Chess as a metaphor of life

 Ivano E. Pollini  5/22/2013  2 comments 

The history of chess reaches back to time immemorial, as can be seen from the numerous myths which surround its origin. The game has traditionally served as a parallel for human life and often as a metaphor for war, wit and virtue. It has, over the ages, permeated the worlds of culture and art. For example, from the17th to the 19th centuries, it was the subject of drama (Thomas Middleton, Samuel Beckett), fiction (Stefan Zweig, Samuel Beckett, Julien Gracq), painting (Marcel Duchamp, Pablo Picasso, Juan Gris), sculpture (Pablo Picasso, Max Ernst), poetry (T. S. Eliot, Giacomo Leopardi, Jean Louis Borges) and music (Francois André Philidor, John Cage).



Chess as a metaphor of life

Ivano E. Pollini

Chess Academy Milan

February 2013


Book Thumbnail


“Come, we'll to chess, or draught; there are an

hundred tricks

To drive our time till supper, never fear 't wench”

                                                   Thomas Middleton


The history of chess reaches back to time immemorial, as can be seen from the numerous myths which surround its origin. The game has traditionally served as a parallel for human life and often as a metaphor for war, wit and virtue. It has, over the ages, permeated the worlds of culture and art.  For example, from the17th to the 19th centuries, it was the subject of drama (Thomas Middleton, Samuel Beckett), fiction (Stefan Zweig, Samuel Beckett, Julien Gracq), painting (Marcel Duchamp, Pablo Picasso, Juan Gris), sculpture (Pablo Picasso, Max Ernst), poetry (T. S. Eliot, Giacomo Leopardi, Jean Louis Borges) and music (Francois André Philidor, John Cage).


Chess in literature and art


Chess became a source of inspiration in literature and the arts, soon after its diffusion throughout the Arab World and in Europe during the middle ages. The earliest illustrations of the game can be seen in miniatures from medieval manuscripts, as well as in poems, created for the purpose of describing the rules of the game. The best known example is perhaps the 13th century “Libro de los juegos” (1283), commissioned by King Alfonso (1221-1284) of Castille; the book contains 150 miniatures illustrating chess problems, each picture showing the players in a different architectural setting.


Libro de los juegos: a chess problem (1283)

(Monastery of San Lorenzo del Escorial, Madrid)


The game of chess was also used symbolically to impart moral principles.

In the second half of the 13th century, Jacobus de Cessolis (c.1250-c.1322), a Dominican monk from Cessole  in Northern Italy used chess as the basis for a series of sermons on morality. These later became the “Liber de moribus hominum et officiis nobilium super ludo scacchorum”  ('Book of the customs of men and the duties of nobles or the Book of Chess').  It was first printed in Utrecht in 1473 in the original Latin.  It was translated and printed by William Caxton in 1474 as  The Game and Playe of the Chesse” (1474). This was significant also because it happens to be the second book to be printed in English.



Illustration from “Libellus de moribus hominum et

officiis nobilium ac popularium super ludo scachorum”


Over the following centuries, the game was represented using a wide variety of materials and techniques, from ivory to glazing, from illuminated manuscripts to frescoes. Chess was often used for allegorical or symbolic purposes.  There are notable works, for instance, representing a man and a woman playing chess, symbolizing the skirmishes of an amorous approach. An example of this can be seen in the “Codex Manesse” in which the Margrave Otto IV of Brandenburg is engaged in a game with a Lady (1320).




Otto IV of Brandeburg (1320) - Codex Manesse

(University Library of Heidelberg)


In 1527 Hieronymus (Marco Girolamo) Vida published his poem “Scacchia ludus”, which describes in Virgilian hexameters a chess game between Apollo and Mercury in the presence of the other gods. This poem made such a wide impression that it inspired a range of valuable chess poems and books. In the 15th and 16th centuries chess began to appear in an increased number of works of art. 

