(Imagined) Revenge Of The Nerds

August 30, 2013

DiceBy the time DUNGEONS & DRAGONS exploded as a full-bore cultural phenomenon in the early Eighties, my friends and I were already past high school and college, the game’s demographic sweet spots. So we were spared the inevitable schoolmate scorn and taunting that follow “D&D” players wherever they go. (Well, almost spared. The local paper did a story on the new craze and talked to a few of us, and for a week or so I got, “You actually play that nerdy game?”)

David M. Ewalt wasn’t so lucky. He caught the D&D bug at age ten and fell for it harder than anyone I know personally. He even went GAFIA (that’s fannish for Getting Away From It All, also something only a nerd would know) for a few years, became a journalist (he writes for Forbes now), met and married a beautiful girl – and then was pulled back into his lifelong hobby. OF DICE AND MEN is the story of one of the most creative and innovative games ever invented, told in a breezy, cheerful style telegraphed by its title. Mr. Ewalt wants to fix D&D in its deserved cultural place of honor, and also introduce you to the kind of people who are attracted to it: “My people,” as he writes.

My group of friends picked up the game out of sheer curiosity. The snippets we heard from the outside just didn’t add up: this isn’t a “game” in the usual sense because there is no winner; the players don’t compete, they cooperate; they each play a character that’s completely imaginary, as does an actor; and though you can trick up the experience to ridiculous extremes, all you really need to play D&D is a pencil and paper and some funny-looking dice. We bought a couple of rule books and shoved off – and were immediately fascinated.

Mr. Ewalt traces the game’s origins all the way back to chess, that iconic bloodless simulation of battle, and watches its evolution through “wargaming,” in which military buffs recreate actual battles from history and introduce an element of chance, so that with sound leadership and good luck, the side which lost in reality might even come out on top. The most famous mass-produced military wargame is Avalon Hill’s GETTYSBURG – you can imagine the appeal to descendants of both sides – but wargaming’s true believers keep it as real as possible, using tiny lead figurines atop ping-pong-table-sized dioramas of the genuine terrain. It was a group of wargamers who had the inspiration to leap from history into fantasy, improving kludgy medieval-battle rules and turning a player’s attention from hundreds of infantrymen to – and here’s the genius part – one individual, recurring, personality-possessing character. The bird’s-eye view gave way to the mind’s-eye view, and by fits and starts, the “fantasy role-playing game” was created and refined.

Mr. Ewalt is particularly adept at explaining this concept; he assumes you know even less about D&D than we did when we started. A group of “player-characters,” their skills and attributes determined by rolls of those funny-shaped dice, go on a cooperative adventure under the direction of a Dungeon Master (DM), who creates the fictional setting and acts as referee. The characters have their own individual personalities, abilities and even moral leanings. As they work their way through a scenario that only the DM can see, the players search for treasure, fight monsters (“monster” is the term used for any opponent), and face whatever trials the DM can conjure. This group’s story (the “campaign”) is open-ended and can last for weeks, months, even years. Success in most everything, including fighting, is determined by die rolls, some of them cast by the DM out of the players’ view. Besides completing the specific quest or mission, the long-term goal is to stay alive – each character has a finite number of “hit points” – and accumulate experience to make oneself more powerful and harder to defeat. The setting of most of these games is medieval, though the same general concept has been adapted to Westerns, postapocalyptic cities, outer space – even the cinematic world of STAR WARS has its own role-playing game. But the daddy of them all, and still far and away the most popular, is DUNGEONS & DRAGONS (the origin of one of our most recognizable trademarks is a delightful little anecdote which I’ll leave for you to discover in the book), whose DNA comes straight from Tolkien, Fritz Leiber and Jack Vance.

