Campus Life

A Good Move

Looking for a mate? Want to construct a mating net? Larry Christiansen can teach you how. No, he is not an online relationship expert, but rather a chess grandmaster and three-time national champion. In honor of CPW, the MIT chess club hosted Larry last Friday to lecture, regale and battle a field of prefrosh and undergrads in the game of chess.

Larry broke the ice Friday by recounting his arrival onto the international chess scene. Appearing as the US representative in the 1975 world junior championship, he captured second place. Instead of outlining tournament game details, he explained what life was like in the old days without computers. “We had to travel with books,” he said. His story continued describing how his trunk of chess books found its way through a Yugoslavian hotel window.

Good-humored and comical, Larry animated his chess games while lecturing. He personified pieces and joked about foolish moves and “hanging pieces like crazy.” When asked how to refute the Latvian gambit, he responded, “I love the Latvian gambit. That’s an insult opening. It’s trash talk in chess, pure garbage. Now here’s what maniacs play …”

Chess club president Owen Lin ’09 said he found “a lot of Larry’s stories very interesting. [It’s] great to hear him talk about the personal experiences he’s had with world champions such as Bobby Fischer and Anatoly Karpov.” Indeed, Larry amusingly recalled playing one time world champion Karpov in a 1993 tournament. Larry caught Karpov in what the New York Times dubbed “one of the worst blunders of his career.”

Gaining a glimpse into the structured play found in high-level chess proved fascinating. Beginners learn early that material gains often translate into crashing wins. Experts do not give an inch. In addition to material value, serious players focus on attack timing, board control and the development of even subtle weakness in their opponent’s position. Consequently, their moves may appear obscure to recreational players and difficult to appreciate without further explanation. Part of the lecture’s enjoyment came from simply listening to the chess thought process. Larry shared his wisdom over the discussion of several, sometimes wild, chess games.

Upon finishing the lecture, Larry lined up against sixteen simultaneous opponents. In classic grandmaster style, he weaved along three tables moving from board to board averaging five to ten seconds per move. Challengers were allowed a maximum of roughly seven minutes per move. After playing over twenty games in just over an hour, Larry won all but one. Jared Turkewitz ’10, stood as the sole winner.

“MIT has some pretty good players. A couple of players gave me a hard time,” Larry commented after the matches.

As a long time chess enthusiast and player, I asked Larry for his opinion on several topics I’ve been reflecting over: chess education and the future of chess.

Some elementary schools implement a program to integrate chess into math class, and I questioned whether chess cultivates the same thinking typically found in math, science and engineering. Although, Larry did acknowledge that some players thrive at math, the connection is not necessarily true. Rather, he suggested, chess develops an appreciation for the rewards one can receive by first taking time to think.

As chess is an activity where talent can reveal itself at an early age, I also wondered what suggestions Larry had for kids who excel at chess.

“I was a total self-starter. They dropped me off at the library because I insisted and I would use microfilm. Like a crazy little kid at the library,” Larry said. Continuing, he explained that chess has to be a personal interest, and that players should keep the game fun.

And as to whether chess would be solved one day? “Checkers was solved, chess will be solved. They used to say it will never be solved. They’ve over computerized the game. It’s much less interesting than it used to be. They’ll have to change the rules or something,” he answered.

I have to admit I am somewhat saddened by the active role computers play in modern chess analysis. At first glance, a computer appears to be a novel replacement for a collection of chess books, manuscripts and notes. Ironically, at the professional level, the utility of computers in chess may in fact have removed some of the beauty, fun, and creativity of the game.

If you like chess, there are options. The MIT chess club meets every Thursday night at 7 p.m. in 13-5101. The club actively plays other schools and in February hosted a tournament including Harvard, Yale, Boston University, Columbia, University of Pennsylvania and Dartmouth. You might even catch Larry sometime as the club hosts him once or twice per year. If you do decide to go, you won’t have to think twice. It’s a good move.