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Game On

Robert Desjarlais, Anthropology

On a typical weeknight at the Marshall Chess Club—Manhattan’s Mecca for serious players—you’ll see enormous cultural diversity: school-age enthusiasts, older Russian immigrants, college kids from Westchester and New Jersey, players from India and Africa and China. The one thing they have in common is an obsession, often bordering on addiction, with chess.

Robert Desjarlais understands that obsession well, having managed it himself, on and off, since boyhood. “There’s an anthropology term, ‘illusio,’ which is a Latin word that means ‘source of interest in life,’” Desjarlais says. In 2002, after nearly 20 years away from competitive chess, he found his own “illusio” shifting away from anthropology, and back toward the game. Which also meant rediscovering a lifestyle that only someone “with the fever,” as Desjarlais says, could endure: crowded weekend tournaments; restless nights in bad hotels; late evenings spent playing online; the dark magic of the board.

“Serious chess players have lives outside the game,” Desjarlais says, “but there’s a sense that what happens on the board is real life.” At major tournaments like the World Open, which Desjarlais attended in 2007, “One easily hears exchanges in Spanish or Hindi or Russian or Mandarin or English, though most of the talk revolves around the battles at hand. ‘Who are you paired against?’ ‘How did you do in the last round?’ The ritual zone of playing chess becomes the entire world.” And in the process, all identities that might exist away from this world—whether of race or gender, vocation or politics—are put into a state of deep suspension. “As anthropologists would cast it,” Desjarlais says, “what takes place is a form of ‘communitas,’ where the chess community shares a common experience outside the routines of everyday life.”

Feeling himself increasingly consumed by what he calls “the exquisite violence of the board,” Desjarlais managed to take a step back and examine his zealotry in a wider context. The result is his forthcoming book, Counterplay: An Anthropologist at the Chessboard. “My other work,” Desjarlais says, “is on Nepal, and Buddhism. But these preoccupations are far more similar than they might seem. What anthropologists do is to go to other domains and translate what they find there.”

Robert Desjarlais

Illustration by Joseph Adolphe

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