The game of chess has its roots in rationalism. And, like the Enlightenment itself, argues Sally Feldman, it’s a force for both liberation and tyranny
This summer the Iraq Chess Federation’s annual tournament took place at Kufa, near Najaf. It was a serious contest, attended by regional champions from all over the country. Between games there was feasting and rejoicing as a ray of optimism briefly shone through the prevailing bleakness.
The event was especially significant since the influential Shia clergyman Grand Ayatollah Sistani had only just announced his belief that chess should be “absolutely forbidden”. And this is in the country where the modern game is believed to have originated – at the court of the Caliph Haroun al-Rashid in Baghdad ten centuries ago.
But while the carnival atmosphere in Kufa was a celebration of chess as a joyous assertion of freedom, it can also be a tool of oppression. In the tiny and desolate Russian republic of Kalmykia chess is rampant. Despite the region’s gruelling poverty and unemployment, its eccentric president, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, has invested £25 million to build a “Chess City” complex on the outskirts of the city of Elista. He has also insisted on compulsory chess lessons for every child over six, with a special school for the most promising players. Widely regarded as a corrupt dictator, Ilyumzhinov is also president of the World Chess Federation, an honour scorned by his detractors.
“He’s a pathological liar with serious psychological problems,” said Semyon Ateyev, the director of the Kalmykia Bureau of Human Rights. “We don’t have any economic development, because he spends his whole time organising chess tournaments.”
So chess has been the exemplar of the best and most noble of human endeavours, and its worst excesses. And that struggle between virtue and tyranny, truth and dissembling, is perfectly represented by the board itself, its two opposed sides fighting out the eternal conflict between good and bad, black and white.
Because it is above all a game of pure reason, without luck or chance or subjectivity, it has always attracted rebels and free spirits. Writers, scientists, musicians and artists have all been drawn to the game and taken succour from it. Pushkin, Tolstoy, Einstein and Shostakovich were aficionados. The father of conceptual art, Marcel Duchamp, was so enthralled by chess that he trained to be a professional player and in the early 1930s played for the French national team. In 1940, in exile from the Nazis in the French coastal town of Arcachon, he and Samuel Beckett would play endless games of chess in a seafront café.
According to David Shenk in his new history The Immortal Game, chess was not only embraced by all the key scientific and philosophical figures of the Enlightenment: it was actually regarded by them as the embodiment of the Age of Reason. “Perhaps more than in any previous age, the internal logic of the game itself became intertwined with the thinking of its leading proponents,” explains Shenk. “The same spirit of thought guided these thinkers as they calculated chess moves and as they worked through philosophical problems.”
Voltaire, Diderot and Leibniz were all fascinated by chess. In 1754 the Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn and the Lutheran dramatist Gotthold Lessing developed such a close friendship over the chessboard that Lessing modelled his character Nathan the Wise on Mendelssohn. The play used chess as a metaphor for a plea for tolerance, played by both a wise Jew and an enlightened Muslim sultan.
Benjamin Franklin was also obsessed with the game. His essay “The Morals of Chess” asserted that it improved basic human qualities such as foresight, caution and perseverance.
At a game in France during the American struggle for independence, Franklin ignored his opponent’s check because he refused to defend his tyrannical king. “Take him, if you please,” he told his opponent. “I can do without him, and will fight out the rest of the battle en republicain.”
In a similar declaration of republicanism Jean-Jacques Rousseau, another chess fanatic, boasted that he once beat France’s Prince de Conti despite the anxious disapproval of courtiers and onlookers. It was, he implied, an assertion of the rights of man over monarchy.
Later generations of intellectuals and radicals also loved the game. Marx used to drive his wife to distraction by disappearing for days on end to indulge in chess binges. Prokofiev was so absorbed by it that his arch rival Stravinsky once remarked that “his mind is truly engaged only when playing chess.”
But chess was also a favourite of more questionable revolutionaries. Lenin, according to Maxim Gorky, was a serious player who “grew angry when he lost, even sulking rather childishly.” When news came through of Trotsky’s victory in the revolution, the head waiter of the Café Central in Vienna commented: “Ach, that must be our Herr Bronstein from the chess room.” So while chess had been almost synonymous with radicalism and dissent, it started to assume a more sinister character in the 20th century, when, as Shenk comments, “chess became a symbol of nationalistic pride for totalitarian regimes seeking to prove their moral and intellectual superiority.”