Indeed, in 1763, Vida’s work was used by the English orientalist Sir William Jones1 as a basis for his own poem,  Caïssa, also written in Latin hexameters, and giving the mythical origins of chess which still endure today. In the poem, the nymph Caïssa repels the advances of Mars, god of war. Mars, having been spurned, seeks the aid of Euphron, god of sport, who creates for him the game of chess as a gift to win Caissa's favour. Mars does indeed win her over with the game and Caissa has been known ever since as the "Goddess" of Chess, her name often being used in a variety of contexts in modern chess.



An illustration from Jones's Caissa (1763)


Below is a painting by the Italian painter Sofonisba Anguissola (1532-1625) representing two sisters playing chess. Anguissola was born in Cremona. She travelled to Rome where met Michelangelo who recognized her talent and to Milan, where she painted the Duke of Alba. She was recruited by the wife of Philip II of Spain, Queen Elisabeth de Valois, as a painting tutor with the rank of lady on waiting. She later became court painter to the king and was much loved by those around her.



“Sisters playing chess” (1555) - Sofonisbe Anguissola

(National Museum Krakow - Raczynski Foundation)


A fashion for all things Oriental influenced European painting in the next centuries. This is reflected in a painting by Eugène Delacroix of two Arabs intently engaged in a game of chess.



Eugène Delacroix - Arabs playing chess (1847)

(Edinburgh, National Gallery)


The chess players” by the Honoré Daumier (1863), is another 19th century example of the game as central to the composition. Daumier was a French caricaturist, painter and sculptor, whose works are today found in many of the world's leading art museums, including the Louvre, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Rijksmuseum. A keen player himself, he depicts two players absorbed in a middle game position.



Honoré Daumier  - The chess players (1863)

                                                           (Paris, Musée du Petit Palais)


Elizabethan and Jacobean drama


Chess holds a central position in the play “Women Beware Women” [1] by Thomas Middleton (1580-1627), where it is used as a weapon of seduction and distraction. Luring Leantio’s wife and mother (Widow) to her home, Livia engages the older woman in a game of chess while Guardiano takes Bianca on a tour of the house and its pictures. Bianca is first primed by Guardian, then approached by the Duke of Florence who seduces her. This episode is later taken up by T. S. Eliot (1888-1965) quoting it in part II - "A Game of Chess"- of the poem "The Waste Land" [2], which refers to the game of chess as a way to distract the attention of the Widow.

The Jacobean playwright Thomas Middleton based his plot on real facts. Bianca Capello had been the mistress and subsequently the second wife of Francesco de' Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany. The story of her escape with Leantio, who then became her husband, her affair with the Duke, her husband's death and her subsequent marriage with the Duke, are adapted by Middleton for his tragedy.

Also by Middleton is the comic-satirical comedy with a strong political content, "A Game at Chess" [3], performed at the Globe Theatre in London in 1624.


A Game at Chess
















The Fat Bishop and the Black Knight


In this play the Black King and his men, represent King Philip IV of Spain and the Jesuits. They are "checkmated" by the White Knight, the English Prince Charles. This political satire, which was met with popular acclaim at the Globe Theatre, was later banned on the order of King James I, following protests by the Spanish Ambassador. The play takes the form of a chess game and is based on a real opening, the Queen's Gambit Declined. Instead of personal names, the characters are given such names as "White Knight", "Black King”, etc.  Audiences however quickly recognized the allegorical allusions to the stormy relations between Spain (the Black pieces) and England (the White pieces). The King of England, James I, is the White King and King Philip IV of Spain the Black King. The play dramatizes the negotiations for the marriage of Prince Charles with the Spanish Princess, the Infanta Maria, and describes the journey of Prince Charles (the White Knight) and George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham (the White Tower), to Madrid in 1623. The prologue sets the scene as a game of chess and the roles of the chessmen representing the dramatis personae are explained. At the end of the match the enemies of virtue are checkmated.


The Modernist and Surrealist Movements


The early 20th century modernists2 began to seek new narrative and poetic techniques, paying special attention to the worlds of mythology, anthropology and the history of religions. Typical of this movement was the artist's detachment from his own work, viewing it as an objective and self-sufficient creation.  Its main exponents were the poet and critic T. S. Eliot, the American poet and essayist Ezra Pound and the Irish writer James Joyce.

