Anthropology is the study of humanity and its many aspects. It generally divides its work into four fields: cultural, archeological, linguistic, and biological. Its horizons, of course, are simply as infinite as the experiences of mankind.
We have never thought of chess as being a subject of anthropology, but it is in fact a separate culture, with its plethora of customs, pleasures, foibles, and eventualities. Now anthropologist and author Robert Desjarlais, a professor at Sarah Lawrence College, has put the microscope to this great board game in the same way an expert might study indigenous aborigines.
His book, “Counterplay: An Anthropologist at the Chess Board,’’ embraces a broad variety of views of chess, mostly using a subjective method. Desjarlais raised himself from a class A player to a low expert while writing his book. Although it is not possible to summarize in a single column the variety of chess subjects that he searches, the essence of his work is the description of the game as having impressive aesthetic value. Indeed, the interested chess player has a mini-obsession with the game. For hobbyists, the game of chess seems to be strangely independent of economics; it is an idiosyncrasy of the human condition. Desjarlais emphasizes that chess takes one into a far off country free of the cares and worries of the world, while providing a virtual pilgrimage in search of cognitive achievement and a constant amazement at the surprising discoveries of effective play.
Desjarlais’s description of his experiences and feelings at the chessboard certainly has parallels in many autobiographies, especially by those players who have not reached Grandmaster status.
A similar description appears in Paul Hoffman’s “King’s Gambit: A Son, a Father, and the World’s Most Dangerous Game.’’ Included are Desjarlais’s musings as to how to approach the game; for example, to play the board or play the opponent. He inquires at length of his strong players about their approach to chess, even down to the minutiae of arriving late for the game. His search ranges through problems of gender, fetishes and disillusionment of players, chess clubs as a great place to be, and of course Internet play, the appearance of the computer and its transformation of study of the game and preparations for tournament play. This work is readable for many who simply wonder about the culture of chess, and familiar ground for those enmeshed in its wonders. The work is certainly an exemplary study of a band of warriors who play on, heedless of the craft or art of the anthropologists.
Brevity: J. Hodgson vs. D. Paunovic (1976) 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 g6 6.Be3 Bg7 7.f3 Nc6 8.Qd2 0–0 9.Bc4 Bd7 10.0–0–0 Qb8 11.h4 Rc8 12.Bb3 a5 13.h5 Nxd4 14.Bxd4 a4 15.Bd5 e6 16.hxg6 hxg6 17.Qg5 e5 18.Rh8+ Kxh8 19.Bxf7 Rg8 20.Rh1+; 1-0 (If 20. . .Nh7 then 21.Rxh7+ Kxh7 22.Bxg6+ Kh8 23.Qh5+ leads to mate).
Winners: MCC Summer Solstice: 1st-2d, Vadim Martirosov and Mika Brattain, both 3.5-.5; 3d-4th, Lawyer Times and Miro Reverby, both 3-1. Boylston Grand Prix: 1st-2d, Jonathan Yedidia and Chris Chase, 3.5-.5; 3d-4th, Carey Theil and Ashok Ramadoss, 3-1.
Coming Events: July 20, Boylston Chess Club’s Free Chess Lessons for Children, 3-4:30 p.m. (Chris Chase, 617-417-8800), and July 23, BCC Summer Open, both at 240B Elm St., Somerville, www.boylstonchessclub.org; July 22-24, 16th Annual Bradley Open, Sheraton Hotel, 1 Bradley Airport, Windsor Locks, Conn., www.chesstour.com/brad11.htm.