Beauty in chess II

| 0 | Chess Event Coverage
Die Schachpartie by Max OppenheimerAs my first article about beauty in chess seems to have been appreciated by at least a few people, I now present the second one in the hope that I can still reach some attentive audience.

By Michael Schwerteck

In the past few weeks I have reflected a bit on the notion of beauty and read parts of the book Secrets of Spectacular Chess (2nd edition) by Levitt and Friedgood.

I think I'll comment on it after reading it completely; right now I would just like to say that it's a very inspiring and entertaining read which can be warmly recommended. I own (too) many chess books, but this one has become one of my favourites.

The topic I've been pondering upon myself recently is the subjectivity of beauty. I think we can talk about subjecitivity on two sides: the viewer, but also the performer. The first case is relatively clear. There is no abstract beauty; there has to be a viewer who considers it as such. And of course, tastes can be very different. A chess combination which appears beautiful to someone may look boring to somebody else.

There are probably some elements which make a game or a study more likely to be viewed as beautiful by a lot of people ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú this is one of the main topics in the afore-mentioned book. Still, every chess player has his own idea of what is interesting and beautiful. For instance, you might be raving about a wild sacrificial attacking game by Shirov, and when you show it to a club mate, he calls it random and chaotic, instead praising the beauty of subtle strategic manoeuvres in Karpov's games (which make you yawn!).

So let's turn our attention to the other side. You may not even have been aware that there is another side, but I'm quite sure about it. The question is: can beauty also depend on the performer? Does it make a difference whether a game was played by a certain player or another? Do the things we know about the performer play a role?

Let's leave chess for a moment and take the case of Paul Potts. The guy has had absolutely stunning success and broken all the charts after singing ?¢‚Ǩ?æNessun dorma?¢‚Ǩ?ì at some British talent show. Millions of people obviously think that he sings beautifully. I'm not saying they are wrong and I do admire Mr. Potts. However, I'm sure there are many professional opera singers who sing better than him, and yet hardly anyone bothers about them.

If people like Paul Potts, why don't they go to the opera to listen to even more impressive performances? Simply because of Potts' biography. Nobody expected him to sing so well and the story of his life is slightly reminiscent of a fairy tale.


What I want to say is that our reaction to a certain performance and our classification as more or less beautiful can (often inadvertently) depend on our feelings towards the performer and our knowledge of him. Just consider the game I presented last time. It was played by a club mate of mine who doesn't play such games very often. It's possible that this influenced my perspective of it and that I would have considered it less beautiful if the very same game had been played by somebody else.

Something else that can make a difference is the circumstances in which a game is watched. Following a game online with an engine constantly running in the background can easily prevent us from appreciating the players' creative effort. The danger is that we focus more on the engine's evaluations ("gosh, Rybka now gives -0.34") than on the underlying ideas. In my opinion, the best way by far to follow a chess game is to watch it live so that you can see and feel the creative struggle and the emotions. A beautiful game can also be enjoyed at home, of course, but it's even more impressive if it is performed in front of your own eyes.

That's why I like the rapid tournaments in Mainz, for instance. Every year there's a huge number of very strong players who play lots of games and there are always plenty of spectacular struggles for the spectators. For this article I have annotated three of these. The "live effect" is lost, of course, and they are all full of mistakes, but they also contain bold, imaginative, non-standard play and in my eyes they are all beautiful in some way. When I analysed them, I also found some beautiful sidelines. I hope that I can convey at least some part of the impression they made on me. Enjoy!

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