Chess, which implicitly or explicitly appears in the works of T. S. Eliot and Samuel Beckett (1906-1989), deals with the "checkmate" of the King, from ancient Persian Shah (King) mat (death). The main theme of the game of chess is the elimination or annihilation of the King, who must be killed, “mated”, this being the object of the game. Since to achieve “checkmate” is the focal point, the game must be seen in the perspective of a murdered King, the martyrdom of a monarch. The very word martyrdom refers to a death by persecution for a wider, nobler vision (from ancient Greek: martyros). Examples of martyrdom are found in the works of other British and Irish Modernists. At the time of his "checkmate", the Archbishop Thomas Becket in “Murder in the Cathedral" by T. S. Eliot, realises the reality of his condition that is impersonal and trans-individual, as is the case of Tiresias in the poem "The Waste Land", and "Murphy", the protagonist of Samuel Beckett’s novel, when Murphy is defeated in a game of chess by Mr. Endon.



“Murphy” by Samuel Beckett (1938)


Murphy”, published in 1938, is the third work of fiction of the writer, poet and Irish playwright Samuel Beckett. [4] An extraordinary game of chess  takes place in this novel. Murphy, on starting work as a nurse in a psychiatric hospital, the “Magdalen Mental Mercyseat”, discovers the insanity of its patients to be an appealing alternative to conscious existence.  Towards the end of the book, he plays a game of chess with a schizophrenic inmate, Mr. Endon, the "more cute and docile in the entire Institute". Murphy, however, fails to reproduce the symmetrical and cyclical game of his opponent and is unable himself to reach his opponent’s state of catatonic bliss. He resigns the game "with the fool’s mate in his soul" and dies shortly after. Beckett relates the game with an accurate descriptive notation and a commentary which is both comic and overly elaborate.3 Beckett note (q), after move 42..Ke7, is for instance: “The termination of this solitaire is beautifully played by Mr. Endon” and the note (r) after 43..Qd8 is:“Further solicitation would be frivolous and vexatious and Murphy, with the fool’s mate in his soul, retires”.


Murphy - Mr. Endon



Final position after Black’s 43rd move


The novel is an example of Beckett's interest in the artistic and metaphorical possibilities of chess. The game itself is most unusual: no piece can ever be captured in order to return to the starting position. It is clear that neither player is attempting to win by conventional means. Mr. Endon plays his own kind of Chess, contemplative, meditative and aesthetic. Murphy’s moves seem, in contrast, logical and striving towards a goal. In this context however, his logical moves become “ugly”, whilst Mr. Endon’s pieces move back and forth as if in a dance.  It is an oddly disturbing game where pieces are "freed" from their customary roles.


Marcel Duchamp


In 1923 the French artist Marcel Duchamp, almost suspended his artistic career to focus entirely on chess.  In 1913 he had held an exhibition in a New York art gallery creating shockwaves of scandal by his use of a series of both ordinary and unusual objects, such as a bottle holder and a urinal. It inaugurated a nihilistic and imaginative counter-culture in Paris, which evolved into the Surrealism4 movement of the 1920s. But Duchamp (1887-1968) painter, sculptor and chess player, knew what he wanted to express. According to him, mechanical art could evolve even though it was in a “impasse”. One of his important early paintings, “The chess game”, portrays a subject dear to him.



Marcel Duchamp - The chess game (1910)

(Philadelphia Museum of Art)


In 1911 he produced six preliminary charcoal and ink studies, representing two chess players. He used brothers Gaston and Raymond as models, in his attempt to paint a “cubistic” picture of his beloved theme. Following this, he worked on  an oil study of chess players followed by an oil painting entitled “Portrait of chess players”, as shown below. This is how Duchamp himself explains the painting: “Using a technique of reduction ratio according to my interpretation of the cubist theory, I painted the heads of my two brothers while playing chess, not in a garden this time, but in an indefinite space. Each head is indicated by subsequent profiles, while at the centre of the painting some chess pieces are arranged randomly. Another feature of the painting is the gray tones of the collection.”