If you’re following me here, you may have already observed that this game rewards creativity and improvisational skills. Unsurprisingly, its former players include improv geniuses like Stephen Colbert and Robin Williams, and an untold number of professional storytellers, including Neal Stephenson, Ray Feist, Mike Stackpole and dozens of others. Not to photo-bomb myself into that canon, but my own first pro fiction sales were to D&D paperback anthologies; it was a natural fit for me. I even used character names from our old group in homage – and I earned back every cent I’d spent on the game and then some, which made me feel great.

Mr. Ewalt doesn’t shy away from personal intrigue, such as the corporate politics that (depending on who you talk to) either victimized the game’s major creative force, E. Gary Gygax, or else finally gave him what had been coming to him all along. The other elephant in the room is addressed as well: the 80s “flap” (to use a UFO term, for that’s what it most resembled) over D&D’s supposed malefic influence on young people. If you still actually believe that D&D promotes either Satanism or teen suicide, you should probably stay away from this book and you should definitely stay away from me. As with the uproar against “death metal” that until recently contributed to the continued circumstantial incarceration of the West Memphis Three, these thinly sourced accusations proliferated, reaching as vaunted a megaphone as 60 MINUTES. CBS used a psychologist who was later stripped of his medical license, and ignored letters from two mothers of cited suicides who said the game had nothing to do with their children’s deaths. The low point was probably the terrible 1982 Tom Hanks TV movie MAZES & MONSTERS, based on a terrible novel by Rona Jaffe.

My only beef with this lighthearted, knowledgeable, authoritative work is something which veteran D&D players have long learned to shun: the “home-movie syndrome.” When you’ve all just gone through a harrowing adventure together, it can be fun to talk about it over a beer afterward. But the only thing more boring than hearing about another campaign waged by total strangers is your relatives’ home movies of their vacation trip. Unfortunately, Mr. Ewalt relies far too heavily on recounting a certain campaign of his Brooklyn-based gang: it’s useful at first for a real-time demonstration of how the game works in practice, but it soon becomes wearisome, and I’d imagine that goes double for anybody who doesn’t have any particular desire to play D&D.

He redeems himself, though, in a beautiful section reporting on a live-action role-playing (as opposed to D&D’s paper-and-dice role-playing) weekend called Overworld, held annually in Connecticut. It sounds at first like the Society for Creative Anachronism – a bunch of people in phony chain mail swinging padded broadswords – but the lovingly crafted, immersive experience turns out to be much more profound, inspiring Mr. Ewalt to create his own campaign setting for the very first time, and guess what: his invention sounds wonderful! He ends with a poignant, heartfelt coda in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, ancestral home of D&D, where he attends the annual convention held in Gygax’s memory and visits the old locations where the struggling little company got its start nearly forty years ago. Those structures are either gone or changed, but somehow their significance lingers – and, thanks to this lovely book, maybe that genuine cultural impact can now be made permanent.

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Two Moving Books (You Won’t Be Board)

May 10, 2011

After seeing Liz Garbus’s terrific documentary BOBBY FISCHER AGAINST THE WORLD at Sundance this year, I became interested in chess, but not as a player, just an observer. Like most kids who learned the rules and not much else, I’d played a few games at novice level, yet I never caught the bug. A friend had a college roommate who could whip you from the next room by calling out his moves, never once looking at the board. He told me this was no big deal: some chess masters could play multiple games blindfolded, and to the truly gifted, winning almost if not every simultaneous sighted game against, say, 20 opponents was child’s play.

So I had master-class chess pegged as this bizarre feat of super-memorization, and in part it is: that’s why serious players pore over interesting historical games. The more they know about past matches, the harder it is to surprise or rattle them: ah yes, I’ve seen this position before. But that’s not the half of it, as I discovered in two superb books which describe the divide between punters and prodigies, and the best part is that you don’t have to know boo about chess to enjoy them both.

