Monday, 12 February 2007

the seduction of chess


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.

62 comments:

roger said...

There's an interesting book by Marilyn Yalom, Birth of the Chess Queen, that is about the pre-modern history of chess. When chess came to Europe, via Byzantium, there was no queen. There was a vizier piece. But the European change was to make the vizier a queen. Still, the Queen, like the king, was not an aggressive piece: it could only move a space at a time. During this period, chess was a popular court game for both men and women. The change in the game came with giving the queen the power the piece has today. This made the game faster, and it also led to exhibits of chess mastery in which, gradually, women chess players were weeded out. Women turned to card games - except in Russia, which was the last nation to accept the new, powerful queen. Russia turned to European chess under Catherine the great.
There you go - an interesting dialectical interplay between the strengthening of a female ruling class figure on the chess board and the real disenfranchisement of female involvement in the game. Women, beware women (that is, the ones wearing crowns)!

it said...

Dialectical chess history! Quite a neat little tale there. I'm going to play my next game with the Queen on the same impotence level as the King, I think. See if I can improve my record!

Chess as self-help however, just sounds like the worst thing ever.

it said...

from effay:

I enjoyed your chess piece, although I'm not at all clear as to why you should describe Chess as the game of modernism. You're wrong about the chess/cards levity dichotomy as well: You have obviously never played chess with one of those shot glass sets, Lego Chess on the computer, or played serious bridge or poker (or, indeed, Napoleon with my mother-in-law). Still, there you go.

Did you know that Peter Blake has done a recreation of that Duchamp and the nude photo that you used? I saw it the other day somewhere, but can't remember where unfortunately.

it said...

Here is the Blake recreation.

ejh said...

A fairly strong player writes:

Could I call your bluff and ask how good a player you are?

it said...

I would say likely not as good as someone who would feel it incumbent to mention their interest in chess on their blogger profile.

I am currently trying to better my game on a near-daily basis, though I fear I often resort to an ultimately self-destructive overly-defensive game in part due to frequent excessive tiredness.

I would offer to play you at postcard chess, but I fear being beaten by (potentially) judgemental strangers.

ejh said...

Ah, OK. Actually my intention wasn't a willy-waving contest: it's just that I found some of your claims about chess a little tendentious and because it's one of those things that you need to be good at in order to properly understand (you don't, in the same way, have to be able to play the violin to properly appreciate a concerto) I thought I'd ask.

Anyway, you can find the Blake and Duchamp photos here (and it is possible that this humble blog may be of interest.

it said...

Well, the piece is obviously supposed to be a bit exaggerated - but what did you object to in particular?

it said...

I mean, what gives the game away that I'm no world class player, eh?!

ejh said...

but what did you object to in particular?

Well, to be honest I took issue with the opening sentence and after that there wasn't much to wholeheartedly agree with.

Also, I found it all a bit, you know, House of Paul Morley.

Tom Chivers said...

There can I'm afraid be no gender-specific theories relating to the 'Queen'.

This is because in the best chess country in the world and in history (Russia) the Queen is actually still called a ферзь (ferz). That means something like minister, counsellor, advisor - but anyway is, most definitely, male.

it said...

Also, I found it all a bit, you know, House of Paul Morley.

I haven't read any Paul Morley, so I don't really know what this means. Wikipedia claims he has 'a distinctive style of post-punk, post-modernist music writing', which doesn't sound all that bad to me...

ejh said...

It means overloaded with (a) intellectual references that are less relevant than they ought to be ; (b) dramatic cultural statements.

Also see "Jon Savage".

it said...

Curse these theory-hounds! What we want is sobriety, common-sense and reassuringly calm prose.

Bring back Mill and Burke! A pox on these half-baked word-revolutionaries! Who do they think they are?! Are we not upright men with linguistic standards to uphold?! Are we not...British?!

ejh said...

I wouldn't mind Morley being a theory-hound if I thought that he both understood the theories he refers to and used them to illuminate. As it is, I think he waves these ideas around to impress people but doesn't actually have the foggiest.

it said...

Why are you still talking about Morley?! I told you I hadn't read him!

I'd be far more interested to know what you'd say about the cultural role of chess, given your gaming proclivities.

ejh said...

What would you like to know?

I'd guess we could start with Arthur C Clarke's famous line:

... Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic

and suggest that chess similarly appears magical to those who do not play it.

it said...

Sigh. I hope you're not implying that I've conjured up some magical-wagical chess world filled with ickle chess-fairies to compensate for the fact that someone of your game-playing stature would surely beat me in five minutes.

I dislike criticism without content - all you've said is that the post reads a bit like some bloke who throws theories around without understanding them, but given no evidence or detail for this claim in my case.

I then asked you to say what you thought on the issue, given that you obviously aren't keen on my account, and you've just resorted to empty superior sneering. Which is a shame, because if you're the same Justin who wrotes on Lenin's Tomb comments, I generally think your points are quite apt.

john said...

and suggest that chess similarly appears magical to those who do not play it.

And with comments like this, is it any wonder that chess is both a minority past-time and perceived as elitist (even when played by self-proclaimed socialists) in this country?

Tom Chivers said...