Marcel Duchamp - Opera


Marcel Duchamp: "Portrait of chess players" (1911)

(Philadelphia Museum of Art)


This portrait reflects the artist's interest in Cubism5 and defines his technique of "reduction ratio". Each head consists of many overlapping successive plans, with chess pieces floating in undefined areas surrounding them. This work was the result of six preparatory drawings and oil sketches, reflecting his growing interest in expressing the mental activity of the players rather than the creation of recognisable portraits.

According to Duchamp, early 20th century art had become mechanical, orthographic and overly formal, as had happened in chess. This was because the masters of the time, to avoid defeat, often resorted to drawn matches. This was in line with the ideas put forward by the Latvian theoretician Aron Nimzowitsch, precursor of the "hypermodern revolution" against the mechanical game. [5] This revolution was continued by Richard Reti, who in 1923 published "Modern Ideas in Chess”, an innovative text, considered the manifesto of "Hypermodern Chess". [6]   This was in harmony with Savielly Tartakower's pronouncement: "Chess can also show its Cubism".

M. E. Ologeanu Blue Chesse-cubic painting


Tartakower had also described the hypermodern players, Gyula Breyer, Richard Reti and Aron Nimzowitsch as the "New Philosophers", who explored regions of thought, which classical theorists such as Steinitz and Tarrasch had not even considered to exist.

Returning to Marcel Duchamp and abstract art, works such as the “Nude descending the Staircase”, the “Huge Glass” and the “Fountain”, gave a new impetus to the sleepy world of art and helped to inspire Dadaism, Surrealism and  Abstractionism.

Ultimately Duchamp’s passion for chess became overwhelming. It led him to the discovery of a hitherto unexplored treasure in  art: abstraction,  which the Muslim world had already percieved over than a thousand years earlier.

Duchamp  began gradually to abandon his studio, frequenting assiduously instead the  quiet and feverish rooms where chess was played.

Having painted in 1911 his "Portrait de joueurs d'échecs", he declared less than a decade later: "I play chess day and night and nothing interests me more than finding the right move. I love painting less and less ". [7]

Duchamp’s ambition had always been to move away from the physical appearance of a painting, making it once again servant to the mind and the ideas, as had been the case in the Middle Ages and during the Renaissance.  In an interview to BNC 1956, Duchamp had said: «I consider painting as a means of expression and not an end in itself, a means of expression through other means and not the end of a life; in the same way as color is only a means of expression in painting and not the end. In other words the painting should not be exclusively visual or retinal, but should involve the grey cells together with our yearning to understand. This is in essence what I love. I never wanted to be limited to one small circle and have tried to be as universal as I can. That is why I am dedicated to chess. Chess is a hobby, a game which anyone can play. But I'm dedicated to it in a serious way and I like it because I find similarities between chess and painting. Indeed, playing chess is like drawing something or building a mechanism of some kind by which you win or lose. The competitive aspect of the game is not important, the game itself is very plastic and this is probably what fascinates me”. The game became therefore another form of mental expression for the artist, an intellectual activity giving something more to his life and personality.


Samuel Beckett


Duchamp had met the Irish writer and playwright Samuel Beckett, in Paris where the latter had moved permanently in 1939, preferring "France at war to Ireland at peace".  Here was yet another artist devoted to the game of chess. He was a familiar figure in the Coffee Houses of the “Rive Gauche”, where he developed friendships with James Joyce and Marcel Duchamp, with whom he played chess regularly.

Samuel Beckett, was one of the most influential writers of the 20th century and the most significant personality of the philosophical genre known as "Theatre of the Absurd". This genre was dominated by a belief that human life is meaningless and without purpose and that lack of communication and identity destroys relations between human beings.  In 1969 Samuel Beckett was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. Beckett's passion for chess appears in several of his works and is echoed in the entirety of his literary and theatrical production.

Endgame (Fin de partie)  by Samuel Beckett is a one-act play written in a style associated with the Theatre of the Absurd. The play was first performed at the Royal Court Theatre in London in 1957.



