Perspectives on Chess

Apr 11, 2008, 4:51 PM |
I am continually amazed at the clever perspectives people have concerning the Royal Game. There literally seems to be no end to the wellspring of fascination that has accompanied chess throughout its long history. For example, I recently came across an article, over at the Daily Vidette Online, entitled "Chess - a tough sport, or toughest of all-time?" This tract revisits the age-old debate about whether or not chess can be considered a proper sport. Now, for the record, I do not believe it should be (I am one of those old-fashioned guys who are simply horrified by the current line-up of Olympic games - the Greek Gods upon Olympus must weep every time a curling match is played at that formerly august gathering of athletes). However, this article tackles the subject from the point of view of a daughter, Alice Riddle (who wrote this piece), in a very athletic family. She relates how serious chess competition exhibits many of the hallmarks of more physical competition.

Ms. Riddle begins by dispelling the formerly staid and nerdy vision of a chess tournament. She describes modern chess tourneys as rather wild gatherings with one recent event filled

“…with high-schoolers in everything from matching uniforms to capes to gas masks (don't ask - I have no idea). About halfway through the first day, a participant jumped on a table in the skittles room and began playing "Ironman" on a bagpipe. Needless to say, this is an entirely different world of competition.”

She then recounts how one of her athletic brothers, an accomplished track and football athlete, feels after a tough game:

"You know that feeling you get after you run for a really long time, and you're just so tired and can't even stand? That's how I feel after a meet like this, except it's my mind and my head. I have to do so much thinking."

Interesting perspective there. Clearly, while chess lacks actual physical contact, it does contain a physical component.

Ms. Riddle concludes with the following:

“At the end of the day, while baseball players ice their shoulders, basketball players have floor burns up and down their bodies and football players struggle to get the grass stains off their jerseys, chess players likely grab a couple aspirin and leave it at that. What they all have in common, though, is their ability to practice till it hurts, their aspiration to be great and their love of the game.”

Well said, Ms. Riddle, well said.

Another interesting take on chess is found over at the blog kino fist, a site ensnared by a left-wing modernist perspective. A chess entry, entitled “the seduction of chess,” begins with the following:

“The history of the 20th century is the history of the strategically necessary misrepresentation of chess. The defeat of left-wing politics, of reason and seriality, and its replacement by the flows of capital and the madness of markets informs us that whichever side chess was on, the game itself has lost, and lost badly, relegated to the status of whimsical pastime for the terminally intellectually aspirational, the insane and the incarcerated….But how did chess get beaten so badly? One solution to this question lies in the wilful [sic] misunderstanding of chess, by both its defenders and its critics, as primarily a game of war, and not as a game of seduction. The denial of the seductive qualities of chess is by extension a refusal any longer to acknowledge or even contemplate the seductive elements of the avant-garde as a whole.”

Wow! It’s not too common to find chess expropriated for the purposes of discredited “avant-garde” socialist propaganda these days! Nonetheless, despite the eccentric philosophical perspective, the article is a real treat to read due to its deep intellectualism and originality. One passage states:

“Of all games, chess is the least likely to be associated with simple enjoyment or distraction and its historical and cultural impact carries nothing of the levity of cards or backgammon, even in the midst of surges of immense popularity (following Fischer’s defeat of Spassky in the early 1970s, for example).”

Too true! It is a game of immense seriousness (sometimes to its own detriment). Nobody idly passes time with a game of chess in the same fashion as one would with tic-tac-toe, for example. As Capablanca once remarked, “An hour's history of two minds is well told in a game of chess.” Clearly, a game loaded with such potent magic is not to be treated as flippant amusement.

The site continues:

“Fifty years later, Guy Debord too understood something of the wit of chess with the invention in 1977, of his board game, 'Game of War'. Played on a checkerboard of five hundred squares with two opposing armies of equal force, consisting of a number of regiments of infantry, cavalry, and artillery, with forts and arsenals, Debord created a kind of deranged chess proliferation that extends to absurdity the supposed agonism of ordinary chess. After Duchamp and Debord, we are left in a post-avant-garde era which operates with the sorry opposition hyper-chess or no chess at all.”

Actually, leftist filmmaker Guy Debord was just mimicking an idea first put into practice back in 1664 by Christopher Weikhmann. For, despite the claims of this modernist manifesto, the genesis of chess is, and remains, war. As I have recounted:

“For many generations, professional and amateur soldiers of all stripes have been fascinated with the military implications of chess as a rudimentary wargame and have sought to improve upon it. For example, in 1664, Christopher Weikhmann developed what he called Koenigspiel (King's Game). It was similar to chess, but added a larger board and created new pieces to mimic the military formations of the day. This version enjoyed mild success and was later modified by another German, of the name C. L. Helwig, in a bid to make the game even more realistic with visible terrain (albeit, still in the form of color-coded squares) and more complex rules of movement. This slow process of chess modification reached its pinnacle in 1797 when Georg Venturini developed an ultra-complex version (including a sixty page rules set!) of war chess that utilized a 3,600 square board(!) that closely replicated the terrain of the Franco-Belgium border, as well as incorporating logistics and a piece for every conceivable military formation and fortification. It can be stated without hesitation that Venturini developed war chess to an unparalleled level of complexity and realism. Indeed, it would never be eclipsed as all future wargames would abandon the chess board in favor of more realistic terrain tables and maps.”

So much for the avant-garde aspects of chess. Chess, you see, has far too regal a heritage to be a pawn in the game of meddling socialists and modernists. Chess is larger than passing ideological fallacies. Chess is absolute and complete, existing independently of what we mere mortals would project onto its nature.

Whether or not you buy into the typically contortionist rhetoric of modernism as found in “the seduction of chess,” or the homegrown wisdom of “Chess - a tough sport, or toughest of all-time?” these two entries have demonstrated just how deep and varied scholarship can be when it comes to the most remarkable game of chess.