I never saw the film Searching for Bobby Fischer, but twenty years ago I read the book (I had an unhealthy interest in the fate of supposed boy geniuses, at the time) and it made an impression; in particular, I remember the book as a sort of competition between (on the one hand) the mentors who wanted young Josh to succeed in his steep climb up the international ladder of "straight" chess, which took hours and days per game and years for any career, and (on the other) the Washington Square Park maestros of speed chess, the hustlers and the amateurs who played the game with a strict clock-- so strict that it became a different game, one whose demands for quick, instinctive, no-looking-back decisions could (we were told) ruin a young player for the more serious, longer-term, higher-stakes, more intellectually demanding "straight" game.

Unlike a certain Irish poet and critic, I've never had any gift at all for chess-- I was periodically embarrassed in middle school by people who thought that a kid with good grades and some interest (not a serious interest, as it turned out) in math must be competent with rooks and pawns. I am, though, interested in competitions, and in new analogies for endeavors I think about constantly: literary criticism, for example. And with my return to this blog after a year away (thanks, guys!), my academic writing (necessarily slower than some other kinds of writing, since it needs footnotes and takes a while to go through the press), my book reviewing (necessarily faster than some other kinds of writing, since few editors want a review of a book five years old), my work with a nifty organization devoted to book reviewing, and my off-and-on-again relationship (off this week, thanks so much) with my own poems, I've started to think about speed chess again.

Is speed chess to "serious" chess as book reviewing, or blogging, or the giving of "craft talks" all over town, is to the writing of longer-term, supposedly more durable kinds of criticism? Is speed chess to "serious" chess as book reviewing, or almost any criticism, is to the writing of poems? Does one activity-- undertaken on deadline, for immediate attention, with an eye to what happened just now-- unfit you, or me, for the other, which requires a lot more patience, foresight, willingness to take risks based on expectations about how the far future (thirty moves ahead; readers a decade from today) will turn out?

Speed chess is supposedly addictive; it gives you a kind of adrenaline rush (if you're good at it). You can get addicted to blogging, I guess. Can you get addicted to book reviewing? What are the symptoms? Is there a reason to quit?

Originally Published: April 27th, 2011

Steph Burt is a poet, literary critic, and professor. In 2012, the New York Times called Burt “one of the most influential poetry critics of his generation.” Burt grew up around Washington, DC and earned a BA from Harvard and PhD from Yale. She has published three collections of poems: Belmont (2013), Parallel Play (2006), and...