Culture and Civilisations

Fischer, Spassky and words with double meanings

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Fischer, Spassky and words with double meanings

(Photo credit should read Dragan FILIPOVIC/AFP via Getty Images)

The game of chess can be enjoyed in many ways, as a social game, an international competitive sport, an online activity, as a focus for study or aesthetic appreciation in both technical and creative literature, for the fine chess sets, as a metaphor and even as a global media sensation. We seem now to be entering a new phase of that direction.

In my experience, chess has moved front and centre in public perception on several earlier notable occasions. The first was the legendary match in 1972, between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky, widely seen as an archetypal battle between American capitalism and Soviet communism. It even required personal interventions from Dr. Henry Kissinger and British financier Jim Slater, to persuade the mercurial Fischer to turn up in Reykjavik and actually play for the championship. The former based his appeal on patriotism, while the latter, more realistically, backed up his powers of oratory (boiling down to the immortal phrase: “come out and play, chicken,” or words to that effect) with a cache of all corrupting gold.

The next occasion was the 1978 World Championship between defector Viktor Korchnoi and Anatoly Karpov, Golden Boy of the Soviet chess establishment. Staged in Baguio City, summer capital of the Philippines, this clash between the two sons of Lenin, one of them loyal, the other, somewhat less than prodigal, also seized global attention, to such an extent that it attracted the greatest amount of publicity, in terms of column inches, for a South East Asian story, since the Vietnam War.

Chess hit the big time once again with the 1985 and 1986 confrontations between Garry Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov, when, for the second time, an ideological element added spice to the occasion. Karpov was cast in his habitual quasi-diabolical role of Lenin’s favourite son, while Kasparov assumed the virtuous mantle of defender of the Glasnost and Perestroika, at the time being championed by Mikhail Gorbachev. Half of the 1986 match was contested in London, then-Prime Minister Thatcher opened the event, and UK television was awash with chess programmes.

Seven years later, Grandmaster Nigel Short, became the first British player to compete directly for the World Title for over a hundred years, the most recent previous challenge having been that of Isidor Gunsberg against Wilhelm Steinitz in New York, 1890. Once more, with the Times sponsoring the contest, both the BBC and Channel Four competed for the rights to flood our screens with chess.

I was involved in fundraising for the match (with the invaluable support of TheArticle‘s Editor, Daniel Johnson) organising the competition at The Savoy Theatre, providing daily reports for the Times as well as TV and radio coverage, writing the match book, compiling anthologies of the best games of both Kasparov and Short, as well as producing the video record of the contest. Overall, in 1993, I made 84 TV broadcasts on the match, and published seven books.

Less felicitous was Kasparov’s debacle against IBM’s Deep Blue Computer in 1997. Chess became a huge international story and, bolstered by their computer’s victory, IBM’s share price rise was stratospheric. By losing to a computer, though, Kasparov devalued the human vs. human element, which only recovered with the advent of the youthful genius Magnus Carlsen and the dramatic switch to online chess, which enabled the ingenious Norwegian to float his online chess company, Play Magnus, for $85 million earlier this year. At least someone had found a way to benefit from the Covid-19 lockdowns, which, apparently, kept armies of chess enthusiasts glued to their computer screens, with many millions of games now being contested online every day. In the wake of his successful float, Magnus has now launched a ten tournament online series, The Champions’ Chess Tour with an online record prize fund of $1.5 million, also to feature on Norwegian TV.

Last month, chess fever struck yet again, with the Netflix seven part series, “Queen’s Gambit”. Based on a novel by Walter Tevis, the TV series attracted the advisory skills of US chess expert, Bruce Pandolfini, as well as Garry Kasparov himself. The narrative reverses the story of the meteoric rise of Bobby Fischer, turning history on its head by making the emerging chess champion a female, fictional character named Beth Harmon. “Queen’s Gambit” has become the single most watched series, among Netflix’s audience of 200 million. The novelist Stephen King, no stranger himself to mass media triumphs, has lauded “Queen’s Gambit” as the best thing on television.