I'm a friend of Justin's, and also help write the Streatham & Brixton Chess Club blog that Justin does to. I am a worse chess player than Justin, but not by much - I have certainly beaten him in five minutes before, for instance :)

So, you wanted some serious critique of your article. I will deal with the first paragraph only, since in chess as in life - time is pressurized.

Here goes.

1. "the status of whimsical pastime for the terminally intellectually aspirational, the insane and the incarcerated." I don't recognize this cultural gloss, either internally or externally. Few chess players are whimsical, few intellectually aspirational, few insane, and very few incacerated. Externally, I think 'intense nerd' would be a more common cultural stereotype than 'whimsical intellectual.'

2. "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." I don't see how. They are mostly Brooklynites trained by ex-Soviet Jewish immigrants who hang around on Brighton Beach, picking up pennies there. They are also very paranoid about eg people taking photos or videoing - they will shout at such people to stop - so maybe they are in the park for other purposes than chess as well. They also are more likely to play students and tourists than business men.

3. "But how did chess get beaten so badly?" Chess at an amateur level is flourishing mostly, thanks to the possibilities of the internet.

4. "the wilful misunderstanding of chess, by both its defenders and its critics, as primarily a game of war." A minute ago, it was whimsical, intellectual. Now it is primarily about war. These are hardly synonymous.

5. "the wilful misunderstanding of chess, by both its defenders and its critics, as primarily a game of war." I don't know any criticism of chess on this basis. Nor is there much defence of chess on this basis. More common analogies for chess are: art, science, sport, fight (as in individual fight.)

6. "a game of seduction. The denial of the seductive qualities of chess" I'm not quite sure what sense of seduction you mean. Perhaps some technical, sociological sense I am fuzzy on. But I cannot see many people denying or endorsing the seductive qualities of chess. Probably the best psychological/sociological explanations of chess's appeal were offered by writer & Grandmaster Jan Hein Donner. I wrote about him here. He is a good place to start when thinking about this stuff.

7. "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." I think this is some kind of analogy, but if you literally mean chess is a part of the avant-garde, then I don't know how you can explain it was state policy in Russia after Krylenko for all Russian school children to learn chess. A similar centrality of chess in culture in currently being established in China. If you are even remotely talented in Norway at chess, you also get to go to a special school to study it. Same in Hungary.

it said...

Thank you, Tom, for your gambit.

1. "the status of whimsical pastime for the terminally intellectually aspirational, the insane and the incarcerated." I don't recognize this cultural gloss, either internally or externally. Few chess players are whimsical, few intellectually aspirational, few insane, and very few incacerated. Externally, I think 'intense nerd' would be a more common cultural stereotype than 'whimsical intellectual.'

1. Chess is frequently played in prisons. The charity wing of the US Chess Federation, for example, sponsors the promotion of chess-playing in prisons, as made clear on their web page. There's more on the importance of prison in chess in this report: 'There’s a lot of really, really good chess players in prison. Guys that have been playing practically every day for 10, 15 years since they’ve been in there.' Or do they not count as 'chess-players' according to your definition?

2. An obsession with chess has sometimes accompanied mental instability, or eccentricity at the very least. Wilhelm Steinitz, first official chess world champion, ended his days by claiming to be playing God and claiming he could control chess pieces by telepathy. Paul Morphy was famously paranoid.

3. Chess is often associated with the desire to improve oneself intellectually. I'm surprised that anyone would dispute this. According to your logic, people who do cryptic crosswords have no interest in words, I suppose. Chess has allegedly been shown to improve mental agility. Anyone who was interested in sharpening their brain might reasonably have an interest in playing chess.

4. I would count myself, some of the people I played chess with at university and now as 'terminally intellectually aspirational', as well as whimsical, in the sense that neither nor any of my friends will probably ever be good enough to compete in tournaments. I don't necessarily mean this phrase as an insult.

If one is impressed by the literary output of Nabokov, Beckett, Brecht, Carroll, to take a few examples, one might seek to emulate the fact that they also had a strong interest in chess. Similarly if one were into Matisse or Duchamp, one might follow their lead and take up chess - again I would call this something like 'intellectual aspiration', and if it were done in a dilettantish way, I would call it 'whimsical'.

Later on in the post I make the claim that chess is seen as a game for 'nerds, weirdos, obsessives', which you presumably agree with, but I don't think that exhausts the list of kinds of players, nor where they might be playing.

it said...

2. "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." I don't see how. They are mostly Brooklynites trained by ex-Soviet Jewish immigrants who hang around on Brighton Beach, picking up pennies there. They are also very paranoid about eg people taking photos or videoing - they will shout at such people to stop - so maybe they are in the park for other purposes than chess as well. They also are more likely to play students and tourists than business men.

You'll note I did not state the chess players of Washington Square Park play businessmen exclusively. Sometimes, however, it looks like they do. Perhaps I should have added a footnote about tourists and students for extra balance.

My use of the term 'chess vanguard' is a bit of poetic licence, perhaps, but clearly I'm setting the argument up by trying to make a link between chess and politics. The chess-players in Washington Square Park are clearly extremely fine players and use their ability to make small amounts of money - my point here is that chess has tumbled from its elevated role say in Soviet Russia in the 1920s to something used a medium for hustling. This is not a critique of the chess-players in Washington Square Park, it is an observation about a minor example of one relation of chess to a certain kind of restricted economy.

it said...

