The ‘Art’ Of Chess

Ranjeet Hegde

Ranjith Hegde plays the Violin, focusing on western classical and jazz traditions. Also teaches music. Playing chess in many tournaments, most recently AIEMA tournament and FIDE rating tournament.

The game of Chess, with its 200+ years of documented professional history, is often considered a battle of wits. In popular culture, it is primarily known as an intellectual game relying solely on the player’s ability to calculate moves and variations. It is often romanticized as the ultimate test of intellect, proof of true intelligence, war of the mind etc. Now, one can always question the credibility of such remarks as it is usually understood that all forms of intelligence tests are subjective. However, what is seldom told or acknowledged is that Chess is a form of art in the same way any sport with a certain individual freedom in stylistic or artistic choice is. Although, the existence of such artistic freedom in any sport might not be a commonplace knowledge to those not interested in sports but players or athletes of their respective sport are bound to have interesting arguments in its favor.

It is more apparent to me, being an artist myself, to see art in a game of Chess. That is why it would be my pleasure to put forward my perspective of the game, which may help you explore and enjoy the artistry of the game further more. I would try to do so by providing various interesting concepts, ideas and examples from history and comments on the stylistic choices of important players. One does not need to be a proficient chess player to enjoy the games as art, nor does he/she need to have deep knowledge or training in different elements of the game to see the reflection of the player’s personality in every choice of moves he makes, on or off the board. There is a school of writing dedicated to Chess, developed in Soviet Union and now employed in all the chess media resources such as magazines, newspaper articles, blogs etc and I would like to bring it to the Indian mass. To achieve the above goal, we need to examine the sociopolitical and cultural factors that influenced Chess. Specially during its development. So lets trace the history of chess, its origins and its various stages of development as it travelled through different regions of Asia and Europe.

Chaturanga (Indian Subcontinent):

The story of origin differs from source to source but what all these sources agree upon is the place of its origin. India! [Ex: Some sources say (if you happen to believe in the true occurrences of the events from our epics) it was invented during the time-period of Ramayana. Certain historians believe the board games discovered at Mohanjo-daro could have evolved to Chess. Some sources also trace its origins in the Arthashastra by Chanakya.]

The most popular belief based on historical facts is that it originated in Sixth Century, AD in the Kingdom of the Guptas. A subordinate Rajah at the time, King Balhait, believed that war was the most effective way to learn the values of valor, decision-making, endurance, circumspection and bravery. Hence, it is no mystery that war was chosen as the model to develop a game. It is believed that the frustration mounting in the King’s head towards post war depression such as gambling and the growing public interest to destroy themselves in the games involving pure luck, led him to order the wise men to create a game which would require the use of mental qualities such as intellect, endurance, decision-making, judgement and analytical reasoning ability. The course of the story may be pure fantasy but what it led to was the creation of the board Ashtapada (eight steps) i.e 8×8=64 squares. The pieces represented army units namely Infantry, Cavalry, Elephantry and Chariotry (which would evolve into the modern Pawns, Knight, Bishop and Rook respectively) and it was called Chaturanga (Four divisions of the military). It was originally a game for four people, and the outcome of the game determined by the fate of one principal piece, The King. It is no surprise that its origins could also be traced to the Arthashastra which is the oldest known treatise written about politics. Chanakya, the author of the book described the game as game of strategy.

Indians, at the time allegedly had supremacy in the field of intellect due to their command of mathematics, study of astrology and their vast bank of rich texts such as the Arthashastra, The Vedas, Upanishads, etc. So it is only fitting that the game originated here in India in that period.

The spirit of this game was as mentioned above, strategy. It would consist of four players, one on each side of the board. Each would have four pawns, a rook, a bishop, a knight and a King. Players sitting opposite to each other were allies, on both sides. The concept of one almighty ruler was not established yet. The allies could “counsel” for their strategies and win in a team effort. It is only later, when the game travelled away from India, was the two allied sides combined into one, and one of the two Kings would be the King and the other a subordinate and advisor (Queen in modern play).

