I loved chess growing up, enough that I always felt a shiver of pleasure when games appeared in novels. Like the pre-felo de se game in Love in the Time of Cholera, the grim filial sacrifice in Vonnegut’s “All the King’s Horses,” the entirety of The Defense ...
If you also are a fan of chess in art, you’ll definitely want to watch Andrew Bujalski’s brilliant mockumentary Computer Chess. The film manages to be incredibly entertaining and humorous while addressing big ideas about artificial intelligence, the treatment of women in science, power structures between underlings and their professional superiors, and the difficulty of bridging cognitive gaps between people with different value systems. With that list of themes, and the film being shot in black & white by shaky handheld cameras, it could’ve so easily been dull and dry… but it’s a blast.
One reason why chess has appeared so often in artistic works is the claim that people reveal their personalities through their playing styles. I never agreed with this. Sure, you can play aggressively, you can play cautiously. The biggest distinction, though, is between playing well or poorly. And even then, only a small set of moves are available each turn. With only twenty moves to choose from for the first turn, and hardly ever more than fifty, many of them strategically bad, how much of your personality can you reveal?
That’s why I was so excited when I discovered Go. It’s a rough cultural equivalent to chess, but on any turn there are a much wider range of options that seem to be strategically reasonable (I say “seem to be,” because, unlike with chess, computers still can’t beat the best Go players, so we don’t have a clear algorithmic understanding to identify the best moves).
At the beginning of a game of Go, there are hundreds of options to choose from for each move. And, unlike with chess, there’s no certainty that a slightly more aggressive move, or a slightly more timid one — setting a piece down very near an opponent’s, or father away — is better or worse than the other options. Toward the beginning of the game, at least, your personality is less likely to be squelched by strategic constraints.
I figured that this abundance of choices meant games of Go would be more effective literary devices than chess games. So far, though, I haven’t come across literary Go games that I’ve enjoyed as much as those chess matches cited above. I’ve only read a few, though; maybe ones that’ll floor me are out there somewhere.
But, right, this essay is supposed to be about chess, not Go. Because I eventually realized that chess does reveal the players’ personalities… as long as they’re not following the rules. Consider this monologue from Burroughs’s Queer (a bit of context that might help explain the speaker’s casual racism: Queer is, in my opinion, the best novel about unrequited love. The speaker is trying, and failing, to get the man he loves to pay attention to him. His aggrieved petulance and insobriety lead him to tell increasingly vicious, mean-spirited stories):
“I was reading up on chess. Arabs invented it, and I’m not surprised. Nobody can sit like an Arab. The classical Arab chess game was simply a sitting contest. When both contestants starved to death it was a stalemate.” Lee paused and took a long drink.
“During the Baroque period of chess the practice of harrying your opponent with some annoying mannerism came into general use. Some players used dental floss, others cracked their joints or blew saliva bubbles. The method was constantly developed. In the 1917 match at Baghdad, the Arab Arachnid Khayam defeated the German master Kurt Schlemiel by humming ‘I’ll Be Around When You’re Gone’ forty-thousand times, and each time reaching his hand towards the board as if he intended to make a move. Schlemiel went into convulsions finally.
“Did you ever have the good fortune to see the Italian master Tetrazzini perform?” Lee lit Mary’s cigarette. “I say ‘perform’ advisedly, because he was a great showman, and like all showmen, not above charlatanism and at times downright trickery. Sometimes he used smoke screens to hide his maneuvers from the opposition — I mean literal smoke screens, of course. He had a corps of trained idiots who would rush in at a given signal and eat all the pieces. With defeat staring him in the face — as it often did, because actually he knew nothing of chess but the rules and wasn’t too sure of those — he would leap up yelling, ‘You cheap bastard! I saw you palm that queen!’ and ram a broken teacup into his opponent’s face. In 1922 he was rid out of Prague on a rail. The next time I saw Tetrazzini was in the Upper Ubangi. A complete wreck. Peddling unlicensed condoms. That was the year of the rinderpest, when everything died, even the hyenas.”
Chess played that way clearly reveals the players’ personalities. They’re no longer shackled by strategic constraints — the apparent lawlessness of the game resembles Calvinball more than traditional chess.
The chess game in Michal Ajvaz’s The Other City has a similar emphasis on personality over rules. The Other City is a beautiful novel, and I think this passage is fairly representative of what I love about it. Dream logic that is far enough removed from traditional reality that we expect weirdness, but not so weird as to be incomprehensible. A real attention to detail in describing the oft-impossible physical surroundings. And pervasive horror; this passage is followed by one describing a once-beautiful poet scarred by long use of a typewriter that struck him with poisonous quills each time he pressed the keys. Even the description of the chess game has real nightmarish properties. The stakes are high, but the rules are unclear. Oh, and, many thanks to Gerald Turner for the translation; all translation seems difficult, but recreating this sort of surrealism in another language must’ve been particularly arduous.
The Book of Deserted Gardens speaks of this on the page with the greasy stain from noodle soup left by a scribe of long ago, who took fright when across the sun-drenched page there fell the horned shadow of a monster as it passed through the sleepy and desolate lanes of the city after defeating the aging king at a game of chess on the parched ramparts. It was played with chessmen of sparkling ice; all that could be heard in the silence was the soft rattle of red and purple gemstones falling in the hour-glass alongside the chessboard; it was the monster’s vengeance for a bygone defeat in a contest beneath the high stone walls of the fortress, on which broke the waves of the nocturnal sea. The stories do not tell the entire truth — monsters always return: one day, a familiar monster will ring your doorbell too, bearing a chessboard under its arm; it will persuade you to join it in a game of chess and you will be obliged to include in the game the carved figure of a tiger-headed spearman, a piece that moves in irregular, furtive spirals and can stray quite far from the chessboard — even out of the apartment.