3. "But how did chess get beaten so badly?" Chess at an amateur level is flourishing mostly, thanks to the possibilities of the internet.

Absolutely, and all the better for it. Again the point here is historical, rather than blankly empirical. At certain points in the 20th century (Soviet Russia under Lenin, the avant-gardes around the mid-40s, the Spassky-Fischer match as symbolising the tensions of the Cold War), chess was used as a central metaphor for certain geo-political or aesthetic struggles. My claim here is that the chess/geo-politics/aesthetics link has been severed (perhaps since the end of the Cold War), and that we could describe this as chess itself 'losing' the battle for its own representation.

it said...

"the wilful misunderstanding of chess, by both its defenders and its critics, as primarily a game of war." A minute ago, it was whimsical, intellectual. Now it is primarily about war. These are hardly synonymous.

You're missing the time-lapse here. The game now, accepting my argument for a moment that it is no longer as central a political metaphor as it once was, is currently 'relegated' to the status of whimsical pastime. The defenders/critics of chess I go on to discuss are writing about chess at a point (let's say before 1989 or thereabouts) where the 'war' metaphor is still in operation.

Tom Chivers said...

You're welcome.

Our numbers don't line-up, so I will switch to your numbering in reply.

1. It's true chess is played, and sometimes played well, by people in prisons. That is not what you said first - and it is not what I am denying. In fact, you describe chess's 'status' as linked to this. I don't think it is, at all. By analogy, many Americans play football, and some can be considered footballers. This does not make football's status 'American'.

2. Steinitz and Morphy, Rubinstein too, and more recently perhaps Fischer, indeed had mental problems. However, Morphy and Fischer gave up chess before this - and there are many, many more examples of completely sane players.

3. Once again - there are certainly some people who see chess this way or come to chess seeking something like this. But internally, most people within the game don't. Of English players, Nigel Short is famously and vocally proud of his complete failure at O-Levels, for instance. Externally, I don't recall ever seeing Michael Adams on Question Time or Newsnight Review as an intellectual.

I'm not saying it's impossible to come up with *individual examples* that fit in with your view. I just think the *general case* is typically different.

4. Again - maybe for some chess has this aura or attraction. But a circle of university friends who don't take the game that seriously hardly constitute evidence for general claims.

As for your examples from famous people - I only know the chessy details pertaining to two of them, and neither wholly support your statements. Nabokov was actually interested in chess puzzles - and talks in 'Speak, Memory' of how far far away this interest of his actually is from the game itself. Chess puzzles are - in my limited opinion - primarily about *artistry* and *humour*. As far as I can tell from the puzzle he created that he describes in 'Speak, Memory', he was primarily interested in the hilarity of chess puzzles. Whilst I admit I would need to spend much more time with his puzzles to know this for sure, I don't think this fits with what you're saying very well.

Duchamp, on the other hand, was quite competitive - apparently more proud when he achieved a Master title than of his art work - but also had a very artistic view of chess. Hence his quote: "Not all artists are Chess players, but all Chess players are artists." Competitive, but artistic too: hardly whimsical intellectualism.

I can also list famous people, outside the scope of your stereotype, who are also very serious about chess, from both the past and present. Here is one: Will Smith.

Re: "Later on in the post I make the claim that chess is seen as a game for 'nerds, weirdos, obsessives', which you presumably agree with." Certainly this was the stereotype I was afraid of, which meant at School I hid the fact of my hobby from even my closest friends. At University, people were less bothered. In London now - there are a mixture of responses. I would say, if one can say, that in the UK chess players still suffer from this - not always inaccurate - stereotype. But I don't think it's generally the case in every country, in my experience. I've just been for Holland for instance - some normal bookshops there have a floor dedicated to chess for instance, and a substantial window display.

I think the problem is, I do not think that generalities of the kind you seek for chess are realistic to the game currently and its history.

it said...

5. "the wilful misunderstanding of chess, by both its defenders and its critics, as primarily a game of war." I don't know any criticism of chess on this basis. Nor is there much defence of chess on this basis. More common analogies for chess are: art, science, sport, fight (as in individual fight.)

The examples I give you, such as Deleuze and Guattari's claim that '‘Chess is indeed a war...but an institutionalised, regulated war, with a front, a rear, battles.’ And the Fluxus critique of chess as a reflection of the compeition and war-like simply don't count for you here? They are simply not talking about chess as a metaphor for war? I'm not sure what else they are saying if it's not that, frankly.

Sometimes, for better or worse, chess is apparently even studied for its potential similarities to war.

Tom Chivers said...

Ah right. You replied some more, in separate posts. Ok, I will do the same, quoting.

"The chess-players in Washington Square Park are clearly extremely fine players and use their ability to make small amounts of money" - actually they're not so hot. When I was there I was always the second or first best player there, and regularly walked away with money.

"my point here is that chess has tumbled from its elevated role say in Soviet Russia in the 1920s to something used a medium for hustling. This is not a critique of the chess-players in Washington Square Park, it is an observation about a minor example of one relation of chess to a certain kind of restricted economy."

