Michael Weinreb talks to us about Penn State football, whether chess is a sport, and watching the Mavs win Game 6 during his wedding.
The “What’s a sport? What isn’t a sport?” discussion is always a pointless one. No one knows what a sport actually is, and you can’t use something as a label if you don’t even really know what that label represents. Sure, it hasn’t stopped any of us from having that conversation, but it never leads anywhere.
A mindset like “If you can’t die doing this thing, it is not a sport! Now, where’d I park my truck?” obscures how interesting so many of the games at the edge of this discussion are. Take chess. It really is fascinating, if you let it be. It might not be directly physically demanding like football, but it’s just as demanding in other ways. Yes, chess.
As Nigel Short, a British grandmaster, told Andrew Anthony of the Guardian in May:
I don’t think outsiders understand the levels of stress involved. If you’re in time trouble, your heart rate can easily double during a game. Normally when your heart rate is doubling you should be physically moving—so in chess there is no outlet for this stress. I think what happens is that people are getting some sort of mental injuries that are not necessarily detected. Whereas a sportsman with a hamstring problem will receive immediate treatment, you can develop neurotic ideas in chess and they’re just never treated.
Kinda scary, isn’t it?
So, for this week, I spoke to Michael Weinreb, the author of Game of Kings, a story chronicling a year with the chess team at Brooklyn’s Edward R. Murrow High School and their run for a national championship.
Weinreb also wrote Bigger Than the Game, about the rise of the celebrity athlete in the 80’s. His work has appeared in GQ, The New York Times, and Best American Sportswriting. He’s currently a staff writer for Grantland, and you can should follow him on Twitter.
Is there a moment from you childhood that stands out as a “Holy crap! Sports are awesome” moment, a moment that hooked you?
Not really one. It was always just there. We had one malfunctioning television and the remote control didn’t exist yet, so my first job in life was to change the channel and readjust the volume when it inexplicably went mute. I lived in New York until I was five, and I have a vague memory of watching Cosmos games and Yankee games, and then my dad became a professor at Penn State, and I started going to football games with 90,000 other people (one of my first memories of crowd behavior is people mooing like impatient steer while waiting to get up the ramp to their seats). When Penn State beat Nebraska in 1982, I was there, even if I was too short to see Mike McCloskey catch a pass that was five yards out of bounds. I’m sure the paradigm through which I view sports would be different if I grew up somewhere else, but they’d probably be just as important to me.
At the end of the day, sports are just sports. We say they’re supposed to be a diversion, but for a lot of us, they’re more than that—even if you’re not covering sports for a living. Do you agree?
Technically, music is a diversion, and movies are a diversion, but they’ve come to signify a lot more than that. Sports are an essential diversion for a lot us. As long as we don’t construct our whole identity through them, I don’t see any reason to be ashamed of that.
With the Internet cutting down barriers, sportswriting has become so much more than just game recaps, trade roundups, rumors, and quotes. There’s just so much more creative, insightful, entertaining, and important stuff being produced each day. Would you say so?
I’ve always thought that sports evokes some of the best writing you’ll ever read and some of the the worst writing you’ll ever read, and I’d say that’s still the case. It’s just shifted from one medium to another. I don’t think sportswriting was ever just game recaps and quotes—if you go back and read the Washington Post in 1986, or find a back issue of Inside Sports or SI, there was some pretty damn great feature writing being produced. One of the things that excites me about Grantland is that we’re trying to find ways to showcase some of that stuff, and pay homage to our forebears (and hopefully to experiment with new forms, as well). It’s important those kinds of thoughtful and well-constructed stories don’t get lost.
You wrote a book about a HS chess team in Brooklyn. Chess fascinates me. In every sport, you get to release all the built-up anxiety and pressure by actually physically playing, but with chess, you’re just sitting there, moving pieces with all this tension building up inside. And none of that gets released while you’re playing, which is kind of scary. Is chess a sport? How do you view it?
I don’t know how to define it. I’ve never really cared much about definitions; if it has a competitive element, I’m probably going to be interested. I happen to think a movie about Donkey Kong was probably the best sports documentary of the past decade. I’ve never really thought golf was a sport, but it’s on the sports page, so I don’t see why chess shouldn’t be, as well. You sit in a room for eight hours watching chess and all that pent-up tension certainly starts to reveal itself. There’s a certain amount of physical endurance required. I saw kids run out of the room screaming. I saw them crying. After a while, the place smells like a locker room. It wasn’t always pleasant.
As a man, what have sports meant to you?
I once got into an argument with my wife after watching that tedious Robert Altman movie about ballet. I was trying to argue that football was as much of an art as dance. It was a deeply flawed argument, but it’s sort of how I feel. Then again, I think that has more to do with me being irascible than it has anything to do with gender.
Why do you think sports are such an important part of life for so many men?
I believe it’s the beer commercials.
And last, is there one specific moment in your life that really signifies what sports are really all about for you?
I got married in June, the night the Mavericks won Game 6, and everyone kept sneaking out to the bar to watch the end, including me. And so I’m sitting in front of a television with pretty much every single friend I’ve ever had who cares about sports, and every other friend of mine (and my wife) is just downstairs. That was kind of a perfect night.