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Byron Shire
May 22, 2024

A thousand years of history on a devilish board

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The Gold Watch, a portrait of the author on the occasion of his alleged retirement, by Stephen Axelsen, with acknowledgements to Terry Pratchett.
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‘It’s like a game of chess out there,’ says the TV commentator, referring to a herd of young men grappling in the mud for a piece of leather.

‘We have reached the end-game now,’ says the reporter, when he means thousands of war refugees have nowhere left to go.

‘It’s literally a stalemate,’ says the pundit, writing about some disagreement in foreign affairs.

Use of worn metaphors aside, the game of chess is obviously popular. Its idioms have colonised our language, and according to a submission made to the Olympics committee by FIDE, the international chess federation, 605 million of the world’s population know how to play – that is, one in 12 of all people alive today.


If that seems like a fishy claim, remember that the federation is not known for its commitment to truth or accuracy. Its president is one of the gangsters who made it big in Russia after the collapse of communism. Only the world soccer federation has more member countries and officials to bribe than FIDE, but the chess president has added black-market oil trading to the routine corruption such bodies exhibit. Incidentally, FIDE may be corrupt, like FIFA (and the IOC itself for that matter), but its individual national members generally are not.

Mind you, the figure of 605 million chess players is not impossible. The internet provides the means for quick, informal games between people all over the world, and the servers of chess sites groan under the load. Most of the games being played today are impersonal: chess conducted by mouse clicks or tablet swipes, stripped of the tangibility of board and pieces and without the presence of an opponent. Face to face encounters, whether friendly or tournament, are fewer in number. But the combination of corrupt world federation and lack of public spectacle has deterred any real commercial sponsorship, so the internet boom has not led to chess being widely taken up outside the digital realm, despite its ubiquity in journalistic vocabularies.

Money and drugs have perverted many other pastimes, but abundant money has never afflicted chess players, and there are no drugs that can seriously improve their performance. (Not that drug testing doesn’t happen in tournaments: in an effort to ingratiate itself with the Olympic committee, FIDE instituted random tests in 2001. A few minor players were sanctioned for excessive coffee intake, and one angry grandmaster told the tester what to do with his urine bottle; in fact the pointless testing is regarded with amused contempt by most players.)

Its own category

Not being an object of exploitation, chess has therefore remained relatively innocent. It is something you do for its own sake, and although some claim it as an art or a science, as well as a game, it is essentially in a category of its own.

Of all the differences that distinguish chess from other games, the most salient is history. There’s a line of official world champions stretching back to the nineteenth century, and an unofficial line of the world’s best that goes almost as far as the Middle Ages. The oldest game that we have a record of dates from the tenth century. The important term here is ‘record,’ because a chess game can be recorded like a piece of music and played back a thousand years later. Games remain intelligible across the centuries because the rules change so little and so slowly. The oldest game that follows modern rules was recorded in 1475.

Unlike music, painting or literature, the content of a work of chess art has no referents. It does not remind us of the times of the artist, or his beliefs or emotional states. As Marcel Duchamp said, ‘The aesthetic expression of chess is the purest of all the arts. There is no plastic form to consider, no incidental and distracting detail inherent in materiality, just the interplay of abstract forces.’

A chess score records the efforts of two minds to defeat one another in a highly stylised environment of pure thought, but just like musical notation the marks on paper can be used to recreate the original transaction. Unlike music, however, chess moves are not the portal to an infinite world of subjective experience. Chess is objective, rational and in theory solvable, although in practice the number of possible moves from the starting position is so high (think of a number higher than the number of atoms in the universe) that the logical result of those moves will remain forever ­incomputable.

Silicon chips in

The rise in popularity of chess parallels the rise in availability of computers. The two have a long history (Alan Turing devised the first chess software before computer hardware even existed), and the dark side of this entanglement is the spectre of cheating. Modern top-level tournament players are routinely scanned for illicit devices, because some mediocre players have attempted to enhance their brains not with drugs but with silicon chips. Indeed, unease over miniature computers means that even legitimate above-average performances sometimes lead to unfounded charges of outside assistance.

On the positive side, exposure to computer analysis has shown chess players that the core of the game consists of tactics, that is, calculation of immediate moves, and that only a small part depends on strategic understanding. The consequence has been an emphasis on sharp play, with masters more concerned with concrete moves than general considerations. Computer analysis of classic games has also shown that even the greatest players quite often make mistakes, and that luck plays a greater part in this game of pure information than anyone suspected.

To be fair, luck is generally earned, the result of effort and nerve, which makes chess an appropriate symbol for human endeavour, and not just the cerebral kind. At the highest level it requires physical fitness, strenuous training and unwavering ambition: in a word, it is one of the world’s sports. Hence FIDE’s attempt to join the Olympics.

Unfortunately, despite massive government assistance for chess in places like Russia, China and India, in anglophone countries the philistines prevail. No government support is available because chess is not defined as a sport, and the definition will not change because the government does not support chess.

So in Australia at least, an activity with a thousand-year history and a growing number of enthusiasts is locked out of the public consideration given without hesitation to other forms of sport. Despite lending its imagery to popular culture, and despite being played by one in 12 people, it seems that chess remains a secret delight. It is not about to lose its innocence any time soon.

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