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From Utopia to Dystopia Even considering the above, I still know


many who would jump at the chance to live in a more Chilean-like chess culture. The level of play might not be as high, but the positive aspects of the penquista chess environment are still appealing. For my first three months, I couldn’t decide which I liked better—chess in my birth country or chess in Chile. It took me a while to appreciate an inconvenient fact about life in Concepción that made me favor the former. At first, I found nothing strange or arti-


ficial about the idea of a small-town “chess paradise” completely separated from the influence of money. Back before I started playing in “big tournament” events every other weekend, my entire chess experi- ence was built around a similar sense of community in downtown Cincinnati and at the Dayton Chess Club. Money was never completely separated from the equa- tion, but it certainly wasn’t important, either. Imagining a chess community with no concept of money at all was not such a big leap. My perception of penquista society began


to shift when sensed a hidden current swimming under the surface—that of a secret craving for money. If you only spent a few weeks in Concepción, you would never know it: one’s financial affairs are taboo, and anything to do with money is quickly swept under the rug. But for all that they would deny it, problems with cash flow plague middle-class Chilean families. When it comes to capital, there’s simply never enough. One night, my friend Carlos Saez—a jovial, thirty-something man who once beat an international mas- ter—explained the situation to me in clear terms. “We’re poor,” he exclaimed, adding in a few expletives for good measure. As we noshed on a simple dinner of eggs in his miniature living room, Saez slid me a loaf of bread from across the table. “When you go back to your country,” he added, “study something that will make you money. Make money and get rich. That way you can live well.” In Concepción, this hidden anxiety


regarding money reared its ugly head during the aftermath of the devastating earthquake on February 27 of this year. The quake, which at 8.8 on the moment magnitude scale ties for seventh on the list of the strongest earthquakes ever recorded, ushered in three days of total anarchy during which the city plummeted into chaos. The quake paralyzed the cara- bineros—the ever-present national police force—stationed in Concepción, and soon mobs of opportunistic penquistas overran local stores of all types. “Some of the loot- ing was completely understandable,” local photojournalist Edison Rios told me. “Peo- ple here restock their pantries toward


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the end of the month, so many families were short on food.” But according to Rios and other locals, much of the loot- ing went far beyond the search for basic necessities. Department and retail stores were easy targets, and even many wealthy Chileans headed for the streets. “It was- n’t just the street gangs that robbed,” said Saez. “Even doctors robbed. People were overtaken with greed.” The federal government waited three


days before sending troops to restore order and end the pillage. After the loot- ing was stopped, it didn’t take long for the penquista community spirit to emerge from the rubble. Rios added, “We had one really hard month before the plumb- ing was restored, and so everyone had to focus on hauling water to the city. But after that, neighbors banded together to rebuild. Everything was put together on- the-fly with little help from outside aid organizations. We just pulled together and got it done ourselves; no money changed hands.” A community-wide sense of embarrassment over the looting still lurks beneath the surface, however. The penquistas have been left to wonder how their normally tranquil, ever-content city could so quickly erupt into greed-driven looting and sabotage.


Moving Toward a More Precise Discussion of U.S. Chess Going back to the list of grievances out-


lined at the start, it seems to me that, whenever we find fault with our chess culture in the U.S., we tend to cite the love of money as the root cause of our evils. Spending time in Chile, however, has given me a glimpse into the difficulties that arise when those large sums are removed. The Chilean chess players I talked to were enthusiastic about our ability to produce strong players and sustain them as full- time professionals— something that, according to them, can only happen when chess is commercialized. We have taken that key step of making chess commer- cially viable. As a result, it is now plausible to pursue a career in chess. We can’t and shouldn’t turn back. Given the above, I believe that the cur-


rent discussion about our chess culture ought to shift course to focus not on the commercialization of chess per se but on the actual problems generated by it. Rather than bundling many individual grievances and then using those to attack our money-based organizational struc- ture, we should strive to eliminate the problems themselves. For instance, if high prizes in class sections encourage cheating, we should focus on how to bet- ter detect and prevent cheating. Or if our playing schedules aren’t healthy, we should discuss ways of making longer


Further Travels During my time in South America,


I also visited Buenos Aires, the cap- ital of Argentina, and Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay. The former’s chess scene is centered around the famous Club Argentino de Ajedrez. I visited this multi-story facility to see the set used in the 1927 World Championship match between Capa- blanca and Alekhine. Montevideo, on the other hand, has a much smaller population and a more quaint atmosphere. In Montevideo, chess is more often played in the street; one group that I encountered in the old downtown area met every day to play blitz on the sidewalk.


schedules more readily available. Concen- trating on the specific problems at hand will lead to a more precise discussion of how we can improve the state of chess in our country. Of course, one may ask, what about


“getting to the core of the problem” through a complete overhaul of the system? Would- n’t tackling these smaller concerns just be papering over a flawed foundation? I do not see it this way. The foundation itself—a chess culture which moves large sums of money—is positive given how necessary capital is to generate an environment con- ducive to serious chess. Just as no respectable trainer would tell


a student to discard his entire opening repertoire over a few problem lines, we should not wish away the underlying structure of our chess culture just because we take issue with the problems it gener- ates. GM Gregory Kaidanov once told me that every time he fixed one problem in his game, he would soon find a new one in its place. The result was that he had to fix a never-ending stream of problems in his quest to perfect his play. We must likewise work to perfect our


chess culture. We may have moved past the one problem that still haunts chess in Chile—the lack of money—but now we must start working on the new prob- lems that have arisen. Although the cycle of problems and resolutions is infinite, the good news is that, if we keep work- ing, we will always be moving in a positive direction.


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Chess Life — August 2011 27


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