Yet Another Debate

Recently, a well known Grandmaster interviewed an extremely well know Grandmaster on camera. In an effort to keep Nigel and myself out of court (people get downright uppity when it comes to potential slander), we’ll refer to the Grandmaster doing the interview as GM X and the Grandmaster being interviewed as GM Y (sorry their aliases sound like nasty food additives from Company Z). Immediately after this interview took place, a nasty verbal internet riot was started by chess players from around the world. Chess forums and chat rooms were flooded with commentary about the incident which I’ll now describe.

GM X said to GM Y, “ You seem to have had some hiccups earlier today and you didn’t have really smooth performances (overall) and this game wasn’t that smooth either. It looked a little bit unclear. What’s your feeling overall as the game transpired?” GM Y replied, “OK, what do you want me to do…What do you want from me?” GM Y seemed to fixate on his usually perfect play being called less than smooth. GM Y became defensive. At one point I thought that dueling pistols would appear on the screen. GM Y then said GM X was trying to “belittle the whole thing.” Needless to say it was all down hill from that point on, with GM Y walking away in disgust. Of course, the line was drawn within the global chess community and two armies were formed to fight this verbal war, those who support GM Y and those who support GM X. Of course, thanks to technology, scores of people linked to the internet lined up to take their turn screaming from the bully pulpit, oops, I mean social media sites. Why am I even addressing this subject? Because I have intimate knowledge of this type of situation, being in the same position as GM Y, not as a chess player but as a musician. Let me explain.

As one does if one wants to become a Grandmaster, musicians spend years and years perfecting their craft, in my case guitar playing. While I always feel as if I’m in need of constant improvement, never understanding why people think I play so well, many people feel differently. According to those who know a bit about guitar playing, I’m pretty darn good. However, I still work at it constantly. A number of years ago, we played a series of shows that were close to flawless (and I find fault in everything I do musically). Each show was better than the last. Then we did the second to last show and things didn’t go so well. By this, I mean that the general audience didn’t notice anything wrong with my playing. We received three standing ovations (well, it was a club so everyone was already standing up). People sang along. Everyone appeared to have a great time, except me. I notice mistakes that no one else seems to hear. Unfortunately, one other individual heard those mistakes and that person was about to interview me. He was a dreaded music critic from a well know music magazine. The first question he asked was “Wow, what happened tonight? Seriously, that was not your best work on the guitar.” The old adage ‘those who do, do it and those who don’t write about it” came to mind. However, at that moment, I had two choices regarding the direction I would go regarding my answer. How I answered that question would either absolutely work for me or absolutely work against me. There’s an art to answering questions when being interviewed. Do it right and people love you even more. Do it wrong and you look like a sore loser, bad sport or worse.

I understand, from firsthand knowledge, how upsetting it can be to dedicate your life to something and have your skills questioned (even remotely) due to a single bad moment within a lifetime of success. You feel like saying to the interviewer “hey, when you’re at my level, then talk to me about it. Otherwise, shut up.” However, we can never achieve total and absolute perfection in our chosen craft. By this, I mean you cannot play either a guitar or a game of chess, without hitting a wrong note or making a bad move at some point during your career. We’re only human after all. However, when artists reach the highest level of their art, we expect them to excel and break even greater boundaries. When you’re at the top of your chosen field, people either expect perfection and nothing less from you or they’re gunning for you, waiting to see you fall. I know many musicians who feel this way. There’s a great deal of pressure when you’re great at something. People have an unhealthy fascination with the flaws that come with being human. Watching the self destruction of others is the true opiate of the masses.

I feel for GM Y but I don’t think he handled himself correctly. When I faced that moment with the music critic interviewing me I chose the right path and said “you’re absolutely right. Sometimes things fall apart. However, tonight’s show makes me want to work harder so it doesn’t happen again. Thank you for your honesty.” (I still wanted to give him a swift boot to his bottom side and really didn’t feel the need to slave away any further when it came to my playing) Of course, my interviewer wanted me to have a meltdown which would have been great for his interview. I didn’t give it to him, defused a potentially ugly situation and that was that. I think GM Y should have done something similar. He had a short, bad run in an otherwise near perfect career. Yet, because he behaved the way in which he did, tongues wagged across the world wide web. Of course, people often become very mean spirited when they can hide behind the shadowy curtain of the internet. I say to those who enjoyed GM Y’s antics, “can you play a better game of chess than GM Y? Have you dedicated your entire life to this game let alone anything else, spending your youth unbelievably focused?”

Now let’s get to GM X. If you know that someone can be temperamental, why not approach the dialogue with a bit more tack? While I know the questions were designed to spice the interview up, adding a little drama and tension to it, it was comparable to using dynamite to get rid of a small stain on your sofa. GM X is an extremely nice guy who does a lot of great things for the chess community. However, interviewing people requires a great deal of finesse. If you’ve watched top notch interviewers, you’ve seen how they can get answers to extremely tough questions through well thought out and well timed questions. GM Y literally started his interview with what could be conceived as a hostile question. Tact will get you a lot further in both interviews and life. GM X should have put himself in GM Y’s shoes while he was contemplating his questions.

As for the endless sea of amateur online chess commentators (not everyone who commented on the interview, just the trolls) whose ratings are closer to their own shoe size rather than that of a titled player, you might put yourself in GM Y’s shoes as well. Honestly ask yourself if you could withstand the pressure one is under when one is considered the best at something. You might also ask yourself if you could have played a better game. Until you’ve walked a mile in GM Y’s shoes, you don’t know how it feels. For those of you that enjoyed his becoming slightly unglued, I assume you’ve never, ever had a meltdown leaving you unglued. Whose right and whose wrong? Nobody and everybody. We’re human and we make mistakes. I’m sure GM X would rephrase his questions had he known the end result. Does GM Y’s behavior really change anything? No! At the end of the day GM Y is still a better chess player than any of us mere mortals. However, he does need to learn how to handle those tough questions with tact and even humor. Had he simply said “you’re right. It’s wasn’t my finest moment and I’ll be sure to determine why this happened and learn from it,” there would be no news to cause the great unwashed wagging tongues of the chess world to go into verbal overdrive. No news is good news I say. Here’s a game to get your tongues wagging until next week! Enjoy!

Hugh Patterson

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About Hugh Patterson

Prior to teaching chess, Hugh Patterson was a professional guitarist for nearly three decades, playing in a number of well known San Francisco bands including KGB, The Offs, No Alternative, The Swinging Possums and The Watchmen. After recording a number of albums and CDs he retired from music to teach chess. He currently teaches ten chess classes a week through Academic Chess. He also created and runs a chess program for at-risk teenagers incarcerated in juvenile correctional facilities. In addition to writing a weekly column for The Chess Improver, Hugh also writes a weekly blog for the United States Chess League team, The Seattle Sluggers. He teaches chess privately as well, giving instruction to many well known musicians who are only now discovering the joys of chess. Hugh is an Correspondence Chess player with the ICCF (International Correspondence Chess Federation). He studied chemistry in college but has worked in fields ranging from Investment Banking and commodities trading to Plastics design and fabrication. However, Hugh prefers chess to all else (except Mrs. Patterson and his beloved dog and cat).