Samuel Beckett: “Endgame”

Royal Court Theatre-London (1957)


The play was originally written in French then, as was his custom, Beckett translated it into English. In "Endgame" the protagonists are Hamm, an old man, blind and unable to stand, and his servant Clov, who is not able to sit. They drag out their existence in a cottage by the sea, although the dialogue suggests that outside the house nothing exists, neither sea, nor sun, nor clouds. The two characters have spent their life arguing and continue to do so during the course of the play. Clov continuously wants to leave, but seems incapable of doing so.  Hamm's elderly parents also appear on stage. They have no legs and live in rubbish bins located in the foreground. The title is inspired by the final part of a chess game, when there are few remaining pieces on the board. Beckett was a devotee of the game and Hamm’s refusal to accept the imminent end is compared to that of amateur players who continue to play in the face of inevitable defeat, while professionals, facing a clear defeat, usually surrender the match.

The play “Endgame” is commonly considered, along with “En attendant Godot”, to be among Beckett's most important works. En attendant Godot” (Waiting for Godot) is however considered to be his most famous play. [8] The drama is centered around the state of “waiting”. It was written in the late 1940s and first published in French in 1952. The first performance was held in Paris in 1953, at the Théâtre de Babylone, and was directed by Roger Blin, who also played the role of Pozzo.


Opera teatrale in due atti

Samuel Beckett

Aspettando Godot


Théâtre de Babylone-Paris (1953)










In this two-act play there is no the development in time, as there seems to be no possibility of change. The plot, reduced to its essentials, is an evolution of micro-events. There is no surrounding environment save for a desolate road with a bare weeping willow, which in the second Act sprouts a few leaves. Time stands still, yet it passes. The gestures of the protagonists are basic and repetitive. There are many pauses and silences. The characters sometimes laugh, at other times reflect on “Waiting for Godot”, as if they were spectators in a theatre or circus. In popular culture this play has become synonymous with a situation (often existential) in which an event, which is never to happen, seems imminent. The two tramps wait passively on bench rather than actively seeking their meeting with Godot.


Chess in modern and contemporary art


 Chess had become a recreation of the spirit and a favorite pastime for such famous artists as  Marcel Duchamp, Pablo Picasso, Juan Gris, Max Ernst, Paul Klee, Jean Cocteau, Louis Borges, Stefan Zweig, Vladimir Nabokov, William Faulkner, Samuel Becket, Ingmar Bergman, Erik Satie, Serge Prokofiev and John Cage, to mention but a few. Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and Marcel Duchamp, in particular, are commonly regarded as the three artists who have most defined the revolutionary developments in the plastic arts in the first decades of the 20th century, being  responsible for significant developments in painting, sculpture, printmaking and ceramics.

By these artists the game of chess, chess pieces or the chess board themes have been often represented according to the philosophy of Cubism.4 In Cubism  objects are crushed, analysed and reassembled in abstract form. The artist, rather than depicting various objects from a single viewpoint, paints his subjects as seen from a multitude of angles.


Pablo Ruiz y Picasso, known as Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) the Spanish painter, sculptor, printmaker, ceramicist, and stage designer spent most of his adult life in France. He is one of the greatest and most influential artists of the 20th century and is widely known as co-founder of the Cubist movement and inventor of constructed sculpture. He is also a co-inventor of collage, and is responsible for a wide variety of styles which he helped develop and explore. Among his most famous works are the proto-cubist  Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907), and “Guernica” (1937), a portrayal of the German bombing of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War.

A first example of analytic cubism can be seen in this painting in oil canvas.

Pablo Picasso-Chess (1911)

(Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City)


Another important artist of this period is the Spanish painter José Victoriano González (1887-1927), better known as Juan Gris. His final maturation occurred between 1914 and 1918, [when] during which Gris moved from analytic Cubism to synthetic Cubism, becoming one of its most important proponents. Unlike the works of the same period by Picasso and Braque, the Cubism of Gris is animated by a rational and scientific spirit, which gives him a marked detachment and some classic intellectualism. Gris uses harmonious coloured schemes and the structure of his images is analysed and synthesised according to geometric and mathematical models.

Below, an oil painting by Juan Gris represents yet another example of cubic art.

