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The Queen's Gambit and COVID: Checkmate

An international chess game is brewing as Russia has positioned more than 100,000 troops close to the border with Ukraine. Any further escalation would bring onto the battlefield the entanglements of superpowers with disastrous consequences. In an attempt to avert this catastrophe, high-level negotiations are now under way in Switzerland.

Failure to negotiate a settlement, a peace, or a stalemate could open up a boiling cauldron of military engagement. The negotiators are in the midst of a high-stakes game—an epic contest of brinkmanship much like the championship chess match in 1972 between the Russian Boris Spassky and the American savant Bobby Fischer.

Of Kings and Queens

The Queen’s Gambit, a fascinating motion picture, brought the chess world once again into sharp focus just last year. The story: In a deteriorating orphanage of suffering, a young girl becomes mesmerized with the game of chess. An elderly caretaker on the premises teaches her the subtleties of the game; she attracts an international following and becomes the world champion.

The troops on the border of Ukraine are not playing a board game. The US negotiators are not playing a board game. Nobody's king is in jeopardy. The world is in jeopardy. And not just from military troops playing high-stakes chicken because an even more powerful player has entered the game.

COVID is on the board, and we are nearing “game over” from a world pandemic.

On any given day we are seeing a million new cases of COVID (not counting the unimaginable number of positive home tests). The healthcare delivery system is buckling under the weight of new patients. Never in our history have so many children been hospitalized with COVID complications. Our social fabric is again unraveling and disintegrating in some of our largest cities; entire school districts have been shut down; and the Supreme Court is debating the legality of vaccine mandates. The slow trickle of stay-at-home workers back to their bricks and mortar facilities has essentially been put on hold.

And the world is holding its breath behind a mask (I hope) as the pandemic drama plays out like a sick game of chess complete with opposing forces amassing against each other.

What We Need to Know Now: The Rules Evolve

  • The omicron mutation is one of the most infectious, contagious, and transmissible viral infections known to humankind. A casual encounter with an infected person especially if neither are wearing masks can pose a tremendous risk.

  • Recognize that for most individuals the infection is mild from omicron, but if you are at high risk because of age and serious medical conditions, this could land you in the hospital with ominous complications. And you could infect other compromised individuals even if your symptoms are “just sniffles” or “a mild headache.” The bullet you or your child think you dodged may be game over for Grandma or the neighbor or the guy at the grocery store.

  • We do not know the long-term consequences of “long COVID,” just as we didn’t know the long-term consequences of polio until they surfaced years later.

  • Let us all anticipate a shifting landscape of recommendations. Who should get tested and if positive whether with or without symptoms, how should we next proceed? It’s not rocket science, but staying safe and home and away from others, no matter your positive or negative status, is proven to work.

The Rest of the Story

By way of interest, because I am fascinated with the game of chess, Boris Spassky had been the reigning world champion and was part of the Russian hegemony of champions controlling the game for a quarter of a century.

His combatant, Bobby Fischer, was the only son of a single mother living in a walk-up apartment in Brooklyn. Even at an early age he was shiftless, unfocused, and essentially bereft of friends or any athletic ability. His sister, according to urban legend, bought him a primitive chessboard and the rest was history.

Fisher became totally immersed in the game and developed the tremendous reputation in the New York City area for his chess prowess. He dropped out of high school at sixteen and transformed the game. And this led to the epic contest of the two chess gladiators in Iceland in 1972.

At that time in history, political tensions were notably high between the Soviet Union and the United States. I vividly recall the world essentially stopping as the media focused on every move on the board while chess cognoscenti weighed in with their interpretations and analyses of each move—as if the world powers were playing out their military moves on a chessboard.

On August 31 after forty moves, Spassky resigned the match, and Fischer became the undisputed, uncontested world champion. Fischer was aggressive, anticipated key moves, and brilliantly brought to the table the nuances of chess strategy to dethrone the Russian champ.

For Spassky and Fischer, the stakes on the board were not life or death. But as with chess, we need to know the COVID rules, we need to anticipate, we need to plan accordingly, or our fate may be “checkmate.” Game over.

Image from Unsplash.

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