Is a Chessplayer a Gambler?
A surprisingly large number of non-chessplayers consider pro-chessplayers to be gamblers, in the same category as card sharks and pool-hall hustlers. Regardless of whether you think that this comparision is fair or not, you have to admit that there are many similarities in the profile of each.
This is what Walter Tevis, author of the best sellers The Hustler (1959), The Color of Money (1984) and The Queen’s Gambit (1983) wrote on the subject:
”To love the game itself is a fine thing; it is loving the art you live by. There are many things to love in the art—the excitement of it, the difficulty, the use of skill—but to work at it only for those would be to be like Findlay. To play pool you had to want to win and to want this without excuses and without self-deception. Only then did you have a right to love the game itself.”
”The whole goddamn thing is: you got to commit yourself to the life you picked. And you picked it—most people don’t even do that. You’re smart and you’re young and you got, like I said before, talent. You want to live fast and loose and be a hero.” (From The Hustler)
This seems to describe chessplayers (!), even though Tevis was talking about pool hustlers. I personally know dozens of people like this. The chess world is filled with people who are obsessed with the game and being the best at it.
Many live on the edge/border of respectable society in this pursuit, cautiously looking in but rarely participating. Loners and anti-heroes to outsiders.
A handful become legends.
Chessplayers, like most gamblers, don’t just want to win, they need to win. Some are willing to do so at all costs. They play for blood. Nothing less is good enough.
Their daily life is often reduced to an inner struggle with some dark element of self-destruction. Just as Beth Harmon struggled with alcohol and drugs; just as she remained a loner all of her life.
So, returning to the topic: is chess like gambling? Perhaps. When chess was introduced into Europe by the Arabs was it not played with dice? And did not the Crusaders play chess for money? More recently, has not the pandemic seen an exponential growth in online chess betting?
Much to think about… curiously I have never considered myself a gambler, but after seeing The Queen’s Gambit, I can sense the gambler in myself. Chess is not about luck, though. But I suppose a really good poker player does not need luck to win either.
Walter Tevis admitted that he was a gambler all of his life. He also played chess obsessively. He openly spoke of his vices and his darker side. He was a secret alcoholic. He tried to commit suicide on more than one occasion, but failed. His books are probably about himself as much as they are about that breed of individuals who are gamblers.