by Infinite Thought
The history of the 20th century is the history of the strategically necessary misrepresentation of chess. The defeat of left-wing politics, of reason and seriality, and its replacement by the flows of capital and the madness of markets informs us that whichever side chess was on, the game itself has lost, and lost badly, relegated to the status of whimsical pastime for the terminally intellectually aspirational, the insane and the incarcerated. The hustlers that sit in Washington Square Park, playing for the odd five bucks against business-folk on their lunch-break are the last remnants of the chess vanguard. But how did chess get beaten so badly? One solution to this question lies in the wilful misunderstanding of chess, by both its defenders and its critics, as primarily a game of war, and not as a game of seduction. The denial of the seductive qualities of chess is by extension a refusal any longer to acknowledge or even contemplate the seductive elements of the avant-garde as a whole.
Chess is the game of modernism, and its many detractors revile and fear on a smaller scale in chess that which they abhor and recoil from in the broader battlegrounds of culture and politics. The reason and system of chess, and the purity of its oppositions, present a world of irreconcilable differences and stark, uncompromising hostility: class war, implacable antagonism, a miniature formal version of larger obsessive enmities. East versus West, the Cold War, spy vs. spy, Spassky vs. Fischer – the harshness of the black and white squares becomes the battleground for a protracted inter-cultural and theoretical hatred.
A strategist’s toy, a tool for the edification of the youth, the noble symbolism of class hierarchy. Of all games, chess is the least likely to be associated with simple enjoyment or distraction and its historical and cultural impact carries nothing of the levity of cards or backgammon, even in the midst of surges of immense popularity (following Fischer’s defeat of Spassky in the early 1970s, for example). It is no surprise that those champions of all that is non- and pre-modern, Deleuze and Guattari, compare striated, structural, state-bound chess to the smooth, anonymous space of Go. Theirs is not a model of peace against war, but of one conception of the terrain of war against another – nomos against polis, the war machine against the machinations of the state. ‘Chess is indeed a war,’ they write, ‘but an institutionalised, regulated war, with a front, a rear, battles.’ If chess is the wrong war for Deleuze and Guattari, it is because structure per se is loaded, corrupted by its collusion in the wrong history. Go is fluid, smooth, non-hierarchical whereas chess is the game of kings and queens played by kings and queens. The state is not sexy.
The peacenik critique of chess – as expressed in Yoko Ono’s mono-coloured, non-oppositional chess pieces – would prefer to see no war, ever ever, and no difference (partnered by Lennon’s thought that ‘if everybody wore sacks, then we’d get to know what people are really like’), again takes as its premise the idea that chess is a symbolic perpetual re-enactment of the reactionary forces at play on the larger geo-political stage. Similarly, Robert Filliou’s 1968 ‘Optimistic Box No. 3’ approximates a fold-up chess box, but with all pieces removed. A label on the outside reads ‘so much the better if you can’t play chess’. The stage, setting and the black and white contrast of chess are nevertheless all pilfered in the name of another opposition – anarchoid ‘play’ against austere rule-bound gaming.
From Deleuze and Guattari’s neo-Orientalist fantasy of nomadic, intensive war to the pacifist finger-wagging of Fluxus and co. in the name of a judgemental liberty, chess gets a firm kicking: it’s just not sloppy enough, just too upright, just not hip enough. Duchamp’s desire to win both against the art world and against his chess opponent (even if it had perhaps been, once or twice, Samuel Beckett) is just too damn teleological. Those uppity mavericks with their word games (Nabokov), misery (Bergman) and perversions (Carroll) – why can’t we all just get along in a meandering fuzz-out of slightly distracted, fragmentary amusement?! Chess is just that little bit too real, too close to serious passion to be anything other than the subject of contemporary derision – chess is for nerds, weirdos, obsessives. Pudovkin’s 1925 Chess Fever, even at the height of its comedy, understands the beauty of this obsessive quality perfectly: It’s either love or chess, or a love that is itself chess. In an odd linguistic and thematic prefiguration of Casablanca, the few minutes off screen where real-life chess champion Capablanca somehow infuses the heroine with an all-encompassing love of the game exist so that she may experience a new kind of joy with her previously estranged chess-infatuated fiancé. At the culmination of a chess tournament, they run off together to practice the Sicilian Defence. The greatest threat to love is not chess, says Chess Fever, but the denial of the seductive qualities of chess.
Fifty years later, Guy Debord too understood something of the wit of chess with the invention in 1977, of his board game, 'Game of War'. Played on a checkerboard of five hundred squares with two opposing armies of equal force, consisting of a number of regiments of infantry, cavalry, and artillery, with forts and arsenals, Debord created a kind of deranged chess proliferation that extends to absurdity the supposed agonism of ordinary chess. After Duchamp and Debord, we are left in a post-avant-garde era which operates with the sorry opposition hyper-chess or no chess at all.
The opposition of game against game, political model against political model, rivalry against rivalry, that characterises the war on chess is the revelation that there are to be no more avant-gardes, no more seductions at the hands of structure. We are certainly in the realms of the fluid and the flexible. Against those who would attack the supposedly instrumental logic of chess, its rigour and compulsive order, we would have to respond that these are no longer the techniques and strategies of 21st century governance and capitalism. Chess had to lose precisely because it revealed too much, precisely not with regard to the state, but of a world in which love, politics and games are taken seriously - the narrowly missed encounter between Lenin and the Dadaists in the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich, and the chess game they never played, is the history of a world and a passion that would have no problem marrying the political avant-garde to the artistic, or love to chess, for that matter.