This isn't the case. Nowadays many not very talented people make considerable sums of cash from chess. There are semi-professional teachers in London who are barely better than novices. It is true, however, that for all but Grandmasters earning a living from chess tends to come nowadays from diverse activity - playing, training, publishing. Was it different when there were tournaments and chess schools bank-rolled by a large state?! Hard - very hard - to know.

Tom Chivers said...

"At certain points in the 20th century (Soviet Russia under Lenin, the avant-gardes around the mid-40s, the Spassky-Fischer match as symbolising the tensions of the Cold War), chess was used as a central metaphor for certain geo-political or aesthetic struggles. My claim here is that the chess/geo-politics/aesthetics link has been severed (perhaps since the end of the Cold War), and that we could describe this as chess itself 'losing' the battle for its own representation."

Oh, absolutely not. See Kasparov's recent Predecessors series and their rapturous reception. He argues precisely that chess not only reflects but also creates social history. He believes Steinitz presaged the Scientific Method, for instance and for starters. Kramnik, on the other hand, is a symbol of 80s banking practices, he says.

it said...

Probably the best psychological/sociological explanations of chess's appeal were offered by writer & Grandmaster Jan Hein Donner.

This is a quote from this 'superior' thinker you reference in your piece on him:

'However painful it may be, we must not shrink from the truth: women cannot play chess. ... they cannot paint either, or write, or philosophize. ... the fact [is] that women are much more stupid than men.'

And this is 'a good place' to start' when thinking about 'this stuff' is it?

And as for this quote you also take from Donner:

During their game, chess players are 'incommunicado'; they are imprisoned. What is going on in their heads is narcissistic self-gratification with a minimum of objective reality, a worldess sniffing and grabbing in a bottomless pit. Women do not like that, and who is to blame them?

Strikes me that far from some 'fuzzy sociologising' on my part, if you think this is a good place to start thinking about the seductive qualities of chess, you're just never going to get it.

Somewhat revealingly, you write this in the same piece with reference to yourself: Donner wrote. He also wrote about chess-writing: as literature. Is it? Whilst I can say that Donner's intriguing personal stylings do not quite transcend journalism to make this a completed self-portrait, that harder question I cannot answer: when it comes to chess, I know too much of what he's talking about. A non-chess-player ought judge; preferably a woman, of course.

Hmmmm...

it said...

7. "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." I think this is some kind of analogy, but if you literally mean chess is a part of the avant-garde, then I don't know how you can explain it was state policy in Russia after Krylenko for all Russian school children to learn chess. A similar centrality of chess in culture in currently being established in China. If you are even remotely talented in Norway at chess, you also get to go to a special school to study it. Same in Hungary.

I think you managed to get my point here so your pawn will not be taken at this juncture.

Tom Chivers said...

"The examples I give you, such as Deleuze and Guattari's claim that '‘Chess is indeed a war...but an institutionalised, regulated war, with a front, a rear, battles.’ And the Fluxus critique of chess as a reflection of the compeition and war-like simply don't count for you here? They are simply not talking about chess as a metaphor for war? I'm not sure what else they are saying if it's not that, frankly.

"Sometimes, for better or worse, chess is apparently even studied for its potential similarities to war."

I'm not saying some people don't link chess to war. In fact I believe the way the pieces move and are organised was originally meant as a reflection of medieval war.

But I assure you that approximately zero chess players care what Deleuze and Guattari say about the game, and the numbers among the general public will be considerably limited to. I guess by 'critics and defenders' I didn't realise you meant such parochial voices - I thought you were trying to say something wider and more general.

Tom Chivers said...

Re: "And this is 'a good place' to start' when thinking about 'this stuff' is it?"

I assume you are having a knee-jerk moment of implied outrage on behalf of feminism. I thought somewhere in that post I quoted Donner's far subtler and sadder actual view's on the gender question in chess, but maybe not. I haven't read it in a while.

Btw, please do me the favour of reading what I actually write. I did not accuse you of 'fuzzy sociologising' when I wrote: "Perhaps some technical, sociological sense I am fuzzy on."

I don't get what you think that quote implies about me. Literature is the knowledge of how it is to be a different person made compelling through artful writing. A good test of whether or not Donner achieves that - as Mulisch claims - would be if one of my female readers read his book and gave their view. No volunteers, so far.

Daniel said...

Tom Chivers - at the beginning of a book I have, called something like Basic Chess Openings - I'm sure you know the type - there is a picture of the ideal opening, the best possible arrangement of pieces that any player could possibly achieve after something like ten moves. But, the author counsels, "One will only be able to achieve this position supposing that your opponent knows nothing about the basic principles of chess."

Reading your posts remind me of this page. What, frankly, are you trying to claim? What ground are you attempting to hold? You say, you open by saying, that you are a chess player, that you run a chess society. Who gives a damn what you do? Then, for your second move, you seek to hector your opponents, with risible claims, suggesting that they do not play chess, and therefore can know nothing about it. Are we to believe that only you know what chess is? That you have a handle on it? From here, you then proceed, obnoxiously, to attempt to speak on behalf of chess players generally, and then -absurddly - turn around in a circle and try to claim specious authority on the basis of this obvious fallacy. If we were playing chess right now, if this was a chessgame, then the situation would be me, chasing your knight, around the board, as you flail.

