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).

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