Beth Harmon and the Inner World of Squares

The other day Dana and I finished watching The Queen’s Gambit, Netflix’s fictional saga of an orphaned girl in the 1960’s, Beth Harmon, who breaks into competitive chess and destroys one opponent after the next in her quest to become the world champion, while confronting her inner demons and addictions.

The show is every bit as astoundingly good as everyone says it is, and I might be able to articulate why. It’s because, perhaps surprisingly given the description, this is a story where chess actually matters—and indeed, the fact that chess matters so deeply to Beth and most of the other characters is central to the narrative.  (As in two pivotal scenes where Beth has sex with a male player, and then either she or he goes right back to working on chess.)

I’ve watched a lot of TV shows and movies, supposedly about scientists, where the science was just an interchangeable backdrop to what the writers clearly regarded as a more important story.  (As one random example, the drama NUMB3RS, supposedly about an FBI mathematician, where “math” could’ve been swapped out for “mystical crime-fighting intuition” with barely any change.)

It’s true that a fictional work about scientists shouldn’t try to be a science documentary, just like Queen’s Gambit doesn’t try to be a chess documentary.  But if you’re telling a story about characters who are obsessed with topic X, then you need to make their obsession plausible, make the entire story hinge on it, and even make the audience vicariously feel the same obsession.

This is precisely what Queen’s Gambit does for chess.  It’s a chess drama where the characters are constantly talking about chess, thinking about chess, and playing chess—and that actually succeeds in making that riveting.  (Even if most of the audience can’t follow what’s happening on the board, it turns out that it doesn’t matter, since you can simply convey the drama through the characters’ faces and the reactions of those around them.)

Granted, a few aspects of competitive chess in the series stood out as jarringly unrealistic even to a novice like me: for example, the almost complete lack of draws.  But as for the board positions—well, apparently Kasparov was a consultant, and he helped meticulously design each one to reflect the characters’ skill levels and what was happening in the plot.

While the premise sounds like a feminist wish-fulfillment fantasy—orphan girl faces hundreds of intimidating white men in the sexist 1960s, orphan girl beats them all at their own game with style and aplomb—this is not at all a MeToo story, or a story about male crudity or predation.  It’s after bigger fish than that.  The series, you might say, conforms to all the external requirements of modern woke ideology, yet the actual plot subverts the tenets of that ideology, or maybe just ignores them, in its pursuit of more timeless themes.

At least once Beth Harmon enters the professional chess world, the central challenges she needs to overcome are internal and mental—just like they’re supposed to be in chess.  It’s not the Man or the Patriarchy or any other external power (besides, of course, skilled opponents) holding her down.  Again and again, the top male players are portrayed not as sexist brutes but as gracious, deferential, and even awestruck by Beth’s genius after she’s humiliated them on the chessboard.  And much of the story is about how those vanquished opponents then turn around and try to help Beth, and about how she needs to learn to accept their help in order to evolve as a player and a human being.

There’s also that, after defeating male player after male player, Beth sleeps with them, or at least wants to.  I confess that, as a teenager, I would’ve found that unlikely and astonishing.  I would’ve said: obviously, the only guys who’d even have a chance to prove themselves worthy of the affection of such a brilliant and unique woman would be those who could beat her at chess.  Anyone else would just be dirt between her toes.  In the series, though, each male player propositions Beth only after she’s soundly annihilated him.  And she’s never once shown refusing.

Obviously, I’m no Beth Harmon; I’ll never be close in my field to what she is in hers.  Equally obviously, I grew up in a loving family, not an orphanage.  Still, I was what some people would call a “child prodigy,” what with the finishing my PhD at 22 and whatnot, so naturally that colored my reaction to the show.

There’s a pattern that goes like this: you’re obsessively interested, from your first childhood exposure, in something that most people aren’t.  Once you learn what the something is, it’s evident to you that your life’s vocation couldn’t possibly be anything else, unless some external force prevents you.  Alas, in order to pursue the something, you first need to get past bullies and bureaucrats, who dismiss you as a nobody, put barriers in your way, despise whatever you represent to them.  After a few years, though, the bullies can no longer stop you: you’re finally among peers or superiors in your chosen field, regularly chatting with them on college campuses or at conferences in swanky hotels, and the main limiting factor is just the one between your ears. 

You feel intense rivalries with your new colleagues, of course, you desperately want to excel them, but the fact that they’re all on the same obsessive quest as you means you can never actually hate them, as you did the bureaucrats or the bullies.  There’s too much of you in your competitors, and of them in you.

As you pursue your calling, you feel yourself torn in the following way.  On the one hand, you feel close to a moral obligation to humanity not to throw away whatever “gift” you were “given” (what loaded terms), to take the calling as far as it will go.  On the other hand, you also want the same things other people want, like friendship, validation, and of course sex.

In such a case, two paths naturally beckon.  The first is that of asceticism: making a virtue of eschewing all temporal attachments, romance or even friendship, in order to devote yourself entirely to the calling.  The second is that of renouncing the calling, pretending it never existed, in order to fit in and have a normal life.  Your fundamental challenge is to figure out a third path, to plug yourself into a community where the relentless pursuit of the unusual vocation and the friendship and the sex can all complement each other rather than being at odds.

It would be an understatement to say that I have some familiarity with this narrative arc.

I’m aware, of course, of the irony, that I can identify with so many contours of Beth Harmon’s journey—I, Scott Aaronson, who half the Internet denounced six years ago as a misogynist monster who denies the personhood and interiority of women.  In that life-alteringly cruel slur, there was a microscopic grain of truth, and it’s this: I’m not talented at imagining myself into the situations of people different from me.  It’s never been my strong suit.  I might like and admire people different from me, I might sympathize with their struggles and wish them every happiness, but I still don’t know what they’re thinking until they tell me.  And even then, I don’t fully understand it.

