Columns | January 14, 2011 4:37

The Monkey Rock

Humans, like all primates, often show behaviour largely dictated by social status and prestige. This applies to practically everything we do: the way we talk, the way we do business, the way we do politics, and the way we play chess.

The photo that Beckett wanted to adorn the front cover of his first published novel 'Murphy' I recently read a fascinating little book by the Dutch journalist Joris Luyendijk (who, by the way, conducted one of the most interesting interviews with Garry Kasparov I've ever seen) about Dutch politics. In his book, Luyendijk writes about the political arena in the Netherlands from a journalistic perspective, and how important social status is in it: who you know, who you talk to - that's more important than skills, knowledge and experience. More than once, he refers to the political (journalist) scene as the "monkey rock" - a reference to the complex and often strictly hierarchical social structures in monkey societies. His observations can easily be extended to the chess world as well. In chess, status is primarily indicated not by social class or physical strength, but by ratings and titles. When I'm in a room with lots of players far above my own strength, I will probably be more quiet than in a room with beginners, and I wouldn't dare to speak my mind on chess-related matters with grandmasters without being spoken to first. It somehow feels totally rude. On the other hand, when I'm analyzing a game with my opponent, I always feel a pang of annoyance whenever a weaker kibitzer boldly suggests a move on our board - even if it's in fact a very strong move. Such is the power of status in chess. I once witnessed Kasparov doing a post-mortem with his opponent during the VSB chess tournament in Amsterdam, back in the '90s. Some journalist who was making notes dared to point out to Kasparov that he was hanging a piece in some variation. Kasparov looked at him incredulously and ignored him for the rest of the day and probably longer. I still don't know whether the journalist was right or not, and it doesn't matter. One simply doesn't contradict the World Champion. I think this is something most chess players feel intuitively, just like they will probably step aside a little if they see a strong grandmaster approaching in the playing hall. Make way for the big monkey with the blue buttocks. When you start thinking about it, the status phenomenon pops up in almost every aspect of our game. First of all, it just looks good to be seen in conversation with a grandmaster. This is something Luyendijk describes vividly when it comes to politicians. Journalists do anything to be seen with the prime minister or some high-ranked party member. At tournaments, I've often had chess friends coming up to me after they saw me talking to a GM, asking me things like 'Wow, what did you discuss with him?' - as if they might tell me their best novelties. As with monkeys, status is also particularly attractive to women. Ever wondered why those pretty chess women go out "walking with gorillas down the chess street", to paraphrase Joe Jackson's brilliant song Is She Really Going Out With Him? Now you know. And why is it so difficult to play even weak IMs in simuls? Of course, it's because they call the shots and you should be lucky to have been granted a seat at all.


Then there's the funny privileges IMs and GMs are entitled to. Usually (at least in Europe) they don't have to pay entry fees for a tournament they participate in. This sounds natural, until you start thinking about it. Weaker players with normal jobs actually pay to play in a tournament where they're supposed to lose to titled players so they can pay their salary. What weird kind of logic is that? Shouldn't it be the other way around? Surely if the titled players don't like those ordinary jobs they should at least pay the weakies to be allowed to beat them up? I once half-jokingly suggested to a well-known chess organizer that he should hold a tournament (with very high prizes), where only titled players would have to pay an entry fee, just to make it a fair contest. He looked at me as if I was crazy. In fact, I got the impression he felt personally insulted by my idea. I guess he felt we should all be grateful to be able to watch these masters at work, but apparently he wasn't able to make the distinction between run-of-the-mill IMs (whose financial situation isn't really top of my list of concerns) and the world class elite (whom I'd happily shower with golden coins each time they show me their 23...Qg3!! stuff). This week, the Tata Chess Tournament kicks off for the chess world's biggest baboon competition. Grandmasters will feel like emperors, amateurs will feel like little kids, and chess journalists will feel like those scrawny little monkeys sucking up to the biggest alpha males - unless the journalist's a grandmaster himself, of course. For journos, chess tournaments start with getting accreditation to enter the press room in the first place, humiliating yourself in order to be nearer to the gods: filling out forms, calling the chief press officer, or even showing your passport, as I once had to do to get a press card for a big tournament in Germany. It's relatively easy for me now to get a press card (though I always feel like a criminal when I go past the stern-looking security guards), but shouldn't every chess player have the right to visit the press room now and then? Of course, in return for being granted this highest of privileges, they'll have to abide by the unwritten rules of the press room. I've already described some of them above, but here are a few more:

