I have long been interested in different perceptions of risk. This comes up all the time in chess. For instance, I play the King’s Gambit (no surprise here!), in which White jettisons a pawn at the earliest possible moment in return for quick development and command of the center. I perceive this aggressive way of playing as worth the risk: I’m banking that I can amass my forces and land a fatal blow long before the pawn deficit proves fatal. An opponent who plays into the King’s Gambit Accepted believes that he can withstand the assault, trade pieces, and perhaps reach an advantageous endgame, with the pieces swapped off, in which his extra pawn marches up the board and morphs into a mighty queen.
Contemporary chess theory sides with Black, but I am comfortable with White. When I went to Moscow once to watch French grandmaster Joel Lautier play in the annual Aeroflot Chess Open, he was frank, over vodka one evening, about the King’s Gambit. “You play that?” he said. “I prefer to start the game with as many pawns as the other guy.”
I was in Moscow with Joel when I witnessed something that I perceived as terribly risky to which Russians didn’t give a second thought. I was amazed by the way that Muscovites commonly got around the city. They’d stand on the street with their hand out. Ordinary drivers would stop and take them to their destination, if it wasn’t too far out of the way, for 100 rubles (close to $4 now). I remember Joel and I and a friend of his trying this at 4:00 AM, and a single man in his thirties immediately stopping and happily giving us a ride.
Such hitchhiking would be inconceivable in New York, from all vantage points. A single driver would never stop to pick up a trio of men in the middle of the night, let alone one man in broad daylight. And you’d never hitchhike in Manhattan or Brooklyn, out of fear you’d end up in a landfill.