As one small but illustrative example, I have no intuitive understanding—zero—of what it’s like to be romantically attracted to men, or what any man could do or say or look like that could possibly be attractive to women.  If you have such an understanding, then imagine yourself sighted and me blind.  Intellectually, I might know that confidence or height or deep brown eyes or brooding artistry are supposed to be attractive in human males, but only because I’m told.  As far as my intuition is concerned, pretty much all men are equally hairy, smelly, and gross, a large fraction of women are alluring and beautiful and angelic, and both of those are just objective features of reality that no one could possibly see otherwise.

Thus, whenever I read or watch fiction starring a female protagonist who dates men, it’s very easy for me to imagine that protagonist judging me, enumerating my faults, and rejecting me, and very hard for me to do what I’m supposed to do, which is to put myself into her shoes.  I could watch a thousand female protagonists kiss a thousand guys onscreen, or wake up in bed next to them, and the thousandth-and-first time I’d still be equally mystified about what she saw in such a sweaty oaf and why she didn’t run from him screaming, and I’d snap out of vicariously identifying with her.  (Understanding gay men of course presents similar difficulties; understanding lesbians is comparatively easy.)

It’s possible to overcome this, but it takes an extraordinary female protagonist, brought to life by an extraordinary writer.  Off the top of my head, I can think of only a few.  There were Renee Feuer and Eva Mueller, the cerebral protagonists of Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s The Mind-Body Problem and The Late Summer Passion of a Woman of Mind.  Maybe Ellie Arroway from Carl Sagan’s Contact.  And then there’s Beth Harmon.  With characters like these, I can briefly enter a space where their crushes on men seem no weirder or more inexplicable to me than my own teenage crushes … just, you know, inverted.  Sex is in any case secondary to the character’s primary urge to discover timeless truths, an urge that I fully understand because I’ve shared it.

Granted, the timeless truths of chess, an arbitrary and invented game, are less profound than those of quantum gravity or the P vs. NP problem, but the psychology is much the same, and The Queen’s Gambit does a good job of showing that.  To understand the characters of this series is to understand why they could be happier to lose an interesting game than to win a boring one.  And I could appreciate that, even if I was by no means the strongest player at my elementary school’s chess club, and the handicap with which I can beat my 7-year-old daughter is steadily decreasing.

82 Responses to “Beth Harmon and the Inner World of Squares”

  1. pku31 Says:

    I’m curious, have you ever watched Hikaru No Go? The part about Chess coming across as really mattering to the characters sounds like the same thing that made it so successful.

  2. Scott Says:

    pku31: I haven’t. Should I?

  3. pku31 Says:

    @Scott 2 Overall yes (FWIW, it’s probably Eliezer’s favourite work of fiction, based on how often he references it). It does a lot of the same things right (it also got pro players to hep design the matches, and nice thing about Go is that pro game situations are very obviously elegant and nice to look at even if you know nothing about Go).

    The main confounder is how you feel about anime (I liked it despite not generally being much into anime – it does the things anime does well at its best, like dramatic shots and music, extremely well, while avoiding the common anime pitfalls like overdoing the overwrought emotion). There’s also a recent live-action Chinese version which I haven’t seen but have heard mostly nice things about.

  4. Rob Cooper Says:

    That’s a wonderful post Scott.

  5. Scott Says:

    Rob #4: Glad someone liked it! Back to your regularly scheduled QC whenever I feel like it. 🙂

  6. Jay L Gischer Says:

    Scott, I don’t know what metric you would use to measure “half the Internet”, but whatever it might be, it doesn’t map to “half the population of the world” or “half the population of Texas” for that matter. This is an illusion, which is quite common in these days of the internet, where a somewhat small group of people makes themselves look much, much bigger. It happens all the time, on any number of topics/causes/obsessions.

    Meanwhile, on the topic of “The Queens Gambit”, I’ve been hearing quite a bit about it, and all of it good.

  7. GoFan Says:

    @Scott 2 I’m not pku31 but the show is a really wonderful story about a boy who slowly becomes obsessed with Go and becomes deeply involved in the community. Like Queen’s Gambit there is a clear love for the game. Additionally the show/manga is no small part of the reason why Go remains popular in Japanese kids.

  8. Raoul Ohio Says:

    The author, Walter Tevis, my homie back in the day, was a true chess fanatic. There is a pic of him with Garry Kasparov and David Bowie (from “Man who fell to earth”). A lot of my friends played chess with him at a bar I spent too much time in when I was a student.

  9. Filip Dimitrovski Says:

    You got attacked by people with a similar life narrative, that chose the “renouncing the calling, pretending it never existed, in order to fit in and have a normal life”.

    The only problem is they, too, can’t imagine what othere are thinking and assume that bullying people like themselves is the life obsession of “well-adjusted” people.

  10. Anatoly Vorobey Says:

    As I was watching the series, I thought that so much of what was happening was not convincing, sometimes a downright cliche. The way in which the orphanage is run, with the ritual daily benzodiazepine pills given to all kids. The adoption by a dysfunctional family, and then very strained and awkward relations between Beth and her new mother – it strains credulity that she would adopt a teenager and then would never even attempt a warm embrace or a heart-to-heart talk. The way other girls at her school are just mindless automatons.

    So much of what’s happening on the screen just rang false to me, despite excellent acting and gorgeous cinematography. But then, as the series went on, I came to realize that in a weird way, all that somehow reinforced the main message of the series and the most important thing in it. As you said, it’s all about chess. Beth is bullied at school and has a hang-up about buying a dress, but this is soon left behind because chess. Beth sleeps with someone but it doesn’t matter because chess. Beth’s adopted mother dies, and it’s horrible, but chess beckons.

    I also came to appreciate something by its absence – namely, that this centrality of chess to everything in Beth’s life is not made explicit and beaten into us. It’d be so easy to make it more didactic, to explain it. Beth could have been given any number of heartfelt monologues about how chess is everything to her. We could have been given meaningful Moments where she wrestles between choosing chess and, say, a career, or a romantic partner (“You must leave that obsession behind you! I want us to start a family!” etc.) So many conventional plot devices and character developments practically write themselves. Instead, the series adopt a severe “show, don’t tell” philosophy with respect to its most important theme, with only an occasional explicit nod as a joke (“It’s chess – we’re all prima donnas”). To my mind, this is the secret of the show’s huge success. The magnetic attraction of chess, the longing and the obsession leap from the screen to the viewers’ hearts and minds, unimpeded by sermons and explanations, curiously even helped by the fleeting awkwardness of everything not chess-related.

