IF SOMEONE WERE TO ASK ME, "What's wrong with this country?," I would point to a recent magazine article about Gata Kamsky, a 16-year-old Russian-born chess prodigy who now lives in Brooklyn. This kid, Kamsky, does nothing but play chess or, in his off hours, read about it, studying moves and strategies. He does not go to school. He seems to have no friends, and he has not, we may conclude, spent an hour of his life doing what we would call "having fun." For that reason, the article was hardly fun to read.
In contrast, though, I have had much fun reading about Jennifer Capriati, the 14-year-old tennis whiz from Florida. She came to mind as I was reading about Kamsky. I asked myself why nothing I've ever read about Capriati had the tone of that article about the chess player. The author, the father of a chess prodigy himself, was sternly condemnatory. He obviously disapproved of Kamsky's regime and disapproved even more of the kid's father, who had established that regime years ago -- and ensured that his son would stick to it -- so that young Kamsky would one day be champion of the world.
Reading along, I was condemnatory as well. A kid ought to play, I thought. A kid ought to have fun. A kid . . . Hey, why doesn't anyone write this sort of thing about tennis? I cite tennis because it's a sport in which young people cannot only excel, but be the best in the world. Of course, tennis phenoms attend school. But having said that, it's hard to say what else they do -- besides play tennis. They play all the time, and often they are instructed -- and have been since around infancy -- by a parent. Their regime can be every bit as arduous as Kamsky's but, I think, with some differences -- differences that explain our attitudes.
Perhaps the most obvious difference between tennis and chess -- besides the fact that one is played sitting down while the other is played while moving around -- is that tennis is incredibly lucrative. A top-rated tennis player is a millionaire, and not just from tournament prize money. Capriati has contracted to represent an Italian clothing and shoe company. She has signed with Prince rackets. She's already rich and not yet 15.
A top-rated chess player, on the other hand, may well have to work at something else to make a living. For instance, Kamsky and his father get by on a $30,000-a-year stipend provided by a New York investment banker (and chess buff). Cash prizes are paltry, no more than several hundred dollars. No one asks grand masters for endorsements, and no network television audience watches them play. So tennis is sort of the great American dream sport: fun and stupendously well-paid. Chess is just the opposite. It looks a bit like accounting but doesn't pay nearly as well.
It's impossible for me to judge which child is happier, Jennifer or Gata. Capriati is a chirpy, all-American kid who says over and over again that she's having a whale of a time. Kamsky doesn't speak English all that well, but he does seem to enjoy playing chess. While sitting at his computer and running a chess program, he giggles. "It's very funny," he says. "It" was something called an end-game position.
But without directly comparing one child to another, I can say this: The fact that one is becoming rich "playing," while the other will never make real money doing what seems like hard work seems to make all the difference to us. And that, in the proverbial nutshell, tells us something about our society and our values. Among our highest values are making money and having fun.
The latter value applies especially to kids. Somewhere -- I don't know when -- it was somehow decided that childhood is for fun. I can't argue much with this since I share the same sentiment. But the awful truth is that some things are not fun. Studying is not fun -- at least not for a lot of kids. Learning is not fun -- again, not for a lot of kids. Discipline is not fun. Learning by rote is not fun, and postponing pleasure is not fun either.
Playing sports, on the other hand, is fun. It's what adults as well as kids do for recreation. To have fun and be paid well is, really, something of a dream. It hardly matters that this dream becomes a reality for very few people. The exception has been turned into a national ethic -- one that celebrates fun and the extemporaneous and says only a fool puts his nose to the grindstone.
But that's not true. Hard work, drilling and learning by rote have their place. The capacity to do those sorts of things may well represent the critical difference between the United States and, say, Japan. The willingness to work at something, even if there's not the slightest chance of becoming rich, is a natural resource that the United States is fast depleting. Instead, we glorify fun -- what we consider fun, anyway -- and demean with such words as "nerd" what seems either incomprehensible or sheer work.
I, for one, have no desire to glorify Kamsky or to suggest him as a role model. But I could not help comparing my reaction to an article about him to one about Capriati. Neither could I help noticing how one parent is second-guessed while for another we waive all objections because the greatest of all exonerations is already at hand: Big Bucks. Still, Capriati is not a role model, either. For too many people the pursuit of fun and money too often means that in the end they will have too little of either.