Culture and Civilisations

Chess has its reasons, of which Reason is well aware

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Chess has its reasons, of which Reason is well aware

1642, the first digital calculator invented by Blaise Pascal

My title this week, “Chess has its reasons, of which Reason itself is well aware”, is a homage to that great French mathematician and pre-Enlightenment thinker, Blaise Pascal (1623–1662, his adding machine pictured above). His Pensées (a collection of surviving fragments or “Thoughts”) refer to matters of the heart in similar, but reversed polarity: “ Le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne conna ît point ” (‘The heart has its reasons, of which Reason itself is utterly ignorant’).

So, with thanks to Pascal’s Pensées, this week I pose the question: is there any practical reason why we should play chess, or is it just a seductive and addictive waste of time? Of course, committed chess players do feel a compelling need to play the game, but are the grandmasters, and the many thousands of other enthusiastic players who derive such immense pleasure from chess, just simply a band of 21st-century lotus-eaters caught up in an entirely narcissistic undertaking which has no relevance to the proper functioning of society? In other words are we chess players enjoying ourselves with a non-productive activity at the expense of social responsibility?

This is an argument which I often hear levelled at chess players (by non-chess players of course) who tend to examine chess in a utilitarian framework (what use is chess?) and criticise chess players along lines such as: why don’t they get a proper job of work? The famous Russian chess Grandmaster Yuri Averbakh was once asked by a minor functionary, “What is your job?” Quick as a flash, Yuri retorted: “Chess Grandmaster. What’s yours?” Probably some chess enthusiasts at school might have suffered from similar discouragement.

My answer to these questions is naturally that chess and its players can be defended on a variety of levels: the aesthetic; the intellectual and simply as a means of giving pleasure and relaxation to many thousands of people, not just by playing but by enjoying master games with impressive sacrifices or artistic strategies.

However, the point I wish to make, as a stimulus to discussion of the whole problem of the relevance of chess to 21st century life, is rather different from this, and rather more ambitious. I would argue that chess is of positive and absolute social benefit, and that it would be a major step forward in the solution of social problems and unrest in urban civilisations, if chess were not only encouraged, but also added to school sports curricula, like cricket, swimming, hockey, football or rugby in England.

The American thinker, Robert Ardrey (1908–1980) in his work The Social Contract — not to be confused with the book of the same name by the 18th-century apostle of the Enlightenment, the French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) — suggested that in all higher animals, including humans, there are basic inborn needs for three satisfactions: identity, stimulation and security. Ardrey described them in terms of their opposites: anonymity, boredom and anxiety, maintaining that a society or government so designed, as to present its members or citizens with equal opportunity to achieve identity, stimulation and security, will survive, whereas one that fails in this psychological function will, in the long run, be selected out.

Ardrey wrote that, like some monstrous whale devouring plankton by the acre, so the organisation of modern life devours the individual. Specialisation reduces the individual to a needle lost in a bureaucratic and organisational haystack. Classification will place the individual with all beans of equal size.

In support of Ardrey, I challenge any reader who has had a complaint or a query directed to a large organisation, such as a bank, airline or some branch of government, to deny that they have been at some time ignored, or given a circular, quasi-Kafkaesque run-around, leading, via multiple buck-passing, back to the point of origin.

I propose that mind sports, such as chess, bridge and draughts, made available in schools and clubs, can help to solve such problems as erosion of identity. Winning a game does wonders for one’s sense of personal identity and victory does tend to cancel out memory of the losses. Likewise stimulation, and where the individual is personally committed, this seems to me a stimulation of a generally higher order than the vicarious variety provided by mass tribal attendance at, for example, a football match. What can be more stimulating than personal involvement in an intellectual struggle, where the result depends entirely on you alone and not on some umpire or referee or touch judge who might rob you of a well-merited victory by a fatuous decision, as so regularly happens in football for example, even with the dreaded VAR.

In chess you can clearly see the outcome of your efforts and, above all, you are personally responsible for the result. In this sense, the Stakhanovite chess promoter, Malcolm Pein, with his charity Chess in Schools and Communities, has performed inspirational miracles in getting chess accepted in mainstream education.