  11. Rufus Bound Says:

    “what with the finishing my PhD at 22 and whatnot”

    Isn’t that just another form of “My penis is bigger than yours”? I didn’t do a PhD. I’m doing something better than that though. A bit of paper means nothing. Pity you think it does.

  12. Asaf Says:

    Dear Scott,

    Thank you for this touching post. You don’t know me, but I have been a silent follower of your blog for years now. I feel that I share with you a key aspect of life- as someone who was obsessed for many years with math, surrounded by people who didn’t share my enthusiasm. Indeed, I unfortunately can relate very much to your description of the “bullies and bureaucrats, who dismiss you as a nobody, put barriers in your way…”. Unfortunately in my case, some of the barriers were accidentally put there by my parents (who had good intentions and didn’t know better), and by my country (long compulsory military service in the IDF). Anyway, I am now finishing my PhD in math, so you could say that in a certain sense I have overcome the obstacles put in my way. However, the feeling of being young and powerless against a not very understanding environment is something that still accompanies me from time to time, and there are certainly uneasy moments when this feeling arises. I wonder if there is anything that helps you when this feeling arises within you. Anyway, I mainly wanted to say thank you for your voice. It has resonated within me quite deeply over the last few years. I really think that you have given a voice, compassion and reassurance to other nerds who had somewhat similar experiences. It might be strange to say this (since we don’t know each other in person), but your writing, your unique voice here in the blog, your existence, really mean a lot to me. So thank you, Scott, for everything you are doing here. For everything you are.

  13. Abel Jansma Says:

    The way you describe these two paths reminds me a lot of Hermann Hesse’s book ‘Narziss & Goldmund’. Also there, the paths diverge, only to converge later again. If you have not read it, I think it is the book that most beautifully and poignantly describes this divergence between academic asceticism, and passionate worldly life, and highly recommend it.

  14. Scott Says:

    Rufus Bound #11: I mentioned a fact of my life as it related to what I was writing about, and never said or implied that it made me better than someone who chose a different path. That you would jump to that conclusion relates more to your own insecurities than to me.

  15. Edan Maor Says:

    A beautiful post Scott, thanks for writing it.

    For what it’s worth, I immediately thought of Hikaru No Go as well. It’s much longer, and much more fully developed on the theme – because unlike Queen’s Gambit, Hikaru No Go isn’t about someone who loves Go from the start, and just always wants more Go. Rather, it’s about a kid who at first doesn’t care at all about the game, but grows to love it *because* of the intensity of people around him. This is a different arc than you were on, probably, but still a super interesting one (and closer to my arc with Math, for example).

    Plus, Go is a much more interesting game, to my mind at least. I used to hate Chess until about a year ago, and have always been fascinated with Go (though a very weak player). I did start playing Chess rather obsessively during the pandemic, and now love it as well, but Go just *feels* so much more interesting and important and *real*, whatever that means when said about a board game.

    In short, Hikaru No Go is really worth watching, even if you’re not into anime (I’m not).

  16. fred Says:

    I really recommend the 2014 AMC tv series “HALT AND CATCH FIRE” (it’s on Netflix), it takes place during the personal computer revolution of the 80s and the rise of internet in the 90s.

  17. fred Says:

    One more pitch for “HALT AND CATCH FIRE” : )

    According to the wiki:

    “Halt and Catch Fire debuted to generally favorable reviews, though many reviewers initially found it derivative of other series such as Mad Men. In each subsequent season, the series grew in acclaim, and by the time it concluded, critics considered it among the best shows of the 2010s. Despite its critical reception, the series experienced low viewership ratings throughout its run, with only the first episode surpassing one million viewers for its initial broadcast.”

    It’s also worth pointing out that the show put women in CS at the center of the story. And the technology aspect is very accurate.
    Give it a chance!

  18. Scott Says:

    Anatoly Vorobey #10: That’s beautifully put.

    This is a weird connection, but somehow your comment also made me think about Raiders of the Lost Ark. I liked how that movie conveyed, not merely through explicit dialogue but through the whole structure of the plot, that no matter what temporary thing might befall Indiana and the other characters, the Ark is ultimately more important to them.

  19. Filip Dimitrovski Says:

    Rereading my comment #9 I realized it may be interpreted in a wrong way.

    I learned about this blog from the Complexity Zoo and didn’t have any clue about the online bullying that happened to you or what SneerClub is (or who those wokeists are), but you often mention it in non-scientific posts so I did look it up.

    It seems they are a tiny hateful group, but at their core they are deeply interested in rationality and philosophy – and most likely had the same issues as we do here. Except they chose the “dark side”.

  20. A. Karhukainen Says:

    @Edan: “… but grows to love it *because* of the intensity of people around him.” Yes! People who are really enthusiastic about any topic, in purely an sich way, almost always radiate that kind of intensity. I recall once eating in a Helsinki restaurant where a young woman in the neighboring table was explaining (to her friends) in detail about the differences in some quite obscure engine parts of different year models of Ford Escorts from 1970’s (obscure for me, that is), but anyhow, because of her intensity, it felt very uplifting. Also, what bugs me about most in many modern artists, is precisely the lack of that sincere intensity, or even curiosity in them, which makes them just poseurs in my eyes.

    @Scott: Thanks, this was one of your best entries in this blog!

  21. Nick Says:

    Another example of a game mattering to characters is in Crazy Rich Asians. The climax of the movie takes place over a game of mahjong, and a critical emotional moment between two characters is reflected in a critical moment in the game. No effort is made to explain how mahjong works though, so if you are like me and don’t know anything about mahjong, you won’t understand what has happened (although you will understand that something has happened). I had to go look it up after watching, at which point I appreciated some of the weight of the scene. That’s not a complaint though. It was a great cross-cultural experience.

