Imagine you start a new work and one of the other new colleagues is surprisingly a chess grandmaster. Find out why Georg Meier chose to study, how chess programs changed the profession and where he sees the potential of chess for society.
Why did you choose to play chess? How did it start?
It was chosen for me, because I learned the game according to my mother when I was between three and four years old. I do not remember when she taught me, but I remember from a very young age that it was my favourite board game. But I liked board games in general. Whenever I would like to play something, I was always happy when it could be chess. Whenever I met someone new, my way to initiate a conversation was to ask them if they play chess. Basically I was always looking for playing partners. In my family, chess did not have a certain status, it was considered a worthwhile game but nothing more than that.
When did it become serious?
I guess I somehow was pretty serious because I was playing quite frequently. I did not know that there were clubs, tournaments and chess literature until I went to a sport festival in my hometown Trier when I was nine years old. I tried out different sports and there was a chess stand from a local chess club. So I sat down to play. My mum was there with me. Someone said to my mum: “He is playing pretty well and in two weeks we have the city championship under 11, would you like to play?” And from there, it basically took off, because I played without even being in a club, I qualified for the next stage and the next stage. Then it was already the state championship. I did not manage to qualify for the German Championship. But then I went to a club and trained and the next year I tried again. My mum bought me books so that I could study on my own which I did as a young child.
Was it always possible to pursue chess while going to school?
In elementary school it was no problem. Anyways, school was easy for me and I barely did any homework. My teacher said somehow I am still good enough to get okay grades. So it was fine for me. Then in high school it was more complicated. I was very lucky because the director of my highschool was a strong amateur chess player himself. He basically gave me a carte blanche to go to tournaments. The rule was very simple. As long as my grades are okay, I can take off pretty much whenever I want up to the legal maximum. That allowed me quite a bit of flexibility. A lot of other chess players in Germany did not have these conditions in school which made every tournament participation more difficult to organise.
What did your classmates say?
They were pretty chilled about it. They kind of figured out that in Oberstufe (final two years before graduation) I had more missed hours than the whole course together and they found this kind of funny. It was never an issue. When I came back from a big tournament, the students would ask me how it went, there was always some interest. But I never liked a teacher to say in front of the class “Georg just came back from a tournament and you know what? He is now the German Champion.” I hated this kind of stuff, I did not want to be singled out as “special”. I also represented the school because in Germany, there are school chess championships. You play there as a team and we went a couple of times to the national championships. In this way, I was giving back a little bit to the school.
What fascinates you at the game?
It is very fair. We play with the same information. There is no luck involved at all. You get out what you put in. Such a clean situation you never have in life and since I like to compete one to one this kind of always attracted me, because if you win it was your effort. You are responsible for it. The success is yours. The same with your failures. You learn how to think about it in a responsible manner and you want to figure out what were my mistakes, how can I do better. Also you never cease to learn even if you are the world champion. The fascination never ends and you always try to outsmart the opponent. The better you get, the more skilled they get at outsmarting you. So it always remains interesting.
I guess when time goes by, the more books are on the market and the more complex the game gets, or is there a stagnation? How would you describe it?
The one thing that changed everything is that computer programs play chess and evaluate positions. They are the most powerful tool we have now in chess. Every professional player spends countless hours everyday basically analysing positions with the computer. The computer may tell us what is a good move or that there are three, four, five good moves in a position, and then the human has to figure out himself why this is the right move if you don’t grasp it already. So you go deeper and check different possibilities with the computer until you feel that you soaked up the knowledge. You need to distil it yourself. So it is kind of a man plus machine collaboration. Of course it is only something which exists in this millenium. Before, everyone was analysing the games of the world champions, trying to grasp what they did and why and now everyone’s master is the machine.
That is interesting. How do you feel about it?
It makes professional chess much much tougher, because everyone needs to work very hard to stay on the top. In that sense, as a professional player, I was in between. In my formative years as a player, computers in chess were on the rise, but they were not as dominant as they are now. So even my long-term coach was saying that I am more a player of the old era. Probably it is true. I am happy that I am not a professional player under these circumstances.
How much time and how much work do you put into your chess game?
When I play a tournament, on most days I am doing nothing but preparing for the game, playing the game, eating and sleeping. My mental energy will be completely spent at the end of a tournament. Before a tournament, I try to use whatever free time I have to kind of get into shape, but when I do not have tournaments coming up, I play some games online, quick games, and that’s it. I barely do any real chess training.
