The Dark Side

CM ArnieChipmunk
0 | Chess Event Coverage

Darren Aronofsky's new movie Black Swan, featuring Natalie Portman as the increasingly tormented ballet dancer Nina who has to perform the dual role of both the white and the black swan in Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake, left me both puzzled and fascinated. And, inevitably, it made me think of chess.As many critics have noted, Black Swan is actually more of a gothic thriller than a drama/dance movie. (For what it's worth, I think it's a much better goth movie than a dance movie.) Nina, the film's main character, is an extremely ambitious and gifted ballet dancer who is chosen to perform the lead in the 'Tata Steel A Group' of classical ballet: the roles of Odette and Odile - the white and the black swan - who represent opposing forces. Meanwhile, Nina herself is struggling with opposing forces inside her while trying to achieve "perfection" in her performance on stage. Ultimately, Black Swan seems to be about sexuality, death and the dark side of perfection. In one of the key scenes of the movie, the relentless director Leroy (played by Vincent Cassel) tells Nina that in order to be able to play the black swan, the white swan's evil twin, she needs to let go of her emphasis on technique, technique, technique and release a different kind of force. "Perfection is not just about control," he tells her. "It is also about letting go." Then he draws her attention to another dancer on stage, Lily (played by Mila Kunis), praising her performance as "imprecise, but effortless." This immediately made sense to me from a chess perspective as well. In chess, many players focus on technique and endless practice just to be "in control" for fear of having to face the dark side of chess, which is chaos. Black SwanThe personification of the chaotic in chess is, of course, Mikhail Tal, the "magician from Riga". The idea that chess was not only a strictly logical game (as Botvinnik had assumed) but also a game characterized by human imperfection - and that this actually contributed to the beauty of the game - added an entirely new dimension to the game that can be felt even today. Tal's motto that a move - some kind of crazy sacrifice, perhaps - could leave a position "sufficiently complicated", even though that concept might well be considered "incorrect" from an objective point of view, is of fundamental importance to many of the leading theories on how chess is played (at least by some) at the highest level. But there's another, less conspicuous aspect of the movie that reminded me of chess. Nina is not only struggling with her performance, but also with her identity. Natalie Portman is perfectly cast as an innocent little mommy's girl, but Nina discovers that there's a darker aspect of her personality that is waiting to come to the surface. It is this aspect that her director Leroy is encouraging her to release and discover, and it is this that forms the basis of the horror scenario that slowly unfolds. It is also something that's part of the chess world, even though it's often dismissed or even denied. With the epic rivalry between Kasparov and Karpov behind us, we might conclude that the current chess world is now populated by amiable folks who just happen to be good at a particular game called chess. They mostly get along fine, don't they? Well, I've never believed that, to be honest. It's a rare occurence, but some grandmasters, such as the Dutch GM Loek van Wely, have declared that there's much more rivalry and even animosity among the chess elite than most are willing to admit. And Van Wely wasn't talking about Kramnik and Topalov, but about your average role model chess grandmasters. There's a dark side to chess, after all. This dark element can be found in chess at all levels. On the internet, where everybody plays against everybody, the feeling of frustration and even anger after a lost blitz game against some anonymous 'clicker' even has a name: the hate. In a very instructive essay by FICS player "pdeck" on the subject, the author defines 'the hate' as follows:

I have the hate. I hate my opponent. I hate the spectators that goaded me into playing an extended series with someone who often gets my rating points. I hate the guys in the Lightning Channel for teasing me about my blunders and then logging off at midnight, leaving me to fester in a death spiral of worthless, repetitive chess punctuated only by one or two mad dashes to the men's room or poorly-stocked vending machines. More than anything, I hate myself. I spend too much god-damned time playing lightning, giving up both work and sleep. And what do I have to show for it? A shitty rating.

Now, I happen to have met 'pdeck' in real life and I can attest that he's a perfectly friendly, polite and intelligent guy. Still, I totally recognize what he writes about. I have often been surprised at my own strong emotional response after a particularly undeserved loss on the internet, and I have sometimes even committed that ultimate sin of online chess life: telling my opponent he was "lucky" or words to that effect. How pathetic! (A friend of mine once crushed his mouse after being flagged in a totally won position and smashing his fist on the table.) For me, one of the most credible aspects of Black Swan is that the good and evil sides of one's personality are not portrayed as two things entirely distinct from each other. Within Nina's character, both forces, however subdued and dim, are always present at the same time. Things are not as "black and white" as the cliche prescribes (even though there are plenty of cliches in the movie). In this respect, the movie reminded me of that other classic tale of personality change, R.L. Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde. Vladimir Nabokov, in his lecture on the story (from Lectures on Literature, 1980), gets to the heart of the matter:

Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. HydeIs Jekyll good? No, he is a composite being, a mixture of good and bad, a preparation consisting of a ninety-nine percent solution of Jekyllite and one percent Hyde (...). He is a hypocritical creature carefully concealing his little sins. He is foolhardy. Hyde is mingled with him, within him. In this mixture of good and bad in Dr. Jekyll, the bad can be separated as Hyde, who is a precipitate of pure evil, a precipitation in the chemical sense since something of the composite Jekyll remains behind to wonder in horror at Hyde while Hyde is in action.

The same could be applied to Nina's two characters in Black Swan, and it is the reason why the movie remains so interesting despite what we might otherwise think of it. (The "dark side" is also present, of course, in the Star Wars movies - and here, too, things are not as straightforward as we might assume.) And I think it can also be applied to many chess players. Consider John Kuipers' description of 'endearing' schoolboy and super talent Anish Giri in the latest issue of the Dutch magazine Matten, which I reviewed some time ago:

For a moment, a fragment of a second, Giri sent a superior glance across the audience, before producing the most haughty grin of all time. First, he raised his eyebrows high: surprise. Then his eyebrows rose to unknown heights: respectless condescension tumbled out of him. This was followed by a brief nodding of the head, the crown to this magnificent display of humiliating superiority. Then followed, of course, the simple little winning move.

While not daring to compare Giri's behaviour to the nightmarish and hallucinatory events in Black Swan (let alone to the things Jekyll and Hyde get up to in Stevenson's story), it's interesting that Giri, at 16, seems to incorporate both aspects inside himself already. He can play nice (as he recently did, for instance, in the Dutch TV show De Wereld Draait Door) and he can play rough (when he needs to beat his opponent). In this regard, his behaviour is not at all unlike that of Muhammad Ali, who could be both charming and unbearable. Based on this observation, one might conclude that Giri really is world champion material! Chess players, like ballet dancers, can't always be "white swans". If we want them to be as good as they are, they have to be entitled to display some "black swan" behaviour now and then as well. Perhaps realizing this will help discussions about cheating accusations in chess, or about "unpolite" chess players refusing to shake hands. If movies like Black Swan show us anything, it's that performing at the top level demands more than just being nice. We don't have to approve of certain actions to understand them.

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