Wednesday, August 20, 2014

A bit extreme?

As mentioned in yesterday's post, there were a couple of pieces in the Guardian relating to the deaths of two competitors in the Tromsø Olympiad. Neither of these two pieces found much favour in those sections of the internet where I spent the weekend, perhaps justly so. But perhaps not entirely justly so.

The first of the two pieces appeared on Friday and was written by Esther Addley. It starts OK. It finishes OK. And after it starts, it's still OK when it finishes its seventh paragraph, which correctly notes that play was "briefly suspended", unlike the Telegraph report which claimed quite wrongly that "play was delayed for several hours following the incident".

It's in the eighth paragraph that the problems start.
While the causes of the two men's deaths are still unknown, they will raise questions about the mental and physical stress that tournaments place on players.
Will they?

Why would they particularly do so, especially since "the causes of the two men's deaths are still unknown"?

They might potentially do so. They might do so if were to transpire later than either of the two unfortunate men who died had been suffering particularly from mental or physical stress. Or if there were good reason to think that the Olympiad had been the cause of particular mental or physical stress for either of the two men. Or if there were any statistical reason to think that participation in chess tournaments had been proving particularly dangerous for competitors.

But we don't have any of that. All we have, in place of any proper data, is the observation that two other men, Vladimir Bagirov and Aivars Giplis, died at tournaments "in the same year". This would be a more convincing piece of evidence had the year not been as long ago as 2000, or had the two players not both been 63 when they died.

Because it's not actually that unusual for men of that age to die of strokes and heart attacks, unfortunately: when shopping, gardening, jogging, watching the television. There's really not very much reason to finger participation in chess tournaments as a particular cause. Is there?

After that, though, the piece gets stranger.
Tarjei J Svensen, a reporter for who attended the Olympiad, said the event had a reputation for heavy drinking. "There are two rest days during the competition, and particularly the night before the rest days there tends to be a lot of drinking," he said.

A favourite attraction for delegates was the now-legendary "Bermuda party", he added, hosted at each Olympiad by a member of the Bermudan delegation.
What on Earth is that about? This was something to do with the Bermuda party? How so? Was the death of either player in any way connected with the party? Did either of them even attend the event?

Or if Addley doesn't mean to link the deaths with the party, what is it doing in the report? And why move seamlessly from the "questions about the mental and physical stress" stuff to the question of "heavy drinking"? What exactly, or inexactly, was she trying to say?

I have no idea what she was thinking of when she referred to it. I do have a pretty clear idea of where the story should have been cut short, which was after the seventh paragraph. The second half of the piece was unworthy of publication.

- - - - -

This is not to say that chess isn't stressful. Or course it is, or can be. So can commuting. So can reading the internet. So can working. So can flying. A friend of mine was recently on an aeroplane when another passenger became ill and died. Does that immediately "raise questions about the mental and physical stress that flying places on passengers", every time somebody dies on a flight?

These things do happen. Thing is, there's a lot of people at an Olympiad, and in gatherings where there are a lot of people present, sometimes people do unfortunately die. Curiously this point was made on Saturday in the second Guardian article, by Stephen Moss.
It is a bizarre coincidence that two players – one from the Seychelles, one from Uzbekistan, the former at the board, the latter in his hotel room after the tournament had ended – should die within hours of each other.
Well quite so.

Now what follows is rather odd, which is that having started by saying that the deaths were coincidence, Moss proceeds to deliver a piece about the stress of playing chess. I'm not sure this was entirely wise, since it links two things that he'd just gone out of his way to separate. Still, Moss did separate the two and did so explicitly, which shouldn't, in all fairness, be overlooked.

What I wanted to find fault with was Moss's linkage of the physical health of chessplayers and our susceptibility to stress - at least, to the extent he does so and in some of the particulars by which he does so. Take this, for instance.
The number of huge stomachs on show at any chess tournament is staggering.
Huge stomachs? In staggering number? Really?

I doubt that Moss (who, unlike many other journalists who write about chess, is a genuine chessplayer) had any intention to produce a stereotype, but a stereotype is what, regrettably, that is. There may be, no doubt, a preponderance of middle-aged men at many chess tournaments (though there's a lot of kids, too) and no doubt many of those middle-aged men are, like the present writer, visibly though not uncomfortably overweight. But "huge" stomachs? In "staggering" number? Manifestly not.

Second problem.
It has been suggested that in the course of a long chess game a player will lose as much weight as he does during a football match.
Where has it been so suggested? I'm not suggesting that it hasn't, not least because I can dimly recall reading the same claim many years ago, but it strikes me as the sort of ambitious claim for which one would really want a source, because it's a tendentious claim and somebody is liable to challenge it. So what is the source? How reliable is it? And what quantities of weight are we thinking of?