  22. Paul Topping Says:

    Great post, as usual. Just FYI, there is a controversy going around that the movie’s star is way more attractive than the character in the book and that that leaves out an important part of the book experience. I got the book, fully expecting to agree. I’ve almost finished reading it and, in actuality, the movie pretty much tracks the book. This is one case where the movie experience really exceeds the book, IMHO. The chess drama, the characters, and the chess pieces playing on the ceiling, are all better experienced in the movie. And while it’s true the character in the book thinks of herself as somewhat ugly, it is not an important part of the book. In both the book and the movie, the main character has an appreciation for nice clothes and good food. Perhaps she only THINKS she’s ugly. After all, men did want to have sex with her.

  23. Fnord Says:

    Asaf #12, is that Asaf from the math stack exchange?

    If so, we’ve “met” on the internet in a different place before, had some differences, and yet I can relate to your post, despite many different opinions. If you are and don’t want to disclose that, that’s totally fine of course, but I’d ask you to check out my comments on Scott’s relatively recent post on the Continuum Hypothesis.

  24. Raoul Ohio Says:

    Abel Jansma #13:

    Agree about ‘Narcissus and Goldmund’, and also want to recommend it to everyone. It is pretty brief. It is only Hesse that I have read, and it is great.

  25. Raoul Ohio Says:

    Noting the comment about using basic TeX in replies: For online teaching, I have been using a large font MS Word doc as a whiteboard. Hitting ALT + + (Alt + the + sign) pops up an equation editor window that accepts most TeX entry and makes it almost like being at a white board. If you prefer a chalk board, you can still do this, and rub your hands in dust afterwards.

  26. Alex Says:

    Beth wants to sleep with men she defeats? I observed the opposite in poker circles, definitely.

  27. Andrei Says:

    Fnord #23: No, the one you’re thinking of got his PhD in 2017.

  28. Scott Says:

    Alex #26: “Opposite” meaning, women who don’t want to sleep with men who they defeat at poker? Women who do want to sleep with men who defeat them? Men who want to sleep with women who they defeat? 🙂

  29. STEM Caveman Says:

    For (initially) single adult women with high ability in chess, mathematics, poker, quant trading, and similar objective mathlike pursuits that are 90 percent men at the top — the business is first and foremost a female hypergamy meat market, that happens to involve chess, math or poker as the entry barrier. Husband that cognitive alpha DNA, under extremely female-favorable conditions that allow the luxury of selecting for other goodies on top of the brains! It’s funny Scott doesn’t mention this while talking about how smart his chess playing daughter is.

  30. Scott Says:

    STEM Caveman #29: It’s funny that I didn’t talk about my 7-year-old daughter in terms of a “female hypergamy meat market”?

  31. STEM Caveman Says:

    The funny part is that mentioning it at all, rather than keeping a well deserved smug silence about this happy non-accident, indicates that a very long blog post about boys and girls in Nerdland misses (or obscures) the primary real world fact about that subject.

    The way the world actually works for female STEM (chess, poker, quant, …) uber-talents in those professions is not what is presented as the Beth Harmon story, where she is plausibly number one, but that they out-prodigied several times over within their community, due the famous Larry S bell curves (whatever their ultimate origin). A level N prodigy will have her pick of level N+1 prodigies to mate with, or a mere ordinary (N-1)-plus who is handsome, athletic, wealthy or has other winning attributes.

  32. STEM Caveman Says:

    > mentioning it at all

    Meaning daughter’s chess skill as the “it” being mentioned, not the hypergamy market fact of life. Hope that wasn’t confusing.

  33. Scott Says:

    STEM Caveman: I was commenting more on my own inability at chess than on my daughter’s ability! Though she’s a couple years ahead of her grade level in math, her chess skills are probably quite average among those second-graders who play at all.

  34. STEM Caveman Says:

    I should probably have made the same point without mentioning that mentioning, so feel free to remove or edit out anything of mine from the above comments. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts about the “market”, though.

  35. Fnord Says:

    Andrei #27: Thanks, that makes a lot of sense. Just figured I’d ask since the name is (globally) rare and it’d kinda fit.

  36. Etienne Says:

    I watched Hikaru no Go in college and can confirm that it’s excellent (though plodding at times in the typical anime way.)

  37. Scott Says:

    STEM Caveman #34: I mean, it seemed pretty obvious that The Queen’s Gambit was not a work of realism, but more of an aspirational fantasy.

    On the other hand, if they‘d been characters in a drama, the three Polgar sisters would seem just as fantastical as Beth Harmon, and yet here they are in our world. Judit Polgar was, for a time, the eighth-ranked chess player on earth, which means in particular that the difference between her and Kasparov is utterly minuscule compared to the difference between her and me (or presumably you).

    To your question: yes, I’d imagine that a real-life Beth Harmon would have men swarming over her to an even much greater extent than was shown in the series.

  38. A. Karhukainen Says:

    On the other hand, if I switch my cynical mode on now: it is clear that on new delivery platforms like Netflix, one can profit from a long tail of special interest groups, like e.g., chess nerds, majority whom are men. So, make a series/movie with a good looking protagonista who beats them in their own game, and afterwards will also have sex with them. As regarding who sleeps with whom in various other fiercely competitive avenues, well, some people have humiliation fantasies you know.

    Though not having myself seen The Queen’s Gambit movie/TV-adaptation, I acknowledge that it still might be well made entertainment.

  39. Scott Says:

    A. Karhukainen #38: That’s an amusing theory, the empirical flaw in which is that The Queen’s Gambit is the most popular show in Netflix’s history, and anecdotally seems to be even more popular with women than men.

  40. James Says:

    Scott, WGM Alexandra Botez and her sister are living in Austin now and streaming on Twitch. Alexandra does interviews with people (like Vitalik Buterin) and she does chess teaching sessions, even to rank beginners. I’m sure she would be happy to interview you and teach your daughter a little chess if you think she’s old enough.

  41. Scott Says:

    James #40: Cool! Tell her to email me then, if you know her.