The Bolsheviks had very early on identified chess as the ideal mechanism for reinforcing their new communist culture. “Chess was seen as a demonstration of dialectical materialism, the absence of chance rendering it appropriate to the austere tastes of the party leadership,” according to Daniel Johnson, author of White King and Red Queen: A History of Chess During the Cold War. “Chess was deemed to be classless, untainted by bourgeois ideology, and hence suitable to teach socialist values to the new proletarian cadres.” And so, Johnson explains, began the unprecedented experiment of incorporating chess into the official culture of the communist revolution.
The Nazis were also quick to appropriate it as a symbol of national pride. They even made a propaganda film in the late '30s showing off German chess-playing children as ideal Aryan citizens. The only snag was that, inconveniently, the Jews were disproportionately brilliant players. So the Nazis persuaded the world champion Alexander Alekhine, a Russian by birth, to denounce the Jewish game as cowardly and backward. In his essay “Aryan Chess and Jewish Chess” he even discredited the former Jewish world champion Emanuel Lasker – who had in 1933 fled Germany to escape anti-Semitic persecution.
There were similar tensions in the Soviet Union, where almost all of the new state’s greatest players were Jewish. Like the Tsars before him, Stalin, who enthusiastically embraced chess as a vehicle for establishing Soviet mastery, was a resolute anti-Semite. Johnson points out that even in the Brezhnev era Jews suffered discrimination and were suspected of dual loyalties. This included numerous grandmasters even though, during the '50s and '60s, it was the contribution of the Jews that helped achieve Soviet chess domination – mainly because the Nazis had murdered or driven into exile virtually all central and western European Jewry. So the state needed its Jews but nonetheless continued to persecute them.
Yet in the early years of the century Jewish communists had hoped that the new socialist state would transcend the anti-Semitism that had always been built into the Russian psyche, and put an end to the hated pogroms of the Tsarist regime. Chess, it seemed, might be the key to liberation. And that is the backdrop of Ronan Bennett’s new novel Zugzwang, set in St Petersburg in 1914 on the eve of an international chess tournament. The narrator is a psychiatrist whose friend and chess companion urges him to treat one of the contenders, Avrom Rozental, to ensure that he will win.
“Do you know what it would mean for a Polish Jew to win the St Petersburg tournament? Have you any idea? The Russians think us barely human, the rest of the world doesn’t give a damn. We are despised, Otto, twice over – first as Poles, second as Jews.”
Johnson is fascinated by the chess supremacy of European Jewry. “It is not clear whether Jews had some genetic disposition to excel at chess, or were attracted to it because this intellectually demanding, highly competitive sedentary sport fitted the prevailing Jewish stereotype in 19th century Europe,” he observes. What is clear, though, is that “what Gerald Abrahams identified as the chess mind – a combination of memory, logic and imagination – has much in common with skills that were and are characteristic of Jewish intellectual life.”
Most commentators, though, deny that an aptitude for chess is inherent or genetic. There are plenty of examples of the teachability of brilliance – not least the massive Soviet investment in training which between the '40s and '60s created a pool of millions and produced literally hundreds of grandmasters. And then there is the phenomenon of pushy parents who have driven their children to become über-champions. Susan Polgar, the first female chess grandmaster, was schooled from the age of four by her Hungarian father, a psychologist who used his daughters as an experiment to show how genius could be induced. Susan, who has played with all the major grandmasters, is able to conduct five games at once – without a board. Her two sisters appear to be equally skilled.
So if such abilities can be acquired through training, what can account for the consistent superiority of the Jews? One explanation might be that chess is a remarkably adaptable, portable game, and therefore well suited to the dispossessed, the exile, the refugee, the prisoner.
John McVicar, the former train robber, recalled that when he was in prison he always looked forward to the conviction of tax evaders, spies and financial fraudsters, because they’d give a better game of chess. Radha Jain, the English Girls Under-9 chess champion, comes from an Indian immigrant family. Her brother Akash is currently Under-13 British Champion. Marx, Duchamp, Beckett and Freud all cultivated their passion for the game when in exile.
And Jews across Europe. who would be excluded from other national pastimes, would naturally gravitate to a game without national, cultural or economic barriers. This is the leitmotif of Michael Chabon’s novel The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. Part fantasy, part thriller, the novel is set in a mythical Jewish state in Alaska, granted to the Jews after the Holocaust as a safe haven but with a limit of 60 years. And that licence is about to run out.
The clue to the murder at the heart of the story is an unfinished chess game found beside the corpse. The victim, who has chosen the pseudonym of Emanuel Lasker, the great Jewish grandmaster, frequents a chess club peopled by old Jews, recreating in the frozen wastes of their new home the accoutrements of life in the shtetl.