Since its purpose was to eradicate gambling, the rules of the game were kept fairly simple. The moves of each pieces was much simpler than today and anyone with the idea of how the pieces move, could play and win. It was to be a household replacement to the dice games. But, soon enough, much like the social conditions of the lower strata of the hierarchy, the game was preserved among the intellectuals and the nobles, often dubbed as the Royal game, though the idea of its conception was instructional and social. The game would soon unlock various areas of study of war strategy. It was used for amusement among the nobles and a venue to prove their wit to their King among the court advisers. One of the earliest and the most important chess historians, Sir William Jones writes about Chaturanga, “I can only exhibit a description of a very ancient game of the same kind (same as modern chess) but more complex, and in my opinion, more modern than the simple classical Chess.”

Chaturanga

This complexity of Chaturanga was spoken of by many other historians, which I believe, may have caused the decline of Chaturanga among the nobles and the public alike. Soon, the game of Chaturanga could only be found in stories and history books as it was nearly forgotten in India. Nonetheless, it made its way to different countries, Persia being one of the first, to be developed to a form which is equivalent to the current form of Chess. The new form would be called Shatranj, a name more common in the modern-day culture, specially in India and other parts of central Asia.

Shatranj (Persia and central Asia):

The earliest and the best account of Shatranj, or the medieval Chess, to which access has been attained to, is given by the poet Firdausi who existed in the later half of the tenth century. I would not be much concerned about how it got from India to Persia. Trade relations, gift, souvenir, war exploit, you take your pick. How it happened to be called Shatranj is yet again argued by many historians. Sir William says, ”By a natural corruption of the pure Sanskrit word, it was changed by the old Persians into Chaturang, or more commonly Chatrang. But the Arabs, who soon after took the possession of their country, had neither the initial nor final letters of that word in their alphabet, and consequently they altered it further into Shatranj.”

What Firdausi says is in his poem ‘Shahnameh’ is that Chaduranga was brought to Shah Naushirawan (around the seventh century) from India and the messenger claimed that should his court master the art of the game, they would be proclaimed to be of superior intellect, else they had to accept the Hind’s (India) superiority and forgo all rights to extract tribute. Thus was the game chosen as a battlefield for the pride of wits between two nations, echoed so many times in history and most recently during the cold war when Bobby Fischer challenged the mighty soviet school of chess for the world title.

Persians (and later, Arabs) are credited with developing Shatranj equivalent to modern-day standards but I would like to dig deeper into their stylistic contribution. Persia, and later Arabia, was known for its wealth and “exotic” craft. They saw Shatranj in similar way. According to Firdausi, in the Shah’s court, it was treated similar to how it was treated in India. The wise men were given puzzles to solve, and they would take up the challenge to solve it overnight to please the Shah. They were rewarded aptly if they did. This culture of chess puzzles later became an important part of chess development and studies. Their art, specially literature, as rich as it was claimed to be, was stylized by poetic elegance (different from the English noble elegance). They employed this style in Shatranj. The moves they did were primarily governed by their elegance. (A strong work containing this is Satyajit Ray’s ‘Shatranj ke khilari’ where the aristocrats muse themselves and exaggerate their own elegant lifestyle in their choices of moves on the board). We shall examine what that exactly means in the future, as we study much modern players and how they adopted this style. Though this style prevailed in Asia and India for years to come, it was considerably lost in the West (due to the lack of a system to record games) and was revived only after the Romantic Era of Chess (18th and the early 19th Century) by Chess elites such as Jose Raul Capablanca and Alexander Alekhine.

Now that I have put forward a brief history of the origin of Chess, I would like to get down to talking about Chess as art in the following articles. I am a musician, not a professional Chess player. But while I was reading the books ”My Great Predecessors” and ”How life imitates Chess” by the former World Chess Champion and Russian Presidential candidate Garry Kasparov, many similarities between the art I practice and the art involved in Chess became more apparent to me and I started exploring. The following articles will be concerning that aspect.

(For further information on the origins of Chaturanga, ‘The History of Chess’ by Duncan Forbes can be recommended. He quotes direct Sanskrit texts from Mahabharata, and Bhavishya Purana among others with translation to establish its origins and purposes)

3 thoughts on “The ‘Art’ Of Chess

  1. Pingback: Content and Contributors – November 2013 | aainanagar

  2. Pingback: The `Art’ of chess – part 2 | aainanagar

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