Let me state it plainly: your discourse is amateur, and ridiculous. For all of your grandstanding, it is obvious that you understand nothing of discourse, or desire, or chess for the matter. Your own strategy in this argument has so far been so transparently appalling as to invite contempt. Would you like to take a move back? Perhaps we can just start again, and pretend that nothing has happened? If this was a lesson, and I was feeling generous, I would say, take a deep breath, figure out your own strategy, rather than just dully responding, and then try again.

Tom Chivers said...

Daniel - one thing I don't view conversation as is a chess game, whether over insults, style of address, or comprehension.

IT asked for comments on his article and I simply provided mine. I hoped he would find them intersting or useful, but maybe not. If he doesn't appreciate my comments - fine - he is welcome to ignore them, disagree, or delete them as he sees fit. It's his blog. I don't see what your problem is.

it said...

Just a couple of things before I have to finish my lecture for tomorrow (it's on Descartes - oh no! my poor brain!).

1. Nabokov played his wife Vera at chess almost every day. I find this an attractive, seductive model both of marriage and of chess.

2. I am clearly not claiming that famous people who play/ed chess, like Duchamp, are whimsical. I am claiming that some who may be inspired by Duchamp's dramatic decision re art and chess might find the game attractive on the basis of such a thing. These people may be whimsical. It is not necessarily a bad thing. Not all of us will ever be good enough to beat the hustlers in Washington Square Park.

3. I think the problem is, I do not think that generalities of the kind you seek for chess are realistic to the game currently and its history.

Clearly the post I wrote isn't going to respond to such demands, seeing as not for a moment was that my intention.

If I wish to write an account of the current status of the game, or its really real totally empirical history I will call on you to provide me with all the sensible information I could possibly need.

4. I assume you are having a knee-jerk moment of implied outrage on behalf of feminism.

One is only outraged 'on behalf' of something? What an oddly distanced formulation.

5. Btw, please do me the favour of reading what I actually write. I did not accuse you of 'fuzzy sociologising' when I wrote: "Perhaps some technical, sociological sense I am fuzzy on."

I apologise for this slip. But it strikes me that you too are exhibiting a tendency to misread some of my claims. When I say that chess has shifted from a more central role in the cultural imagination, this does not automatically imply that there are less people now playing the game, for example. One claim is socio-cultural, the other empirical.

6. A good test of whether or not Donner achieves that - as Mulisch claims - would be if one of my female readers read his book and gave their view. No volunteers, so far.

Email me at wearekinofist@blogspot.com and I'll gladly do you the courtesy.

Tom Chivers said...

Ok, fair enough IT.

I am not used to how you write or what your interests are. I come from a general chess angle and figured you might be intersted in my reaction, but maybe not as probably we were talking at crossed purposes most of the time.

I'll drop you an email.

it said...

email address is actually wearekinofist@gmail.com, slight d'oh.

ejh said...

you've just resorted to empty superior sneering

No I haven't: I was (very, very obviously) making that point as an introduction to discuss how people perceive chess. There’s nothing about it that could be remotely described as empty, or superior, or sneering.

One of the things I find most fascinating about chess is its fascination to people who do not know (or barely know) how it is played: I can recall this from (for example) schoolfriends being hooked on the TV programme The Master Game when I was a kid. So why not ask what the basis of this fascination is? Why televised representations of chess often have someone announcing checkmate that their skilled opponent somehow hadn't seen, as if a rabbit were being pulled out of a hat?

I'm sorry you're not happy that I didn't like your piece. But the problem with it is that,as Tom has extensively observed, it makes a lot of claims that can't really be backed up and which are often exceptions rather than generalities.

I think that if you make claims, in the realm of cultural commentary or anywhere else, you have to accept that people with knowledge of the field are going to ask you whether those claims really stack up. I don't think they do. I don't think that most people with regular experience of the world of chess would agree with them. This would include those who are familiar with the theorists to whom you make reference.

I often feel that reference to certain theorists can camouflage unfamiliarity with the material on which they are being employed for commentary and I'm afraid I felt that was the case here. Sorry if you didn't like it. I didn't go out of my way to dislike your piece, but dislike it I did and I say so on, I think, a well-informed basis.

Of Daniel's posting very little complimentary can be said - I think he is confusing me with Tom, in the first place. Comments like this:

you understand nothing of discourse, or desire, or chess for the matter

are free of all content except empty rhetoric. Tom knows nothing of chess, or I don't? Don't be silly.

it said...

ejh - you haven't given me a single substantive point of criticism here. Which theorists have I presented badly? What exactly is it that superior chess players understand about the game that lesser players do not? I couldn't care less if you like the piece - at least your chess colleague had some contentful comments, even if he (?!) did make a fatal assumption at the beginning of his game.

ejh said...

I don't think you've presented the theorists badly as such, nor have I claimed that you did: it's that you've not really asked whether what they are saying is true.