Right before a tournament, how do you prepare it? Do you analyse the opponent? Or is it a secret?
No no. Everyone has an opening repertoire. So basically with white and black, we have a set of ways to start the game to steer the character of the struggle into a certain direction. Everytime you get to play your opening, you analyse if it went as expected or if there was a surprise. You find some new angles with every game you are playing with it. We have databases where professional games are recorded all the time. If yesterday an important game was played, a professional may have already analysed it and be ready to discuss it the next day. I may also follow games of top players and openings that interest me and try to learn from their games. So this work on the opening repertoire is very typical.
Other than this, the most straight-forward way is to analyse games after you have played them.
So you learn something with every game?
Yes, especially if you have an opponent who is at your level.
How would you describe your style?
I like to control the situation on the board. It is unpleasant for me when I am hit by a real surprise, something I did not foresee, especially when I have not so much time left for the next decisions. So these two are related. On the other hand, a very important part of preparing for a game is to assess the strengths and the weaknesses of the opponent. So let’s say there is a player like me and we both do not like complex struggles where it is difficult to find one’s way and moves are difficult to make. I may feel that we are both uncomfortable there, but he is even more uncomfortable there than me, so I would change my usual style and use his weakness.
How do you see this?
In his game. For me it is not abstract when I see a game. The pieces are not abstract entities to me, but it is more like in Napoleon’s times, when they were commanding an army on the open battlefield. I see my units, I am experienced in how they cooperate well, how they should be positioned in certain situations, so I can really read what is going on, like on such a battlefield. Every game is the chronicle of such a battle. Before you play a prospective opponent, you go through his recent games and you get a sense of what kind of player you are facing.
Can you apply it also to real life?
There is no direct application to real life situations, but the way a chess player needs to approach the game to become better cultivates useful ways of thinking. You can use these tools in any situation. I have a need and a drive to structure information and a good eye for logical flaws, which is an outcome of my years working on chess. So it is not even conscious anymore. I usually have a different approach to a problem than other people, just because I have spent so many years applying my intellect to chess, it shaped me. But the positive thing is that basically since I am different in my approach, I can always bring some value to a group. This is my impression. At the same time I benefit from the perspectives of others.
After you were a professional player, or you are ..
No, now I am just a very strong amateur.
Okay, so you decided to go to university at some point, why did you?
That is a complicated question. In essence, I was not satisfied with only playing chess. Especially when you are trying to perfect your game, you usually end up spending all your mental capacity on this or a very big proportion and you lose out on the breadth of human experience. I did not want to limit myself to this forever as a career. So studying was my decision to widen my horizon.
Now you have two parallel professions. How do you cope with this?
Basically, the moment I went to university, everything started to shift from 100 % chess. It started to decrease. During my studies, I eventually reached 50 – 50 and this just continued. So now, my chess is at most 10 % and the job 90 % in terms of priorities. This is healthy for me. My mental energy is also limited and I am totally fine with this.
What are the upcoming events for you?
The Chess Olympiad in Chennai, India. It will start on July 27th and end on August 10. For the first time I will represent my mother’s country Uruguay.
The Chess Olympiad was meant to be in Moscow. What do you think of this decision to move it to Chennai?
It’s an obvious decision. You cannot have any type of World Championship in Russia these days.
Why did you decide to change your team and to play for Uruguay?
For the way I see myself in chess right now as a strong amateur, it is much better to play for the Uruguayan team, because they appreciate my presence. I like the people I interact with, the players and the officials. It is a carefree atmosphere that I did not have at the German national team for many reasons, one of them is perhaps that I am not a professional player and so this switch was in line with the broader developments in my life.
How is your team?
I think they are very much looking forward to playing in Chennai. Probably it will be the strongest Uruguayan national team they could ever field. I am in the world rankings much higher than the second strongest Uruguayan player. After my switch was announced, I heard heart-warming stories from the president of the Federation. For instance, he told me about a call from one player who is motivated to work on his chess again so he can make the national team and play with me.
You also have Uruguayan citizenship, right?