Paradoxically, this reversal of gender, the fictional story of a female version of Bobby Fischer, has reached a far greater audience even than the Fischer vs. Spassky match itself from 1972, which did not have the benefit of global television or the massive outreach conferred by the internet. The metaphorical use of chess to convey female mental empowerment, outthinking all her male opponents, has excited the same kind of enthusiasm that accompanied the 1960’s TV series “The Avengers”. The Unique Selling Point revolved around the physical combat skills of Honor Blackman (as Cathy Gale) and Diana Rigg (as Emma Peel) – not to mention the fact that Cathy Gale and Mrs Peel equalled, or excelled, their male counterparts in all other respects. This stirred the admiration of both male and female viewers.

The metamorphosis and metaphor exemplified in “Queen’s Gambit” has propelled me towards thinking about other reversals and hidden meanings, both in chess, in movies and in general. For example, Arnold Schwarzenegger is known to be a great fan of chess. His early reputation was cemented by two movies, “Conan the Barbarian” (1982) and “Predator” (1987), where the common metaphorical theme is, in fact, resurrection. In the first of these, Conan is literally crucified by the villain Tulsa Doom (played by James Earl Jones), before being brought back to life by means of a complex religious ritual. Similarly, facing certain death in “Predator”, Arnie is reborn after a terrifying and extended baptism in water, while being pursued by the lethal alien. Before his ordeal by water, nothing goes right for our hero. As he emerges from the flood, Arnie systematically gains the upper hand.

Similarly, chess is mentioned by Tolkien in The Lord of the Rings, during the siege of Gondor. In an earlier column I already explained my interpretation of the Middle Earth epic as representing the ancient struggle between Islam and Christianity, with Tolkien recasting the 1453 fall of Constantinople as a western victory, borrowing details from the cavalry charge of king Jan Sobieski III of Poland, to annihilate the Sultan’s forces at the siege of Vienna in 1683.

Mention of Constantinople points me in the direction of another curious reversal of roles. In the Welsh national epic, The Mabinogion, the story of “The Dream of the Ruler Maxen”, recounts the Roman Emperor’s voyage to Britain, where he encounters golden haired youths playing gwyddbyll (still used by the Welsh Chess Union as the word for chess), marries an indigenous princess, then returns to Rome to dethrone a usurper and finally reclaims his imperial birthright.

In fact, it was Constantine the Great who was declared senior emperor, Augustus, by the legions at York, who then returned to Rome, defeated the usurper Maxentius (aka Maxen) at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge and went on to establish Constantinople as the seat of empire. In that imperial time line, one could claim York (Eboracum) as the first capital of the British Empire, followed by Rome as the second and Constantinople as the third.

One of the earliest chess books which exerted a formative influence on me was an anthology collection of the best games of the Hypermodern Grandmaster, Aron Nimzowitsch (1886-1934) written by Fred Reinfeld.

I began to regard Reinfeld’s writing method as overly populist, and full of rather trite wisdom. Even so, his analysis was painstaking, his enthusiasm infective and his literary allusions sometimes excessively populist, but on occasion, both erudite and telling.

One such, from the latter category, was used by Reinfeld to illustrate a situation, in which it might be thought that ‘A’ was happening, whereas its opposite ‘B’, was about to unfold. The lines came from the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, “H.M.S. Pinafore”, and they went:

Things are seldom what they seem
Skim milk masquerades as cream
Highlows pass as patent leather
Jackdaws strut in Peacocks’ feathers
Black sheep dwell in every fold
All that glitters is not gold

The game in question, where appearances were deceptive, was Nimzowitsch’s win against Chajes, from the tournament at Carlsbad 1911.

A couple of other anomalies struck me while writing this: “vulpine” in English and other Latinate languages means “fox-like”, with emphasis on cunning, as in Ben Johnson’s frantic comedy, “Volpone”. It is obvious, though, that the word is Germanic in origin and must at first have referred to a wolf.