What do superior chess players understand that lesser players do not? Well, by its nature that's a hard thing to explain, but the better one becomes the more one can appreciate what the nature of chess actually is. This is partly in the sense (discussed by Tom above) of whether it is art, science, representation of war, sport or what you will. But also in terms of commentary on statements like this:

"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"

Well, is it really a game of seduction rather than war? In what way? Players would, I think, generally feel that what they were engaged in was a contest. To some degree it may be a contest in which co-operation is required in order to achieve aesthetically pleasing results. At a higher level there may be a feeling that the players' forces are in some way interdependent, that the relationship between the sides is not purely antagonistic (one recalls what is said about the ebb and flow of the initiative in works by Suba or Watson or Rowson). My own problem with commenting on the last suggestion is that I'm really not quite good enough to understand whether it is true: my comprehension of what is occurring on a chessboard is too superficial.

I do think you're going to have problems if you inist on making statements like this:

"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"

Your piece is full of this sort of dramatic claim. This being so, people are going to ask, on the basis of knowledge of the world of chess and understanding of the mechanics of the game – "is this true?" They are going to ask "what does the writer really mean by post-avant-garde and has anybody, really, been left with that sorry opposition?" They’ve not, really, have they? Chess continues as before, does it not? It has not been surpasssed or outdated or discredited or rendered defunct, has it? Not in any sense.

So isn't it a claim that can't remotely be justified on any sort of evidence? Isn't the employment of the language of social theory therefore, as I say, a camouflage for the making of draamtic claims that are justified neither by the facts nor by the theory?

ejh said...

Indeed, why not identify some more of these dramatic claims and ask them to justify themselves? In the name of intellectual rigour, if nothing else.

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

How so? In what sense would chess have been on any given "side"?

and lost badly, relegated to the status of whimsical pastime for the terminally intellectually aspirational, the insane and the incarcerated.

Really? Would any but a tiny minority of regular players fall into any of thse categories?

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.

Are they? In what sense do they represent a vanguard? Of what previous vanguard are they a remnant?

Chess is the game of modernism

Is it? Does it really play a sizeable role in Modernism's history or theory or output?

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

In what way is Go fluid that chess is not? In what way does chess possess structure but Go does not? In what way is structure guilty of "collusion" and what constitutes "the wrong history"?

In an odd linguistic and thematic prefiguration of "Casablanca"

Does "Chess Fever" really prefigure "Casablanca" thematically? How does it do so? Isn't it really nothing at all to do with "Casablanca" that a chessplayer with a similar-sounding name appeared in a film made twenty years earlier? Would a film involving Bobby Fischer have prefigured "The Fisher King"?

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'.

How does this demonstrate that Debord understood the game's "wit"?

that characterises the war on chess

What "war on chess"?

Chess had to lose precisely because it revealed too much

How did it "have to lose"? Who decided this? What defeat did it then suffer? Who brought it about? How did it actually "reveal too much"? Aren't you actually trying to create an enormous intellectual edifice on the basis of a very small number of artworks?

Wesley said...

While we could speak of a love of chess, or a passionate involvement in its rules, I don’t think that a ‘chess of love’ is possible, because in chess every act must be bound by its static set of rules, whereas acts of love continually displace the rational terms through which we evaluate our relation to an object of desire. Though chess is seductive insofar as it begins with a pact in which the intensity of our pleasure requires our opponent’s acumen, and though this might resemble love in saying to him ‘the more knowledge that you have, the more pleasure I take’, these qualities are bound by its rules, and by the very particular objects that it allows us to stake. To say that love takes the form of a game isn’t to say that it requires a Machiavellian operation which replaces belief with other, more important ends, but rather that love is the domain of stakes rather than investment, in which an object of desire is offered to displace its economic ends. That is, whereas the stakes of chess are determined by a finite number of permutations of its rules, even if the number of these permutations and the problems that they challenge us to stake is extremely high, because love is a game without ends, and that ends only in death, love is a game in which the stakes are infinite.

Daniel said...

"What do superior chess players understand that lesser players do not? Well, by its nature that's a hard thing to explain, but the better one becomes the more one can appreciate what the nature of chess actually is."

You really are a pompous windbag, aren't you?

Wesley said...

I don't play chess very well, but I think that I agree with 'ejh' about this. I think that something similar can be said about philosophy, or anything abstract.

ejh said...

Daniel, I'm afraid that when I refer to content-free postings I do not consider insults to be be content.

If you have nothing to say, could you not find a way of saying it that embarrasses you less?

Wesley said...

Why do posts that begin with the chastisement of on-line insults almost always end with an insult?

johneffay said...

What do superior chess players understand that lesser players do not? Well, by its nature that's a hard thing to explain, but the better one becomes the more one can appreciate what the nature of chess actually is.

It's becoming glaringly apparent that what superior chess players do not understand is how chess is perceived outside the rarefied atmosphere of chess clubs; which is obviously the subject of IT's piece. Apparently they also have no concept of hyperbole.

Sorry to disappoint you but in the big wide world, chess is seen as

1. Analogous to war. Hence the success of programmes such as 'Battlechess', where you can watch animations of the pieces fight whenever they take each other.

