Thursday, 13 January 2011

Chess, Beauty and Literature

Chess and literature are related in many ways, as several books - e.g. The Poetry of Chess (ed Andrew Waterman) and Masters of Technique will attest. I don't know of any top poets who are top chess-players, but I think (I might be wrong) that Carol Rumens was married to David Rumens (a good tournament player in my day) and Fiona Pitt-Kethley's married to James Plaskett, who was international standard - a grand master. I played a lot of chess when young - Hampshire U-16 champ; 3rd in the UK U-18 tournament (where I played Plaskett). Our school was the best on the country. In my class was Glenn Lambert who was much stronger than me. He started hearing voices in 1980 and was later diagnosed with Huntingdon's Chorea. His madness appears in several of my stories. Chess has continued to permeate my work and writing - my "8x8" (published in Horizon Review) is an example - see the video!

But I don't play nowadays, and I'm able to judge it without the distraction of hormones. Chess and literature both involve aesthetic considerations. On his blog George Szirtes writes that Form might be regarded in various ways, include game: "on the one hand, entertainment, and on the other the symbolic acting through of structured energies that might otherwise be employed in real conflict. Game depends on rule and surprise, pitting the fixed against an element of chance that may amuse or frustrate... on the symbolic level, the demands of form, serve as recognised sublimations of energy, much as in sport the beauty of the disciplined body in action enacts a desire". Chess is an ideal mental game in this respect, with few rules and a range of modes ranging from tournament play to the creation of interesting artificial positions ("chess problems") and the invention of new rules and pieces ("fairy chess").

To Nabokov, the "originality, invention, conciseness, harmony, complexity, and splendid insincerity" of creating a chess problem was similar to that in any other art. He published Poems and problems which contains poems and chess problems. I was never into problems, but I'm beginning to appreciate "chess studies" now - contrived but natural-looking positions.

It's perhaps easier to theorize about beauty in chess than beauty in literature. It may be instructive too. "Secrets of Spectacular Chess (2nd Edition)" by Levitt and Friedgood (Gloucester publishers, 2008) tries to categorize beauty in chess. It looks at chess games, studies and problems. These are compared to "Real Life", Stories and Poetry respectively. The authors use 4 main criteria, which suit poetry pretty well too

  • Paradox (surprize)
  • Depth (difficulty; a way to hide a surprise)
  • Geometry (optical effects)
  • Flow (narrative)

Economy and "tightness" also figure. For Chess Studies the artificiality of the problem matters. Some problem-creators strive for unity (maximising the shared elements amongst possible variations (aka interpretations?)). Truth matters too. In a section called "Beauty, Truth and the Computer" the book addresses the issue of whether refutation devalues the artistic merit, whether you can have Art for Art's Sake.

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