The dead chess genius turns out to be a messianic figure, hailed as a saviour by his own sect, but finally driven to heroin addiction and insanity. He is an embodiment of chess itself, which can improve and strengthen the mind – or break it. The semi-autism of the chess genius is a persistently recurring theme in literature, the unhinged obsessive frequently symbolising a disintegrating moral or political order. Torn between the warring factions of pre-revolutionary Russia, Avron Rozental, the deranged chess champion in Zugzwang, sinks from disturbed neurosis into lunacy. ”Monomaniacally fixed on chess, he was someone for whom nothing had the slightest meaning except as it affected his freedom to play; the existence of others he understood only in terms of their capacity to help or hinder his obsession.”
Nabokov’s outlandish hero Luzhin, in his novel The Defence, is a lumbering, socially dysfunctional oaf whose only virtue is his uncanny power at the chess board. He, too, teeters on the edge of sanity until chess drives him to suicidal madness. And in his novella The Royal Game Stefan Zweig contrasts two kinds of players. There’s the mysterious, elegant figure who has mastered his game during years of solitary confinement at the hands of the Nazis, when the splitting of his mind in two drove him to breakdown. And he manages to beat the uncouth, unsocialised champion, the peasant risen to unlikely stardom who is generally assumed to be a representation of Hitler.
These characters have a close kinship with Grenouille, the grotesque hero of Patrick Süskind’s Perfume. The novel’s subtext was that over-reliance on rationalism led to the Holocaust. Grenouille is without emotion or empathy, symbolising a culture of reason without humanity.
Like him, the fictional chess heroes are portrayed as social outcasts who, through their addiction, have lost their humanity. Unlike him, though, they are amalgams of a whole panoply of real-life chess casualties with equally dysfunctional personalities who, over the past two centuries, have fallen victim to mental illness.
Paul Morphy, for example, was an American prodigy of the 19th century who at the age of 26 suddenly abandoned the game, became reclusive and paranoid, and ended his days walking the streets, talking to invisible people. Another genius, the Austrian Wilhelm Stenitz, was eventually consigned to a Moscow asylum, insisting that he had played chess with God over an invisible telephone – and won. Bobby Fischer was a more recent and celebrated chess casualty. After a brilliant if eccentric early career, he gradually slid into psychological decline, denouncing Jews for drinking Christian blood, and welcoming the 9/11 attacks on America as “wonderful news”.
This close connection between chess and insanity raises questions about the nature of humanity itself. All those artists, radicals, thinkers and dissidents who have been seduced by the game have tended to regard it as an absorbing escape or a fascinating adjunct. But however passionate Marx’s chess sprees, Duchamp’s tournaments or Benjamin Franklin’s sermonising, they were not true addicts. None ever allowed their work, their social engagement or their personalities to be obliterated. It’s those whose only skill is chess, who have no other retreat and no other personality, who tend to succumb to psychosis. They are, in a way, like machines that have been programmed for only one activity.
Ten years ago the chess world reeled at the news that IBM’s Deep Blue had beaten the reigning champion Garry Kasparov. Since then, a frenzied debate has raged about the meaning of that victory. If a machine can achieve that most revered intellectual status – the title of world chess champion – how far does that make it human? Some agree with Noam Chomsky, who regarded the computer’s achievement as no more momentous than “the fact that a bulldozer can lift more than some weight lifter.”
But writing in last month’s Technology Review, the philosopher Daniel Dennett dismisses as romantic the view that somehow the computer must have played differently from the champion – that there is some innate difference between people and machines. He quotes, derisively, a New York Times editorial which ponders what it is that makes us human: “We prefer to believe that something sets us apart from the machines we devise. Perhaps it is found in such concepts as creativity, intuition, consciousness, aesthetic or moral judgement, courage or even the ability to be intimidated by Deep Blue ... Nobody knows enough about such characteristics to know if they are truly beyond machines in the very long run, but it is nice to think that they are.”
Dennett sees no reason why such qualities could not be imitated by machines – nor need this be a threat: “Why is it nice to think this? Why isn’t it just as nice – or nicer – to think that we human beings might succeed in designing and building brainchildren that are even more wonderful than our biologically begotten children?”
For the time being, though, Deep Blue and similar chess programmes are not performing the same job as a human brain – they are simply primed, brilliantly, to achieve one complex task. It’s not the growing capacity of computers to behave like people that should worry us. Far more threatening is the loss of humanity of those who discard all other qualities in order to behave like machines, whether they be chess fanatics or dictators, suicide bombers or popes.
The Immortal Game by David Shenk was published in October by Anchor Books. White King and Red Queen by Daniel Johnson is published in November by Atlantic Books. Zugzwang by Ronan Bennett was published in September by Bloomsbury