2. A difficult board game that does not repay the effort that it takes to play properly.

Ask yourself this, ejh: Why are more children prepared to take the time and effort to learn the baroque and ludicrously complicated rules to table top war games and role playing games when if they put in the same sort of effort into chess they would probably be quite good at it? Could it have anything to do with the appallingly smug and elitist attitude that you are displaying in your comments?

Tom Chivers said...

I'm ducking out of the comments after this one, because this place is getting too hostile and detailed.

But I do just want to say that Battlechess is not so successful - the last time it was produced was 1994.

I would think (but don't know) the most popular chess programme nowadays is 'Chessmaster'. Their central imagery revolves around a magical wizard. Interpret that how you will.

In specialist circle, the most sold chess programme I strongly suspect is either Rybka or Fritz. Fritz doesn't have central imagery - but rather has numerous types of imagery you can choose from, including but not limited to war. Rybka's imagery is centred on fish.

ejh said...

Well, it's hard to pick out any coherent argument in between the epithets. The accusations of "elitism" are water off a duck's back, I'm afraid: they're empty. It's the case that people with experience and knowledge of a field tend to understand more about that field than people who do not: if you don't have that knowledge you're liable to be shown up by somebody who does.

This doesn't matter so much: what matters is if you decide the knowledge and experience aren't important, that you can make any sort of exaggerated and unsupportable assertion you like and then cry "eltism" when you're challenged. I don't have a lot of time for this.

It's becoming glaringly apparent that what superior chess players do not understand is how chess is perceived outside the rarefied atmosphere of chess clubs; which is obviously the subject of IT's piece. Apparently they also have no concept of hyperbole.

Now, let's have a look at this passage. Firstly, the final sentence is plainly untrue on a straightforward reading, since a large objection I have made to the piece is that it is full of exaggerated statements. Now if the defence is that this is all right, that "hyperbole" is a reasonable approach to the discussion of cultural phenomena, I have to say that I don't agree. One may make this or that hyperbolic statement for effect, sure, but as one's whole approach? All that would mean is that one can come out with any old crap and not be asked to justify it. Isn't what this is about, people wanting to make impressive statements and then resenting being pulled up for it?

Secondly, it's not obviously the subject of the piece: the nature of chess itself, rather than its perception by non-players, appears to be the subject of the piece.

Thirdly, on the "rarefied atmosphere of chess clubs" and so on. Now I should observe that "rarefied atmosphere" is a cliché and cliches usually indicate that those who use them are dealing with a stereotype rather than a reality. I don't know of any club with a "rarefied" atmosphere: perhaps this points up the problem when people who do not know anything about a field insist on laying down the law about what it is and what it's like.

I have, however, spent much time thinking about how chess represents itself to (and how it is perceived by ) non-chessplayers. This can be backed up with comments I have made above, with comments I have made when reviewing books (some of which are reproduced on the front cover of a recent book) and in a certain amount of my writing and journalism about chess.

Many chessplayers and chess writers actually spend a good deal of time discussing how the public in general view chess and communicating with said public on the subject: this is because we would like to increase our audience and to make more people interested in chess. Did you know that, or think about it?

For that reason, it's possible that I know something about why, and to what extent kids play other games rather than chess. Matter of fact, a lot of kids do learn chess and whether or not they continue with it doesn't seem to have anything to do with "elitism", possibly because no such thing impedes them.

They continue, on the whole, if they have access to regular competition, if they enjoy it and if they improve, which is related to questions like "is it available in schools?" or "is there a club they can join?".

Of course many kids find it slow and boring and abandon it (or never learn it) for that reason: and fair enough, it's difficult and neither as colourful or exciting, on the surface, as computer games.

I've spent a fair amount of my time discussing the question of how chess may be made more accessible to kids, asking how it can present itself to the general public, providing commentary on chess events to non-players and inexperienced players. I tend to think this provides me with rather more understanding of the subject than can be summoned either by quoting Debord in order to show off, or by screaming "elitism" as a cover for not having an adequate knowledge of the subject. I've given much of my time to providing (and discussing) chess for people who are not regular players. Very elitist! How much time have you given?

johneffay said...

this place is getting too hostile and detailed.

I don't mean to be overly hostile, but see no problem with details.

But I do just want to say that Battlechess is not so successful - the last time it was produced was 1994.

It was very successful during the seven or eight years it was marketed for, and was hosted on just about every platform available (and in those days there were a lot of platforms). I have no doubt the novelty wore off after a while, but it would be interesting to see what the comparative sales figures were for it and other chess programmes are. I've had a quick trawl round the Net, but can't seem to find them.

johneffay said...

Now if the defence is that this is all right, that "hyperbole" is a reasonable approach to the discussion of cultural phenomena, I have to say that I don't agree.

Ermm, you are aware that this piece is an article to accompany a screening of a film called Chess Fever aren't you?

Thirdly, on the "rarefied atmosphere of chess clubs" and so on. Now I should observe that "rarefied atmosphere" is a cliché and cliches usually indicate that those who use them are dealing with a stereotype rather than a reality. I don't know of any club with a "rarefied" atmosphere

'Rarefied' - selective. Chess clubs are full of people with a more than average interest in chess. What is your problem?

