Review: Philosophy Looks at Chess

| 1 | Chess Event Coverage
Philosophy Looks at ChessFrom time to time on this site I have tried to discuss chess from a philosophical point of view. No wonder: chess is very often the subject of philosophical discussions. In the past, famous philosophers like Rousseau and Wittgenstein have used chess in their thinking. In the recent book Philosophy Looks at Chess (edited by Benjamin Hale) twelve contemporary professional thinkers discuss various aspects of our royal game.

Let me start by telling you how to judge a non-fiction book in ten seconds: you go to the 'index' and simply look up your heroes, i.e. favourite writers, chess players, philosophers etc. and see how many 'hits' you score. It's simple, but very effective, especially if you don't know the author(s). When I read a book on philosophy and chess, I want it to at least mention Jonathan Rowson's book Chess for Zebras. I want it to discuss Dennett's and Searle's views on artificial intelligence. I want it to mention Kasparov and Deep Blue and Rybka or Fritz. And hey, let's toss in some Plato as well. Otherwise, it's simply not a book on philosophy and chess.

In fact, all of these names are indeed mentioned in Philosophy Looks at Chess (published this year by Open Court Publishing) and this made me a fairly happy man within ten seconds ... all of them, except two: the Dutch writer Tim Krabb?ɬ©, and the father of the phrase that ends this review. Several authors, including the editor, have failed to mention Krabb?ɬ©'s monumental work Chess Curiosities (1985) which deals, among much else, with retrograde chess analysis and computer chess ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú two topics that are also discussed extensively in the book we're discussing here.

Indeed, the first essay, written by Bernd Graefrath, is about retrograde chess. In brisk and crystal-clear prose, and with equally effective examples, the author introduces us to the ideas of the logician Raymond Smullyan, who has composed many retrograde problems to illustrate crucial philosophical questions, such as: can something be true yet unproveable? Well, using retrograde analysis, this has indeed be shown in brilliant and funny way by Smullyan. It's a great and highly accessible article to start with, and serves as a nice appetizer for the rest of the book.

As could be expected, most articles in the volume deal with computer chess and artificial intelligence. I guess one of the problems the authors of these articles had to overcome is that there has been written so much about it already. The articles by Andy Miah and Tama Coutts are pretty good, but also pretty technical. They deal wiith questions such as: is chess suitable as an indication of machine intelligence, and is there a difference between how humans and machines understand chess? Important ideas like the Turing Test, the importance of the Kasparov-Deep Blue matches, weak and strong Artificial Intelligence and the Chinese room argument are explained nicely.

Another good overview article is Ahti-Veikko Pietarinen's 'who's who' of philosophy and chess (or, more generally: games). What did philosophers like Saussure, Wittgenstein and Habermas have to say about chess? For anyone who's always wanted to know, this is the article to read. However, I should also mention that in all these three essays, I somehow missed a 'spicy' bit of love for the game, which was definitely present in Graefrath's article.

Kasparov vs X3D Fritz

Kasparov playing with 3D glasses against the program X3D Fritz | Photo ?Ǭ© Owen Williams

On the other hand, John Hartmann's love for the game and the practical problems that players have to deal with in everyday chess life is undeniable. His article (with the great title Garry Kasparov Is A Cyborg) elaborates on the idea that ever since we started using chess engines to analyse our games and ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú most vividly ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú to prepare our novelties, we have all really changed. When Kasparov unleashed his partly Fritz-based home preparation upon Anand in the 10th match game of their 1995 World Championship match, that wasn't really Kasparov playing ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú it was a, well, a kind of cyborg. What I like about Hartmann's approach is his down-to-earth style of writing about chess. He gives several simple and recognizable examples from his own experience and still manages to cram a lot of philosophical ideas into his article, as well as a good overview of John Watson's and Jacob Aagaard's recent ideas on modern chess.

I now come to the two 'heaviest' essays in the book ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú sometimes a bit too heavy if you ask me, but hey, what's a philosophy book without difficult sentences and references to people you've never heard of? Let's start with the article that had me gripped despite the occasional lack of understanding: Prof. Evan Selinger's article on 'Chess-playing computers and embodied grandmasters'.

Still from The Seventh Seal

The character Max von Sydow playing chess against Death in Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal

Selinger compares two existential depictions of chess: one from Hubert Dreyfuss (who was introduced to us already by John Hartmann) and one from the movie director Ingmar Bergman (in his movie The Seventh Seal). Selinger's general point is clear enough: playing against another human is different from playing against a machine. The reason is that humans also play against themselves (who hasn't hated himself after a stupidly lost game?), and also against nature (not only because humans are mortal, and therefore time is an important factor in chess, but also because humans are biological entities which evolved to react to things like body language and so on.)

Well, you should really read the article yourself. It took me quite some time to appreciate it, but even when I didn't understand everything, I still liked the way Selinger illustrates his ideas not only with 'learned' philosophical theories but also with concrete and modern examples, for instance Jennifer Shahade's book Chess Bitch and psychologist Malcolm Gladwell's best-seller Blink.