  • Get up from behind the free internet PC if you see a grandmaster approaching - he might want to check his Facebook account.
  • Only ask a grandmaster questions - never say things like "That line is actually refuted" or "I just feel you're wrong in claiming a plus there."
  • In fact, don't argue with a grandmaster about anything at all. Treat him not like a grandmaster in chess, but like a grandmaster in life.
  • If you're a good-looking woman, you may approach a grandmaster more freely, but only if you'll have dinner with him afterwards.
  • Never talk about your own pathetic chess games. Ever.

What happens if you don't follow these rules? I've seen people get away with it. (They're probably monkeys with blue buttocks themselves in other areas of life.) I know I certainly wouldn't in most cases. Such things are sensed immediately by both parties involved. Most people trying to break these rules will just be ignored - for good. And let's be clear - I understand these rules completely. I think the world's best chess players deserve our respect, full stop.

The author and his daughter studying monkey behaviour at Europe's 'monkey rock': Gibraltar

The author and his daughter, last year, studying primate behaviour at Europe's 'monkey rock': Gibraltar, where from Monday 24 January to Thursday 3 February 2011 another strong chess tournament takes place

So where does that leave us, the patzers of this planet? Is our only consolation to treat weaker players in the same way? Many of us do - at least when it comes to chess - and that goes for me, too, sometimes. Fortunately, like all social behaviour, most of it is unconscious. Most chess players are blissfully unaware of their behaviour, and perhaps that's for the better. But even if you are aware what life is really like in the chess world, there's almost no escaping it - unless you actually escape from it: permanently. Only if you stop looking at your rating progress, stop looking down on weaker players, stop sucking up to stronger players, stop being annoyed by kibitzers, stop hating your opponent - only then do you have a chance of escaping the monkey rock. But then wouldn't you also stop being human?

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Arne Moll's picture
Author: Arne Moll


Mike's picture

Nice article...! Well I like chess because it's nice way to have a defiance with my chess friends, for example always presenting them with surprises...and check mates or "forced" wins....This is not much dependant on the chess level of the players, of course I choose as much as possible opponents slightly "stronger" than me or even somewhat "weaker"...some times....that's the be not static in all...Anyway..someone once said chess players have a great intelligence...just to play chess...So, maybe this Master Arrogance is Stupidity...

noyb's picture

Great article! Anyone who's spent time on and watched "unknowns" punk GM's is sure to have enjoyed this article!

"If you see a blue-buttocked baboon in the forest, kick his ass!"

Jonathan Rowson's picture

Good article. You are absolutely right Arne, and we see the status issue clearly in chess because of our ratings and titles- what are they for if not to confer status?-
Alain De Botton's Status Anxiety or Michael Marmot's Status Syndrome deepen these points.
I sometimes wonder if our rating system, for all its innumerable benefits, also holds the chess world back because it gives disproportionate status to those who are measurably good at the game but not much else, while those who are good for the game, including aribters, writers, teachers, parents, sponsors etc are viewed as less worthy of attention and therefore have much less 'voice'.

Sander's picture

The chess world is imperfect because the world is imperfect because we as a species are imperfect.

Rationally its illogic to pay more attention to someone just because he has a higher status in any field (not just chess) but we do anyways, ergo; we are not rational.