With the problem of increasingly empty time (i.e. a potential stimulation-vacuum) we need an activity that occupies time in a meaningful, stimulating and identity-boosting fashion and that will also act as a counterweight to the often drab and repetitive tasks of mundane social existence. So why not encourage chess in the young? It will do more for them than “waste” mtheir time.

An article in The Times newspaper of September 7 Chess Mania lures millions of players to get on board helpfully hammered home many of these points. The author Jack Malvern pointed out that chess sets are selling out quickly, as the TV hit Queens Gambit and the pandemic , causing empty time, are together causing demand to surge in dramatic fashion.

Anya Taylor-Joy’s portrayal of the chess prodigy could have been a short-term boost, but insiders assert that enthusiasm is still growing at alarming speed, while the pandemic has forced people to find new ways to entertain themselves, and thereby driven vast numbers to play and follow chess online. Thus,  , the gaming platform, according to The Times, has 72 million members worldwide, up from 50 million in December 2020 and a colossal increase from the 20 million of four years ago. Lichess , a free chess gaming service, recorded 5 million games in March 2020, but had shot to 100 million a year later.

The annual Norway Grandmaster Tournament attracted 2.5 million television viewers, in Norway alone.  The Times went on to catalogue a further series of plus points in favour of chess, including:

• The boxers Lennox Lewis and Mike Tyson, actors Arnold Schwarzenegger, Stephen Fry, Humphrey Bogart and Director Stanley Kubrick were, or are, committed chess fans.

• Chess players burn upwards of 6,000 calories per game during tournaments based on breathing rates, increased blood pressure and muscle contractions, according to Robert Sapolsky, a Stanford University researcher (2019).

• Learning chess improved reading test scores and reading performance in primary school pupils, a two-year study in the US found in 2011.

• Playing chess has the potential to raise a person’s IQ scores and strengthen problem-solving skills, according to research by Peter Dauvergne, Professor of International Relations at The University of British Columbia.

• Elderly people who engage in mentally challenging games, such as chess and bridge, are two and a half times less likely to develop dementia, a US study found in 2006 (Professor Joe Verghese of the Albert Einstein Institute of New York).

• Chess could even enhance the creative part of the brain. The Times article cites a 2017 study in India, saying it helped to give children “the ability to think divergently”.

From early times, chess had been recognised as a pastime for the nobility, Caliphs, Popes, Emperors and Kings, but during the 18th-century Enlightenment, the game broke through to become a resource for the common man or woman. This democratisation of the game, as prominent chess historian, Richard Eales, has pointed out, led to the rise of a middle class cohort of professional chess players, which gathered momentum during the 19th century. 

In the context of the broadening democratisation of chess, an impressive manifestation took place as a vital component of an exhibition in St. Louis last year. This was the 19th Biennial Congress of Chess CollectorsInternational in September 2020, which made this revolution in thought the highlight of Sapere Aude (Dare to Know), a tribute to the Enlightenment. This was organised primarily, against all pandemic odds, by the indefatigable Tom Gallegos, whose views I go on to summarise, quote and endorse. The inspirational centrepiece was known as the Encyclopaedia or the “Encyclopédie: dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers (English: Encyclopaedia, or a Systematic Dictionary of the Sciences, Arts, and Crafts)” famously and universally known as the Encyclopédie.

Gallegos concedes that the Encyclopé die , the prime engine of the Enlightenment, is not a chess book by any means. It is an encyclopaedia, first and foremost, but it contains an important and influential article on chess; and it also contains an illustration of one chess set. Overall, the Encyclopé die comprises a unique compilation of books, that came into existence against extreme odds, and thereby helped to revolutionise the world.

A basic wooden chess set, also displayed in the exhibition, and, as noted above, mirrored in the Encyclopaedia’s illustrations, was once commonplace during the French Enlightenment .It is the kind of set that would probably have been used by the philosophes and the encyclopé distes , precisely those bold writers who helped to shape our modern world.

