Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Masters of Maths

There’s an old legend which tells how a mathematician invented the game of chess. You probably know a version of it. It begins with an eastern emperor (sometimes Persian, sometimes Indian, sometimes Chinese) offering a reward of gold to anyone who solves a problem in warfare strategy. One version says a mathematician invented chess in the process. The emperor is so pleased that he gives him the gold, but the wily mathematician turns it down and suggests rice grains instead. He asks for one grain of rice to be placed on the corner square of the chessboard, and that double the amount be placed on the next square, and so on, until all the squares are accounted for. The emperor agrees, unaware of the implications.

Less than one third around the board the rive grains are having to be carried in in wheelbarrows.  By the end there are 18,446,744,073,709,551,615 grains in total (if I’ve got my sums right). The mathematician may not have any gold, but he’s got enough rice to live on for the rest of his life.

This legend links chess and maths like no other, and it seems that people good at one are likely to be good at the other. And to illustrate this I’ve chosen some gay chess masters (no women, I’m afraid – still looking) who have successfully combined both.

The first is Ron Buckmire, Associate Professor of Mathematics at Occidental College, California (whom I mentioned briefly during Black History Month). Grenadan-born Ron’s interest in chess began at school in neighbouring Barbados. It wasn’t long before Ron was competing in national and international championships. My earlier reference to him mentioned his win against international chess master Geoffrey Lawton in 14 moves  at the age of 17. Here is that match in full. If you don’t understand the notation you can follow the match move by move by clicking on the “forward” button on that webpage. Even though Ron no longer plays in championships he still has International Chess Master status. It’s no surprise to learnt that he’s Grenada’s highest ever ranking chess player.

I’ve no record in my Gay Games database of Ron entering any of the chess tournaments held a three Gay Games, but I can tell you that Tigran Spaan, another Chess Master, who studied maths and computer science at the University of Amsterdam, won 2 chess gold medals at the Sydney Gay Games in 2002 (the 2002 female champion is currently Professor of Law in Melbourne, so no maths link there). At the last appearance of chess at the Gay Games in Cologne 2010 Tigran was not so successful and only went home with a bronze. He also won a bronze at the 2004 Eurogames in Munich. Spaan founded an IT company in 2000 called Gridline. He is still involved with chess and the Gay Games was a member of the organisation bidding to host the 2018 Gay Games in Amsterdam. Unfortunately, that bid fell in last week’s round of voting.

Chess is well-known for the names of it’s opening moves, often named after the players who used them most successfully. One of these openings is called Santasiere’s Folly, named after Anthony Santasiere.

Of Italian ancestry Anthony Santasiere was born in New York City in 1904. He was the 12th of 13 children in a poor family. Despite this he developed many varied artistic interests which he pursued for the rest of his life – piano playing, painting, cooking, poetry writing, playing bridge, and, of course, chess. An elderly, rich chess fan called Alrick Man paid for Anthony’s college education on condition that Anthony spends part of the summer at his estate. It was there that Anthony developed his interest in chess.

His first success in chess, as has often been the case in many chess masters, was as a teenager. At the age of 16 he was awarded a special prize for winning all his games in the Metropolitan League. The American Chess Bulltein dubbed him “the boy wonder”. Anthony won his first title, the prestigious Marshall Chess Club Championships, the following year, and was captain of the club’s tournament team.

Anthony became a teacher after receiving an MA degree from the College of the City of New York. He  spent then next 34 years teaching maths, primarily at the Angelo Patri Middle School in the Bronx. He began writing for the American Chess Bulletin at about the same time.  For over 30 years his outspoken opinions of fellow chess players gave him a reputation for harsh personal criticism. He was also often harsh in his criticism of the use of several popular opening moves and the players who used them. His own favourite opening move was also criticised by others. It was a great rival, Reuben Fine, who christened this move at Santasiere’s Folly, indicating his own opinion of the move. Nevertheless, Anthony was a popular chess player. No more so than in his Manhattan apartment where he hosted dinners and chess matches to many fellow players.

Anthony retired from teaching in 1961 and moved to Florida. There, in a slightly more accepting atmosphere, he made less of an effort to hide his sexuality from friends. For 15 years he lived with his younger partner, Hector. It was often a tempestuous relationship, for Hector was a compulsive cleaner and Anthony was not.

Anthony’s health as he grew older meant he had to stop playing chess, and he died following a heart attack in 1977.

There’s so much more to Anthony Santasiere’s life, as indeed there is to Ron’s and Tigran’s. For now it is only needs me to point out that chess and maths have played important parts in all of their lives.

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