  42. Yuri Matheus Dias Says:

    Hello Scott!
    Long time reader, just wanted to thank you for all your work. I can recommend “Ball Lightning” by Liu Cixin as another story about focus, though it’s probably better classified as obsession. I, too, resonate well with these stories, as having to deal with this choice is central to everybody choosing an actual career (as opposed to choosing a job to keep surviving). I dunno if you’ll like the book, as the story is told by a pretty unreliable and reading chinese style perspectives is unusual to me, however the single-minded mania of looking for a single scientific breakthrough, that manages to be central to the story is pretty nicely done. I am not aware of anything that had discovering the fundamental laws as central to the plot as this had.

  43. Silas Barta Says:

    Scott #37:

    >I mean, it seemed pretty obvious that The Queen’s Gambit was not a work of realism, but more of an aspirational fantasy.

    Pass that on to everyone praising QG, who either doesn’t realize it, or isn’t bothered by how that sucks the air out of the drama.

    For me, it felt empty because Beth never seems to suffer any of the problems that such a prodigy would actually face, like others chafing at her rudeness, or being iced out by her friend group for tone deafness (the “do you ever trade rooks” scene). Instead, her only later interaction with them is to run into one after several years to learn “haha! She’s stuck raising kids! Woe is her!”

    Notable exceptions include, early on in the series, being short on money and having to play chess in her mind because of limited access to a set.

  44. ike Says:

    has anybody ever told you that you’re pretty damn good psychologist for a mathematician?

  45. Scott Says:

    ike #44: People have certainly told me the opposite, that I’m psychologically completely clueless! 😉

  46. ike Says:

    Scott #45: they must have been projecting. you might enjoy the writings of gian-carlo rota, he shared your disposition of knowing how to interpret numbers and people. very enjoyable reads.

  47. ike Says:

    (as it happens, that motivated me to peak into his “indiscrete thoughts” (1997) again, musings on the psychology of mathematics, and a small collection of observations on some specific personalities. what makes his writing particularly enjoyable is his take no prisoners approach, combined with that weird feeling that, yes, his description is still so nuanced, it _must_ be right! one chuckle per page guaranteed.)

  48. Scott Says:

    Asaf #12: Since I didn’t say so earlier, thank you so much. Yours is the kind of comment that I can place on the scale against 500 snide tweets.

  49. John Baez Says:

    I thought a hypergamy meat market was a place that sells really strong-tasting venison.

  50. STEM Caveman Says:

    > “sleep with men she defeats? I observed the opposite”

    Correct. Real life woman chess prodigies usually (as in probability > 50 percent) marry male chess players who are either higher rated, or their coaches/managers. Or the same from academia, gambling, finance, math etc if they go into those fields rather than full time chess.

    The extent of female hypergamy in male-dominated Aspergery fields is extreme and striking to any outsider, but not much written about, probably due to it being politically incorrect and (rightly or not) prone to antifeminist interpretations.

  51. Scott Says:

    Raoul Ohio #8: Thanks for sharing! Last night, I started reading the original 1983 Walter Tevis novel. So far, it’s striking how faithful the series is to the novel, though there are a few key differences (eg the series places Beth in the backseat rather than at home when her mother dies in the car crash, and it omits some more … politically incorrect aspects of her friendship with Jolene).

    Do you have any other good stories about Tevis? From Wikipedia, he seems to have lived a pretty remarkable life, in a way that surely informed his writing.

  52. STEM Caveman Says:

    @John Baez

    it’s obviously not politically correct to tell the men that they are “meat” being bought and sold (or, most cruelly of all, frozen in cold storage — the Lament Of The Nerds); and the women that for most of them their supposed life’s work and calling is but the entry fee to a luxury commodity market that they rule. And even less PC to suggest that this elephant in the room be taken into consideration in discussion of women’s supposedly low status in those fields. It leads the mind in unusual directions, such as asking whether attempts to artificially increase the number of STEM-women ends up slightly raising their collective status in the official market, for jobs and tenure, while substantially reducing their individual status in the unofficial market that matters more in many respects, and in the unofficial official market (preferential hiring). Inflate the number of women and you deflate the market for the nerdier girls who find a refuge in the current system, by dumping in a lot of normier (typically more conventionally attractive) girls to take most of the merchandise and some of the jobs.

    As Yakov Smirnoff didn’t quite say, you do not interested in Darwinian game theory, but Darwinian game theory interested in you!

  53. Raoul Ohio Says:

    Scott #51: About Walter Tevis, from my friend William A: I used to play speed chess with him at the Union. I twice went back to his house where we played blitz all night and he gave me a ride back to my house around dawn. The first time he had a chess table in the living room of his house. The second time he had a room in his finished garage with a chess table and huge pictures of himself with Florin Gheorghiu and another with David Bowie. Naturally I recognized the Roumanian GM but not the rock star. He then understood why he always lost. He talked about taking me to Las Vegas to a class tournament, where he would pay expenses and we’d split any winnings. He didn’t realize that being able to beat him at blitz wasn’t the same as being really good.

  54. Anatoly Vorobey Says:

    ike#47: >as it happens, that motivated me to peak into his “indiscrete thoughts” (1997)

    Thanks for reminding me of this – browsing the book after a gap of many years I’m struck again by how vivid, readable and funny it is. I still remember reading in it that a lecture should not exceed fifty minutes – a microcentury!

    Or take this:

    “Most people, even some scientists, think that mathematics applies
    because you learn Theorem Three and Theorem Three somehow explains
    the laws of nature. This does not happen even in science fiction
    novels; it is pure fantasy. The results of mathematics are seldom directly
    applied; it is the definitions that are really useful. Once you learn the
    concept of a differential equation, you see differential equations all over,
    no matter what you do. This you cannot see unless you take a course in
    abstract differential equations. What applies is the cultural background
    you get from a course in differential equation, not the specific theorems.
    If you want to learn French, you have to live the life of France, not just
    memorize thousands of words. If you want to apply mathematics, you
    have to live the life of differential equations. When you live this life,
    you can then go back to molecular biology with a new set of eyes that
    will see things you could not otherwise see.”

