December 31, 2013 12:00

Kasparov, Nakamura, and Mark Zuckerberg's hoodie

Kasparov, Nakamura, and Mark Zuckerberg's hoodie

When, in 1995, Garry Kasparov employed the ancient Evans Gambit, I was thrilled - in part because I was a live witness to it, in his game against Jeroen Piket, at the Euwe Memorial tournament. But I was also a tiny bit annoyed, because I realized it was only now that many people would start taking this fascinating gambit seriously.

In fact, I had been playing the Evans Gambit ever since I started to frequent my local chess club (in 1987), and my fellow junior chess mates never tired of making fun of it. “Why don’t you start playing real openings?” “You will never improve if you always play second-rate gambits.” But now, with the World Champion playing it in serious tournament games, I finally had my revenge. Or did I?

Even after Kasparov had scored two crushing victories with it and a couple of quick books on the Evans Gambit had been published, I felt that its popularity wasn’t so much triggered because people really believed in the gambit itself, but simply because the greatest player of all time had played it. Indeed, after Kasparov stopped playing it, the gambit’s popularity also quickly declined again, despite other strong players picking it up for some time and scoring decent results with it. It seemed Kasparov could get away with something most others couldn’t. Kasparov was special – and so he made the Evans Gambit special. But the rest of us was not.

I was reminded of this brief episode in chess history when I recently read an article on the website of The New Yorker about Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, and fact that he often wears rather casual clothes instead of tailor-made suits in public appearances.

The author of the article, Matthew Hutson, writes that this kind of nonconformity – Mark Zuckerberg wearing a ‘hoodie’,  Steve Jobs wearing running sneakers – is viewed ‘as a sign of status’ and mentions several scientific experiments to back up this theory. There is even a name for this phenomenon: the ‘red sneakers effect’, after a study on the link between accomplishment and informality.

“The red-sneaker effect fits in with a wider body of research on the idea that certain observable traits or behaviors signal hidden qualities by virtue of their ‘costliness.’ For instance, a peacock’s colorful tail feathers make it easy prey for predators, but they tell a peahen that he’s fit enough to sustain the risk. The more one has of the trait to be touted (fitness, say), the less costly the signal (feathers), making the display of the signal a reliable proxy for the trait. This is how conspicuous consumption works: jewelry is costly, unless you’re rich and won’t miss the cash. Similarly, deliberate nonconformity shows that you can handle some ridicule because you’ve got social capital to burn.”

Of course, I don’t want to suggest that Kasparov (who, by the way, never dressed casually, unlike many of his contemporaries and predecessors) played the Evans Gambit to ‘show that he could handle some ridicule’- but I do think that he was one of the very few people who could get away with such a display of nonconformity. That’s why everybody laughed when I played 4.b4, and everybody cheered when Kasparov did.

Or maybe not. After all, playing the Evans Gambit - an opening that’s been played and analyzed for over 150 years by some of the greatest players in the world, including Bobby Fischer - may not be be such a big display of nonconformity after all – it’s not unlike wearing a hoodie, actually.

Let's not forget the hoodie is probably the number one piece of hipster clothing at the moment – and that's a subculture that I’m sure Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t mind being associated with at all. In fact, it seems to me that dressing like a hipster is a rather uninspired way of showing how nonconformist you are. (A fashionable hoodie can easily cost 500 euros.) Come to think of it, it’s not a sign of nonconformity at all.

So perhaps for some real nonconformity in chess, we need some more extreme examples. Here’s one that intrigued me at the time:

Biel, 2004

1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.h3

PGN string

Not good enough? OK, this is what our current World Champion did to Michael Adams a few years ago.  

Khanty Mansiysk, 2010

1.e4 g6 2.d4 Nf6 3.e5 Nh5

PGN string

At this point, a very strong grandmaster watching the game with me remarked: “This is bullshit, he’s just showing off.” Indeed, despite its originality, it’s hard to believe Carlsen actually liked his position at this point.

If you’re still not convinced, I’m sure the following example will:

Lausanne, 2005

1.e4 c5 2.Qh5

PGN string

Don't forget, Nakamura was already a world class player at the time. Why else would he play this move if not to make a statement of how untouchable he really felt? (He lost that  game, but has won with 1.e4 e5 2.Qh5.)

“In the right situation,” Hutson writes, “breaking the rules a little can be a great way to show off—assuming you can back it up.”

