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Chess: Mastery and Metaphor

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Chess: Mastery and Metaphor

How chess began

The ancient ancestor of chess was an Arabic game called shatranj. It was popular in Baghdad by the 8th century AD, but its origins can be traced back as far as 350 BC. Shatranj was a slow-moving game in which the queen and bishop had much less freedom of movement than their modern counterparts; nonetheless it was recognisably chess.

The ancestry of shatranj spanned two continents and – appropriately for a war game – was a by-product of a military campaign. The blood-line may be traced back more than 2000 years toAncient Greece. In his Politics Aristotle mentions a group of classical board games called petteia. These were battle games which demanded skill, logic and reason, not simply the fortuitous throw of a die. In his Republic Plato compares victims of Socrates’ debating skill with ‘weak petteia players … cornered and rendered unable to move’. In about 330 BCE Alexander the Great invaded Persia and marched on towards in Asia Minor and India. Along the way he founded Hellenic colonies in which the Greeks continued their passion for petteia. At the same time, India had a battle game of its own. It shared its Sanskrit name, chaturanga, meaning ‘four divisions’, with the Indian army. The divisions in question were elephants, chariots, cavalry and infantry, all mobilized in the game by throws of dice.

It did not take long for chaturanga, the Indian war game of chance, to meet and marry petteia, the Greek game of reason. The effect of petteia on chaturanga was to eliminate the dice, and from this collision of cultures, chess – Greek thought expressed in Indian language – was born. The Muslim Arabs adopted it, and translated the Indian chaturanga into the Arabic shatranj.

‘Via the squares on a chessboard, the Indians explain the movement of time and the age, the higher influences which control the world and the ties which link chess with the human soul. ‘

– The Arabian historian Al-Masudi writing in AD 947

The Renaissance: expansion of possibility

Not until about 1470 did chess begin its transformation from the slow Islamic form to the quick-fire game we know today. Castling was introduced at this time, pawns gained the privilege of advancing two squares on their initial move, and the queen switched from being a waddling cripple (the Arabic vizier, allowed to move only one square at a time) to the most powerful piece on the board.

Recorded games of the time show all the exuberant naivete of ex­cited novices – the queen pursuing joyous adventures all across the board, giving check regardless of whether or not it offered the player any advantage. As chess is a game which symbolises warfare, it is reasonable to suppose that the increased fire-power of the queen reflected the introduction of field artillery in the late 15th century.

The sudden advance of chess as a whole must also have been a product of the Renaissance. An increasingly urgent perception of distance, space and perspective distinguished. Human intellectual development. Parallel developments included the innovatory use of siege artillery to batter down the walls of Constantinople in 1453, scientific advances such as the telescope and the microscope, and the application of perspective in art.

The next country to exert decisive influence was Spain. After 1492 Spain rapidly became the dominant force in world communication, and the new form of chess spread across the world through her explorations and conquests. The conquistadores were keen players of a game that mirrored their combative lifestyle, and they taught it to the defeated Inca and Aztec kings in the New World.

The modern game

The modern era of chess began with Wilhelm Steinitz, who became the first of sixteen (so far) universally recognised World Champions in 1886. Every subsequent World Champion has pushed forward the boundaries of chess knowledge, science and art, each in his own way reflecting the intel­lectual ethos of his day.

Steinitz was a contemporary of Darwin and Marx, who proposed rigid theories to elucidate the evolution of species and the nature of society and government. Like them, Steinitz tried to impose an iron-clad theory on chess. In his case, it was the insistence that no attack could be successful unless prior strategic advantage had been achieved. This contrasted strongly with previous practitioners of chess, who had not been averse to launching haphazard attacks, whatever the situation on the board.

Emanuel Lasker was World Champion in the early 20th century. He was philosopher who developed an entire intellectual programme based on the idea of Kampf (struggle). He relied not on ‘theory’, but on what worked against specific opponents. Good defenders were lured into unsound attacks, while avid attackers regularly found themselves exposed to Lasker’s own mercilessly aggressive firepower.

In his foreword to Lasker’s biography, none other than Albert Einstein paid tribute to Lasker’s independence of thought:

Emanuel Lasker was undoubtedly one of the most interesting people I came to know in my later life. Few, indeed, can have combined such a unique independence of personality with so eager an interest in all the great problems of mankind. I met Emanuel Lasker in the house of a mutual friend and I came to know him well during the many walks we took together discussing ideas on a variety of subjects. It was a somewhat unilateral discussion in which, almost invariably, I was in the position of listener, for it seemed to be the natural thing for this eminently creative man to generate his own ideas, rather than adjust himself to those of someone else.”

Jose Raoul Capablanca, the third Champion, mirrored the rise of the transatlantic New World, while the exiled Russian aristocrat Alexander Alekhine had a turbulent style based on revolutionary tactics, parallel with that of Dada and Surrealism in art, and reflecting the contemporary political turmoil in Europe.