  55. ike Says:

    Anatoly Vorobey #54: apparently the ulam part of the book caused a fallout with the older echelons at LANL, who afterwards refused to have anything to do with him. also, one of his depictions supposedly soured his relation to one of the depicted.
    yet, he somehow manages to transport so much warmth and generosity in his writing, that i’m having a hard time believing him to be the bad guy in all of this. takeaway: it’s ok for the good guys to occasionally gleefully piss off people!

  56. Jonathan Weinstein Says:

    I thought that what made this series Good is the same as any story that starts with a magical or unlikely premise…once the premise is true, the rest of the story follows the logical consequences. If someone is so talented and so obsessed with chess that he/she can rise through the ranks while hardly losing a game (she loses once to the U.S. Champ, and twice to the world champ, as far as we see, and that’s it), then I think her skill would be quickly accepted regardless of gender or any other characteristics. This says *very* little about the travails of real people, including those in the top 1%, because (a) chess skill is unusual in its lack of ambiguity, (b) even those headed for the top 1% lose a lot more than she does. However, the struggles of mere mortals are not the subject of the story, and that’s fine. As a fantasy, someone who just wins and wins is fun to watch. This is why Federer is the most popular tennis player: He creates at least the illusion that the game is simply fun and easy for him (more so than his two peers), so you want to be him.

  57. Jonathan Weinstein Says:

    Oh, and to rephrase part of the OP: Perhaps the best thing about the series was its depiction of the blend of camaraderie and competition among people with a common obsession, and how within that world, everything non-chess seems small.

  58. STEM Caveman Says:

    @ike 55, Rota made high-profile, public and detailed speculations about Ulam — his friend! — having being permanently mentally impaired (compared to his earlier heights) after an illness. If this was some act of truthtelling what everyone privately knew, rather than slanderous guesswork, he could have arranged to publish his indiscrete thoughts about it after the people in position to be damaged by them were dead. Throwing friends or ex-friends, especially dead ones, under the bus for the sake of publishing one more piece does not come across as warm or generous, it is gratuitous destruction using honesty as a cover story.

  59. ike Says:

    Stem caveman #58:

    if you read the lost cafe properly, it rather comes across as a defense of his dead friend. i’d suggest to re-read the thing carefully.

  60. Pavlos Says:

    Dear Scott, i believe your difficulty in understanding many women’s attraction ro men (with or without the exceptional abilities context) may result from focusing too much on the object of the attraction. I.e. you think “I’m attracted to women *because* they are beautiful and angelic. Men are hairy and clumsy, how can anyone be attracted to…that”? It may help to focus instead on the feeling of being sexually/romantically attracted to someone, without a priori specifying any features for that someone. In other words, you may want to consider this energy of attraction as something preceding its investment in one or another perceived external form. So, instead of desire for him or her we have desire for..x. As you know there cases in our species where this x can be strange or inappropriate or even downright criminal. But if you let x unspecified and focus of the feeling itself, the flush of energy, the images, the..want, then you have a pretty good idea already what it is for just about anyone. The variation will be there, big time. Like Dr. Kinsey said: “everyone is different, think about that”.

    If big and hairy is not you style, think of it as a random number generator. You got angelic and dainty, the person next to you may get, well, whatever. The correlations that appear with the physical gender and with certain traits in that RNG are a subject of science, but the logical possibilities are endless.

  61. Scott Says:

    Pavlos #60: Thanks! Even if your mental exercise doesn’t get me that far, it’s interesting that you’re the first commenter who tried to engage the problem in any way whatsoever.

    In retrospect, the cognitive blindness that I talked about here—i.e., the simple, obvious fact that in “dating,” I’m marketing a product that I myself, as a straight male, would not want, and I don’t understand the state of mind of anyone who would want it—this was clearly a huge part of the problem that I had growing up. Actual experience helped somewhat, of course, but even having been married for a decade, there’s still a huge gap that I can’t bridge.

  62. Pavlos Says:

    Scott #61: Well, you know what they say: don’t get high on your own supply 😛
    I guess what i’m saying is that the way to identify with the female protagonist is to think that she is feeling what you would feel when confronted with your own objects of desire (like, e.g. lust, or fear of rejection). It’s just that the objects are different, but we can assume that the feelings are to some extent universal. But I agree that if you found the male form attractive then that would probably make it easier to identify. Still, you cannot really know what goes through other people’s minds when it comes to the specifics. What you consider your marketable qualities may actually be irrelevant in some cases, the attraction or the rejection coming from something you would not expect (and the other person may never share, or even be completely aware of). We are all perverts in a way, each having our own peculiar imagery and inclinations. The rest is just statistics, and you know how that goes 🙂

  63. Amir Ebrahimi Says:

    First time replying only to say that this comment caused me to pause:
    “I’ll never be close in my field to what she is in hers”

    I’m not sure if this is you trying in your own estimation to evaluate your own ability as objectively as possible, or is imposter syndrome, or is perhaps a humble brag. I found it disheartening to read. I almost take offense to it considering that for as hard as it is to educate oneself in the field of QIS and having someone like you to explain it all to the naive (of which I am currently) how can it be that you are not close to absolute excellence in this field? Who among the world has been picked not once, but twice to evaluate experiments into the fundamental nature of proving quantum computational superadvantage (my term)? Not a locally impactful experiment, but one that may affect knowledge of nature itself for all humanity? There’s also the other countless contributions to the field that I’m not mentioning.

    Please do share a bit more, Scott. I’ve got my popcorn ready 😉

  64. Scott Says:

    Amir #63: Have you seen the series? The analogue of Beth Harmon’s level of accomplishment in my case would be, like, proving P≠NP and winning the Fields Medal by age 20…

  65. Amir Ebrahimi Says:

    Scott #64: I have not seen the series, but have now added it to the never-ending Netflix queue. I was going mainly off of how you were describing the protagonist. While I do have respect for those who are masters of chess, in my own judgment, it pales in comparison to something like the Fields Medal. Aside from P≠NP, as a counter I was going to ask who then is equivalent to Beth Harmon in the field of QIS, but then realized that perhaps no one has achieved said status yet?

  66. a s Says:

    Scott #61:

    Hi Scott, first time long time.