Well, forget about breaking the rules ‘a little’. That day, Nakamura wasn’t just wearing a hoodie – he was wearing an old Morbid Angel death metal t-shirt with a dog collar around his neck. Eat that, Mr. Zuckerberg!

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Arne Moll's picture
Author: Arne Moll


Veselin Topalov's picture


Stephen's picture

Michael Basman used to wear a parka and play the grob thirty odd years ago. He is the original non-conformist chessplayer, the rest are just imitators.

Cbbishop's picture

Carlsen playing the Ponziani?

Frits Fritschy's picture

In his book "The Third Chimpanzee", the American biologist Jared Diamond uses this theory to explain why antilopes make high jumps when running to escape a lion (and not very convincingly why humans smoke, drink and use drugs).
Berlusconi was a good example how far this can go, I think. (Remember the 'rabbit ears' he made on an official photo session with heads of government?) I've always wondered whether Ilyumzhinov's alien stories aren't another illustration of this theory. People like Berlusconi and Ilyumzhinov could never have got their position by being idiots, but they know a thing or two about power, and their adherents (certainly Berlusconi's) love their occasional show-offs.
Another Carlsen example (in my opinion) was the game against Kramnik he played a couple of years ago, starting with 1 c4 e5 2 Nc3 Nf6 3 g3 h6?! - a good waiting move, according to some comments: yeah, sure, and our president was abducted by aliens.

Arne Moll's picture

Hi Frits, there are actually many possible explanations for stotting (as the phenomenon is called), costly signalling being just one of them. Dan Dennett has a fascinating chapter on it as well in his new book Intuition Pumps. I didn't know this Kramnik-Carlsen game, thanks for pointing it out. Cheers, Arne

Anonymous's picture

I've always felt moves like, say, Nakamura's 2.Qh5 have a two-fold purpose to them: 1) to get the opponent out of any preperation they might have and 2) more importantly, to put the opponent under the psychologic pressure of having to punish the infraction (and hopefully overreach trying) or look foolish and incompetent.

This I feel, not something like Red Sneakers Effect, is the real reason player sometime resort to such moves.

Martin Matthiesen's picture

Actually the Kramnik-Carlsen game went 1.c4 e5 2.g3 Nf6 3.Bg2 h6. Anand (2 times), Eljanov and Fressinet have played this as well, and it's certainly not pointless. What's more remarkable is, that after 19 moves, Carlsen had only developed Bf8 and Ng8.

Frits Fritschy's picture

I did it from memory; I knew it had been played before. Neither your remarks, however true, change my opinion. Miles' 1... a6 against Karpov wasn't pointless either. So isn't the slightly popular 1 e4 e6 2 d4 d5 3 Nd2 h6. Taking moves like that seriously is another matter.
After 19 moves Carlsen had developed other pieces, but also undeveloped them again as a result of his opening. It was like an antilope inviting a lion to dance with him.

RG13's picture

Wow, when they call Nakamura a glorified coffeehouse player they weren't kidding!

However he has probably has won lots of 'c' pawns with that opening in bullet.

observer's picture

To my eternal shame, I lost my 'c' pawn to that in a 5-minute game the first time it was played against me.
Never again!

Bartleby's picture

I don't think one should judge opening choices by the measurement of ridicule or conformity. If it wins you a game, it's fine.
You may laugh at it, but the peacock does what he has to do to win the game. So did Kasparov. So did Carlsen.

RG13's picture

However I think we can judge opening choices by what a person plays in a world championship match (when the score is tied) or in the candidates tournament (when a player still has a real chance of winning). BTW, that was tongue-in-cheek about Nakamura.

Anonymous's picture

This article is pure drivel.

Septimus's picture

I believe Carlsen lost that game with Adams and Kasparov was livid with his then student. He remarked that you cannot get away with dubious openings against strong players such as Adams.

On an unrelated note; A huge FU-MFKR to the word verification garbage.

John Meyer's picture

This site is a bloody mess since the takeover. My God, all those ads.
Its a horror story.
Back to chessbase and other sites for me. I can't stand it when I arrive at this site. Takes 2 minutes just to load all the crap ads and pop upps you've got going.

RG13's picture

Are you aware of the 100% money back guarantee if you are not completely satisfied?

Anonymous's picture

get a real connection

Vhomas Topalov's picture

congrat fot the Morbid Angel example! \m/

masöz istanbul's picture

Guys just sharing, I've found this interesting! Check it out!

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