The Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Brandeis University offered in its Fall
2005 line-up a course entitled
The Royal Game and the Game Of Life. The course proposes to explore
the relationship between chess and life, both in fiction and in reality.
This is no light task. The instructor (or "leader" as BOLLI calls the
presenter or organizer of a class), Mr. Maurie Stiefel, has laid out a course of
study involving more than several areas, each of which could be a course in
itself. The syllabus states:
"This course will explore how the fine arts, literature and drama have
used chess as metaphor - for life, creativity, war and death. Quite apart
from metaphor, we shall see how chess has been a lifeline for change in the
lives of young people from poor inner-city neighborhoods. We will consider
the roles of intuition and psychology, and will look at brilliant eccentric
players who have become household names (Bobby Fischer, for one). We will
consider psychiatric studies of some of the world’s greatest players. We
also will grapple with fascinating questions. Why do genius and mental
instability often go hand-in-hand? Why are there no women in the top tier of
chess? Why are most chess experts superb in mathematics, while most
mathematicians are only mediocre at chess? Why is man unable to win against
the computer? Is the game addictive? Why are some players hooked on it?"
What caught my attention more that anything was the coincidental
required or recommended reading list which includes only three titles:
The Problem of Paul Morphy: a Contribution to the Psychology of Chess by
The Psychology Of The Chess Player by Reuben Fine
On The Morals Of Chess by Ben Franklin
On the dawning of August 7, 1974, he danced in the sky.
That Wednesday morning all New York woke up to see Philippe Petit connect
the Rooks of a structure that no longer exists. Walking, strutting,
marching, running, dancing, on a 7/8" thick cable,
1350 feet above the street, he strolled back and forth from the rooftop of
the South Tower of the World Trade Center to that of the North Tower for
nearly an hour.
Petit - a street performer, a juggler, a magician, a
pick-pocket, a lock-picker, a unicyclist -
"To indulge my gourmandize for knowledge while honing my perfectionism," he
learned to speak Russian, to play chess, to fight bulls in la corrida, to
build a barn using only 18th century tools.
Philippe Petit - Le Funambule - the high wire artist.
As awe-inspiring and unimaginable his feat may seem, it was
really the culmination of what may have been an equally impossible
arrangement. Before attempting a walk, everything must be carefully studied
and measured. All contingencies must be considered. The weather must
co-operate, the proper permits must be obtained. The equipment must be
bought, set-up and tested. The engineering is complex and the details are
Now, imagine attending to all the preparations in secret,
measuring a 104th storied rooftop in a building you are forbidden
to enter, buying equipment with no money and no backers, having as your team
of experts a few people who either know nothing about the art of rigging or
who care little about the success of the project, knowing that no permission
would ever be given and that if you are caught, you will be arrested,
understanding that everything must be assembled in a rush in one night by
amateurs while avoiding detection of the guards and that nothing would be
tested, aware that of the hundreds of things that could go wrong, nothing
must go wrong - imagine spending 6½ years of your life planning such a
project, thinking of nothing else.
Impossible, yet irresistible.
He must pretend.
In his beautifully written book
To Reach the Clouds Philippe Petit describes his venture from the moment
of its conception at age18 to its completion six years later and beyond. He
writes of his almost inborn "disdain of my fellow man" that leads him into a
life few of us would ever contemplate. He reveals his soul as an artist who
is consumed by his art as it permeates every facet of his daily living.
A large rusty nail...
punctures my right foot... there goes my research.
There goes my coup... I end up in bed with a
I play chess with friends, but in between turns, I see my rooks becoming
twin towers, and after each defeat, my excuse is the same: "Oh, I was
thinking about WTC."
In an interview [published in the Daily News on
June 21, 1974] by Sidney Fields, Petit inadvertently, and
coincidentally, reminded me of another
funambulist, Charles Blondin, who, during
the "Morphy" years of 1858-1859, gained fame by his crossings of Niagara Falls.
He would not reveal when or where he was going to walk
across the top of New York, only that it would be a big surprise. "I want to
walk across Niagara Falls," he said, "but I know they won't give me
permission. So, I will have to do New York without permission."
I know I'll never dance in the
sky, nor will I ever play chess like Tal.
But I can pretend.