December 04, 2011

Mr. Hardy, the Son of Sorrow, and the Chosen One

G.H. Hardy, A Mathemetician's Apology
Alexander Alekhine, My Best Games of Chess
Jeremy Silman, Masked Grandmaster Redux

Hardy's Apology

After Borders closed its Palo Alto store, I noticed that there was actually another bookstore in town - a small one with a superb collection of used books.  Situated on a quiet side street, it's a nice place to sneak away from the office and refresh the mind.  On one such break a few weeks ago I noticed there a slim volume by the British mathemetician G.H. Hardy, entitled A Mathematician's Apology.

I knew of Hardy only for his acknowledgement of the genius of Ramanujan, and his subsequent efforts to help the young Indian develop his powers.  It was a remarkable act of diligence and intellectual honesty:  two other English academics had seen Ramanujan's work - sent to them unsolicited from India - and returned it without comment, presumably unable to believe that works of genius might arrive in the daily post.  But Hardy took the time to study the material carefully...
[F]ormulas (1) to (4) are harder than they look... (5) and (6) I could do, but with difficulty... (7) I have done myself... (8) is a formula by Laplace which was proved by Jacobi... (9) is in a paper by Rogers in 1907... (10) and (11) are not true... (12) to (15) defeated me completely ...
...and, after consulting with Littlewood, concluded that he was looking not at a crank letter, but the work of "a mathematician of the highest quality, a man of altogether exceptional originality and power."

Hardy believed that discovering Ramanujan was his greatest achievement, and in his lifetime it probably was.  But his reputation has grown as many of his mathematical discoveries  have found application in genetics and cryptography.  This would have appalled him.  It was a point of particular pride for Hardy that his work - unlike that of many other scientists and physicists - had no military application, or any practical application at all.  Mathematicians could rejoice, he said, knowing that "there is one science [number theory] at any rate...whose very remoteness from ordinary human activities should keep it gentle and clean."

He hated mechanical devices of all kinds - according to C.P. Snow's Foreword, Hardy would barely use a phone, and wanted nothing to do with cameras.  As a result, there are only four or five photographs of him extant.

Get that blasted thing away from me

In Hardy's Apology, then, the value of a mathematician derives from the immaculate beauty of his creations, not their utility.  I am interested in mathematics," he wrote, "only as a creative art."

And, like painting, chess, or the symphony, not just anyone could do it.  Hardy subscribed to the elitist ethic - not everyone has talent, but if you do, you'd better pursue it with everything you have.
‘I do what I do because it is the one and only thing that I can do at all well.  I am a lawyer, or a stockbroker, or a professional cricketer, because I have some real talent for that particular job.  I am a lawyer because I have a fluent tongue, and am interested in legal subtleties; I am a stockbroker because my judgment of the markets is quick and sound; I am a professional cricketer because I can bat unusually well.  I agree that it might be better to be a poet or a mathematician, but unfortunately I have no talent for such pursuits.’
I am not suggesting that this is a defence which can be made by most people, since most people can do nothing at all well. But it is impregnable when it can be made without absurdity, as it can by a substantial minority: perhaps five or even ten percent of men can do something rather well.
Hardy argues in the Apology that mathematics is actually among the most widely-appreciated of the arts...if you count the millions of people who appreciate mathematics without knowing it:
There are masses of chessplayers in every civilized country – in Russia, almost the whole educated population; and every chessplayer can recognize and appreciate a “beautiful” game or problem. Yet a chess problem is simply an exercise in pure mathematics (a game not entirely, since psychology also plays a part), and everyone who calls a problem “beautiful” is applauding mathematical beauty, even if it is a beauty of a comparatively lowly kind. Chess problems are the hymn-tunes of mathematics.
Chess, in other words, is math for those unable to appreciate the real stuff.  Hardy twists the knife:

I feel some sympathy even with conjurors and ventriloquists and when Alekhine and Bradman set out to beat records, I am quite bitterly disappointed if they fail.

The Son of Sorrow

Even under the best of circumstances chess masters tend to live in straitened circumstances.  Internation Master Jeremy Silman was once asked what attracted him to chess.  "The money and the women," he replied.  As a special bonus, many chess masters suffer from mental disorders, from poor Pillsbury's syphilitic dementia, to Morphy's melancholia, to Fischer's descent into self-centered hatred and delusion.  Alekhine was, by comparison, relatively small-time, spending some time in a mental institution due to alcoholism.

