I Thought Chess Was Dull And Ugly?

Nonfiction. Literary journalism. About how chess is interesting. It's interesting, I swear.

*I researched and wrote this story for a narrative journalism course; the purpose of the assignment was to find some traditionally dense/esoteric subject and make it interesting. It is entirely true, especially the bits about Roger Federer.*

My first round opponent, Vicki, is eleven. She’s got chess in her blood and is radiantly, suspiciously calm. Our three-minute time allotment starts in the high-ceilinged conference room, in the middle of three rows of tables dressed in silky black cloth. Vicki slides a pawn two squares forward then hits the clock. It makes a popping noise. My turn. I copy her. Pop.

The room has a strange, low buzz to it. Incidental noises melt together and become a soft, overlapping sea of sound: the sliding or plonking of plastic pieces on vinyl boards; murmured groaning at mistakes; the drone of the air conditioning; heavy breathing, heavy sighs; shuffling people in squeaking chairs; and the constant, room-wide popping. But no one I ask is aware of any noise at all. This is just what chess sounds like.

I’m playing in a Blitz Tournament in a conference room at Macquarie University. It was marketed to me as fast and free chess, suitable for all abilities, $15 entry fee. I’m told that “Anyone can win in blitz”, because its speed encourages blunders from even the best players. This is a philosophy the guys on the sign up sheet are very big on, and something I cling to tightly as Vicki quietly annihilates me. She takes my pieces indiscriminately and without apology, moving her bishops as a part of some scheme I barely register, let alone understand, let alone foil. Oh jeez. Without so much as a “Checkmate” she reaches out to shake my hand, and we both giggle at how quickly I’ve surrendered. We are the first of thirty-two boards to have finished.

As other games finish at random times, the low buzz grows into open conversation. Adults win or lose good-naturedly, then analyse the game with their opponents. Some of the more excitable child prodigies yell things like, “And then my bishop killed his queen!” when talking to their friends. A small crowd builds around the best players, the International Masters, who use every second of their three minute allotment. The spectators might smile at a clever move but they are largely subdued, studious, silently captivated. They do not “Oooh” and they do not “Aaah”, but there is a palpable energy here. There is suspense.

Yes, suspense. Chess is often described in funny ways by those who play it seriously - improper, alien adjectives are used. When I first heard games of chess referred to as “thrilling” or “electric” I scoffed. Surely, I thought, this was at best an abuse of creative license and at worst a blatant lie. And then I heard matches and moves described as “beautiful”. That didn’t feel at all appropriate for a board game. Beautiful, to me, seems a serious word, one that we should reserve for vistas and outer space, and Roger Federer, and ethereal things like kindness and lilacs and string music.

And yet as eleven-year-old Vicki moved her bishop to a brilliant, lethal square and shook my hand, I couldn’t help but feel I’d lost to some strange kind of artistry.

It’s easy to be absorbed by chess. Real life concerns can quickly, completely fall away and be replaced by the black and white world you create with your opponent. Chess is almost like trying to solve a puzzle that is working to un-solve itself, like fighting against a sentient and evasive sudoku. And the more you play the more you realise how unique each game is. There is a chaos of incalculable probabilities lurking beneath chess’ rules and stringent boxes and supposed boredom. Actually, there are more possible iterations of a game of chess than there are atoms in the known universe.

Of course not every game is a precious snowflake. For example, in a Thursday afternoon game against a man named Terry, I fall victim to the ‘Scholar’s Mate’. It’s a four move opening progression, a common trap for new players; the name is ironic. “It’s an old trick!” Terry laughs, and he’s probably right. Chess is an old game.

Chaturanga, chess’s direct ancestor, was invented in India, in the 6th century, to flatter a king. The old board game used chariots in place of rooks, and elephants instead of bishops, but the mechanics were very similar to the chess we play today. For example, the horse piece in chaturanga moved in the exact same weird, leaping “L” shape that our knight does some 1500 years later.

The game brought fascination, genius and maddening obsession with it as it evolved and spread across the world. Now chess is a global language. The Fédération Internationale des Échecs, FIDE, oversees 600 million active participants. FIDE also has the unenviable job of rating its players, a task that requires reducing the Vicki’s of the world - and veteran Grandmasters - to a numerical value.

