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From the archives

The Path of Poetic Resistance

To disarm Canada and its canon

Are Interests Really Value-Free?

A salvo from the “realist” school of Canadian foreign relations

Going It Alone

The marvellous, single-minded, doggedly strange passion of citizen scientists

A Gutsy Gambit

Millennials and their checkered reality

Ethan Lou

All the Wrong Moves: A Memoir about Chess, Love, and Ruining Everything

Sasha Chapin

McClelland & Stewart

240 pages, hardcover and ebook

I became preoccupied with something after running away to somewhere — setting out on a sort of fantasy quest common to my generation. I became obsessed with bitcoin after I headed to eastern Canada to write for a little newspaper by the sea. Years later, I left a relatively prestigious job to build a blockchain start-up, dropping everything to try to grow it. I’ve always thought these breakouts are normal behaviour for a millennial. With our sense of entitlement, we believe we can be anything. But we also came of age amid increasing financial uncertainty and stress, and so we often say “Fuck it” and run off to begin anew.

That’s not always the smoothest path, writes Sasha Chapin in his memoir, All the Wrong Moves. When he left everything to pursue chess, Chapin found that a gulf lay between himself (the somewhat good player) and greatness. The Norwegian Magnus Carlsen, the world’s best, by contrast, easily won sixty-eight simultaneous games with players whose average rating was just shy of what the U.S. Chess Federation would deem “expert.” The difference goes to show how the prescription of repeated practice is sometimes a false promise. You may want something badly enough to put in 10,000 hours, but that doesn’t mean you’ll become the best.

Millennial fantasy quests often end the same way, not in a manner we want or expect, but in the sort of lesson brutally beaten into you when you lose at a tournament to a “vengeful child.” They tend to begin the same way, too — the way Chapin opens his first chapter: “Anyway, like most people, I became obsessed with chess after I ran away to Asia with a stripper I’d just met.”

The Great Depression has always referred to just a singular event. But say “financial crisis” and you have to be specific: Do you mean the 2001 bursting of the dot-com bubble, the subprime-mortgage issue that began in 2007, the 2010 European sovereign debt affair, or the comparably localized crises in Russia, Greece, Turkey, Iceland, and Argentina? We’re barely one-fifth through the twenty-first century, and the number of financial crises listed on Wikipedia is half as many as there were in the whole of the twentieth century. That is the shadow under which millennials have grown up.

In the United States, millennials’ homeownership rate is down one-quarter from the previous generation’s. More than half of millennials have delayed major life events, such as marriage, because of debt. Full-time employment for Canadian men between seventeen and twenty-four has fallen almost 80 percent over forty years. In the United Kingdom, similar problems are causing millennials to be the first generation to have worse physical health than their parents. Maybe because of all of this, my generation is at greater risk of mental illness too.

Under pressure, we act out. Chapin began his book as a freelance writer with a niggling wanderlust that even he could not precisely define: “I couldn’t stomach the fact of remaining in Toronto, getting paid to put my feelings on the Internet while working at a fancy pasta restaurant.” So he moved to Thailand with a stripper, with whom he ate psychedelic mushrooms, and joined the horde of runaways of his generation. Millennials make up about one-quarter of the U.S. population, but they are responsible for over 40 percent of internal migration. Most British millennials would rather travel than save for a home. People my age are the most willing to job-hop. We constantly seek the new, so we can begin anew.

Months later, after he’d roomed with an NGO worker and a reporter, Chapin’s adventure had left him with “no real insights.” Even on the other side of the world, he writes, “you drink different beer, but the sun is the same and so are you.” It was within that murk that the tendrils of chess ensnared him. Chapin writes about an impromptu game in Nepal that helped reignite his youthful passion for the checkered board, but there was no single turning point or causal link for his new-found obsession — no colossal event akin to the fall of Rome. There was only the slow, incremental creep. One moment Chapin was a writer of “a couple of sensitive essays that had earned modest local acclaim.” Then, before even he knew it, he became a chess fiend.

So Chapin set out toward supremacy, despite a severe handicap: aphantasia. He lacks the so-called mind’s eye. “There are only words in my head,” he writes. “There are no pictures whatsoever. When I close my eyes and try to visualize a beach, I am trying to divide murky darkness into water and sand.” Of course, visualization is important in chess. “Top-level elite players, in an outlandish example of cognitive specialization, often play multiple blindfolded games at once.”

To be sure, a handicap doesn’t preclude greatness. The American Tommy Caldwell, half of the duo who successfully scaled what is considered the most technically difficult rock-climbing route in hist­ory, has nine fingers. South Africa’s Natalie du Toit, an amputee, beat nine swimmers at the able-bodied Olympics, the last of whom didn’t even complete the torturous ten-kilometre “marathon.” But chess, as Chapin writes, is a game in which “only 26 per cent of individual variance in skill level can be attributed to practice.” That means hard work gets you only a quarter of the way. The rest is talent. Carlsen, the world’s best, is famous for not practising, underscoring the fact that while not all smart people are good at chess, all good players have brains that work in freakishly different ways. Chapin, for his part, realized early on he would never be a grandmaster (“Becoming a frog was probably more likely”). So he targeted a lower milestone, which remained elusive although he came close. Chapin’s two-year chess quest resembled his time in Asia; he didn’t gain any new knowledge. Instead, he came to terms with what he already knew.

All the Wrong Moves is the acceptance of a painful truth that transcends chess: not everyone can be a Caldwell or a du Toit. It’s a lesson millennials keep learning but also keep forgetting. Despite the shabby economy, my generation is famous for swelling the ranks of higher-education programs — often in abstract fields — that do not have an obvious or immediate path to employment. Then we crowd around the small number of dream jobs, each of us thinking we can get them. It is an optimism that borders on the audacious, a belief that even though we as a collective are dealt a bad hand in life, we as individuals are the exception. It is ironic not just in that contradiction but also in how quintessentially millennial our shared story is. An inherently individualistic view is so widely held that it is itself a sign of sameness.

Chapin was not wrong at the beginning of his memoir, when he wrote facetiously that he, with his journey around the globe to tournaments in Bangkok, Los Angeles, and Hyderabad, was “like most people.” Even in chess, his optimism about his abilities was not unique. In 2017, Max Deutsch, then a twenty-four-year-old internet personality who brands himself an “obsessive learner,” set out to beat Carlsen after practising for a month. After the high-profile match, filmed by the Wall Street Journal, the Norwegian grandmaster recalled all thirty-nine moves from memory and discussed with Deutsch what went wrong, schooling him — again.

Ethan Lou just published Field Notes from a Pandemic: A Journey through a World Suspended.

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