Juan Gris:”Chessboard, Glass, and Dish”(1917)

(Philadelphia Museum of Art)










Many critics have seen in Juan Gris’s work the influence of his friend Henri Matisse:


Juan Gris - Violin and Checkerboard (1913)

(Private Collection)


A new abstract art movement, Futurism, was launched by the Italian poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, through his “Manifesto of Futurism”, which appeared on the front page of the Paris newspaper “Le Figaro” in 1909. This movement rejects all traditional art, celebrating instead the modern world of industry. It combines elements of  Neo-Impressionism and Cubism. Leading members of the Manifesto were, amongst others, Umberto Boccioni and Carlo Carrà.

The next oil on canvas painting - “The Chess Player”- by the Californian artist Mark Adam Webster is typical of abstract futurist art.



Mark Webster:"The Chess Player"(2009)

 (Daily Painters

for 225$

 The composition above shows that abstract art may use a language of form, colour and lines to create compositions which are independent from any visual reference to the real world. The abstract artist feels that paintings do not need to show people, animals and places exactly as they are and that colour and shape can be used in an independent and abstract way to depict mental activity or emotions.

Another artist of that period is the German painter and sculptor Max Ernst (1891-1976). In 1909 he enrolled at Bonn University where he studied philosophy, psychology, art history and psychiatry. He served, during World War 1 on both the Eastern and Western fronts. In 1920 he moved to  Paris where he became involved with  the main exponents of Surrealism, André Breton and Paul Eluard.



                                                Max Ernst - Wood chess set (1938)

Philadelphia Museum of Art


Maria Elena Vieira da Silva (1908-1992) was a Portuguese painter and a student of Fernand Léger. She gained international repute in 1950 for the density and complex nature of her compositions, which show the influence of Paul Cézanne.


Maria Elena Vieira de Silva - “Jaque Mate” (1948)


In 1948 she created this dizzying composition, where the lines of flight are drawn in a universe in which the players are part of an immense chessboard. The painting reflects the same abstraction which becomes that of players immersed in a game of chess. As the moves follow one after the other, so the space-time dimension is extended ever further beyond the image.


Chess players and Art


It is interesting to note the ideas and feelings emanating from famous chess players on the subject of  art and chess.  We already know Marcel Duchamp’s statement about the beauty of chess:"The chess pieces are the letters of the alphabet with which people form the thoughts that, while doing a design on the chessboard, express their beauty in an abstract way, as in a poem". [9]

The International Grandmaster Samuel Reshevsky later expressed similar ideas on the relations between chess and the art of painting in his treatise of chess: “We often hear the terms “positional” and “tactical” used as opposites.  But this is as wrong as to consider a painting’s composition unrelated to its subject. Chess is by definition positional. Tactical play is concerned with the immediate details of executing the manoeuvre necessary to the success of the plan and the attainment of the objective. Every position contains certain characteristic patterns: the pawn structure, a weak square, a poorly defended King, an open line, a badly placed piece, all of these, and many more, are positional themes. Recognizing them, and  knowing how to use them to plan logically are as necessary to a chess player, as line and colour are to a painter.” [10]

Still more explicit was Davis Bronstein expressing such feelings in one of his books. [11]

“After the first move we have the position shown in the diagram:



Diagram after 1. e4 e5


This position resembles a simple canvas placed on an easel. If you have talent take a brush and paint, bend the suitable colors and begin the artistic work. I do not know what moves the artist at such a moment, but when I  start my art as a chess player, the idea of playing a beautiful game, more profound for its content and  its place between all games played before my coming to the world never leaves my mind. This idea is not as abstract as it may seem, considering that people have spent  one or two thousand years playing chess and also that it is four decades that I attend the Temple of the Art of Chess, play godly the Pawn of the white King and send it with a prayer to explore the opposite field. And, before the onlookers, the correspondents of the press and grandmasters, I stay in a hibernal  meditation waiting for the enemy King sending his troops out to meet my explorer”.


