Sidelines: The Chess Player's Obsession with Truth and Logic

Sidelines: The Chess Player's Obsession with Truth and Logic

NM eltenedor
Feb 12, 2017, 12:26 PM |

I don't think it's an overstatement that chess players, by and large, are obsessed with truth and logic. I'm sure this doesn't speak for all chess players -- many may enjoy trying to win a game they view as extremely complex and difficult, some may view it as an act of meditation where they can find their "flow," while others may enjoy the aesthetic value of a beautiful combination or may simply like pushing the pieces around. There are many reasons for loving chess. But for the moment, let's entertain this obsession with what is true and logical -- or at least an attempt to pursue these virtues -- as evidenced by widespread practice of the sideline.

If you've ever kibitzed during a post-mortem in the skittles room (a veritably chessy phrase if I've ever seen one; for my non-chess nerds, if you've ever weighed in on a game being analyzed by both players and onloookers after their game in a designated game analysis, playing, and munching on potato chips and drinking sugary beverages room), you'll likely recall that most of the time the position on the board hardly resembles what actually happened in the game. That's because the players -- and kibitzers, contributing with their words and often by reaching in and smacking a piece down where they feel it belongs, or should have belonged -- are analyzing sidelines. They are analyzing what could have been. Why do they do this? Are these devotees of alternate universes, alternative histories, or, dare I say, alternative facts? Of course not! These are devotees of the truth -- of what is true, or as Merriam-Webster defines it, what is "in accordance with the actual state of affairs." And these chess players want the whole truth, every grain of truth that they can possibly squeeze out of the 64 squares and 32 pieces at their mind's disposal.

Why this obsession with the truth? We can only speculate. Perhaps chess players want to better grasp how the world works (and the universe, too, for we're all amateur astronomers in our own way, aren't we?) and the slice of logic--complex yet within the confines of the 64 squares, 32 pieces, and laws that govern them--that they can attempt to master through the Royal Game. Just as science attempts to arrive at theories that explain natural phenomena through experimentation, chess players conduct their own experiments with each chess game they play. They study the epic experiments of their predecessors as well--both brilliant demonstrations of logic and truth as well as epic failures that nonetheless instruct the student in truth and logic through what not to do--and arrive at their own theories, a la Steinitz, to attempt to describe the truth, as it appears through the prism of chess, as accurately as possible. Or maybe it's that grasping "the actual state of affairs" makes us feel a bit more, well, rooted in an often ambiguous world where we are overloaded with information, and where each new byte of data can cause us to question just what the state of affairs truly is. Note: This may be tied to sanity. 

Note that this, like an essay, is merely an attempt, which recognizes the inherent shortcomings of the act. Chess players know that they will rarely, if ever, play a "perfect game"--that is, a game that flawlessly demonstrates some truth or logical processing (I won't favor truth over logic or attempt to get into the nitty-gritty of either here, but merely leave this as something to explore; I think they are both relevant here). Given this shortcoming, and perhaps in an attempt to overcome it, many chess players are obsessed with sidelines. Sidelines, those could-have-beens, are really, I think, an attempt to fill in the gaps of truth--and, in a shaky attempt to reconcile logic here, perhaps the elaborations--in English or Russian, Spanish or Arabic--that tend to accompany these sidelines are the chess player's attempt to explain the logical process that goes into seeking that truth.

Indeed, what transpired in a given chess game only represents a minuscule fraction of possibilities in the chess universe. But the thorough annotator doesn't seek to show every possible line of play that could have arisen from the a particular game, creating a tree of possibilities that might overwhelm the universe itself. Instead, I think that the annotator seeks to grapple with those moments in the game where the truth is most at stake. These are like mini case-studies to be picked apart. A moment of uncertainty arises at a particular point in the game--a moment where the truth is at stake, for whatever reason--and the annotator seeks to clarify that ambiguity by providing a sampling of lines with apparent "best moves" for each side, sometimes with the support of a chess engine (or kibitzing friend). Sometimes the line is clear and the truth of the moves played by both sides, and thus the resulting position reached, extinguishes that possible glitch in truth. Sometimes ambiguity remains and we may tap into our humility and accept, to some extent, our inability to grasp all complications that seem to obstruct our view of what is patently "true." We attempt to remedy these moments of dissatisfaction--caused by what appears to be something of a lie, or at least an unrevealed truth--by playing, viewing, and analyzing more games still, hoping to arrive at moments of truth when similar situations arise that we know deep down are distinct--useful for developing a "chess theory" but riddled with limitations. 

Note these asides I make here--denoted by parentheses or dashes. Often, a writer includes an aside or brackets something to add some additional truth that he (or she) feels is lacking in the dash-less sentence, but that which the author feels is so intimately connected to the original sentence that adding another sentence to disclose that material wouldn't feel quite right (or perhaps the author just doesn't feel like going back and editing, or the author prefers to write in stream-of-consciousness for the sake of raw truth, or at least to make the sentence more truthful--I try!). Same goes for kibitzers at a post-mortem analysis, or, say, Pandolfini breaking down the intricacies of an endgame in Chess Life. The kibitzer and author feel that they have contributed to some greater understanding of the truth, both within their own mind and for their intended audience, while the curious onlooker and avid reader may arrive at some greater conception of the truth through osmosis. Whether the audience agrees with the parenthetic references cast upon them or not (if silicon generated, surely they must!), the theories in their mind regarding truths in chess, formed unconsciously and consciously, are tweaked accordingly. 

Despite the chess player's obsession with seeking truth, I'm not suggesting that sidelines mean a chess player thinks they've arrived at the entire truth of an entire game. Rather, they indicate that the chess player knows that the actual moves played in a game only indicate a fraction of chess truth that exists, yet they are nonetheless committed to seeking this truth, in as realistic and thorough a way as possible. Thus, sidelines at once acknowledge limitations and attempt to overcome or at least minimize them. The exploration of sidelines, then--in whatever context this conquest may occur--demonstrates the chess player's attempt to deepen his or her commitment to truth-digging--the watchdogging of the chess world, if you will, often interspersed with a daunting flurry of qualifying statements masquerading as parenthetic asides.

Of course, the improved sense of logic gained from this merciless, brutal act, probably repeated thousands of times, will inform the chess player that the truth gleaned from chess is but a parenthetic reference to some greater truth (which, the chess player learns, ought to be gleaned from a wide variety of sources) but that this small truth is nonetheless worthy of pursuit, not least of which because it can be deeply gratifying, rendering the likely futility of arriving at a capital-T "Truth" more bearable.