David Shenk’s THE IMMORTAL GAME was pubbed in 2006, but I just now got around to it. What a read: it’s the history of chess and its influence on generals, artists, scientists and culture, wrapped around one of the landmarks of chess history, the 1851 “Immortal Game” between Adolf Anderssen and Lionel Kieseritzky. A tossed-off practice match held down the street from the first international chess championship, where these two masters would later be competing, it turned out to be one of the most beautiful, surprising and instructive games on record. Mr. Shenk takes us through the Immortal Game in “plain English” (chess notation can be tough to visualize until you get the hang of it). Here we see it played out patiently on a chessboard, move by move, as a sort of countermelody to his, er, masterful portrait of chess’s beneficial importance to humankind. This book makes even a schlub like me want to get out there and play.

The first game recognizable as chess – itself already evolved through centuries of adjustment – appears to have been bestowed us by Islam. Here are the familiar 32 opposing pieces, the 64 squares. But the Koran forbids “images,” found on representational pieces; they begin to appear in Western Europe. The author argues persuasively that, contrary to what many of us were taught, the spread of chess suggests the Islamic Renaissance made the European Renaissance possible; during the Crusades, far more cultural knowledge was passed westward. Europeans were at first impatient with the luxurious pace of the Muslim game, and even invented a curious variant dependent upon rolls of a die. But that introduces chance into a game whose glory depends upon its absence. Chess is no more a game of luck than is tennis. History is never far away: originally the piece next to the king was called the Minister, but with a succession of influential European queens, the Minister was first renamed, then molded into the most powerful piece on the board.

That history is all recounted through the “opening” section of the Anderssen/Kiesertizky masterpiece. During its “middlegame,” Mr. Shenk tells us where we are now. He explains that, in general, modern chess players are far superior to those who have gone before because they have the previous games to study, as well as the time-hardened effectiveness of different schools of play, which continue to be invented and revised. And their job will never be complete, because the game of chess, though circumscribed by those pieces and squares, is infinite in every practical sense. The total possible number of unique chess games has been estimated to be 10 to the 120th power, and get this: the total number of electrons in the universe is estimated to be only 10 to the 79th. This leads to the formidable task of designing a thinking machine that can challenge a chess master, as IBM researchers famously did against Garry Kasparov. The point, of course, is not to play chess, any more than IBM’s “Watson” was developed to play Jeopardy. The point is to employ these achievements in cognitive science on something really useful. For example, maybe one day a machine like Watson might assist a doctor – or even you, the patient – with a diagnosis; at the very least, it could quickly help sift the probable from the unlikely.

During the Anderssen/Kiesertizky “endgame,” Mr. Shenk takes us to the New York City school system, where a private program is helping teach chess to underprivileged students as early as second grade. They are obviously learning much more than just how to play an exquisite game. They are learning life lessons that only bloodless, sportsmanlike battle can teach, including the utter glory of a strategy perfectly devised and executed; in other words, they are discovering confidence in their own innate abilities.

I also dived right into the newly-pubbed ENDGAME by Frank Brady, a gripping – and, again, suitable for chess novices – biography of Bobby Fischer, the Brooklyn prodigy whom many consider the “Mozart of the chessboard,” the greatest player who ever lived. His accomplishments are all the more remarkable when you realize that Bobby pulled himself up by his own bootstraps, with no nurturing or financial help from the state. In his time, world-class players came mostly from the Soviet Union, a chess-mad nation that treated its board warriors like pampered athletes. The fact that Bobby could even rise to their level, let alone defeat them, is a testament both to his intellect and to his fierce dedication, recognizable in our day in the inscrutable “tournament face” of Tiger Woods at his peak.

Bobby was raised by his mother Regina. There is some controversy as to the identity of his biological father, but each of the two possible candidates, as well as Regina, were brilliant. He loved the Brooklyn Dodgers and summer camp – where, at age six or seven, he found an annotated chess book. He’d been playing chess on a cardboard grid with his mother and sister, both of whom were fairly disinterested in the game, and actually beating them. He already excelled at mazes and other spatial puzzles, and even enjoyed games like Parcheesi, except when the dice went against him: a sore loser, the young Bobby couldn’t abide the vicissitudes of chance. Then Regina bought him a real chess set, he learned the notation, and a lifelong obsession began. His nose was in a chess book, or staring at board positions, even in the bathtub. Soon, study of the game occupied almost all his waking hours: that and swimming, which he took to as necessary exercise. He wasn’t much interested in anything else.