The article I had most problems with, was Bill Martin's ambitiously titled The Difficult Ways of God and Ca?ɬØssa: Chess, Theodicy, and Determinism in Gadamar. This essay was simply one bridge too far for me. While I felt Martin does make some good and interesting points, he just tried to write about too much in this article. In fact, I sometimes got the idea he seemed to want to incorporate all of philosophy in his article. His name-dropping really got to me at some point, not to mention his overlong sentences and his many 'asides'. Here's an example:
(...) In this perspective, the contingent and the 'absurd' (in the form of the 'irrational' at least as it applies to calculability, and in the form of that which apparently happens 'without meaning' or 'without reason') may indeed govern 'reality, at bottom', reality in its 'foundations', or 'reality' in some 'timeless' sense, but the fact is that we humans are temporal beings, even 'temporalizing' beings (to use Heideggerian language) and the things we have to do in our lives in this world for the much greater part, at least, have little or nothing to do with the timeless or with metaphysical foundations. Pragmatism, at least in the forms practices by William James, George Herbert Mead, John Dewey and Richard Rorty, is geared toward the 'human scale'.
You still there? Further on, we get musings like these:
'Determiniation' cannot ultimately be the right term here, because the point is that it is in the nature of the good and the beautiful that, if they are simply the result of calculations, then they are not what they are.
At this point I desperately started searching where I had missed the introduction of the concepts of 'the good and the beautiful', but I found nothing. I'm not saying Martin doesn't have a point (I think his point is that if chess cannot be 'solved' by calculations, then 'absurd' moves which are still good, are a real possibility, and so there can be a kind of 'godly justice' in chess!), but I wonder how many readers will follow his argument until the end, even if he sometimes does make nice points.

On a more serious note, I have the feeling Martin's theories are not only vague, but simply based on a wrong assumption of how chess works. For instance, he gives the example of a player opening with an theoretically 'absurd' opening move (1.h3), who nevertheless wins the game. If I understand Martin correctly, he thinks that winning the game could somehow tell us something about the perceived absurdity of this opening move. This is clearly incorrect: winning (i.e. a practical game) is completely irrelevant since any chess game is full of mistakes. Only analysis can really tell us anything about the absurdity or correctness of a move. This may sound futile, but Martin stresses this practical winning of a game time and again. Perhaps I'm being unfair to Martin and readers can point out what I'm missing in this article?

Finally, I found Martin's 'name dropping' of (of all people) Eric Schiller as 'renowned opening specialist' a bit embarrassing, to say the least. To find Schiller's name in the company of ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú in the same article! ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú names like Socrates, Wittgenstein, Bach, Fischer and, indeed, God himself, is really more than I can handle.

It would go too far to discuss all essays in the book, but I just have to mention two more. First, by far the funniest (and weirdest) essay in the book. It's written by Tommy J. Curry, who does research in 'critical race theory' and 'africana philosophy', and is about ... chess and hip-hop. I agreed with virtually nothing in his article (I can't imagine any sensible person who would) but that's just a minor point really. His description of, for instance, the 'Black players on the south of Chicago' is simply hilarious, and, well, so are his theories about race and chess psychology. This article is a huge relief after the tough theories of Martin and Selinger!

Stuart Rachels

Stuart Rachels

Okay, I've saved the best for last. Stuart Rachels' essay The Reviled Art is a real gem. It's a personal story about Rachels' love for chess, his experience in the U.S. chess scene and his ideas about beauty and justice in chess, and its (lack of) popularity to the 'great public'.

I don't think it really qualifies as a 'philosophical' essay (it has more of a cultural-sociologicial critique) but who cares what it's about if it's so well written? His analysis of the U.S. chess climate ('our country's deeply engrained anti-intellectualism') seems pretty accurate to me, and here's what he has to say about boxing:
Perfect play (...) cannot guarantee a beautiful game. For one thing, it is not enough that you play perfectly: your opponent must also play well. (...) Muhammad Ali's defeat of George Foreman in the 'Rumble in the Jungle' in Zaire was beautiful only because Foreman's power posed enormous problems for Ali.
I cannot resist to toss in a few more quotes from Rachels:
A master cannot see the bishop on e3 as a chunck of dead wood, and more than you can look at your best friend's face and see a meaningless matrix of colors and shapes.
Chess writers often refer to chess as a sport. One can understand why they want it to be a sport. Many sports are popular. Sports stars get rich. They sign autographs and appear on TV. Movies and books lionize them. They are allowed to perform at the Olympics. They are mobbed by admirers. Chess players would be happy if just one of these things were true of them. When chess players call chess a sport, this strikes me not only only as false, but as pathetic. It's pathetic in the same way it's pathetic to ask someone out on a date who said no the last three times you asked. American culture has rejected chess. For the chess player to insist that chess is a sport is a way of not taking the hint.
How I love writers like Rachels who can not only write well and clearly, but who can also make a deeper point without sounding pompous or using difficult words. In Philosophy Looks At Chess, many deep points are made, and most articles are extremely well and clearly written.

This book is highly recommended to anyone who is interested in chess ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú not as a sport, not even only as an art. But as a way to think about life, the universe, and everything.

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