Culture and Civilisations

Tennis and chess: time to retire for Federer and Kasparov?

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Tennis and chess: time to retire for Federer and Kasparov?


A recent column for TheArticle by Katrina Allen, querying whether the hitherto seemingly indestructible Roger Federer (pictured below), should retire, after his humiliating Wimbledon debacle last week, also impinges on the question of whether it is high time for that great former World Chess Champion, Garry Kasparov, to hang up his pawns. At a strong blitz tournament in Zagreb earlier this month, he scored just one win, three draws and 14 losses out of 18.

Federer is on the brink of being 40 years old. Kasparov has just turned 58. In a previous column “Brain nutrition, Alzheimer’s, longevity and the power of memory”, I indicated that chess may well constitute a way of keeping the brain fit, a thesis I originally propounded and defended in my book, The Age Heresy, which I co-authored in 1994, with Tony Buzan, the inventor of Mind Mapping.

The book was infelicitously titled by the publishers, The Age Heresy, thus giving the indelible impression to prospective purchasers, far from being an encouraging manual showing ways in which the brain can improve with age, that this was a learned disquisition on the mediaeval Filioque clause which split the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christian churches. It did not help that our book was universally, if erroneously, described as The Age of Heresy.

Tony Buzan and I reached our optimistic conclusions concerning mental improvement with age, via two separate routes. The first moment was in May 1973, when Tony was international editor of the magazine of Mensa, the society for those with a high IQ. He had been asked to process the information he had been gathering on the human brain and its intelligence, and to make suggestions based on that information.

It should be borne in mind that Tony was convinced that he would live to vast age, and a certain amount of special pleading about how the brain might improve with age can be detected in his lucubrations.

In many scientific disciplines — for example biochemistry, mathematics, physics, psychology and philosophy — researchers have found themselves drawn inexorably towards the question of the brain‘s potential. It is now known, beyond doubt, that the brain is a fabric consisting of layers of interlinked networks, which can consciously control heartbeat, oxygen intake, internal organs and brainwaves. Further there is evidence to suggest that in deep states of meditation or hypnosis, people have been observed to eliminate pain, to paralyse a part of their body, to produce skin eruptions where no cause was apparent (and to eliminate them immediately afterwards), to induce any predetermined symptom artificially, to perform feats of strength normally attributed only to superhumans or mad persons, and to cure themselves of apparently incurable diseases.

Roger Federer (Shutterstock)

In the past, it was considered above normal to remember seven random consecutive digits; now we know that mnemonic systems indicate that even a staggering 7,000 disconnected items can be memorised, in sequence, in random order, and in reverse order, with no decline in performance as the number of items to be recalled is increased. Eight-times World Memory Champion, Dominic O’Brien, has consistently proved this in public demonstrations.

In view of this, it is now obvious that a complete reassessment of human learning and potential must be made. One of the first considerations is, of course, how best to educate an organ – the brain – that is may be assumed to possess virtually infinite possibilities for associative interconnecting. With such power available to us, it is apparent that our standard, inflexible, linear approaches are no longer acceptable. For this reason alone, Tony was justified in inventing his trademark creativity and mnemonic system, the Mind Map.

Above all, Tony resisted the prevalent notion that with increasing age, millions of our brain cells simply die off every day. Such an automatic process has now been disproven; on the contrary, active use of the brain can actually grow new synaptic connections. This is really common sense. The brain is part of the body and if, for example, you cut your finger, it will heal, unless you are very unlucky or have certain conditions, such as haemophilia.

It is equally apparent that standard psychological methods of testing ability must be totally changed, if not eliminated entirely. To judge an organ’s capacity, for example, by its forced response to a question about shapes made by ink blots (the Rorschach test) is ludicrous, when it is realised that the same organ can create multidimensional, holographic, varicoloured, original and projected images without assistance. This ability, variously labelled daydreaming, hallucinating or madness, is either taken for granted or denigrated. But it takes little acuity to realise that any organ that can both create and observe its own creation, at one and the same time, is spectacularly formidable.

Similarly measuring general aptitude with standard “intelligence quotient” (IQ) tests is absurd. Rather than employing sterile tools which “measure” whether some people are more “interesting” and “able” than others, surely it is time that we evolved. It is now the moment to see man, woman, all races and the universe as they are: infinitely involved, infinitely fascinating and worthy, not of categorisation and division, but of understanding.

At exactly the same time that Tony Buzan was editing the international Mensa Journal, and pondering on the significance of the information he had been gathering on the human brain, I was studying European literature, language history and culture, and specifically that towering German genius, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, at Trinity College, Cambridge.

I was particularly struck by an apparently serious anomaly: I was constantly informed by members of the surrounding academic environment that the fires of creativity regularly “burn out” by the age of 26. It was also commonly stated that chess players peak at 26 and then are “past it”. “Thinking like a 40-year-old” is, in fact, a common term of disparagement among chess players.