Daan's picture

What nonsense is this! I am not even going to respond to such utter crap. I mean, as if Marmot's (In particular black-capped) got a status syndrome while they are known to bite other mammals 800 times their size. Also this Button guy, I've seen the movie and it seemed to me that Benjamin got less and less status anxiety while he got younger. FYI, another excellent example of lack of status anxiety can be found with Zebra's. People like LORD Rothshield (he must have been great) tried to domesticate and train them for riding, but they gave up due to their autonomous personality. And the most horrendous part of your comment is, mister.....ow... it's you....mister PhD. GM Jonathan Rowson....... hm, interesting points you have there..... I mean...... I will think about them......thank you.....
and....btw, if I may ask, what do you think about the chess games of Marcel DuChamp and.... what do you think about the Kings Gambit? ;p

Cheers, Daan

john's picture

great! lol

freakclub's picture

Wow! amazing article!

J.A. Topfke's picture

Great article!

Hardy Berger's picture

I think it is right that proven competence in a field brings priviledges, including elevated status and the approbation of peers. Without that the stimulus for success is diminished. In the realm of chess, it is the duty of the ordinary player/fan to observe sensible limits and put the well deserved respect of FMs/IMs/GMs in proper perspective. Proper regard, yes. Fawning adulation, no.
I would listen attentively to any master talking about chess but switch off when he starts talking about politics, history, astrophysics etc unless he had some expertise in the subject.

Ahmet Gurel's picture

Thank you for these unfortunate truths of the chess world. Good article, good points.

Bobby Fiske's picture


xx's picture

Actually if you are a very rich person you might play like a absolut beginer and still insult the GM ... Money rules everywhere .... =)

Win's picture

Not a bad text but...

It helps a lot to know how many seemingly wise people talked complete rubbish in areas where they were not experts. Its pretty obvious - GM is special ONLY in terms of chess. There is nothing more to that.

Another thing that helps to keep your head cool when thinking/talking about/to GM is that its just pushing wooden pieces around... nothing more. Its not science, not ground-breaking physics, not cure for cancer... just bloody wooden pieces. Sure chess is special among games but its ONLY A GAME. (btw - I think that the idea that chess can be a model for warfare or other things is blown out of proportion! Its ONLY my suspicion that its use is much more limited).

I read an interview once online (sorry don't remember where) and some German guy said a very interesting thing about an attitude of Chinese towards Go. They considered it a noble game, worth spending SOME time to study. However, they never thought that is sensible to devote your life to such a "profession". Immediately after I've read that, I thought - they got it right again and a long time ago ;)

On the whole chess is helpful to develop your character, logic and some other qualities but nothing more than that.

Sander's picture

To know chess well shows the sign of an educated life, to know chess very well shows a wasted life. :)

Mark's picture

This reminds me of Bill Hartston's (half) joking observation that a group of GMs arriving at a door will go through in order of ELO ranking.

Rick Massimo's picture

"Some journalist who was making notes dared to point out to Kasparov that he was hanging a piece in some variation. Kasparov looked at him incredulously and ignored him for the rest of the day and probably longer. I still don’t know whether the journalist was right or not, and it doesn’t matter. One simply doesn’t contradict the World Champion."

I remember when I was rated about 800, I saw a 2400+ player overlook a mate in one for several moves of a post-mortem. I was very nervous about pointing it out, but I finally did. It wasn't a problem; he said "OH! Right, so I have to do this" and that was that.

test's picture

Exactly. Even if people let you get away with being an asshole, that doesn't mean you have to behave like one.

Thomas's picture

My own related anecdotes: More than a decade ago I and other amateurs actively joined some GM postmortems at an open in Hamburg. One GM kept missing simple things - simple enough for a 2000ish player like me to spot quickly - he just shrug his shoulders saying "Oh well, another one-mover ...". In another postmortem, someone kept making wild but pretty dumb suggestions - the GM (I can give his name, Nigel Davies) took it with British humor: "It's not his pieces he sacrifices ...".

