Saturday, February 04, 2012

Chess and Economics

Ken Rogoff became a chess grandmaster while still a teenager, but eventually concluded that he couldn't climb to the very top, so switched to economics, and is now a Harvard professor and one of the world's most influential economists.  Via Tyler Cowen, this Gideon Rachman financial times story from Davos, which is heavy on the chess. On Bobby Fisher, and praise:

Rogoff’s real hero, however, was Bobby Fischer, the American chess champion of the 1970s. He remembers following the games from the famous Fischer-Spassky world chess championship in 1972, and being awed by Fischer’s play – “It was like seeing the hand of God at work; the originality, the simplicity.” He shakes his head in delight and amazement. Fischer even paid the teenaged Rogoff the compliment of analysing and praising one of his games in an article. But Rogoff did not let that go to his head. “I took that to mean that he knew I could never beat him. Because I knew he was hyper-competitive. I completely understood the message,” he chuckles.
On chess as an addictive drug:
I ask whether it was hard to switch from chess to economics? Rogoff confirms that it was. He says chess people find it difficult to move on, because the game is so addictive. But at graduate school he became convinced that dividing his attention meant that both his chess and his economics were suffering. He had to make a decision. Once he had chosen economics, he had to deal with his chess compulsion. “Being very good at anything involves being somewhat addicted – so part of my strategy of moving on was to give it up completely. I don’t play chess casually ... Not unless it’s incredibly rude to decline playing.”

But chess is still part of his mental make-up. “I think about chess all the time. In boring meetings. Or at night. Sometimes I think about chess to calm myself down, almost like meditation.” Still, he has to be careful not to let the addiction return. “I can’t have chess on my computer. But I think I have it under control most of the time.”