Hypermodernism in Chess


Chess was also influenced by Modernism giving rise to the “Hypermodern School”. This new philosophy of chess challenged the classical theories of Wilhelm Steinitz and Siegbert Tarrasch regarding the centre. [9] Hypermodern players demonstrated, through their games and victories, that this new way could successful.  Nimzowitsch, for example, delighted in showing how games could be won through indirect control of the centre, challenging Tarrasch's dogmatic rule that “the centre had to be occupied by pawns”. Nimzowitsch advocated controlling the centre of the board with distant pieces rather than with pawns, thus inviting the opponent to occupy the centre with pawns which could then become objects of attack. Hypermodern players would develop the Bishop in fianchetto, and use side-swipes like c4 to undermine the centre. As White they played flank openings like the English and the Reti and for Black the Alekhine and the Grunfeld Defence.  However, this was only a part of the hypermodern philosophy, which Nimzowitsch encapsulated in the seminal work “My System [5], which influenced [many] generations of chess players. In his treatise Nimzowitsch introduced and formalised the concept of the pawn chain, overprotection, undermining, prophylaxis, restraint, rook on the seventh rank, knight outposts, the dynamics of the Isolated Queen's Pawn and other areas of chess. Although none of the primary exponents of the Hypermodern School ever achieved the title of World Chess Champion, they were among the world's strongest players. The World Champion Alexander Alekhine was also associated with hypermodernism, although his style was more of a blend with the Classical School. Hypermodernism has not however replaced the classical theory of Steinitz and Tarrasch, and is described in modern chess textbooks as an addition, or extension, of the classical theory. [12]


An example of a hypermodern opening is the “Queen's Indian Defense”, which was popularized by Nimzowitsch and other hypermoderns:


An hypermodern opening


The Queen’s Indian Defence


The Queen's Indian Defense is a solid defense to the Queen's Pawn Game, where 3...b6 increases Black's control over the central light squares e4 and d5 by preparing to fianchetto the Queen's Bishop. The basic strategy for Black is the control of the e4 square. This is accomplished largely with his Queen’s Bishop and King’s Knight, rather than with a pawn in the centre, and is feasible because 3. Nf3 lacks vigour compared to 3. Nc3, which strikes at the vital squares and threatens e4. As in other Indian Defenses, Black attempts to control the centre with pieces, instead of occupying it with pawns in the classical style. By playing 3. Nf3, White sidesteps the Nimzo-Indian Defense which arises after 3.Nc3 Bb4. Both openings, the Queen's Indian and the Nimzo-Indian, aim to impede White’s full control of the centre by playing e2-e4. Together, they form one of Black's most well-respected responses to 1.d4. If Black does not wish to play the Queen's Indian in response to 3.Nf3, alternatives include: 3...d5, transposing to the classical Queen's Gambit Declined; 3...Bb4+, the Bogo-Indian Defense; and 3...c5, leading to a Modern Benoni or a Symmetrical English.


A universal language


It seems incredible that the game of chess has lasted so long despite religious edicts, language barriers and other political and cultural obstacles. It continues to endure amongst disparate and indeed often contradictory cultures. The continuing presence of chess over the centuries, an achievement in itself remarkable, is clear evidence that this "game" has a catalytic effect on the human psyche.  People have not only cultivated a passion for the game, they have also let it become part of their daily lives, as is so often the case with artists, scientists, psychologists, mathematicians, politicians theologians as well as the common man. Although he claimed otherwise, Einstein did play chess as can be seen from a recording of one of his games (a Ruy Lopez) with his colleague, the physicist Robert Oppenheimer.








 In the diagram below the final position of this game is shown, while its score can be found in the notes.5 



                                                         Princeton, USA 1933




Position at the 24th move of White


Albert Einstein had also claimed that "Chess held in chains, imprisoned the mind and the brain, limiting the freedom even of the strongest people". [13] In short, those 32 wood figurines seem to emit an invisible magnetic force that can bend even the strongest will. Their unique combination of complexity and simplicity have a near hypnotic effect: the pieces and moves are so basic that they can be understood by a child of five, but the combinations are so broad and so diverse that a single person could never know or play all the games that might occur on the board. It has also been said that chess was invented to render pure abstraction visible; a hypothesis which had already been advanced by the philosopher Pythagoras, father of mathematics, in order to explain the abstract theories in the study of numbers.


Chess in literature


During the 20th century a considerable number of writers have produced chess related works, sometimes taking their inspiration from the lives of famous players (Vladimir Nabokov in The Defense Lužin), from well-known games (David Shenk in The Immortal Game) or from a specific, highly dramatic chess game  (Stefan Zweig in “The Royal Game ”). Chess has even found favour amongs thriller writers (Arturo Pérez-Reverte in “The Flanders Panel”).

