5 July 2003
One evening, a week into his marriage, Marcel Duchamp stayed up late studying chess problems. The next day, he rose to find that his wife had glued the pieces to the board. From that moment, the marriage was doomed. The young Tolstoy, as a gunnery officer in the Caucasus, deserted his post one night in order to play a game of chess and was arrested; he thus missed out on the St George Cross he was due to be awarded the next day.
The deepest and most inexhaustible of western games has exerted a peculiar fascination for artists. Many of them have designed chess sets; a number of 20th-century examples are now on display in an exhibition at the Gilbert Collection in London’s Somerset House.
Josef Hartwig’s 1924 Bauhaus set is austerely geometric, each piece’s shape embodying its powers of movement. Man Ray’s 1946 aluminium pieces exhibit a more graceful formalism, while Max Ernst’s gorgeous 1944 boxwood set is a sonata of intercommunicating curves. Duchamp’s own lovely wooden Buenos Aires Chess Set (1919) dates from a period when he took three years off from art to play chess in Argentina.
These are sets for playing, but artists may also abuse chess for their own purposes, as with Yoko Ono’s jejune Play It By Trust (White Chess Set) of 1966, in which both sides are white. The idea is to drive the players mad until they abandon their combative attitudes and get into bed. The exhibition also features jokey and faintly pointless sets commissioned from contemporary artists such as Damien Hirst and Jake and Dinos Chapman.
Perhaps the most thoroughly impractical set is Takako Saito’s 1965 Sound Chess Set for John Cage. The pieces are identical white plastic boxes filled with various materials: grains of rice, beads, a bell. Cage was fascinated by the game. In 1968 he gave a performance in which he played chess with Duchamp: as the pieces were moved, electronic sensors in the board changed the balance of sounds produced by live musicians.
Of all the arts, indeed, chess may have the closest relationship with music. It borrows a lot of vocabulary from that medium: tempo, score, theme, variation, development and so on. Both musicians and chess players seek to create orderly and beautiful structures through time.
Soviet grandmaster Mark Taimanov, one of the world’s top 10 players in the 1950s, pursued a parallel career as a concert pianist. Robert Schumann considered a symbolic relationship between chess and music: the queen, the piece with the greatest freedom and power, represents melody, but the king represents harmony and is, thus, the final authority. Brahms once joked that he had learned nothing from Schumann except how to play chess.
Music, of course, is free from the terrible requirement to describe. In literature, only a few writers have tried to capture the gestalt of a chess game in prose. Vladimir Nabokov was an accomplished composer of chess problems, and in The Defence (1930), he describes a central game with another musical metaphor: “A kind of musical tempest overwhelmed the board, and Luzhin searched stubbornly in it for the tiny, clear note that he needed in order in his turn to swell it out into a thunderous harmony.”
By contrast, Ezra Pound attempted a kind of synaesthesia in his poem “The Game of Chess” (1916): “This board is alive with light; these pieces are living in form,/ Their moves break and reform the pattern: luminous green from the rooks,/ Clashing with Xs of queens, looped with the knight-leaps.”
Ludic literature may engage directly with the minutiae of chess play – as in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass (1872), in which Alice begins as a white pawn and eventually is promoted to a queen, or Arturo Perez-Reverte’s amusing The Flanders Panel (1994), which centres on a painting featuring a chess position to be analysed.
Yet chess has been most useful in literature for its wealth of metaphorical applications. The second half of José Luis Borges’s poem “Chess” (1961) begins by imagining the battle from the pieces’ own points of view:
Slight king, oblique bishop, and a queen
Blood-lusting; upright tower, crafty pawn -
Over the black and the white of their path
They foray and deliver armed battle.
They do not know it is the artful hand
Of the player that rules their fate,
They do not know that an adamant rigor
Subdues their free will and their span.
But the player likewise is a prisoner
(The maxim is Omar’s) on another board
Of dead-black nights and of white days.
God moves the player and he, the piece.
What god behind God originates the scheme
Of dust and time and dream and agony?
Borges trumps the commonplace idea of people as pawns in his characteristically vertiginous final stanza, with the infinite recursion implied by “god behind God”. Such existential paranoia is exemplified by Nabokov’s poor hero, Luzhin, who eventually goes mad, convinced that he is being stalked by an unseen enemy who is plotting a “monstrous combination”.
Naturally, the Royal Game has been subject also to countless political readings. Renaissance moralists liked to invoke chess as a perfect reflection of harmonious society: the rulers (king and queen) worked in concert with the Church (bishops), the military (knights) and their trusted officials (rooks), along with the Third Estate (pawns), all for the common good. In The Tempest, Ferdinand and Miranda play a game of chess. Miranda accuses Ferdinand of cheating, but tells him that she doesn’t mind: “Yes, for a score of kingdoms you should wrangle/ And I would call it fair play.” And so the next generation of Milanese rulers is shown to be au fait with the tactics of realpolitik.
The supreme political allegory of the game is A Game at Chess (1624) by Thomas Middleton. The play takes the form of a game – it has a genuine chess opening, the Queen’s Gambit Declined – and tells the story of the trip made by Prince Charles (the “White Knight”) and Buckingham (the “White Duke”, or rook) to Madrid in 1623 to negotiate a marriage between the prince and the Infanta Maria.
Alternatively, chess may be conceived as a moral-religious contest, an eternal struggle between good and evil – an idea most hauntingly visualised in the game that the knight plays with Death in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. Chess as both moral salvation and mental perdition, meanwhile, is the subject of the most brilliant chess novel, Stefan Zweig’s Schachnovelle (1944, translated as The Royal Game): a man imprisoned by the Gestapo learns a book of master games by heart, and eventually drives himself mad by playing mental games against himself.
The highest mode of praise in chess is an aesthetic one: commentators speak of “beautiful” moves and original, creative concepts. Great games are recorded for posterity and may be replayed and analysed like musical scores. So might chess players themselves be considered artists?
American grandmaster Larry Christiansen says: “Chess can be art in the hands of a gifted, creative player but is usually a kind of science/sport.” Meanwhile, grandmaster Alexei Shirov, currently the world’s number five and arguably the most fearlessly creative player of his generation, draws a distinction between the beauty of the game itself – as seen in the formal perfection and complexity of well-composed chess problems – and the bloody business of actually playing. “Let’s say, the game itself is an art,” he concludes, “but competitive chess isn’t, even though the elements of art may be present.”
For Duchamp, however, the question was easy. In a talk before the New York State Chess Association in 1952, he declared: “From my close contact with artists and chess players, I have come to the personal conclusion that while all artists are not chess players, all chess players are indeed artists.” Duchamp eventually won the title of master, which gave him more satisfaction than his artistic renown. At the Gilbert exhibition, considering the foolish medicine-bottle chess set by his imitator Damien Hirst, one can begin to understand why.