    I think this is a problem for men, but I’ve also seen the opposite case where too much knowledge is a curse. Women have enough trouble being told their appearance isn’t good enough and being compared to celebrities and so on, but I know bisexual women whose celebrity crushes just leads them to compare themselves and find themselves lacking even further.

    Not sure what to do about this in either case, but it helps to trick yourself into having an enormous ego.

  67. Aram Says:

    I haven’t seen the series but this article made me think I should check out the book first. I’m curious if you disagree with its assessment of the Netflix show.

  68. Scott Says:

    Aram #67: On the whole, I thought the series was extremely true to the book — same characters, same events, same themes — but with dozens of subtle changes, many of which weren’t obviously better or worse, just interesting. The book has a mutual masturbation scene with Beth and Jolene and a use of the n-word that were (perhaps understandably) omitted from the series; on the other hand, the series has hints that Beth is bisexual and that Townes is gay that are nowhere in the book. Townes and Beltik don’t reappear at the end of the book the way they do in the series. In the novel, Beth loses her second game against Borgov NOT because she’s hung over — she plays to the best of her ability and yet loses anyway (which makes more sense in the context of the story — why would she get depressed if she had a good excuse?). There are many things Beth only thinks to herself in the book, but says aloud in the series — which is understandable, but also gives those statements a different coloration. Etc.

    Regarding the piece you linked, I found it odd to object to a dramatization solely on the grounds that the actress is too hot — wouldn’t that generalize to, like, >95% of movies and TV series? They do try to show Beth looking more confident and attractive as she moves to the top of the chess world, but yes, there’s no getting around the fact that it’s the same actress who portrays Beth as supposedly a homely teenager (they used a different actress only for Beth at age 9, in the first episode). At least Anya Taylor-Joy doesn’t look like a conventional Hollywood starlet.

    Anyway, mostly I found that article an interesting illustration of how this story is rich enough that all sorts of people can bring their own hangups and insecurities to it! 🙂

  69. Kenneth W. Regan Says:

    Hi, Scott—what’s kept me from catching up with this and quantum has been the aspect that the WSJ linked to “Queen’s Gambit” on Dec. 8. I can aver there has been little gender difference in that aspect. For my 2 cents on the series, the particular take that resonates most with me is by fantasy author Val Neil at One can find further comment on it. Happy New Year and all.

  70. aram Says:

    Thanks Scott. Let me recommend Deep Crimson as an example of a great movie where it was crucial to the story that the lead actors were unattractive. Only after I saw it did I realize how rare that was!

  71. STEM Caveman Says:

    @ike 59, I re-read Rota’s article and it’s even worse than I remembered. Most of the material there, such as elegizing the world of the lost cafe and its lost-in-the-world refugees, would have been just as good without the speculation (or unwelcome disclosure) about lost mental ability — that and my earlier remarks are what I did remember. What came through on second reading, that my younger self did not catch the first time, is the arrogant myopia that Rota expresses as pity.

    As science (never mind the weapons!) Ulam’s early work is minor league compared to his work at Los Alamos, but Rota rather hilariously praised… wait for it…. measurable cardinals… as Ulam’s finest work of a level that he could, so sadly, never repeat after the illness, and the work in Cambridge on fine points of measure theory (another dead end) as an example of demanding technical concentration. Most of the Lvov school highlight reel is of historical interest only today, unlike Monte Carlo simulations, integrable systems after Fermi-Pasta-Ulam, cellular automata, computational PDE and other stuff from Ulam’s postwar days. Perhaps Ulam simply seized the opportunity to capitalize on his strengths and get real stuff done. Rota might as well have taken pity on von Neumann for stooping to build computers and other such work, not like the glories of set theory and continuous-dimensional geometries!

  72. Scott Says:

    STEM Caveman #71: With Ulam, the sad fact for the rest of us is that he did staggeringly good work at every stage of his career. And while (alas) thermonuclear weapons have probably been reinvented countless times, in civilizations across the universe, in how many of them were they invented by a descriptive set theorist? 🙂

  73. STEM Caveman Says:

    @Scott 72, The boom years in set theory brought in top people and some of them did other things (Solovay-Strassen, Sauer-Perles-Shelah lemma, Godel rotating solutions of GR).

    It’s actually not that uncommon that a theoretician’s career, like a painter’s, has an early period of technical pyrotechnics and a later period of fewer fireworks and different interests that are ultimately more impactful. Or minor side interests that come to overshadow the career-making work.

    I’m not extensively familiar with Emil Artin’s career, but there is a review of his collected works by Andre Weil that is eerily similar to Rota’s piece in its preoccupation with lost skill in the displaced refugee, the old magic gone in America. The same over-valuation of technical skill from the very multitalented, cultured folks who should know better.

  74. Kris Says:

    Having now seen the series (but not read the book), you’re seeing the sex in the series very different than I do. In your commentary, you group friendship and sex together, but much of the sex Beth has is more like the drugs or alcohol than it is like friendship or building relationships with people.

    Phallic candle guy: She doesn’t really enjoy it (asks if he’s “done yet” or something similar), wakes up to find the house empty, waits around in the empty house drinking alone. Seems to me like essentially had sex for friendship and belonging and didn’t get that.

    Harry Beltik: She has sex with him because her house is empty without her mother and not because she wants a relationship with him. He’s more invested in the relationship that she is, and so she’s being a jerk. I know you like how she gets right back to chess, but it’s not just that she picks up a chess magazine, it’s that she doesn’t care whether he’s in the room or not, afterwards. People usually care more about their cats than she did about him in that scene.

    Benny Watts: This seems positive, actually. Doesn’t she actually say “That’s what it’s supposed to feel like”?

    Cleo: That relationship is obviously self-destructive.

    Also: “In the series, though, each male player propositions Beth only after she’s soundly annihilated him. And she’s never once shown refusing.” I think you can say more than that. she propositions *them* or it’s a 50-50 deal. (To phallic candle guy, she says “why don’t you show me”, Harry Beltik it’s a sort of ambiguous exchange but includes a line from her that is roughly “kiss me now”, Benny Watts she propositions, though he initially turns her down and only accepts much later.)