With such universal reach it’s important for chess players to know where they stand. But Arpad Elo, the inventor of the system FIDE uses, once compared rating an individual player with only mathematics to measuring “the position of a cork bobbing up and down on the surface of agitated water with a yardstick tied to a rope which is swaying in the wind.” There is much of Roger Federer that you cannot express with a number, and the same is true for chess geniuses.

Nonetheless, the imperfect but functional Elo system is the basis of a hierarchical bell curve in competitive chess. Novices start with a rating of 1200. They then progress through various grades and classifications, until they research the penultimate title of International Master with a rating of at least 2400. The highest title a chess player can attain, other than world champion, is that of Grandmaster. You’ll need a 2500 plus FIDE rating and three favourable results at tournaments with other Grandmasters to get into the chess world’s most exclusive club.

Australia’s first Grandmaster Ian Rogers makes some sense of this dense, imperfect mathematics for me. I’m at a loss as to its function, or meaning, but Rogers puts it into practical terms. He says, “I can go to a chess club anywhere in the world and immediately have twenty friends”.

I thought it would be lonely. Being locked inside your own mind, sometimes for hours, trying to beat the only other person who might understand what you’re going through. But I’m told no. “Not at all! Not at all,” Rogers says, and he explains to me the sense of community, the practice of debriefing of a game with your opponent once it’s done, and the common interest that unites human beings from all over the world: the beauty and wonder of chess.

In an indoor sporting arena in Reykjavik, 1972, to a full auditorium and with cameras broadcasting to the world, Bobby Fischer’s white queen is moved backwards one square. One square. That’s it. The whole thing takes one second to do, albeit one minute and fifty-eight seconds to think about, and now white is going to win. It’s a one-square move of subtle, subtle genius - though such moments are not uncommon at the World Chess Championship. They’re Bobby Fischer’s bread and butter.

In addition to the typical thrill and suspense of a high stakes game of chess was the menacing geopolitics. It’s 1972, the Cold War is in full swing, and Bobby Fischer, the American prodigy, is facing Soviet sweetheart Boris Spassky in a twenty-four game match for the world championship. The Soviets had held the title for two decades thanks to their state-sponsored program, and now a temperamental genius from Chicago threatens to topple their empire by himself.

It’s game six of their twenty-four game match. The one-square sliding of Bobby’s queen sets in motion a violent chain of events; knights, rooks and pawns are lost in the fray that ultimately pins Spassky in the corner of the board. Then the white queen is moved one square to the right. That’s it. It isn’t checkmate. It isn’t even check. But Boris Spassky resigns and applauds, knowing he will lose to his opponent’s beautiful game.

And for a moment, chess was on television. It was front page news. The chessboard served as the perfect microcosm, or some metaphor, of the Cold War itself. Chess was prize fighting in 1972, it was ugly, dense, suspenseful, political boxing - and then Bobby Fischer’s brain made it beautiful. So much so that his Soviet opponent resigned and applauded.

It’s hard to appreciate chess in the same way that serious players do. To them, Fischer’s moves are beautiful in a way that doesn’t need to be explained. But that doesn’t do much for us mere mortals, so I press and probe and discover that the beauty of Fischer’s gameplay is in its simplicity. A single square adjustment tightens all of Spassky’s options, akin to the twisting of a vice; all the different pieces are working together, scattered seemingly erratically but still controlling every avenue of escape; and it looks beautiful. There is an aesthetic to it all when seen from above. Clever, elegant, unprecedented, thanks to a single-square move - and all of it under immense global and political pressure, and all of it against the next best player in the world.

GM Ian Rogers told me about the analogue of chess and boxing. It’s a strange but good one. Both sports are pure, one-on-one fights. Both can be ugly, and brutish, for the best moves in practical, serious chess are rarely beautiful - they are functional and rote-learned, sometimes with the assistance of a computer. Both sports are fundamentally about winning or losing, and forgetting that in order to box beautifully, or just play beautiful moves, is severely punished. Rogers says that, in chess as much as in boxing, “one moment of inattention and the whole thing falls down”. The theatre, the spectacle, of both sports lies in this ever-looming threat of a single mistake. And the magic of both is found in any moment of brilliance, of beauty, that triumphs in an ugly world in which it shouldn’t belong.

In books, and now on the Internet, beautiful games of chess are frozen in time. Like paintings. The constituent parts, the black and white plastic pieces, rote-learned openings, tiny blunders, pragmatic one square readjustments, and the hours of dense, silent tedium are like notes in a symphony. They are not special on their own but, together, they are a means of self-expression. Together they are art.