Sunday, 29 May 2016

#11: Chess pieces

Recently I have been playing chess, against both human and digital opponents. I enjoy it, plus it has the powerful negative virtue of making you forget everything else while you are playing.

But does chess help you develop any skills useful for life? In his early 16th century book The Courtier, which discusses how a renaissance man of the court should act and live, Castiglione thinks it a waste of time to spend too much time it, since at the end you will know ‘no more but a game’. ‘A noble science’ is much more worthwhile:

‘Who ever will be excellent in the playe of chestes, I beleave he must beestowe much tyme about it, and applie it with so much study, that a man may assoone learne some noble scyence, or compase any other matter of importaunce, and yet in the ende in beestowing all that laboure, he knoweth no more but a game. Therfore in this I beleave there happeneth a very rare thing, namely, that the meane is more commendable, then the excellency.’

Judit Polgar, who became a grandmaster in 1991 at the age of 15, disagrees:

‘Playing chess has many aspects that can be useful in everyday situations like planning, concentration and combinations. You learn to win but also to lose and to be creative.’

I am not so sure about this. Chess requires concentration and planning, but I don’t know how far these are transferable beyond the chessboard. People don’t play by such strict rules in life, love or war.

The 19th century scientist and essayist T H Huxley went further, saying it was ‘an elementary truth’ that life is like a game of chess, but ‘infinitely more difficult and complicated’:

‘The chessboard is the world, the pieces are the phenomena of the universe, the rules of the game are what we call the laws of Nature. The player on the other side is hidden from us. We know that his play is always fair, just, and patient. But also we know, to our cost, that he never overlooks a mistake, or makes the smallest allowance for ignorance.’ (A Liberal Education, 1868).

Education, for Huxley, consisted in learning the rules of this game. I am not sure who his hidden player is – perhaps this is a nod to God, or to those who believed in one. But as the essay goes on the hidden player disappears and Nature takes over, sounding anything but fair: ‘Nature’s discipline is not even a word and a blow, and the blow first; but the blow without the word.’ This is more in tune with Darwin’s discoveries about ruthless competition among organisms, which of course Huxley championed (although he was not fully convinced about natural selection). He leaves the chessboard metaphor behind.

But I do like it when the rules of chess are played around with – as in Alice in Wonderland, with its snoozing king and racing queen. I would also think of A S Byatt’s Possession, in which Victorian wife Ellen Ash regularly plays chess with the visiting vicar. One night she has a suffocating dream in which her queen can only move one square at a time, like a king, while her opponent’s queen can move freely. We are left to make our own links with her life as an intelligent, capable woman whose main role, partly self-imposed, is to create a comfortable home and be an amanuensis and adviser to her poet husband. She has learned to play by the rules, as Huxley advises, but at some cost.

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