After World War II the USSR began to dominate world chess. The dynasty was founded with Mikhail Botvinnik’s World Championship victory. Alekhine had died in 1946, and after a two-year interregnum, Botvinnik took the title in 1948. 

Soviet and Russian chess

Why was the Soviet Union, and subsequently Russia, so overwhelm­ingly successful at chess? From 1948 to 1972 the USSR dominated the World Championship, and thereafter still provided the vast majority of the world’s elite Grandmasters. This has much to do with the gigantic material resources that the USSR ploughed into achieving victory in virtually every international sport. In the collective mind of the Soviet regime, chess was not merely a sport; it also conferred intellectual respectability. It should never be forgotten that the Russian Revolution had made the USSR very much a Pariah state. Hence, from the Soviet viewpoint of craving international prestige, the game was worth substantial financial investment, in order to seize the World Championship and, by systematic nurturing of young players, consolidate and retain it.

There is a deeper reason. The Soviet state was notable for its lack of opportunity for free thought. Any book, article, pamphlet, idea, piece of music or even poem might be considered ideologically un­sound. The consequence for the writer, composer or thinker who offended Communist or Stalinist state orthodoxy ranged from ostracism to imprisonment in Arctic Circle labour camps and the ultimate sanction: summary execution.

In 1987, Joseph Brodsky, the dissident Soviet writer, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Earlier he had written: ‘Evil, especially political evil, is always a bad stylist.’ For expressing such sentiments he was sentenced to five years in a prison camp in Siberia. Brodsky also argued that ‘the surest defence against evil is extreme individualism and originality of thinking.’

Here lies the true reason, aside from any state sponsorship, for the extraordinary popularity of chess in Soviet Russia. Chess offers a wide field for individual thought, in which the state has no remit to interfere. The irony is that what I would describe as the ultimate right wing libertarian game, should become the most powerful icon of the world’s most powerful communist state. Even in music, the leading Soviet composer, Dimitri Shostak­ovich, was ridiculed by that well-known music critic, Joseph Stalin, and lived in constant fear of arrest and deportation to a labour camp. Playing chess allowed Russians to free their minds from the shackles of state dogma. Not even a Soviet commissar would have dared to utter the words, ‘Comrade, that move is ideologically unsound.’ In chess the sole criterion is whether the move is good or bad, whether it wins or loses. By playing chess, ordinary Russians reconquered for themselves a measure of personal intellectual liberty in their everyday lives, over which the state had no control. In chess they could pursue freedom of thought and self-determination of decision. 

In 1988 Professor Paul Kennedy published his book The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, in which he argued that over-reliance on military strength and state security creates an imbalance with eco­nomic viability and can lead to the collapse of even the seemingly most impressive nation or empire. This was widely, but wrongly, interpreted as a dire prediction of the future of the USA. Kennedy’s book far more accurately prophesied the imminent demise of the USSR. Indeed, within a further four years the USSR, as it had been constituted since the Revolution of 1917, no longer existed.

A critical factor in the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the fall of its communist masters was the regime’s dependence on restricting information and ideas. This was at the precise momentwhen the economies of the western world, and many in the East Asia, were on the brink of an information explosion, driven by new information­ based technologies and reliant to an unprecedented degree on intellectual capital, of which Alpha Zero is a proud British symbol. 

This information gap became acute during the 1986 World Chess Championship between Garry Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov. The match was held in two equal halves, twelve games inLondon (organised by the present author), twelve in Leningrad, as St Petersburg was then still known. As a standard facility for the International Press Corps, within five minutes of the end of each game the London logistics team printed a complete record of the moves and the times taken by each player, together with key comments by Grandmasters and printed diagrams ofimportant situations in the game. Not only was this blitz report instantly available: it was also faxed to interested journalists around the world within a further five minutes. Nowadays , even faxes are ancient technology, but in 1986 they were at the cutting edge of communications. 

In Leningrad, meanwhile, the contrast could not have been more marked. Three elderly babushkas typed up the moves as the games progressed. However, there was no photocopier at the Championship site in the Hotel Leningrad. The match Director, Secretary and Press Chief had to sign a document – in triplicate – allowing the press assistant to take a cab to Communist PartyHeadquarters several miles away, the location of the sole official photocopier in the city. Only on the press assistant’s return after about 45 minutes, could the assembled international press corps discover what the official moves had been. It was obvious to me that for the USSR the game would soon be over.

Chess and Islam

 In the Islamic world over the past 1000 years or so, chess has from time to time been banned, and then the prohibition has been lifted again. When the Ayatollahs came to power in Iran, one of their first acts was to ban chess; the prohibition has now been relaxed and chess is permitted once again.

