20 games at once without sight of any boards or pieces. We happened to discover this fact while writing our book on blindfold chess and in 2004 contacted Rogoff for more details. He responded quickly and we included a section about him on pp. 117-118 of the book. He noted that he gave blindfold displays once every three months or so during 1967-69, when he was 14-16 years old, mostly at the Rochester Chess Club but occasionally at shopping malls—about a dozen well-controlled exhibitions.

This is what he had to say about those events:

My exhibitions were always done under fairly strict rules. I required opponents to keep score, and would always have a strong player monitor the games. I honestly do not think I ever made an illegal move, though my opponents often tried (but the rules I played under were “touch-move”; if I were to make an illegal move with a piece, I had to try to make a legal move, if possible, with that same piece). My exhibitions at the Rochester club (the only place I played more than 10 at once) were against the people who came to the club and who ranged from Class D to Expert, with an average rating typically of about 1700-1800…

My records are very sketchy, since I was just doing it for fun. I was not thinking in terms of records. I did not keep the score sheets, though I did sometimes write down the moves afterwards. I believe the day I played 26 opponents was the first Saturday in October 1968. The average strength was much lower than my usual 10-12 person exhibitions simply because we had to use everyone at the club that day, so (despite the participation of some strong players) there were certainly at least a half dozen unrated players. My best recollection is that I won 20, had 3 draws and 3 losses over the course of 4-5 hours. The consistency of my play was notably lower than when I did, say 12-15.

This is an extraordinary report. Not only was Rogoff just 15 years old when he played 26 opponents at once blindfolded, but the four to five hours he required are fewer than any world blindfold champion took to play at least 16 games. Despite the hope that he would find the approximately six game score sheets from the 26-player event that he recalled writing down himself after the display, he was unable to locate them (he mentioned that a large number of his game scores had been stored at his parents’ house and mice ate most of them!).

Readers interested in more aspects of Rogoff’s early years, up to the time when he decided to quit chess and study economics, will find many chess details in his Harvard biographical sketch. Links that include some of his games, tournament results, and photos are given in this sketch.

Permalink  |  Posted by Eliot Hearst at 07:05 PM


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