Sep 30, 2011

Big Think: Chess Life, or Why Getting Beaten Can Be Good

In a recent interview with the Big Think, chess-player Maurice Ashley, celebrated as the first African-American grandmaster, briefly narrates his development in the game of chess, from novice to master.  His recollections and reflections are interesting from a Virtue Ethics perspective for several reasons.

The game of Chess is in fact one the very practices examined by contemporary virtue ethicist Alasdair MacIntyre in his seminal book After Virtue.  He didn’t pick chess by chance or whim — chess does in certain ways exemplify the sort of practices that bear important and educative analogies to traditions of moral inquiry, like those of Virtue Ethics.   A practice, in the way MacIntyre famously reconfigures the term, denotes:
 any coherent and complex form of socially established cooperative activity through which goods internal to that type of activity in the course of trying to achieve those standards of excellence which are appropriate to and partly definitive of that form of activity, with the result that human powers to achieve excellence, and human conceptions of the ends and goods involved, are systematically extended.
One might, MacIntyre suggests, start playing chess with a bright child, offering the child the reward of candy if the child should win, but warning him or her that he will have to play well — that it will be difficult, though not impossible  — to win the game and the candy.  Over time, as the child plays, wins, loses, learns, a shift in motivation becomes possible — one which both transfers allegiance from one good to another and alters the attitude towards the game itself.
so long as it is the candy alone which provides the child a good reason for playing chess, the child has no reason not to cheat… But, so we may hope, there will come a time when the child will find in those good specific to chess, in the achievement of a highly particular kind of analytic skill, strategic imagination, and competitive intensity, a new set of reasons … for trying to excel in whatever way the game of chess demands.
Anything that genuinely is a practice — and not all forms of human activity are practices in MacIntyre’s sense — contains this potential for opening up to the novice new horizons which are not simply matters of skills but of nascent morality, thereby in return opening up the potentials within the novice to excel not solely within that practice but more generally, to find what is required to flourish as a human being — the whole point of Virtue Ethics.

One last feature of MacIntyrian practices need mention here:
A practice involves standards of excellence and obedience to rules as well as the achievement of goods. To enter into a practice is to accept the authority of those standards and the inadequacy of my performance as judged by them.  It is to subject my own attitudes, choices, preferences and tastes …
Now to Ashley’s own story of his development.  It begins with what for many would be a late start:
I did it in high school.  A friend of mine was playing chess and I had already actually known the rules.  My brother played the game with his friends, so I thought I was a pretty smart kid and I played this friend of mine and he just crushed me …this guy beat me so bad it wasn’t even funny.  I couldn’t understand why he beat me.
An inauspicious start, one might think — aren’t masters supposed to just have some native, inborn talent?  It’s actually quite important that his story begins with a loss, a devastating loss, one which suddenly struck home to him his very resourcelessness — I couldn’t understand why he beat me.
But, Ashely wasn’t entirely resourceless.  His story continues:
I just so happened to bump into a chess book in the library at school and I didn’t know that there were books on chess and so I take this book out and I’m like this is going to be cool, I’m going to whoop on this guy now, so I studied the book and I go back and the guy crushes me again and it turns out he had read that book and about nine other books…
Good practical reasoning on the young Ashely’s part, but then another loss — but also another instance of reflection, widening of horizons, continuing inquiry, learning, testing himself against tough opposition.  Two important things happened — or rather, were chosen and kept to perseveringly:
that is the first time I really understood that there were books in chess and that studying mattered and it would be effective and I just played.  His name is Clotaire Colas.  I played Clotaire just about every day after school after that and I was just obsessed like most people get obsessed when they play chess.
Study and practice, hand in hand, reinforcing and bit by bit illuminating each other, aiming obsessively at the end of beating Colas at his own game — and in the process, Ashely does precisely what MacIntyre rightly noted — he subjects himself to the gradually more and more clear requirements of the practice, choosing to be schooled by better practitioners so as to become himself better.  Loss is an irreplacable component of this, realization of one’s relative resourcelessness, even the failure of first quick fixes (Ashley reads a book, then finds out Colas has assimilated it and others too) — all of these are needed in order to make progress, whether in chess or in the moral life.
Eventually in the course of his apprenticeship, Ashely undergoes a transformation of motives:
… well first of all, I wanted to beat him, so the competition was a big side.  I love to win.  I’m very competitive in most games, but I think also the beauty of the game.  There was something about it, the pieces, the shapes, something about them coordinating together and trying to get the other guy
Does anything like this take place, or have to take place in moral development, in an awakening to the need to engage in moral inquiry?  Does it take being “bested” by a “better”?
Often we’re reminded of the need to be careful in assigning blame, in bringing harsh criticism to bear on moral failings — for good reason in many cases — such admonitions to careful chastising  have been articulated by many moral examplars and theorists going all the way back to Plato and past the Gospel even into portions of the Jewish scriptures.

And yet, equally necessary is actually calling things what they are, rightly, accurately — so the other can actually see matters more like what they are.  If a person has moral failings, and if they are to make any progress towards remedying those, replacing vices with virtues, its necessary that the person come to know those failings as such — and in these sorts of cases, the emotional, attitudinal, and volitional responses to getting beaten — to acknowledged failure — are often indispensable stepping stones towards striving and eventually success.

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