Caissa’s Beauty: Chess is Art

Written on February 3, 2009 by Administrador de IE Blogs in Arts & Cultures & Societies, Philosophy

Miguel Herrero de Jáuregui


I used to think I was a good chess player until I played a few years ago in Washington Square in NY with those old players who bet five dollars each game. I was beaten without mercy. The worst of it is that they played with me like one does with a child, letting him think that he has “almost won”, so he will still play another game, and of course lose again. I finally lost 20 $, which, to make the shameful scene complete, I did not have on me, so I had to borrow them from a friend to whom I had told I was some sort of Kasparov. I am sure this friend still tells this story when he wants to illustrate idiocy, vanity, oproby and humiliation. I felt as being in the company of Xerxes, Mussolini, and some other illustrious losers who proclaimed their invincible might before total defeat, which rises laughter rather than pity. So it is in the humblest of spirits that I write this post, which is not by the way a metaphor for anything, it is just what it seems: some thoughts about the greatest of games.

Chess is pure. In chess there is no luck to blame or thank. All in chess is black and white, just two competing brains trying to think longer, stronger, subtler than the other. This is why it is so superior to any other board game, and closer or tennis or fencing than to cards. Like good sports, it creates a sort of beauty in its combination of mathematical precision with risk, impulse, experience. Many times it approaches art, and sometimes it is art: beauty + creation + within set rules.

It is quite curious that chess mirrors like more “artistic” arts in the moods of its time. The great champions come from the great powers, and they play according to the ruling principles: Ruy López was a Spaniard in the 16th century, the greatest player of his time. In the 18th century it was Philidor, a Frenchman, who gave his game rationality, elegance and sobriety. In the 19th century it was the time of the Germans (Steinitz, Andressen), and romanticism impregnated games of risky attack and counter-attack, sacrificing wildly queens and castles to reach the King. The 20th century witnessed the supremacy of the USSR and, with Fisher, the USA, along with systematic strategies, professional players, database, computers, and so on. The 21st cent. chess reflects our complex world: computers have surpassed humans, and strategic principles are being slowly introduced in them; scientific inquiries are made on why men have generally better results than women, with the hope of finding some explanation in historical opression (btw: my wife beats me, yes, she too); India and China have great champions, as many other countries around the world. And so on.

As art should be (Oscar Wilde dixit) it is quite useless. Lenin said that it was the gymnastics of the brain and, as it usually happens in autocracies, a slight remark from the supreme leader was taken as a revealed truth, and thousands of élite players were grown up in Russia with all-too-efficient methods. Yet being a master in chess does not guarantee that you are not a total ass in everything else. It may sound a bitter thought conceived in the rancours of Washington Square, but it is quite true: Bobby Fisher was perhaps the greatest chess genius of all times, and all his public opinions were perfect stupidities. Kasparov’s political career in Russia seems to have been the contrary of his stupendous fierce chess games: defensive, victimist, wholly unsuccessful. Nevertheless, paedagogues say that it has some educative value, it teaches to accept defeat, to reason with logic, to control one’s nerves. But now, if you think of it, paedagogues say that sort of things about practically everything, don’t they? Even video-games are good to train abilities, develop capacities, etc., etc. Let the child play if he wants, and let him not care a bit about it if he doesn’t. Just like violoncello. All arts are not for everybody at all times.

Let me finish paying tribute to Sir William Jones, a great 18th century orientalist, who discovered that Sanskrit was genetically linked to Greek and Latin, Persian and Gothic, and became thus the father of Indo-European studies. When he was 17 he composed, in a very typical Ovid-like way, a poem which told the birth of the game as the instrument given by Sport to Mars (the war god) to win the love of the beautiful nymph Caissa. The myth had been invented (very typically) by the Rennaissance humanist Girolamo Vida, and young Jones took it up and made an English version (after a Latin one, of course). Enthusiasts may read it here . And may Caissa be with you.


No comments yet.

Leave a Comment


We use both our own and third-party cookies to enhance our services and to offer you the content that most suits your preferences by analysing your browsing habits. Your continued use of the site means that you accept these cookies. You may change your settings and obtain more information here. Accept