This periodically hostile attitude towards chess is curious, given that chess first flourished in the Baghdad Caliphate over 1000 years ago and that Harun al-Rashid, the Abbasid Caliph of Islam from 786AD to 809AD, was known to be a chessplayer. The problem derives from a verse of the Koran which reads: ‘Oh true believers, surely wine and lots and images and divining-arrows are an abomination of the works of Satan, therefore avoid ye them that ye may prosper.’ Although chess is not specifically proscribed in the Koran, some Muslim lawyers in about 800AD extended the condemnation of lots or dice and images to chess and chess-players.

Ash-Shafii, the 9th century Arab jurist, put forward counter-­arguments, claiming that chess was an image of war and that the game could be played, not just for a stake or for pure recreation, but as a mental exercise for the solution of military tactics. This view has tended to prevail, not least because the Caliphs themselves were often avid chess-players, and during the late 9th and early 10th centuries in Baghdad, kept a court retinue of aliyat, Grandmasters, who regularly conducted competitions for their amusement. Tradition states that the oldest chess problem on record was composed in 840 by the Caliph Mutasim Billah, third son and successor of Harun al-Rashid,

A new renaissance

The Soviet empire is no more, but the information revolution has accelerated and the value of intellectual capital continues to appreci­ate. Playing chess remains one of the most powerful methods of cultivating a free yet disciplined intellect.

Chess Grandmasters are increasingly viewed as high-level mental athletes, commanding the world stage along with million dollar purses. Since 1972, when the mercurial American genius Bobby Fischer wrested the World Championship from Boris Spassky in Reykjavik, chess and its most prominent personalities have become international superstars.

Before he appeared, there was a thrill in the air, hard rock blaring from big speakers, people nudging one another, whispering “Kasparov”. The champion entered, his arm in the air with a self-conscious smile that spurred a wave of cheering and applause. A couple of girls whispered “It’s him. ” Everyone crowded around the tables of the players, creeping over shoulders to get a glimpse of his moves. We’re talking about chess here, not Bruce Springsteen. ‘

– US chess writer Fred Waitzkin, reporting Kasparov’s entrance to a simultaneous chess display in France in 1990

The increased prize fund for major contests reflects how much in­terest in chess has grown. In 1969 the World Chess Championship match was worth about 3000 roubles (less than $3000) to the winner. In London last month the Carlsen v Caruana world championship had a prize fund of 1,000,000. Chess champions are now global brain stars, and Magnus Carlsen probably earns more from commercial endorsements than from playing the game. 

‘I know of no spectacle on earth that can keep thousands of spectators enthralled and in total silence for five hours. Utterly immobile and deep in thought, the players sit facing each other like the hieratic actors in a Japanese Kabuki production. 

– Fernando Arrabal, the Spanish dramatist and chess writer, on the 1985 Moscow world championship. Arrabal, the originator of The Theatre of Panic, was also an avid spectator at the Carlsen v Caruana championship.

The correlation between success at chess and top-flight academic performance in the British school system is staggering. The same schools appear at the head of the list of top-scoring schools at A-level (the examinations taken at age 18) and are the most successful in the British Schools Chess Championship, Often supported by The Times. In some high-achieving independent schools in the UK chess is increasingly being seen as a core element of the curriculum designed to equip children to compete successfully in the global marketplace. By contrast, the UKgovernment’s National Curriculum, which all state-funded schools must follow, officially ignores chess, and indeed all mind sports. The only chance that the vast majority of the nation’s children have to learn chess in school is if an enthusiastic teacher is prepared to give up free time to running a chess club. Yet it is increasingly acknowledged that chess and mind sports must become an essential aspect of training for the knowledge workers of the 21st century.

Bjorn Wolrath, President and CEO of SKANDIA, took perceptive look forward in Intellectual Capital: Value-Creating Processes, his company’s chess-themed supplement to its 1995 annual report.

The future is in creating new work methods, competencies and value-creating processes, not just in following the beaten path. Future and knowledge-oriented leadership … must embrace a broader view and take into account more than the purely financial dimensions, namely, the hidden values in the balance sheet­ employees’ competence, computer systems, work processes, trademarks, customer lists and so on – are obtaining increasing importance in assessing the value of a company. This is, intellectual capital and chess has been and will increasingly represent a substantial investment in it.”

You can play chess anywhere. You can play by post, by fax, by telephone. You can play with home-made or improvised pieces. You can play an unseen opponent in jail – or you yourself can play from jail. If you are a Grandmaster you might even occasionally manage without a board at all, playing , as I have done, against 19 simultaneous opponents, all the moves inside your head, without being able to see the boards or any of the pieces. Yet chess is not an’ exclusively private, indoor game. In European cities – in squares and parks, even in swimming pools – there is a long and lively tradition of outdoor chess, with crowds gathering to offer the protagonists the benefit of their (usually contradictory) advice. In the USA, not surprisingly, outdoor chess is rather different and is played at lightning speed – so high is the standard that even professional Grandmasters come along to practise their blitz games.

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