I've given much of my time to providing (and discussing) chess for people who are not regular players. Very elitist! How much time have you given?

Absolutely none; so what? I'm not setting myself up as a spokesperson for chess in this discussion. I'm very sorry, but when you post terse comments drawing analogies between Clarke's comments about science/magic and chess, you are setting yourself up for accusations of elitism.

Many chessplayers and chess writers actually spend a good deal of time discussing how the public in general view chess and communicating with said public on the subject: this is because we would like to increase our audience and to make more people interested in chess. Did you know that, or think about it?

Yes and yes. Of course, I had no idea that you did such things until you actually mentioned it (why would I have?). I found your comments upon why children do or do not continue to play chess quite interesting and am happy to bow to your superior knowledge in that area. Perhaps you could continue in that vein rather than with all the pointless sniping?

daniel said...

"I tend to think this provides me with rather more understanding of the subject"

Yes, you do rather, don't you? And really, that's your endlessly reiterated entire point, isn't it? That you know best. What chess is, what chess players think.

"We would like to increase our audience, and to make more people interested in chess. Did you know that, or think about it?"

Who, really, is "we" Justin? And, according to you, what is it to be interested in chess? Because it seems to me, that as you see it, there are right, and wrong ways to be interested. There is your way. And then there is any other way. And furthermore, before being certified to think about chess, and certainly before being certified to talk about it, it is necessary that the correct view, apparently endorsed by everyone who plays (though, oddly, not by me, or indeed, anybody else I have ever spoken to on the subject, including, upon one occasion, two different grandmasters) about the enigmatic "nature of the game" are first of all accepted, since otherwise, one can't really be a chess player, can one now?

It is arrogance of a breathtaking degree really, and leaves me in doubt whatsoever as to what a marvellous advertisment for chess you must be.

ejh said...

And really, that's your endlessly reiterated entire point, isn't it? That you know best

No: that I know a fair bit about it and that I have the knowledge and experience to back up my opinions. This means I don't have to scream "elitism" at other people, or manufacture their opinions for them, as you have done in your posting.

when you post terse comments drawing analogies between Clarke's comments about science/magic and chess, you are setting yourself up for accusations of elitism.

No I'm not: I'm investigating the way in which people view chess. In which they relate to chess: how it differs from (say) how people view football or novel-writing or carpentry.

And to be honest I don't really care about accusations of elitism, except insofar as they always serve to obscure and cripple a proper discussion.

owen hatherley said...

I don't want to get bogged down too much on what seems to be for some people their own little version of Sokal's Intellectual Impostures, only with even less point; just an aside that the Casablanca/Capablanca point with ref to Chess Fever has to do with the unshown scene where Capablanca teaches the heroine the joys of chess, much as Casablanca hinges on the unseen moment where Bergman and Bogart may or may not be having sex, rather than any Morleyesque smartarsery. OK?

it said...

Of all the points I might want to make, the last one Owen notes would be the main one: the thematic parallel between Casablanca and Capablanca in Chess Fever is the missing five minutes and what may or may not have happened.

Ahistoricality said...

For a Cold War as Chess theme, I'm surprised no mention of the musical... Chess.

But then, my tastes are far more bougeoise than theoretical.

enthusemarc said...

ejh:

"In what way is Go fluid that chess is not? In what way does chess possess structure but Go does not?"

D&G:

"Go pieces... [have] no intrinsic properties, but only situational ones... chess pieces entertain biunique relations with one another, and with the adversary's pieces: their functioning is structural. On the other hand, a Go piece has only a milieu of exteriority, or extrinsic relations with nebulas or constellations, according to which it fulfils functions of insertion or situation, such as bordering, encircling, shattering. All by itself, a Go piece can destroy an entire constellation synchronically; a chess piece cannot (or can do so diachronically only).
Chess is indeed a war, but an institutionalised, regulated, coded war, with a front, a rear, battles. But what is proper to Go is war without battle lines, with neither confrontation nor retreat, without battles even: pure strategy, while chess is a semiology."

wu lok said...

D&G's ideas on the difference between Go and Chess simply do not appreciate what happens in endgames - especially rook endgames: zugzwang is what needs to be considered.

check out: 2nd diagram on page 5 here

http://www.chesscafe.com/text/heisman02.pdf

After first move of white's - black loses because a move must be made. Make white move again and the win is not there. A defensive formation is destroyed because a move must be made. And this is a simple problem.

The capture and loss of pieces in chess transforms the game - it does not necessarily simplify as pieces reduce. Instead the relations between pieces alter (particularly time: you cannot lose a tempo with a knight as you can with a bishop).
This is what top-level Shogi players struggle with when trying their hand at chess. Most good chess writers emphasise the need to treat the endgame as a separate game with a different skill-set.

Philosophers (D&G in particular) tend to assume that cultural activities are passively awaiting their insights - certainly not the case in chess. I suggest you read David Bronstein - perhaps the most respected advocate of chess as art (instead of war) - and unfortunately recently deceased.

The major factor that altered the ontology of chess is information technology and AI - not the cold war, though when carloads of Ex-Soviets began plundering the Western professional circuit post-1989 the game in Britain changed.

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