Similarly, “rabbit” in German is “Kaninchen”, which means “small canine” or “dog”. The concept has spilled over into the words “conejo” (Spanish for rabbit) and thence coney in English.

From gallimaufry to salmagundi: the popular film series, Pirates of the Caribbean, might, excusably, be thought to focus on… pirates; but dig deeper and that is not the case. In fact the series is an excursion through the various depictions of the themes of immortality in western literature.

Thus, the pirate crew of the Black Pearl, have acquired immortality, but not eternal youth and in the process they have lost the sensation of taste and smell. Cue the Struldbruggs of Luggnag from Swift’s Gullivers Travels (1726), who found themselves in an identical predicament.

The sea nymph Calypso figures prominently in Pirates of the Caribbean series, the self same Calypso who captured Odysseus and offered him eternal life, on the condition that the hero remained with her and eschewed any return to his homeland of Ithaca. Fortunately for Homer’s Odyssey, legend records that Odysseus declined the offer, escaped from Calypso’s island to seek immortal fame, rather than immortal life.

As the piratical saga progresses, Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) seeks the fountain of eternal youth, allegedly identified by Conquistador, Juan Ponce de León, racing against a rival Spanish expedition, despatched by King Fernando VI. The surprising masterstroke comes when Fernando VI’s squad gain control of the sacred water, only to smash the vial, exclaiming that the only true immortality is that of the soul, achievable solely through the grace of their Lord, Jesus Christ, a magnificent and shocking twist to the plot.

Then there are those cases where a word can surprisingly mean two ostensibly opposite things. We know that German genius, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, held a high opinion of chess, designating the game as “the touchstone of the intellect”, in his play “Götz von Berlichingen”. We also know that he wrestled with the opaque opening words of the Gospel according to St. John, cataloguing his puzzlement in Faust, Part I.

In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God.”

Faust eventually translates “word“ as action, but “logos” (and it’s generally accepted that Greek was the language being translated) means not only word, but number, as in the awesome mathematics of creation, referenced by Dante’s metaphor of the doubling of rice or corns on the chessboard: “ed eran tante, che ‘l numero loro piu che ‘l doppiar de li scacchi  s’inmilla.” Here is how the national treasure Stephen Fry explains the legend.

I believe that substituting “number” for “word” in the Biblical text makes more sense, and the double meaning of Logos (word / number) is replicated in many languages, such as “accounts” and “account” in English, Zahlung (bill) and Erzhählen (tell a story) in German, and there are many other examples, in Dutch, Swedish, French and Spanish. Such words have no radical, phonetic or etymological connection with logos, apart from the double meaning, which suggests a deep connection in language between word and number. The final proof:

As yet a child, nor yet a fool to fame,
I lisp’d in numbers, for the numbers came.”
Alexander Pope, Epistle to Dr Arbuthnot, (1735).

And by “numbers” Pope meant “words”.

I conclude this week with two items: first, a link to the most celebrated Queen’s Gambit of them all, Bobby Fischer’s win in game six of his 1972 World Title Challenge to Boris Spassky. Grandmaster Emeritus Harry Golombek, writing in the Times admired the tigerish quality of Fischer’s conduct of the attack. The former World Championship Candidate Miguel Najdorf from Argentina, compared Fischer’s achievement to a Mozart symphony, while even Boris Spassky, the victim of the tigrine onslaught, joined in the applause at the end.

Next, a comment on our ratings page about my column from last week on “Chess at the Siege of Troy”. The Article reader, Patricia Chilton, wrote: “As a life-long “chess resister,” I am utterly captivated after (accidentally) reading this article!” Fifteen stars and I must say, it’s feedback like that, which makes it all worthwhile.

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Member ratings
  • Well argued: 97%
  • Interesting points: 98%
  • Agree with arguments: 98%
54 ratings - view all

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