It was a Saharan summer in Southern California when I first realized the lessons I could learn from that immortal game. I was twelve years old, playing some pickup with dedicated chess friends as visible clouds of heat rose from the sun-baked concrete, distorting the air around us. When we had almost finished our last match, a mentally handicapped man in a power wheelchair rolled up to us, seemingly asking (through sounds and gestures) for a game. I decided that it would be charitable to “pretend-play” with this unfortunate stranger. The charity, it turned out, was all on the other side of the board. One devastating attack followed another, and he played as effortlessly with black as with white. After my third straight loss, I finally admitted that my new acquaintance was much smarter than I had guessed based on his appearance. It was a valuable lesson in humility and the pitfalls of prejudgment.
Lessons such as these can be learned from games of all kinds. Chess, though, is unique owing to its cultural embeddedness: between its features and the landscape of Western civilization there is vast potential for both allegory and tropology. It has been the subject of countless literary and philosophical ruminations on success, psychology, ethics, and the meaning of existence. Should players in the game of life be condemned for their sins of zugzwang? Is the king’s proximity to his queen and his bishop a metaphor for the family and church-state relations? Do the diachromatic pieces evoke a Manichaean struggle? David Bentley Hart would surely have a field day. Shakespeare, Sigmund Freud, Lewis Carroll, T. S. Eliot, Benjamin Franklin; so many pillars of Western civilization have discovered deep symbolism in the knights, rooks, pawns, and bishops. To catalogue every reference to chess in the canon of great books would be a monumental task akin to indexing every mention of horses or beer. The game of Shahkmat was a cultural contribution of the Persian Empire, through its Arab conquerors, to the nobility of the medieval West. Yet to paraphrase Horace, “Conquered chess conquered its wild conquerors and brought the game to bored Europe.” Western civilization has planted its flag and claimed the quiet wooden continent of sixty-four squares.
So it seemed to me surprising and unfortunate when I discovered that George Orwell’s classic foretelling of totalitarian dystopia, 1984, held such a low opinion of chess and depicted it as merely another cog in the humanity-crushing machine of the Party. Winston, the main character, must sit through a mandatory lecture on “Ingsoc in Relation to Chess,” and the Party is more than happy to let him ponder chess puzzles in a cafe after releasing him from years of imprisonment and torture by the Ministry of Love. At no point does Winston see the game for what it is: an undeniable artifact of his civilization’s cultural memory. By its appearance alone, chess ought to awaken him to its historical origins and its evocation of medieval European values. At one point in the novel, he is awed by a shiny antique paperweight, yet at no point does he connect “knight-pawn-bishop” to chivalry-duty-faith.
Perhaps Orwell, brilliant though he was, fell prey to that pernicious idea expressed by one of the greatest American chess players of all time, Paul Morphy (d. 1884), in a personal letter dated February 1863 wherein he announced his retirement:
I am more strongly confirmed than ever in the belief that the time devoted to chess is literally frittered away. It is, to be sure, a most exhilarating sport, but it is only a sport; and it is not to be wondered at that such as have been passionately addicted to the charming pastime should one day ask themselves whether sober reason does not advise its utter dereliction. I have, for my own part, resolved not to be moved from my purpose of not engaging in chess hereafter.
Despite appeals from his fans, Morphy was true to his promise. He had moved on. To him, chess was a dehumanizing hobby, one that rendered man nothing more than a detached calculator of outcomes, staring at an array of meaningless patterns. In Morphy’s view, chess would be a perfect activity for the drone-like Outer Party members in Orwell’s Oceania.
Today we have our own version of Morphy’s attitude, with the added conceit of computerization. Ever since Garry Kasparov’s iconic matches against the A.I. Deep Blue in 1996–97, the frontiers of chess have ceased to be about exploring the game for its analytical beauties and plumbing the depths of its possibilities. AI has advanced to such a point that no professional player trains today without its aid, and computers are more powerful than any human players. Matches between humans are now without drama or stakes, given that spectators can calculate the best move on their smartphones several minutes before the human grandmaster thinks it through. Chess has lost its sense of wonderment, and humans who play it are viewed merely as subpar machines, like schoolchildren competing in speed arithmetic while the teacher checks their work with her calculator.
The cultural devaluation of chess has exposed it to the same politicization that plagues other recreational pastimes like pro sports and children’s literature. The world chess federation (FIDE) often behaves like a petty United Nations: throwing its weight around at the behest of one superpower or another to influence global affairs. One classic example is its decision to ban South Africa from the 1974 Chess Olympiad because of that country’s apartheid policies. Most would likely share FIDE’s antipathy to those policies, but was it their place to ban individual players who had no control over their country’s policies? Bobby Fischer once complained in a Sports Illustrated article that the Soviets, who at that time dominated FIDE committees, had “fixed” all world chess tournaments to seize a propagandistic advantage during the Cold War. The idea of “fixing” chess sounds ridiculous until you read Fischer’s testimony. For a more recent example, in 2000 FIDE made the controversial decision to allow Tony “Angela” Alston access to women-only chess tournaments in Texas though Alston was biologically male. Alston immediately went from winning a San Antonio club title against male players to winning the state championship against female players.
These egregious instances of politicization in the game that has been so cherished by Western civilization are a direct result of the cheapening mentality toward chess shared by Morphy, by Orwell, and now by anyone who considers the immortal game a task for machines or a distraction for pedants. In protest of this mentality, one of the brightest grandmasters ever to play the game, Alexander Alekhine, wrote of chess as he would a heroic romance. He never stooped to writing a “philosophy of chess,” like Benjamin Franklin’s The Morals of Chess or Garry Kasparov’s How Chess Imitates Life. He was content to write about chess itself, seeing already within each position and move a complete Apologia pro Vita Sua. In cryptic tomes of chess notation and strategy detailing his own greatest games, Alekhine’s literary knack would flash in brief descriptions: one game was “the story of a hopelessly doomed bishop who gains a new lease on life,” another a “struggle whose vicissitudes will culminate in a stirring and original finish.” Are we reading Alekhine or Dostoevsky? As he put it:
I cannot conceive why there is such an ardent desire to discover in a game of chess anything more subtle than it has to offer, for I am of the opinion that the real beauty which it possesses should be more than sufficient for all possible demands.
As one of the “White Russian” emigrés who fled the Bolshevik Revolution to take up residence among the intelligentsia of Paris, Alekhine constituted a cultural treasure of Western Europe and a conservator of that which ought not be lost. Max Euwe, one of the few masters ever to defeat Alekhine in a world tournament, said of him: “Alekhine is a poet who creates a work of art out of something that would hardly inspire another man to send home a picture post card.”
When a man like Alexander Alekhine rises to the occasion to defend effortlessly that which should never have come under attack, it should remind us that all treasures of Western civilization must now be protected. Liberal education in the humanities, religious traditions, classical architecture, folk music, and even English grammar are regularly targeted by political agendas like materialism, victimism, feminism, or relativism. We must remember that the best way to defend the things we care about is to truly care about them. As Alekhine said of his best-beloved activity: “Chess for me is not a game, but an art. Yes, and I take upon myself all those responsibilities which an art imposes on its adherents.”
Andrew Jacob Cuff is a graduate fellow at The Catholic University of America in Washington, DC, as well as an amateur chess enthusiast.