Third problem.
The great Soviet players of the postwar period had the most ridiculous lifestyle: they more or less lived on vodka, cigarettes and chess, and many of them died young.
Let's accept, for the sake of argument, that this is a reasonable claim as opposed to a severe exaggeration. Even if we do - was this in any way particular to chess, or simply a reflection of poor diet and lifestyle generally in the old Soviet Union? And if a number of prominent chessplayers died younger than they might have, was that anything to do with the pressure which playing chess put them under, or was that precisely because of their diet and lifestyle?

Fourth problem.
Too many are overweight, keen to have a drink, too sedentary – and then they try to play this game which makes huge demands on mind and body.
On the face of it this doesn't seem too unreasonable a thing to say, and I don't disagree with it entirely. But on the other hand, if we don't have the psychologists apparently retained by the top players, if we don't necessarily open the day with a run and a healthy breakfast like Lev Aronian, we don't, on the other hand, play at quite the same level of mental engagement as Aronian and his colleagues. We're not as intense as them. We don't get tested to the same level as they do.

Fifth problem.
Chess, though the non-player might not believe this, is in many ways an extreme sport.
It isn't, though, is it?

It's a sport all right, as far as I'm concerned. I've been playing or following sport for forty years and it's never seemed to me that when I sit down at a chessboard, what I'm doing is anything different. But an extreme sport? Like base jumping? It isn't, is it? Not "in many ways", and not, really, in any way at all.

This, however, is good.
I spend a day at work, rush home, bolt down a meal, then go to my chess club and play a three-hour game which often makes me feel ill, especially if I lose. After that, usually around 10.30pm, I go home, go to bed, and frequently fail to sleep as my moves and mistakes revolve around my head.
That's pretty much right and pretty much why I stopped playing regularly, since I was suffering too many traumas that were making chess not so much something I did as something I did to myself.

But I don't think that was anything to do with the state of my waistline. The sort of person I am, for sure. But not in any meaningful way the state of my midriff. I don't believe all the exercise bikes and mineral water in the world would have made any difference.

Still, the description at least is good. The enthusiasm for chess is palpable and the basic thesis, that chess is a testing sport for which we should be better prepared, is at least defensible. I'm reluctant to weigh into anybody who's at least trying to make an informed argument about chess for the benefit of the non-playing public. But there are too many very big holes in the way the argument is presented to make that argument a good one.

But it's not an argument that links itself to the fatalities in Tromsø. The delinkage is surely explicit, just as the linkage was explicit in the Addley piece. For that reason alone it's a better piece than the one which appeared on the same site the previous day.


Jonathan B said...

While the causes of the two men's deaths are still unknown, they will raise questions about the mental and physical stress that tournaments place on players.

A little something you learn at Journo Training college at the lecture they call, "How you turn an obvious non-story into a story"

After that, though, the piece gets stranger.

I’m not sure I’d call what follows 'strange'. More unseemly and unpleasant.

Anonymous said...

But "huge" stomachs? In "staggering" number? Manifestly not.

He may have been subconsciously thinking of the arbiters' desk.

It used to be claimed that Karpov would lose weight during his long matches over several months. As a weight loss aid for club and tournament players, chess is over-rated


Anonymous said...

By coincidence, a set of photos of a typical English Congress has also been published today.

It's the usual set of players sitting at their boards, rather than standing up, so difficult to directly test the Stephen Moss hypothesis. I don't see many who look obviously capable of running a marathon.


Mark Donlan said...

In Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers by Robert M. Sapolsky, he wrote: "Two people can sit facing each other, doing nothing more physically strenuous than moving little pieces of wood now and then, yet this can be an emotionally taxing event: chess grandmasters, during their tournaments, can place metabolic demands on their bodies that begin to approach those of athletes during the peak of a competitive event."

Tarjei said...

In case it wasn't clear already, I never ever suggested that the Bermuda party or heavy drinking in any way was connected to the two deaths. In fact that didn't cross my mind and I am 100 % sure it has absolutely nothing to do with it.

I don't think I even said "a reputation for heavy drinking" to the journalist. Yes, people drink during the Bermuda party before the rest days, but not to the extent that this story gives the impression of.

That two chess players would die on the same day in the same city is indeed a bizarre coincidence, I don't think it needs any further analysis.

ejh said...

Just out of interest, have you contacted the journalist about the article? (No reason why you should have to, of course, I just wondered.)

Tarjei said...

No, I did not contact the journalist. As you said, I didn't see any reason to. Although I also didn't like the angle and the way what I said was interpreted, there is nothing factually incorrect about it.