So I take white and make a strong opening salvo. After six moves, I completely control the center of the board. Lakdawala sits back and kind of smiles over at me. "So you know how to play this game," he says. I swell with pride. I figure my only chance, playing an IM, is to try and take him by surprise. "I actually don't like my position right now at all," Lakdawala says, and leans forward again. And a few Chess Club members start to mill around, commenting that I clearly hold the upper hand.
It doesn't last long. Lakdawala attacks me with his bishop and his queen. Eight moves later, the game's over. I've been mated.
"I thought you were just a journalist," Lakdawala says. "But you play pretty well. You should join the Chess Club."
The San Diego Chess Club has been around since the 1960s. Today, the club boasts 200 members, aged 9 to 84, who get together for tournaments on Wednesdays and Saturdays, as well as for informal games throughout the week.
Walking around the fluorescently lit main hall of the club, I look at the framed portraits and write-ups of former chess world champions, and it reminds me how I've always thought of chess as a silent blood sport, as well as a quest for immortality.
By 7:30 p.m., 90 or so of the strongest players in the area are bent over their boards, locked in battle. They'd all arrived with their zip-up bags full of plastic pieces and green-and-white roll-out chessboards and nifty time clocks. They'd checked to see who they were playing, and then they'd begun. It's the 2007 Club Championship, and the only sounds are the whir of heating fans, the intermittent taps of 45 time clocks, and the creaking of 90 chairs.
"The game is a lot more tension-filled than it appears," Lakdawala explains later over the telephone. "You know, your heartbeat rises as you play. Your hands get sweaty. Every Saturday I play in the local weekly tournament at the Chess Club, which is called the Gambito, and it's pretty routine. I've been playing in it for about six years. And still, every Saturday morning, I get kind of this little, mild stomachache. Because it really feels like you're going into battle. It's just unbelievable how tiring a full day of chess is."
So you think chess is a sport?
"It's definitely a sport," he says. "There's no question about it."
So you're an athlete?
"Yeah. I don't look like an athlete. I'm this overweight 46-year-old. But it's a different type of muscle. Your brain only works for so long. You can only put it through so many hours of intense concentration. And then it gives in and says, 'I'm too tired. I can't go on.' It's a different type of pushing yourself. You're really straining to not let your concentration lapse. Or let your calculations slow down or become inaccurate. And it's more like force of will. When you think of an athlete, you think of muscles. Like a sprinter is using leg power. It's mainly physical. But chess is a sport, and the muscle is your will."
Isn't chess also an art?
"You think that the result of the game and the outcome of the tournament are what matter most, but after about a year or two, you don't even think about the tournament or who won or lost. You just think about the game itself, and that's the thing that lasts, that you can show to people and you can publish. To me, chess is the most beautiful thing I've ever seen that was created by the human mind."
What about the scientific aspects of chess? The observations, experimentations, collection of data, and testing of hypotheses? Isn't chess also a science?
"That's a very satisfying aspect of the game," Lakdawala agrees. "Preparing for a game against a dangerous opponent, I come up with different strategies for whether I'm going to be playing white or black. I have strategies lined up against their opening systems before the game begins. So whichever opponent I get, and whichever color pieces I have, I'm ready. I've worked out things at home. And of course, they've done the same thing. So it becomes this game of paranoia. They know that you know that they know. You're basically trying to get inside your opponent's mind so you can understand what they're going to do. So it's scientific, because you know the exact positions that are likely to arise. You put these on databases, and you research those positions, and you look for new ideas within those positions. Then you have a whole host of incredibly strong computer programs, and they will bang out suggestion after suggestion, and every once in a while, the computer will come up with some move that just makes you go, 'Wow.' "
Are computers better than people are at chess?
"I'd say definitely, yes," Lakdawala says, and this surprises me. "At the very highest level, there's still a doubt. But you know, recently, the world champion, Vladimir Kramnik, very decisively lost a six-game match 4-2 against the program Deep Fritz. And if the world champion is being manhandled, you know, a lower-level professional player has no chance against a strong chess-playing computer."
So if human psychology and the human will and the human sense of beauty can be crushed by the scientific ability of a computer to maintain data and crunch possibilities, then this argues against chess being an art.
"I disagree," Lakdawala says. "I think the computer is just the tool used by the artist. If you have an Olympic sprinter, he's not going to be upset that the Porsche beat him in the hundred meters. And so, to me, I hear that argument a lot, and I just think of computers as a tool. We created them. And so, anything they produce has been created by us. I see them as a scientific tool that can be used."