Such commonplaces of academic wisdom, though, did not sit well with the “awkward” fact (one might say the glaring contradiction) that the work of the chess champions, artists, writers, transcultural giants, indeed of the inspirational greats and geniuses whom I was studying, frequently – rather than exceptionally – seemed to produce better work as they got older. Indeed, in many cases an artist’s supreme creation, dwarfing all previous work, was his final piece, often brought to fruition in extreme old age.

All the great minds seemed to have a clear creative vision and purpose, and strove towards its fulfilment with barely credible levels of determination and persistence. Should anyone doubt this, then simply examine the chronologically ordered numbers that define when a particular masterpiece was written or composed. Who would deny that Beethoven’s 9th Symphony (and he only wrote nine) marked his creative peak? Who would reject Faust Part II (and there are only two parts) as Goethe’s deepest and richest work? And the list goes on… Shakespeare’s late plays, in particular The Tempest (his last), are his most magical; Leonardo da Vinci started painting the Mona Lisa when he was 52; Michelangelo began work as papal architect-in-chief on St. Peter’s in Rome at the age of 63; Sinan, the imperial architect of the Istanbul of the Sultans, created his crowning glory, the Edirne Mosque, when in his eighties; Brahms’s 4th Symphony (he only wrote four) exceeds in its grandeur of structure and opulence of melody, its harmony and tonality, all his previous compositions. Brahms, in fact, only turned his hand to writing symphonies at all when he was 43 (Symphony No. 1).

The answer had to be that some serious misconceptions were collectively, if subconsciously, developing. Academics were telling their students one thing, but were lecturing about works that refuted their own predictions. This phenomenon required both investigation and questioning. In chess, the games of Lasker, Smyslov and Botvinnik, to name but a few, indicate a deeper and richer vein of creativity with increasing age.

So how to explain the humiliating debacle suffered by Garry Kasparov (pictured below) in the recent tournament in Croatia, a disaster so humiliating that Kasparov must seriously consider immediate and full retirement, to avoid further embarrassment? The answer is relatively simple. Whereas Federer has to struggle with increasing physical age and injuries, Kasparov can reverse the cycle of catastrophe by devoting himself once again to serious chess study. Kasparov himself said on Twitter: “Sorry I couldn’t do better for the fans who gave me so much support at #CroatiaRapidBlitz. But time is undefeated, and Caissa is a jealous mistress who punishes anyone who ignores her as much as I do! Congrats to (the winners) Maxime Vachier Lagrave and Vishy (Anand) on their great results.” Caïssa is a fictional Thracian dryad portrayed as the Goddess of Chess. She was first mentioned during the Renaissance by Italian poet Hieronymus Vida, the Bishop of Alba and Cremona.

Garry Kasparov (Shutterstock)

Garry Kasparov is hailed by many as the greatest player of all time. He might be termed the chessboard equivalent of Federer. However, if Kasparov insists on re-entering the fray without massive preparation and pitting himself anew against much younger professionals, who devote 100 per cent of their time and effort to playing and studying chess, then he will be doomed to failure.

From board games to word games. Last week in my column on Rabelais I confessed myself stumped by the word “episemapsises”. Various enthusiastic readers have since come to my rescue with a cornucopia of explanations, the most convincing of which came from Peter Webster (he of the rhinoceros chess set) who suggested “acclamations”. This sounds right and clearly “episemapsises” is a word which deserves more outings, along with “oenophile” and “ultracrepidarianism”, both of which spend far too much time in the dark, obscure caverns of lexicography. Thanks also to Bruce Monson who made the ingenious suggestion that the elusive meaning could perhaps be traced to a neologism of Greek comedy (perhaps Aristophanes, 446–386 BC), implying “sneering” at elements of a public spectacle, the ancient Athenian equivalent, I suppose, of booing the taking of the knee at a football match.

Before concluding this week, I hasten to remind readers of the unmissable living chess display scheduled, as part of ChessFest, for Trafalgar Square, tomorrow: 18 July 2021. Chess activities in the Square commence at 11 am and continue until 6 pm. Full details were given in last week’s column.

This week’s games show some of Kasparov’s setbacks from Croatia last week. A tragic feature is the stubborn adoption by Kasparov, in every single game, of a black opening system which is tantamount to suicide: unsafe King, uncoordinated development and weak pawns all over the board.

The first game of the three shows the new Dutch hero and victor of this year’s Wijk aan Zee tournament, Jorden van Foreest, demolishing Kasparov. The second is between Jan-Krzysztof Duda and Kasparov. Finally, two former World Champions: Viswanathan Anand vs Garry Kasparov, where Anand neatly exploits the weaknesses which seem inherent in Kasparov’s disastrous new interpretation of his once feared Sicilian Defence.

Raymond Keene’s latest book “Fifty Shades of Ray: Chess in the year of the Coronavirus”, containing some of his best pieces from TheArticle, is now available from  Amazon , and  Blackwell’s .

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Member ratings
  • Well argued: 98%
  • Interesting points: 100%
  • Agree with arguments: 97%
46 ratings - view all

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