Starved for stimulating opponents, Bobby found strong players and tutelage at chess clubs in Brooklyn and Manhattan, and at the outdoor tables in Washington Square Park. He was a natural, drinking in the game like a parched castaway. He learned more and more, memorized historical matches like a machine, and played bigger and bigger tournaments, his youth as much an amazement as his skill. At just 13, he defeated the noted master Donald Byrne in what has become known as “The Game of the Century.” (It’s included in the appendix, and the wonderful online addendum, of Mr. Shenk’s book.) In 1958, Bobby became the youngest international grand master in history. He was fifteen.

Mr. Brady is especially effective when he describes these, Bobby’s younger years. One of America’s leading chess journalists, he had known Bobby since the young man’s adolescence. His BOBBY FISCHER: PROFILE OF A PRODIGY, first published in the mid-Sixties, for a time answered the crucial questions: “Who is this kid? Where’d he come from?” His dramatic description of the Game of the Century seems to take you inside Bobby’s mind. But now Mr. Brady’s somber task is to chronicle not only this historic rise, but also a sickening fall. And now he uses not only family documents and correspondence from Bobby, but also FBI files, for the prodigy was about to become – to declare himself – an enemy of the state. The deterioration began almost immediately following his greatest triumph.

Those who didn’t live through it cannot imagine the excitement generated by Bobby’s 1972 World Chess Championship match against Boris Spassky in Reykjavik. Not just chess enthusiasts, everybody. Network anchormen were saying, riots here, suffering there. But first, Bobby Fischer! (Big laughs in the …AGAINST THE WORLD screening at a montage of thrilled 1972 TV newscasters.) It was the first time since 1948 that a non-Soviet had qualified to compete for the title; it was the Cold War on 64 squares. Bobby’s behavior was becoming more and more erratic, but his paranoia was partly justified: indeed, almost certainly Russian players had long been tanking early-match international games against their higher-ranked countrymen so the superstars would be better refreshed when facing foreigners, the chess equivalent of the shameful Chinese/South Korean badminton “gamesmanship” in the 2012 Olympics. World-class chess requires prodigious physical stamina – the players train as if for a boxing match – and to Bobby this was no small offense. He had many more complaints about Russians, some way over the top, but on this one he may have been right.

After (spoiler alert!) Bobby won the world title, some synapse began to fire poorly, or at least began to do so in public. Mr. Brady’s narrative suggests that there was nowhere else for Bobby to go after scaling the summit of world chess. He never defended his title, deflecting every offer with a complaint or excuse. Was he afraid of defeat? He played a 20th anniversary match against Spassky in Yugoslavia, then under a U.S. embargo, and responded to the Treasury Department’s letter of warning by spitting on it at a press conference. He spent his last years as a fugitive, spouting anti-Semitic vitriol, cheering the 9/11 attacks, and trying to find a place to alight. Iceland, his host for the great championship, finally volunteered, and Mr. Brady’s descriptions of Bobby’s life there are oddly poignant: a meal here, a bookstore there, his portable chessboard always demonstrating something new about the game which had held hostage his humanity and continued to consume him. Mr. Brady drolly notes that when Bobby died in 2008, his age was the same as the number of squares on a chessboard: sixty-four.

Before you even open the book, you know Bobby was a genius. And you know he became something of a beast somehow. Mr. Brady’s signal achievement is to put you inside Bobby’s head, for weal or woe, and show you the recognizable human being behind each façade. It’s a wonderful look at a fascinating person, to which I’ll probably return – and that’s the best kind of book there is.

P.S. After thoroughly enjoying Mr. Brady’s work, I discovered in the endnotes that it was edited by Rick Horgan, a friend of mine from way back at Warner Books. Great job to you too, Rick!


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