  75. Female PhD student Says:

    Hi Scott, I occasionally read your helpful blog for its good theory explainers and perspectives but I found myself on this page (after first clicking on your latest post on Gaussian boson sampling) and thought I would add something- my boyfriend of 2.5 years who I adore and see my future with has struggled with the same things you are talking about. He has felt this intense knee-jerk reaction of “how could pretty girls possibly like *ME*?, he has felt like I might be deluded for finding him attractive, all that. He has said to me that those reactions of his have, to some extent, lessened in intensity after these past few years of just receiving a lot of love from me. My protests and arguments explaining why he is attractive (he is!) did nothing to convince him. But me consistently loving him over years has eroded the image he had of himself as someone unattractive… cheers and hope that this helps 🙂

  76. Scott Says:

    Female PhD student #75: Thanks so much for the comment! In my case as well, it was only actual relationships that led to whatever limited understanding I now have. Of course, I first had to solve the chicken-and-egg problem of getting such relationships in the first place… 🙂

  77. Female PhD student Says:

    Thanks Scott! As far as the dating market goes I would say the same principle applies on a smaller scale. Men like this should try to open themselves up to the possibility of entering into a real loving relationship. That starts with valuing who this woman is in your life and accepting the little gifts or invitations she has to offer even if its just sharing a small interaction or moment. Because that woman could be capable of giving them a lot of love! Ok, signing off now ????

  78. Bruce Smith Says:

    Scott #61: Here is how I think of “heterosexual attraction” — it is like seeking a good partner for a “play” with two roles, which are different but complementary. You seek to be good in one role (and to appear that way), but you seek a partner who is good in the other role. And this “seeking” is mostly subconscious, or instinctive — e.g. it affects what personal qualities seem attractive to you. If what you are effectively seeking could be put into words, it might differ quite a bit from what you *think* you’re seeking, or should be seeking.

    The roles in this “play” are not identical, but also not “opposite”. E.g. their “emotional love” and “relationship building” aspects are similar, though perhaps differing in priority. But some other aspects (like the qualities that you find instinctively attractive) can be quite different. Both potential partners intuitively understand both roles, but they relate to only one of them as “be this / appear to be this / envy or be jealous of other people like this”, and only to the other one as “seek this”.

    (This is a first-order theory only, of a very complex phenomenon; it also has different variants with both brief and life-long “plays”, which can run in parallel. And of course, there are tremendous individual differences. I’m focussing on the life-long, heterosexual version only; it may also be specific to the culture I have experience with — not to mention that it’s merely my personal view, though far from original. Also by “you” I mean “someone in a position like you were in” — the actual “you, now” is of course in the performance phase, not the partner-seeking phase, of this life-long “play”.)

    The pair of roles in this play are not arbitrary, but are an approximate fixed point of biological, and all-but-very-recent cultural, evolution. (In the context of a complex and changing environment.)

    I think most people thought something like this a hundred years ago and earlier (except they’d say “how things always were and ought to be” instead of “approximate fixed point of evolution”; and they might think it was weird, or worse, to call real life a “play”). But this knowledge has gradually been lost, and then become partly taboo, from the “top down” (that is, first it was lost from the world of abstract ideas, but only more recently and very partially from actual cultural behavior). (At the same time, other important knowledge has been gained — but that doesn’t replace what was lost.)

    So people like us, who are good at thinking about ideas, but relatively poor at picking up actual cultural practices, were harmed by this recent change, more than most people were at the same time. People who can easily ignore a contradiction between common behaviors and common ideas simply went along with the behaviors and were not harmed much by the “wrong” (or at least new and contradictory) ideas. But things are still changing rapidly, since cultural evolution has only accelerated since our youthhoods. (I have no good prediction of how things will continue to change, except that they will.)

    Curiously, the “evolution” part of the above theory was actually understood best in the 80s or so, during the brief popularity of “sociobiology”, even as the “here’s how to have a good life” ideas had been rapidly deviating from their traditional forms for decades or longer. But the fashion for sociobiology (in popular culture, as applied to humans) only lasted a few years, before the pushback mostly destroyed it, or at least banished it from popular culture. So I think it never got very far into understanding second-order effects, such as details or common variants or overlays of this “play” — or if it did, those never percolated into the “lay science” subculture where I would notice them. So you can probably understand this a lot better from classical literature!

    A final point — “biology is not destiny”. Don’t take anything I say, as a claim that you are *morally obligated* to go along perfectly with whatever roles you guess you “evolved for” (whether biologically or culturally). On the other hand, if you do want to deviate from those roles, it helps to understand them first, since those influences are very powerful! (You might also be wiser after understanding them better.)

  79. Kris Says:

    Also, I’m am female.

    The set of things I have found attractive in men is broad enough to that it could apply to any man reading this, but there is also with enough apparent randomness that there’s no way I could come up a good description of why one particular person more than others.

  80. ike Says:

    STEM caveman#71

    i really don’t get why you’re hellbent on twisting it this way. it’s absolutely clear the lost cafe is a defense of ulam’s, and nowhere does he pity his friend. i do agree that his bout with death probably was of no relevance, which becomes clear when you read ulam’s autobiography, if anything at all, it just catalyzed the natural aging process of just not giving a fuck what other people think, and rota is too smart and acute not to know this. he is also a witty writer, so it seems clear to me it serves merely as plot device of which to launch his defense, in which he obviously launches barely veiled attacks on unnamed parties that apparently profited off ulam’s insights in a quite ingrate way. i’m sure his friend would have appreciated this eulogy. francoise ulam apparently did.

  81. Raoul Ohio Says:

    Background info on Queen’s Gambit story, by Walter Tevis’ son (Athens Messenger 21 01 23):

  82. Shtetl-Optimized » Blog Archive » Please cheer me up Says:

    […] is that Daniel, my 4-year-old son, now plays a pretty mean chess game, if not quite at the level of Beth Harmon. Having just learned the rules a few months ago, Daniel now gives me and Dana (who, admittedly, no […]