Yesterday I watched a loud dispute between two woodpushers in Washington Square Park. Neither in fact was a particularly good player, but each was obnoxiously insisting that he had mastered the deepest secrets of the game. (Which was a ridiculous claim, and would have been unbelievable even if the players had been much more accomplished; Garry Kasparov, the greatest chess talent ever, once told me that there are still things about the game that even he does not understand.)
Why is it that chess players are so prone to exaggerate their prowess at the 64 squares? In my youth, when I frequented the nineteen stone chess tables in Washington Square Park (which would figure in movies like “Searching for Bobby Fischer”), I often faced patzers who fabricated stories about how they’d once trounced the great Bobby Fischer at blitz. They’d even point to the exact table on which the purported victory took place, and some would show me the moves of these alleged miniatures. If Fischer had lost that many games back then, he would have given up chess long before he famously won the world championship from the Russian standout Borris Spassky.
I’ve noticed that when chess amateurs describe their ability, they are prone to add a couple of hundred points to their peak rating. And when they tell you the score of a lengthy blitz match against a stronger player, the score tends to shift in their favor with each telling.
Are chess nuts more likely to bend the truth than people who don’t know how a knight moves? Or is mild résumé inflation part of the human condition?