Phil Kaveny

The Works of Philip Kaveny

The game of chess has always been a light in my life and the way I met my wife.

The game of chess has always been a light in my life and the way I met my wife.



The game of chess has always been a light in my life. Sometimes a beacon that lighted my way back from my apparent resignation from the human’s race and a descent into a shell of personal nihilism from which there was no exit. There was a dark time in my life when my chess game was all I had. If you follow this link  you will find an autobiographical story of how I played a chess game for a soul I claimed I did not have, but, found I wanted my soul  back more than anything. I met every woman in my life because I am a chess player. Once Peter Dorman a chess master told Jan Bogstad who was to be my wife of thirty years and my significant other for 13 before that two thousand hours of study was way less the usual ten thousand hours it takes to become an expert anything would make me a master. That was after I finished tied for second place behind him in the largest chess tournament ever held in Madison Wisconsin, out one hundred and fifty competitors.


I met Jan Bogstad when I was 28 the day before Nixon was elected. And though I was a film maker sober for almost fifteen months and down to a trim two hundred and eighty pounds she thought I was fat arrogant and self-centered, just because I had beautiful women thronging rocks at my second story windows early in the morning demanding chess lessons. I met her through one of my chess opponents named Barry Finklestien, who at the time was one Jan’s fellow graduate students in UW-Madison Comparative Literature department, which was at the 1972 one of the best in world. That was when Jan told me she would not spent her life watching me die on a chess board. As our relationship developed she expanded the list of prohibited occupations to, bear wrestling, gun dealing, professional wrestling, and or mixed martial arts. So, I followed her into literature.

A History of Chess: The Original 1913 Edition (Facsimile)
H. J. R. Murray
Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.
307 West 36th Street, 11th Floor
New York, NY 10018
978-1620870624 $17.95

Skyhorse Publishing should be proud of making A History of Chess, originally published in 1913 available in a handsome and affordable trade paperback format. Artistically illustrated, it would make an ideal gift for any chess beginner, enthusiast or serious competitive player. It also would be of interest to the student of history, material culture or culture studies. Further, even in these days of dwindling book budgets A History of Chess: The Original 1913 Edition H. J. R. Murray Facsimile Edition is a must have item for every public, middle, high school, college, research and special library. Our world has now become, on the upside, a realization of Marshall McLuhan’s “Global Village,” and on the down side is balanced on the razor’s edge of unlimited possibility or the abyss; just as was it was nearly a hundred and three years ago in 1913 when this magnificent work appeared, one year before World War One shattered the world.

World War One, “The war to end all wars” broke out in 1914. The late great American writer Kurt Vonnegut, the Mark Twain of the  of the last half of the 20th Century said it best when he described World War One and its second half replay World War Two, which started less than twenty one years after guns fell silent on the Western Front, as the world’s two only barely unsuccessful suicide attempts.

I’ve spent nearly half a century of playing and teaching chess, as well as giving university guest lectures on the social history of change in European class structure reflected in the changes in the game of chess. One of the most amusing things I ever did was hold a small international chess tournament in my apartment above a long-demolished block in Madison, Wisconsin in 1972. We held the tournament as we watched the live telecast of the sorrow, pity and courage of the late Bobby Fischer wresting the world chess championship from Boris Spassky and the Soviet Chess Colossus. What I mean by that was in 1972 chess was a theatre of the Cold War, and chess was Russia’s national sport, heavily financed by the Soviet government. Fischer on his own resources succeeded despite harassment by the US government. I think this partially exonerates Fischer’s anti-Semitism; he was half Jewish himself. I feel qualified to hold an opinion on this book.

Now I need to say more about the A History of Chess, described as a historic undertaking that shattered preconceptions about the game upon its release. Over a century later, Murray’s research, in which he argues that chess originated in India, is still widely accepted by most chess historians. Undertaking such a pioneering task, the scope of which has never been attempted before or since, Murray was required to learn to read Arabic to decipher historical manuscripts on the game. Divided into sections, Murray’s study unravels the history of the game as it evolved from its Asiatic beginnings through the role chess played in Europe during the Middle Ages, up until the arrival of modern chess as we know it in the nineteenth century. Accompanied by diagrams of transcribed important games, as well as some of the more famous historical chess pieces, such as the Lewis chessman, no single work on the game of chess has come close to touching Murray’s in breadth or significance.


Yet even in the sort of daunting descriptive language a very human, even brilliant Murray comes through as he reflects about the differences between western and non-western variations of the game of chess. He notes that from about the 15th century on in the west various forms of chess notation were used to record the moves in important games so that they could be analyzed, and thus new knowledge synthesized, so over the centuries the game progressed, this did not happen in its non-western variants. Geo-political historian Paul Kennedy observes that in the mid-fifteenth century Mongols still occupy vast areas of Russia, the Crusaders fail to hold The Holy Land, much of Spain is still non-Christian, and the rise of the west over the next four and a half centuries until World War One is not a done deal. If we think about Paul Kennedy’s observation about the west in 1450 considering Murray’s in 1913 about Chess analysis, and thus new knowledge through synthesis, perhaps what Murray observed about the progression of western vs. non-western chess might have been part of a generalized historical process.

This part of my review article where I say something about my own personal relationship to the game which violates some rules of academic engagement, something I have spent a lifetime doing. Sometimes unintentionally and sometimes with extreme malice of forethought and some might say philosophical rudeness. For example, in the Vietnam era I was politely asked to leave graduate school at UW-Madison for writing nothing but rude four-letter words on my final exam. Elsewhere I claimed to have earned four F’s on all my finals. In fairness, it was only one and after I was once again admitted to this great University the in 90’s the guy who gave me the F said he had never seen a guy work so hard for a grade. Of course, I did what I did for the same reasons that my entire blue flavored baby boomers had. We were, in the words of the French Existential philosopher Albert Camus, having trouble loving our country and justice at the same time.

