All my friends are playing chess again, and it all started with a story by Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich at WNYC’s RadioLab. A recent show called Games has a zippy story called The Rules Can Set You Free [21:57] that’s enough to inspire even the most out-of-practice player back to the chessboard.
RadioLab knows how to tell a good story. They lure us into this one with their signature symphony of sound and voices, and hook us with narrative suspense. We are caught from the beginning in an opposition—in this case, the idea is that a good game strikes a balance between the known and the novel. The tension between these two poles drives the entire segment, which flies by like a game of speed chess.
This story is actually made up of four smaller stories, which seamlessly fold into one another. Each scene is poignant as it unfolds almost visually in our listening minds. My favorite is an interlude about little Bobby Fischer’s Game of the Century. This story is strong mostly because of the meticulous way in which the scene is set. The hosts engage the listener by giving us a dozen or so visual cues. Bobby Fischer is 13 years old, it’s October, 1956, a warm Indian summer, in New York, in a smoky, old, stodgy brownstone, full of mahogany, he’s wearing a t-shirt, and all of the world’s best chess players are there. Bobby’s opponent is old, urbane, has a cigarette between two fingers, wears a big bow tie. Because we’re given so many details about the place, it feels like we’re there too. Immersed in each story, we remain engaged, pondering the limitations of rules and the novelties that they permit.
Bobby opens the game with what looks like a series of dumb errors. He was losing, and then he does the unthinkable: he allows his opponent take his queen. What?! All the old pros think that little Bobby has thrown in the towel, given up. Then a crowd gathers… and, well, I’ll let you listen for yourself. This segment starts at 16:25. If you don’t have time for the entire episode, start there. It will make you and all your friends want to take up chess again.
The Rules Can Set You Free
Produced by RadioLab, Season 10 Episode 2, ‘Games’