The Idler: A Chess Player’s Apology

Ambivalence is defined as “the simultaneous attraction toward and repulsion from an object, person, or action.” To any person who knows the dubious blessing of a fondness toward the sport of chess, ambivalence is doubtless the most accurate description of his attitude about the royal game. The devoted chess-player loves and despises chess for what it is, a fascinating mental exercise and an exhausting time-killer. He loves it for what it can provide—it makes possible the creation of a certain kind of beauty—and he is troubled by what it can do to people—chess feeds vanity and the desire to dominate others.

A closer look at the ambiguous nature of this ancient game, which some would call an art or a science, might be profitable for those who would know why people play chess.

First, the attractive side. The simple fact is that chess is fun and is played because it is a keen, interesting, joyous diversion. The fun is involved in the sharp matching of wits, of mind against mind, which makes the contest. Probably the simplest and finest pleasure of chess consists in two good friends enjoying a game together in a quiet, cozy room of a comfortable, house, with agreeable things accompanying the game such as wine, cheese and crackers, and soothing music. A fire crackling in the fireplace and a dog padding about; rain outside. I would say such moments are the very best the game has to offer—chess in its most humanistic realization, happily devoid of the fierce competition that coarsens tournament play. A friendly game is one where the ugly spirit of competitive stress and strain is dissipated by affection and where consequently a mood of relaxation obtains. The most attractive side of chess is what may be called its “moral” character, its ability to increase the enjoyment of friendship.

Another attractive element of chess is its aesthetic character. The sensuous beauty is provided by the pieces themselves (when well carved) as they move over the checkered board—by the nimble leaping of the knights (milk-white unicorns or black steeds), by the long sliding elusiveness of the bishops (subtle churchmen), the straightforward masculine sweep of the rooks (solid castles of power), the feminine authority of the queens, the quiet strength of the kings, the pedantic plodding of the pawns. All the color and motley and pageantry of the High Middle Ages is stylized in the 32-piece hierarchy waiting comfortably at the start of a game.

One imagines Camelot, boar-hunts, tapestries, Merlin, banners, French inscriptions—Honi soit qui mal y pense—cathedrals, forests, Carnaervon Castle… all the enchanting cornucopia of Christian civilization. Chess is fun.

The intellectual beauty of the game, on the other hand, is chiefly a matter of logic, invention, and subtlety. The formal, abstract beauty that is created by the neat technique or by the sacrificial combinations of great players is wine to the intellect. For example, when in 1858 in New Orleans, the young master Morphy (playing blind-folded!) sacrificed first his rook, then his queen in order to launch a complex and decisive two-bishops-and-pawn attack, he moved his pieces with an elegant, stunning finesse that brought into being a masterpiece of logic and imagination. A year earlier in New York another splendid example of creative chess saw Morphy give up a rook in order to initiate a sparkling sequence of thirteen queen-and-knight maneuvers that won his opponent’s queen.

The natural genius of the suave Hispanic master Jose R. Capablanca as he cut through the appallingly complicated abysses of hypermodern chess to achieve a “simple” lucid victory is a stable and satisfying page of chess history. The Russian master Alekhine, giving a display of simultaneous, blindfolded play, once announced a checkmate in ten moves. Botvinnik once adroitly calculated twenty-two moves ahead for a checkmate. The result of such play is art and the delight that the contemplation of art will provide. The great masters of the game, in their ability to conceive combinations of astonishing intricacy, to weave mating nets of fastidious complexity, are comparable to the Mozarts and the Shelleys.

Despite this rather lofty claim for chess, there is something about the game, or about man’s attitude toward it, which is disquieting. Across this realm of medieval magic, this esoteric kingdom of logical beauty, there floats a disturbing dissonance, the note of vanity. And triviality. Let chess players admit it at once—chess is a triviality that makes it easier to be a snob, or a prig.

It is very difficult to approach a game, whether lost or won, in the right spirit, which would be a detachment suitable to what is only a game. Unfortunately, the important thing for most chess players is to win at all costs. One must not look bad; the logic of the thing, the game, is really secondary. What is primary is to look good; artistry yields to ego. Then one can use chess as a tool to achieve a kind of intellectual domination over another person, which is rather shameful or even horrible when you think of it.

The diabolical strain in chess lies in its power to make easier anyone’s already easy tendency to worship that old unholy trinity, me, myself, and I, by knocking down someone else. Dr. Lasker, world champion from 1894 to 1921, knew what chess really is to serious players. It is a fight. And when you fight you want to win; and if you win, someone must lose. And you are so glad! Winning. The very concept of winning is surely one of the queerest idols ever put up for sale in Vanity Fair. And losing? Losses are quickly forgotten. Draws, those pale, neutral half-victories, are wrung for any satisfaction they can provide.

If all this is too often true of amateur, casual chess, it is certainly much more true of professional chess, of match and tournament play. Here, the ego swells to some rather startling proportions. Fischer has spoken warmly of that moment of victory when he can feel the ego of his opponent being crushed by his own. Alekhine is reported to have smashed furniture in his hotel room after losing to the beautiful play of Yates. His concern lay with his own loss, not with the fine performance of Yates.

Professional chess has always appeared to me as a world of competitive lust where the only thing that matters is to be the best player on earth, the strongest player in Russia, or in New York State, etc. Alekhine is supposed to have said, upon entering another country—”I am Alekhine, chess champion of the world.” Except for Capablanca, the biographies of famous chess players make lamentable reading. Chess appears to be everything to them. One said that chess is life.

Chess at these high levels of competence is also such a physical thing. It is no longer a pleasant game. Petrosian said, “Chess may start out by being an art or science, but it ends up a physical endurance test.” Consider the long, wearying international tournaments, or the exhausting wizardry of playing, as Koltanowski did, 56 simultaneous blindfold games, winning 50! Such demands upon the human mind and body are prodigious and questionable. Perhaps the ideal chess-player would be an automaton calculator, not a human person.

One of chess’s fundamental flaws is that it is much too difficult for a game, and therein lies another of its traps. It simply demands too much of a person’s time. You hear tales of players devoting fantastic amounts of time to the study of opening and end-game theory. There are countless opening gambits, each with bewildering variations and sub-variations. In Modern Chess Openings, a volume of appalling size, 65 pages of small print are given over to tracing the labyrinthine mazes of the Sicilian Defense alone; over 70 for the Ruy Lopez. And this trivial Leviathan has devoured substantial portions of chess-players’ lives. Dr. Johnson said that nothing is too small for a man’s attention because we are small creatures. I wonder what he would say of Modern Chess Openings? Perhaps, “Depend upon it, sir, this book is unworthy of a man’s attention; it is an undertaking of utter futility.” Then, of course, even to flip through a book called Basic Chess Endings is enough to discourage any beginner. It seems written for the solemn digestion of a computer.

Taken too seriously, chess is narrow, constricting, and illusory. Nevertheless, chess by itself does not corrupt; rather, corrupt natures can come out during play. The more balanced and relaxed approach of most amateurs is a sound one, for here the pleasures of the game are not diminished by too much absorption in technical analysis.

“Chess” is a creampuff kingdom ever on the verge of vanishing, even when building in the minds of its makers, and when not thought of, it is nothing. To be caught in the shackles of nothingness is pathetic.


  • Edward O'Brien Jr.

    Edward O'Brien, Jr. is an assistant professor of philosophy and literature at Delaware Valley College, Doylestown, Pa. He has also taught for Iona College, New Rochelle, N.Y. and Rider College in Trenton, N.J. Mr. O'Brien has written articles for Crisis, Fidelity, New Oxford Review, the Wanderer and HPR.

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