When the Oxford Press put together a series of “Top 10 Chess Players” from a series of different professions, they came to an extraordinary conclusion. Scientists aren’t very good at chess, in fact they couldn’t find 10 great chess playing scientists at all.
One particularly notable omission from the (shortened) list was Einstein. Despite his theories of special and general relativity, Einstein was a pretty lousy chess player. He was a very keen player when he was a young boy in Munich and in 1927 he made friends with Emmanuel Lasker the World Chess Champion. Sadly, this didn’t make a jot of difference to his game and Einstein ended up as a very average player despite all his practice.
In the end he remarked of chess; “I have always disliked the fierce competitive spirit embodied in that highly competitive game.” That’s right not only was Einstein a bad player, but he was also a sore loser.
There are many theories that try and determine why scientists suck at chess. Many are dedicated to the idea that because a scientist will devote so much of his (or her) brain to mathematical problems, they are atrophying the portion of their brain that enables spatial problem solving. This seems to be a very scientific excuse to us.
Here’s an interesting game from The Pleasure of Chess between Einstein and Oppenheimer when they were at Princeton.
Einstein (White) – Oppenheimer (Black)
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 b5 5.Bb3 Nf6 6.O-O Nxe4 7.Re1 d5 8.a4?! [8.d3] b4?! [8…Bc5] 9.d3 Nc5?! [9…Nf6] 10.Nxe5 Ne7 11.Qf3 [threatening 12.Qxf7 mate] f6? [11…Be6] 12.Qh5+! g6 13.Nxg6! hxg6 [13…Rg8 14.Nxe7+ Kd7 15.Qxd5+ Ke8 16.Qxg8] 14.Qxh8 Nxb3 15.cxb3 Qd6? [15…Kf7] 16.Bh6 Kd7 17.Bxf8 Bb7 18.Qg7 Re8 19.Nd2 c5 20.Rad1 [or 20.Re2] a5 21.Nc4! dxc4 [21…Qc7 22.Bxe7] 22.dxc4 Qxd1 23.Rxd1+ Kc8 24.Bxe7 1-0
As you can see neither player made the best of the game and it was more a comedy of errors than a classic.
The good news is that whether you play or a tournament chess set or a regular board it’s not hard (with a little practice) to play above this standard, and that means that one day you could boast (truthfully) “I’m smarter than Einstein!”