After I left graduate school I stayed in Madison since it was my home and over the next three years pulled my life out of an alcoholic spiral of death. Also because of my chess abilities I fell into the bad company of a bunch of young graduate students working in a theoretical area of mathematics called topology, all of whom were better chess player then I — at least at first. They were like the cast of “The Big Bang Theory” including the girls, and they kept me around as a kind of buffoon, but they all knew by heart Mark Twain’s caution that the greatest swordsman does not fear the second greatest; he fears the worst who isn’t afraid to die. That was me. In other words, they had to play me and it was a humiliation to lose me. Of course, we all became good friends in the way that only socially challenged outsiders know. And frankly my game got a lot better, because though I am dyslexic and cannot read chess score I can see through the cloud of war that becomes a chess board.

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As a matter of fact I developed a reputation for developing attacks against my opponent’s king that seem to arise like a phantom out of nowhere, and since this sort of thing seemed at least a little unusual for me a six foot one inch three hundred and fifty pound former college heavyweight wrestler I became known to a whole generation of chess player at the UW-Madison Wisconsin Union’s rathskeller “The Phantom”. My signature gesture upon victory was to take my opponents nose between my index and finger and chant you been forked by the phat guy.

So back to the subject of my own little international chess tournament which was held concurrently with the 1972 Fisher Spassky Reykjavik, Iceland world championship, in my apartment which had all the charm of an abandoned Foreign Legion Post. It was above Bob and Gene’s Bar, a college dive in the now demolished and gentrified six hundred block of University Ave in Madison Wisconsin. Incidentally Dr. Steven Jones, one of our participants who was former US Amateur Chess Champion who knew and played against Fischer, flew to Reykjavik for the second half of the match. As I remember I was the only one of the eight participants in my double round robin tournament that did not have a doctorate in theoretical math, and as I remember out of a possible fourteen points I only score one half for a single draw.


By this time the University of Wisconsin had granted me a full time civil service janitor’s job which I held my entire working lifetime, after a thirteen-year binge from age thirteen to twenty-six where I was drinking to blackout. I quit drinking and with the grace that god seems to have for small children, drunks and idiots, I never started again. At this same time through my chess connections I met this tall beautifully disdainful graduate student in Comparative Literature who found me arrogant, fat, and self- centered.

The first time she came up to my foreign legion post I showed her a chess problem and sent her home. Later she became the love of my life and my wife for most of the last forty years. She admits that the first times she came up she was quite disappointed when I just showed her the problem and sent her home, because she was truly looking for an opportunity to test the can of pepper spray she had in her back pack She has risen to the rank of full professor here at UW-EauClaire and sometimes we team teach in the honors program. And she says I am still the same boy she met forty years ago, arrogant, fat and self-centered. By the way as I write this, just because it will make her mad, she is presenting a paper at and International Science, Education, Technology and Medicine Conference in Beijing, China.

I admit that in that roomful of international math geniuses that graced my little tournament I may not have been the brightest bulb in the room. So, any way I asked them these two questions. The first being how you come up with the metaphysical axioms that must ground your mathematical system? Secondly, how long will it be before computers will beat the world champion? This Norwegian guy started to give an answer by saying, picture a granite mountain at the end of the world one hundred miles high tall. Now imagine a sparrow that flies over that mountain every hundred years and brushes it with its wing tip. But before he could get any farther we pantzed him and he shut up.

All the fellowship in that magic instance forty years ago rebooted my life and broke the trajectory of what would have been an inevitable death spiral. The answer to my first questions was this: Axioms are conventions of agreement, not observations. My second question arose out of conversations I was having with a professor of computer science who was trying to program a computer to play chess even at my level using what they called at that time artificial intelligence or A.I., which really came to a dead end because of fundamental structural differences between computers and human brains. Also, any decent chess player wins not by following the rule or algorithm, but by knowing when to violate these. Of course, IBM did it with Deep Blue in the mid-90’s. But the way the answer in 1972 was this: The computer would have to be as big as the Empire State Building and cooled by Niagara Falls. Someone added yes, and half the people in the world would have to work at programing it, and the other half would have to work to feed them. Of course, the punch line is that the computer they are talking about has been reduced in size by the last thirty iterations of Moore’s Law and now powers my iPad, weighs three pounds and can run apps I cannot even list on a twelve-hour battery rechargeable battery.

In the last forty since I grew up and stopped playing chess as a bloodsport it has become a gateway to a better way to live. It has also been a way to make human connections with smart people and a way to formulate philosophical problems even when philosophers deny their very existence. When I sobered up in 1971 I made a film called “Death of a Chess Player.” It was grim, it was pretentious, it was artistic and it lead to a lifetime of production in community media. The film opened with a very long dolly shot of hundred empty tables all covered with chess boards with the black king in checkmate. I was the last guy for the master to beat in a simultaneous exhibition. My character denied human warm and beauty in his obsession to beat the master. When that is done all the character can do is commit suicide. The moral of my film was for me in real life was to escape the trap had snared my soul in I was in through the redemptive power of art. Thus, chess became a warm and nurturing life giving activity, and I as neither the Phantom tweaked nor more noses, well maybe a couple more but only if they really needed it.


One comment on “The game of chess has always been a light in my life and the way I met my wife.

  1. Grace
    July 28, 2017

    Phil, I just learned a lot about chess. Never had a decent opponent – actually only had an opponent a few times. So I never really learned it. Good to read your thoughts and experience.


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