Bottom lines:
- Amateurs need not be afraid of approaching GMs (at least in a rather relaxed atmosphere), but maybe they should be reasonably sure about their suggestions.
- Not every GM behaves like Kasparov. Actually Korchnoi had played in the same event but was less 'approachable' (and/or I was more hesitant in his case).

I like Arne's article, and it's neither completely right nor completely wrong ... .

Daan's picture

Great article Arne!

On the other hand it makes me think, wouldn't it be nice to have Elo ratings for journalists and politicians as well. At least, due to Elo, in chess we can watch the games of the best players, while it is unclear whether we read the stuff of the best journalists or have the best politicians making the decisions. Doesn't Elo shape our monkey rock in a 'just' way?
Let's put it this way, in chess it is not about who you know, but about who you beat.
Let's imagine Tata A to have people like Bono, George Bush and Dries Roelvink (the obligatory Dutch celebrity) compete on a chess board. Hm, thinking about it, this would probably attract more spectators as well.....

Janis Nisii's picture

Good article but slightly sexist, so a bit disturbing.
Also, if you really have something (interesting) to say, you generally find people who listen to you, GMs, VIPs or patzers they might be.
My experience, in many fields and circumstances is that this kind of status separation is often generated and maintained by the outcasts rather than the privileged ones.

Bert de Bruut's picture

That it is not entirely (politically) correct is just what makes the article so funny!

Janis Nisii's picture

Yeah I basically agree with you. I think it's almost impossible to combine political correctness and humor.
Saying true things in a brutal way is different from saying something untrue.

What makes the women's part less funny is that he assumes the typical cliche of good looking women always having some privilege (in exchange of some sort of 'availability') - which is often true, even though it's a false privilege - without veryfing it in this specific case.

There are a few fields (and chess is among them), mainly the ones in which men are still dominating, where it's very tough to be a woman because people usually try to put you down, and it's twice as hard to get an interview or to discuss about a game with a GM and in general to be taken seriously when talking about technical aspects.
When there's a line of journalists who want to interview, say, the winner (talking about supertournaments here) the woman invariably gets the last place, no matter if she asked the press person before others (it happened to me at least twice, in Dortmund and at M-Tel, but I'm sure there are other occasions)

Anyway, this is all theory, because I didn't meet a single good looking female chess journalist in the last three years (not even looking at the mirror of course) ;)

Arne Moll's picture

Hi Janis, I'm afraid it's reality (or, in the case of' 'real' monkeys: nature) that's sexist. Surely the fact that we sometimes don't like this doesn't mean we can't write about it?
As for your remark about the outcasts maintaining the status separation: absolutely true! I have often noticed that, for instance, arbiters and other tournament officials are much stricter in applying the 'rules' than the players themselves. My theory is that these officials need these rules because it enables them to be closer to the real hotshots (and thus 'borrow' some of their status), whereas the players don't need them because they are hotshots already.

Anyway, it's a complicated subject and I don't pretend to have anything serious to say about it. But again, that doesn't mean the phenomenon isn't real.

Janis Nisii's picture

Hi Arne, of course we can write anytime about how men are weak and lose their mind and dignity when confronted to a beautiful woman.
I was only suggesting that this doesn't translate in benefits when it comes to chess (and other fields).
See you in WaK in the last days! Well, at least I hope to get a 'hello' and an autograph from you! ;)

Jeroen's picture

We, three mates and I, were dining in a restaurant on the first sunday evening in Wijk aan Zee after having played the 3 rounds weekend-tournament. On a little chessboard, I showed my friends my last game. On a nearby table, Alexei Shirov looked with some interest and asked wheter this was Spanisch with f5. I confirmed this and told him a played the unsound 4.Nc3 fxe4 5.Nxe4 Be7?! He looked a bit confused and replied that this is a dubieus line. Of course, I said, but it's fun. He looked even more confused and stated that if you only play for fun, I should be okay. He then moved away to his board.
A friend of mine then made the stupid move to ask the GM something about the Vienna opening. After breaking this groundrule, the rest of the evening, we were ignored....

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