Chess and Beauty

Chess and Beauty

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Today’s article is about the psychology of the aesthetics of chess. Why does the human chess player’s mind find a move “beautiful”? To a non-chess player, trying to explain the concept of a “beautiful” move – or aesthetic position – would be like trying to explain music to a deaf person. But those of you who are really, truly chess players can probably understand the concept of beauty in chess.

Does the topic of this article help you play better chess? Probably not. But it is interesting nevertheless. And becoming more interested in chess will… help you play better chess!

I think that aesthetics of chess can be found in different formats. There is a beautiful move (one single move); a beautiful position (from an aesthetic or artistic point of view); and a beautiful game (the sum of the actions of both players).

What are some of the qualities in chess that make a move/ a position/ a game “beautiful”? I thought about it a bit, and I came up with a few.


One of the big qualities that causes us to see something in chess as beautiful, is its paradoxical nature. Paradox, or irony, is also the basis of humor. Let’s look at the following finish to one of my games. I set it as a problem, so you can solve it:

Naturally I was delighted to have the chance to finish off the game with this beautiful combination. But which move do you think I found the most aesthetic? The violent 34…Rxg2? No – actually it was the quiet little move 37…f2.  This paradoxical move – refusing to take a whole rook which was on offer, and instead passing by – was the point of the combination. You don’t often find a situation where a pawn could capture a piece, but instead it walks by.

An interesting point is that the players usually perceive the aesthetics of the game differently. If you lose to some pretty move, or your opponent plays a good game, you might not exactly feel the same appreciation as if it were you playing the masterpiece! After the above game, however, my opponent actually said he regretted not resigning immediately after 37…f2 (he played on for a couple more moves), since it would make a better picture! The fact that he lost the game did not prevent him from appreciating the aesthetics.

Chess “etudes” – also known as studies – are not so popular right now, which I don’t quite understand. I guess everyone wants something that will lead to immediate practical results (i.e. a book about an opening). Anyway, many etudes are based in some kind of paradox. For example, the following:

White, having three advanced passed pawns, cannot do anything with them. But he draws by giving them all away. The most paradoxical element is that he also gives away “time”. For the last three moves, Black has a free move to do anything. On each move, White has no immediate threat. But still, despite his extra rook, black can do nothing.

Chaos, Surprise

Another element of chess beauty is surprise, or chaos – the Unexpected. That is why so many people like Mikhail Tal’s games. His games are full of adventure, complication, and surprise. Who is moved by a movie where you can guess what is going to happen next? Or a song that never changes tempo?

As far as static positions go, I think one of the most aesthetically beautiful positions I have ever had was the following:

This position really looks like the pieces were dropped out of a box onto the board. But they were not! If you randomly place the pieces on the board, probably 99% of the time you will get a position which is completely won for one side. But here, the position was reached as a result of both players’ thought. And the position is nearly balanced as well.

I do not know if you find such a position “beautiful”, but I do. To me it looks like some kind of very complicated and crazy painting. But a crucial element of course is that it is a rational result of the previous play. If one side were trivially winning, or if absurd moves were made to reach the position, it would soil the picture.

Often the 23…Qg3 of the famous Levitsky-Marshall game is quoted as the “most beautiful move ever”, but I doubt that most masters nowadays would consider it so. Besides the fact that the tactics backing it up are fairly simple, there is also the fact that various other moves win for Black as well. In fact, he is already up a piece! So these factors might dampen the enthusiasm that a strong player would have for this move. Nevertheless, the total surprise that such a crazy move elicited created a sensation. Thus there is the story of people tossing golden coins on the board (true or not) and it became part of history…

Harmony, Symmetry

As a sort of opposite to the beauty of chaos or the unexpected, we have harmony. This might be compared to a good mystery novel where every little detail suddenly becomes part of the solution. Maybe the finish to my game with IM Milan Pacher would be a good example:

The move 31.Bc5 by itself is kind of cute. But the real combination was in the details, particularly the move 28.Re2. In the next few moves (and the side variations) things suddenly fell into place.

Symmetry can happen. Here is an example:

The symmetrical movements in this creative composition almost make you want to laugh when you first see it. Then you wonder at Black’s hopelessness after the simple move 3.Rd1!! Of course, there is the element of paradox as well. The retreating rook places itself under attack by both enemy rooks. And Black has a free move to solve his dilemma, but nothing can be done!

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