The ‘Art’ Of chess – Part 2

Ranjith Hegde

Ranjith Hegde plays the Violin, focusing on western classical and jazz traditions. Also teaches music. Playing chess in many tournaments these days.

(Continued from The `Art’ of chess – part 1)


`The art of war science’, as peculiar and oxymoronic as the phrase may sound to some, has existed in the vocabulary and understanding of many since time immemorial. Back in our epics, I came across the concept of “Savyasachi”. The current online dictionaries may translate it as ambidextrous whereas I remember the meaning of it a little differently. What I had heard, read and understood of it was that it described a person who was not only ambidextrous but also had mastered and ‘activated’ both laterals of the brain to high extents. Popular theories are that the left lateral of the brain is more associated with forming cognitive memories, such as understanding the syntax and grammar of languages or mathematics whereas the right lateral is associated to the articulation, intonation and accentuation of sound, etc. indicating artistic and creative ability.

Savyasachi is a name commonly used as an adjective to Arjuna from the Mahabharata. It is pertaining to his mastery of war science and his creative abilities as a dancer during his incognito. The mastery of archery, with its slow and systematic nature of study and the way of developing skill through practice and comprehension can be compared to the technique study on the violin or other musical instruments. The same would work for Chess. The understanding of concepts, learning opening/endgame moves and the ability to calculate variations are no different. Going by the popular theories, this would be the work of left lateral of the brain. In Archery, one can surmise that the calmness in the body, the ability to sense that the position is in co-ordination with the target, the co-ordination of different limbs and releasing the arrow sensing the right moment would be the work of the right lateral. The things we could call as artistic sensibilities. If it does not sound right, ask dancers about  their body calmness and their co-ordination between different parts of the body. They would agree that those things are more about sensing the flow rather than calculation.

In music, we create the flow using different tensions and resolve it by either building to a release or playing with it to create different forms of thoughts and expressions. For example, the tension created by the dominant chord can be built to a nice ending in the tonic chord, or can be played with using phrases and toying around with those notes to an eventual release, whichever feels true in that context. But to comprehend that to the full extent, you need rudimentary knowledge of music. But regardless, listeners sense that effect, even if they are unable to articulate it or describe it that clearly. The same can be done in other disciplines of art such as dance, literature etc. using specific methods. Even in Chess. After playing the game for a while, you begin to sense the tension in each position or pattern of the pieces, and using your intuition, you can sense its release in a different position. In short, some positions feel awkward and shuffling a few pieces around makes it disappear. Some moves appear more elegant and playful than other. But to understand it that clearly, you need more playing experience and a strong ability to focus on intuition. Not much of knowledge of the game. Things that are sometimes described as `gut feeling’. This can arguably be the right lateral function of the brain.

To summarize, the systematic way of learning different aspects of the game, conceptually understanding and judging positions to form strategies and training the ability to calculate would form the technical abilities needed to master the game. Whereas, sensing the tension in each position (without judging or conceptualizing it) and focusing and relying on intuition to find the resolution position for that tension would be basic artistic sensibilities of the game. Both of the above aspects and a healthy co-ordination between them would be the aspects that makes a chess player a Savyasachi.

Chess in social movements: 

As mentioned in the previous article, Chess, similar to other forms of art, was affected and influenced by the socio-political and philosophical movements. People adapted to their style of playing according to the fresh philosophies popular during their time.

In the previous article I mentioned that the style of play in Arabia and Persia are considered elegant. This means that at most instances, the players would prefer to make `grand’ moves – fancy or elegant, bypassing the simplest or the most pragmatic continuation that could finish the game or get the job done. This phase could be related to their wealth and lush exhibition of it. This trend would eventually change, but also be revisited with more updated views as time went by.

By the eve of the medieval period, Chess was in high regard among the philosophers. Even though the King’s court scholars had theorized the game to large extents, defined the value of each pieces (e. g. a Bishop is worth three pawns but a rook is worth five pawns) and formed opening and other principles, the philosophers disagreed to its objectification. Some of the early accounts of the above can be found in Duncan Forbes’ “History of Chess”. The subjective value of each piece depending on the situation (e. g. a Bishop is worth more than three pawns in so and such positions), breaking of objective concepts to facilitate moves that represented the players thoughts  and justifying unusual moves under aesthetics were established. A philosopher called Al-Ghazali mentioned chess to be one of the `Alchemies for Happiness’. Medieval Chess had developed a new form known as `Tabiyas’ where they would start the game from a middle game position, which was extremely popular. There are accounts of Tabiyas being an excuse for a young man and a woman to spend intimate time alone getting to know each other! This is the strongest testimony that the personality of a player is reflected in the moves he makes.

The only other significant aspect from medieval chess for our matter at hand is the influence of Medieval Islamic Mathematics. Just after the time of the development of algebra and such personalities as Omar Khayyam, Chess was becoming more and more complex for the regular public to understand. There are multiple accounts of players from that time such as Adali and Dilaram who composed many chess puzzles so intricate and complex that they actually had to write down mathematical solutions to it, not just in chess terminology. All these puzzles required witty and complex thinking in place of rational and easier methods to solve the same. The same can be seen reflected in this generation of computers where the style and personality is often sacrificed among average tournament players and replaced by the lines (moves) calculated and vomited out by softwares and engines.

Jumping in time to sixteenth century Spain. Chess practiced described perfectly the time and the way of thinking: gambits, counter-gambits and traps. Chess was a fight in which the “noble” pieces such as the Queens and the Knights were ready, from the beginning of the game, to put the opposite King in checkmate. Pawns meant nearly nothing. They were sacrificed and were considered as a hindrance. Similar to then ongoing Crezy battle, among many other instances, where French knights crushed with no mercy their own archers from Geneva, as they were a hindrance when they were ready to attack the enemy. The everyday public had no place in the perceived struggle for superiority. A saint named Ruy Lopez de Segura felt deeply about this situation. In his thought, he wanted the public to have some artistic and scientific abilities to claim a better life among the nobles. He answered the problem by introducing Chess to them. His book,  “Libro de la invención liberal y arte del juego del Axedrez” (Book of the liberal invention and art of the game of chess) is the first known book on modern Chess. Much of today’s Chess theory is based on that, including the opening called “Ruy Lopez (or Spanish) Opening”.

Similar situation can be observed in Italy among the nobles and people of other faiths. Gioachino Greco, though not a reformer like Ruy Lopez, led the chess movement, symbolising his fight to preserve his religion and his struggle for higher truth.

Similar to other forms of art, you can see many similar instances throughout history where Chess is used directly and symbolically in the struggles and battles of social and political reform movements, even in the french revolution, which would be looked upon in brief later.

(to be continued…)

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