Monday, 28 March 2011

A cultural affinity for chess

Another book I picked up at the Lifeline Bookfair was "A Short History of Chess" by Henry A. Davidson. While I haven't read through the book, the introduction contained an interesting passage.
In describing how the book came about, he relates that he spent a large amount of 1943 based in Northern Australia, while serving in the US Army. He said he played a lot of chess, often with the Australian staff of the nearby Army Hospital. He states "Aussies are chess minded. They like the game, play it often, and play it well"
The passage jumped out at me, simply because conventional wisdom is that Australia is not a chess country, and attempts to popularise chess are much harder than in other parts of the world. But like most statements of this type (board generalisation, no supporting evidence supplied), it is only true until it becomes false.
In various older books in my library I've seen the claim repeated for a number of other countries around the world. Often it was of the form "we will always lag behind the USSR because they have a cultural affinity for chess and we don't". Countries that spring to mind include England, France, Italy and even the USA. Of course these claims were made when chess in those countries were at a low ebb, and fade away as numbers and success improve.
Striking examples of such improvement include England in the 1980's, and France and Turkey more recently. (In the 1972 Olympiad France finished top of the D section, with Singapore, Malta and Hong-Kong filling the next 3 places!).
So the "we don't have the culture" excuse is, I believe, a pretty weak one, and has more to do with a will to succeed, or lack thereof.

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