Gallegos writes:  “This simple, even humble, wooden chess set is the set with the deepest possible meaning for fans of intellectual history, the one that best symbolises and encapsulates the entire Age of Reason. It is nothing short of a miracle that these books, and this chess set, still survive.“

Opposition from the Ancien Régime, combined with the subsequent storming of the Bastille and the French Revolution, contrived to destroy much important literature and many significant artefacts. 

In the Zeitgeist of our current intellectual climate, it can often seem as if culture is celebrity-driven and ephemeral, while the last residue of human reason is composed of ultracrepidarian emotionalism, fuelling browbeating, cancel culture bullying, bluster and otiose knee-jerk knee-taking. Much of this largely emanates from young men, whose prowess at football has seemingly endowed them with miraculous omniscience, or hysterical teenage fulminations on so-called climate change which relies on pressuring relatively soft touch western societies, but largely ignores direct confrontation with the most prolific consumers of fossil fuels. Lamentably the hysteria has been endorsed by, for example, an overexcited British Prime Minister of mature age , who should know better. It is propped up by hordes of brain-impaired Zombies from The Woking Dead, determined to smash the memories and traditions of western society. A further irritating symptom is illogical unjoined-up thinking from our government, which not only fails to combat illegal immigration and wokery with sufficient gusto, but also raises taxes, hypothecated for the NHS, only to see this organisation immediately announce the appointment of a cohort of “Diversity Managers”, of doubtful use to patients, rewarded with salaries designed to make even the mouth of Croesus water with anticipation.

It can, therefore, as Tom Gallegos points out, be “comforting to turn to the past, and discover an age when surprisingly intelligent people were making huge strides in understanding the world around them” and in proselytising sorely needed changes to society, such as more equitable taxation, combined with abolition of automatic aristocratic or church privilege and the autocratic power of the king. “At our peril, we assume we must be much more advanced in our thinking than people from two or three centuries ago. We may find out too late that we are wrong; that our greatest problems stem from the fact that we have forgotten or never learned much of what they tried to teach us. To make matters worse, our modern ‘information overload’ tends to fragment and scatter our thinking, much more than to inform or edify it.”

The Enlightenment was mostly concerned with reason, and the role of chess within the Enlightenment was mostly about how to think, not what to think and certainly not what, or how, to feel. The game of chess is a perfect magnet for people who wish to approach problems through the principles of reason and tolerance.

Denis Diderot, Jean Le Rond d ’Alembert, Voltaire, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and all the other philosophers and encyclopédistes of 18th century France certainly found it to be so. So did George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and virtually all the other founding fathers… of The United States of America – chess players and Enlightenment thinkers, everyone of them.” In this context, I strongly recommend a re-read of Daniel Johnsons piece from September 9 which differentiates between the French and American Enlightenments and highlights the dangers of wokery, both for free thought and for freedom of speech.

Gallegos concludes that applying reason to life outside of chess is always going to be hard work, just as chess itself is hard work. “We need only whisper the name of, arguably, our game‘s greatest player, Bobby Fischer , to be confronted with the most egregious example of a person who failed to bridge the gap between reason in chess, and reason in life.”.

Tom Gallegos concludes his peroration in The Temple of Reason with the assertion that Denis Diderot makes a far greater intellectual hero than Bobby Fischer, a verdict with which I wholeheartedly concur.

And here are the chess games for this week. Disillusioned as I was by Fischer’s dereliction of duty to his millions of fans, by refusing to defend his title, one cannot deny that, as well as being the worst world champion, Fischer was by far the best challenger. A game from 1972 , when, pre-Queen’s Gambit, chess fever last swept the planet, shows the ridiculous ease with which Fischer could dominate the world’ s finest.

Fischer finally made his comeback 20 years later, when his resurrection made negligible sporting sense, the championship baton having passed to Anatoly Karpov, Garry Kasparov and Nigel Short. Nevertheless, some isolated games from 1992 still exhibited a glimmer of the ancient flames which had burned with such incandescent force and energy two decades previously.

And finally  a game to prove that even Bobby Fischer was not infallible .

Raymond Keene’s latest book “Fifty Shades of Ray: Chess in the year of the Coronavirus”, containing some of his best pieces from TheArticle, is now available from  Amazon , and  Blackwells .

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