Yes, my grandparents fled the Holocaust and my mum was born in Uruguay. They have a law which gives citizenship to all descendants of Uruguyans. I have a brother and we are both Uruguyans by birth and just had to claim our credentials at some point. Germany allows two citizenships when they are acquired by birth. So I never had to choose.
You played multiple times against Magnus Carlsen, the current World Chess Champion. How was it? How would you describe his style?
It can be a very deflating experience, because he is maybe the best player of all time and he is very universal, he can tailor his game to his opponent to a degree no one else can. Even the best players are beaten quite badly at times by him. Actually, I had some well-fought games against him, and one of the games I could have won, but it ended in a draw. I think my record is a couple of losses and a couple of draws. The experience to play against him is something special and very valuable for every player.
How would you describe chess players in general and how were they reflected in the Netflix series “The Queen’s Gambit”?
I think it was a very good depiction of professional chess players. I think being so absorbed by the game is something I can relate to. This idea of addiction: Most of the players are addicted to the game, but if you do not live a healthy lifestyle, you cannot be a very top player. That is one departure from the series. Back in the days in the last millenium, the players were actually more like the main character in the series. There was even one world champion – Mikhail Tal –, who was a famous Bohemian, he was smoking, drinking…. When he passed away, they could not decide which organ failure was the cause of death because all organs failed more or less at the same time. So yes, this existed. Like in any sport or activity like this, often, very very talented people are kind of extreme in many ways. This has nothing to do with chess in itself.
What is going to happen at the Chess Olympiad in Chennai?
The name is a bit misleading, because it has nothing to do with the Olympic Games. Nobody stops the World Chess Federation from using this name for its tournament, but a more accurate name would be “World Team Championship”. So there is an open section, I think they expect almost 190 teams to show up, basically all member federations of the World Chess Federations can field a team. At the same place, there is also the women’s competition, and they also expect 150 – 160 teams. Every team is made up of 4 players and an alternate, so basically every day after the conclusion of a round, the next pairings are created. You learn which team you are facing, you see the line of five people, you try to guess which four are going to play the next day. Everyone starts preparing. The next morning, the actual line-up needs to be submitted and there are a few more hours until the actual game starts. This is basically the main story of the event. We have some rest days. In total we play 11 games, so one game per day and a rest day in the middle.
What do you expect to happen in Chennai?
Probably the United States is going to win the open competition. Hopefully, the Uruguayan team will have a great time and I hope that being there the first time representing Uruguay that I simply manage to be in good form and post a good result. Ideally, to help the team to have the best result in their history so far. That would be a nice start.
We already talked about how chess can influence your thinking, where do you see the potential of chess in general for society?
I think it is a fantastic tool for the education of children. Not in terms of being forced on any child, nothing should be forced on any child, but it is very useful to offer children this game. The children who like it may go deeper and it will automatically develop some traits that are useful in everyday life and in the formation of character. To sit and think about your decision and to learn that you are responsible for the outcome, that you can learn from your mistakes, this is all something that you want children to develop.
It is already widely used in the development context. In South America, many governments are supporting chess at schools. In African countries there are also programs which are growing rapidly and gaining more and more attention. There are some countries which actually introduced chess classes in elementary schools. One which comes into my mind is Armenia. I think Georgia also started something like this. Even in Germany, there are some schools that replace classes in mathematics with chess classes one or two hours per week. There are not that many studies. Usually everyone cites the same one and it points to the results of the children who had chess instead of more maths doing better in several fields.
Fields where you have to think logically.
Even in languages it seems to be useful. There is quite a significant group of players who have a remarkable capacity for foreign languages. I speak four languages but there are guys who speak 10. It impresses me every time. It seems to be related to chess.
How do you see yourself in the future? Chess-wise?
I do not have a specific goal anymore. I like to play. I just choose a few events which will be nice and enjoy this as my special hobby.
I am at the beginning, like you. I do not have grand plans. I will take it step by step.
Thank you so much for the interview!
You are welcome.
Is there anything you want to tell, something that I missed?
No, you ask good questions 🙂
Interviewer: Julia Solbach
Editor: Marco Antonio Cristalli
Photographs: Anna Solbach & Julia Solbach
The cover photo was taken at the German national chess league’s tournament on 21 May 2022 in Sögel, North Germany.
Photograph of the exposition: Une installation de Refik Anadol et Refik Anadol Studio (RAS)
MABU Collection / mabu.eth