As every schoolchild knows, Alexander Alexandrovich Alekhine was the model European 20th Century Man.  He survived the Russian Revolution and World War I, lived in France, dominated world chess in the 1930s, collaborated with the Nazis, married four times, defeated the immortal Capablanca, fathered a bastard child with a Baroness, lost to Euwe but then won his title back, died under mysterious circumstances, and drank too much and was a lawyer.

The Russians idolize him.

I used to play Alekhine's games out of a book, and even though I didn't know what was going on, I could tell just from looking that it was big chess.  You could play through the games of some grandmasters - Smyslov comes to mind - and never see much excitement.  The British grandmaster Ray Keene says he quit high level competition because he realized he was never going to understand Smyslov's quiet but precise brand of positional play:  "I could never understand what Smyslov was up to - I thought I was doing well but nearly always lost..."

But when you were playing Alekhine, there was no such ambiguity.  He smashed his opponents to bits.  In 1964 Fischer wrote an article for Chessworld magazine entitled "The 10 Greatest Masters in History".  Of Alekhine he wrote,
Alekhine is a player I've never really understood; yet, strangely, if you've seen one Alekhine game you've seen them all.  He always wanted a superior center; he maneuvered his pieces toward the King side, and around the twenty-fifth move, began to mate his opponent...  His play was fantastically complicated, more so than any player before or since.
Fischer, a disciple of the spurned and immaculate Capablanca, didn't care for Alekhine's approach, saying "in a sense his whole method of play was a mistake."

Of course he was right, taken on his own terms.  Alekhine did not always play correct chess.  He played the kind of chess he thought would maximize his chances of victory, and that meant tailoring his style to his opponent.  Against the immensely powerful Capablance, he played careful, theoretically correct chess.  Against lesser mortals Alekhine often varied sharply from orthodoxy.  He might play his own provocation, Alekhine's Defense, or other "unsound" openings such as the Benoni (so named because it was first described in a 19th-century manuscript entitled Benoni - Hebrew for "Son of Sorrow").  It wasn't a good idea to try and play the Benoni against him, however - Levenfish tried it at St. Petersburg in 1912, and Alekhine wiped him off the board in 19 moves.  The finish included a double rook sacrifice - the chess equivalent of a windmill dunk.

In those days the World Championship worked like a game of keep-away.  The sitting champion could dictate terms and choose his challengers.  After defeating Capablanca, Alekhine would not consent to a return match, playing the likes of Bogoljubow and Euwe instead.

Euwe, a very good player and the author of some fine chess education books, was the perfect opponent for Alekhine.  He was competent but not particularly imaginative, making him the ideal straight man for Alekhine's flights of creative imagination.

 Alekhine-Euwe, 1935 (Alekhine standing, 2nd from left)

The only problem was that Alekhine came to the 1935 match drunk and overconfident, and managed to lose his title.  Showing more class than his opponent would have, Euwe granted a rematch, and in 1937 Alekhine (presumably sipping milk and doing dumb-bell curls) recaptured the title, which he held until his death in 1946.

Alekhine and Hardy came to similar ends - both died alone, having suffered greatly as their creative powers began to wane.  Like professional athletes, their art had defined every aspect of their lives.  The uncompromising ethos they shared had taken them to the heights, but left them bereft when their powers deserted them.  Snow visited Hardy a few times during his last days, but says he was one of only a few.  Hardly anyone showed up at Alekhine's funeral.

But, Hardy might argue, that was part of the bargain.  The greatest creative ability alienates the creator.  Not everyone can create a masterpiece.  For those who can, the only genuine company - in the sense of empathy or a deeper understanding - may come from the dead, or great artists yet to be born.

The Chosen One

Of course I have no standing to comment seriously on these matters because I have no particular talent.  Like Hardy, I believe that, for genius to take root, there must be a germ of creative potential to begin with.

In chess I quickly realized my upside was seriously limited.  With a lot of practice, and serious devotion to the game, I think perhaps I might have reached expert level or a little higher.  But that is not high enough to compete seriously, and certainly not high enough to create any kind of art at the chessboard.

Although there was this one time  in San Francisco...

Not me, alas, it was a narcoleptic kid who used to play at the Mechanics Library.
"Look at my game! Look at my game! I've played a brilliancy!" screamed Michael Mills, a class "C" player. 
And indeed he had.  Silman's account of this astonishing event first appeared in Chess Life in 1974, and an updated version of the article appears here.

"Who was that masked grandmaster?" asked GM Larry Christiansen.  Even Hardy and Alekhine might smile, wondering what Mills had done to please the gods so well that - for just one day - he could have the creative power to make a game for the ages.



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