In the “Luzhin defence” by Vladimir Nabokov the character of Luzhin is probably based on the life of Curt von Bardeleben, a German master who committed suicide by jumping from a window. [14] Luzhin is an unhappy misfit,  withdrawn and unable to establish lasting relationships. He is taught the basics of chess by a young aunt, the only person to show him tenderness. The game will at the same time save and damn him. For the rest of his life, no one will be able to communicate with him in any other way except through chess. Luzhin becomes a master of chess and its slave, being at the same time oppressed and oppressor. As a champion of international renown, Luzhin continues to improve his chess game whilst his character deteriorates. He becomes increasingly remote and introverted. His meeting with the Italian maestro Salvatore Turati proves to be the breaking point. Before and during a game with Turati he suffers a mental breakdown. His only salvation is represented by a woman who, despite the strong disapproval of her parents, falls in love and marries him trying to heal him. But much care is needed for relinquishing chess, the very reason for his life and he commits suicide. Nabokov has said of his novel: "Of all my books in Russian, the Defense contains and diffuses the greatest 'heat'- which may seem strange considering that chess is commonly understood to be a supremely abstract game".

In the “Chess”, also known as The Royal Game”, by Stefan Zweig, a wealthy passenger challenges the chess world champion to a match, on a ship bound for Buenos Aires. The champion accepts with a disdain. He will beat anyone, he says, but only if the stakes are high. The chess board is soon surrounded by an audience. At first the passenger’s game deteriorates because of the initiative of the master. Then, a soft spoken voice from the crowd begins to whisper timid suggestions. Perfect moves! Brilliant predictions! Yet the stranger claims not to have played a game in over twenty years. He is anonymous. But somehow, he is also very formidable. [15]

In “The Flanders Panel” (La Tabla de Flandes), by Arturo Pérez-Reverte, the clue to a murder in the art world of contemporary Madrid lies hidden in a medieval painting by Pieter Van Huys. [16] In the 15th century Flemish painting of Van Huys two noblemen are playing chess, yet two years before he could sit for the portrait, one of them was murdered. Now in the 20th century Madrid, Julia while preparing the painting for an auction, uncovers through an x-ray scan an inscription that points to a crime: the paint hides a Latin phrase: “Quis necavit equitem?” - who killed the Knight? Julia decides to turn to César, his adoptive father, and to Muñoz, an expert chess player, to resolve this mystery. But, as she teams up with the chess theoretician to retrace the moves, she discovers that the deadly game is not yet over. Strange deaths in fact occur among the owners of the picture. Maybe by knowing who killed the knight in 1471, she can discover the present murderer.



Illustration from “The Flanders Panel”.
























Chess and music


 I would like to show some examples of the connection between music and chess.

The first known ballet with a chess theme was the “Ballet des Eschecs, performed for Louis XIV of France in 1607.

The great chess player Francois André Danican Philidor (1726-1795) was a renowned music composer who, already at the age of eleven, was composing music for Louis XV. The Opera House in Paris shows a bust of Philidor.

Philidor had learned chess in the French King's court, when he was exposed to chess by the king musicians, who played during the spells of musical inactivity. During his career he composed 20 operas, of which the masterpiece “Tom Jones”, composed in 1765, is still performed today.

Recently “Tom Jones” has been performed by the Opera de Lausanne, Switzerland in 2006.


Philidor - Tom Jones, Opéra-comique / Malgoire

Francois André Danican Philidor:“Tom Jones” (1765)

Opera de Lausanne-Conductor Jean-Claude Malgoire


An operetta, “The Sea Cadet” by Richard von Genée, based on a game of living chess,  was performed in London in 1947. A more recent appearance on stage of a chess game was seen in the musical “Chess” first performed in London in the 1980s and as recently as 2012.

Another artist interested in the game of chess was John Cage (1912-1992), one of the leading figures of the post-war avant-garde, praised by the critics as one of the most influential composers of the 20th century. This American composer and pioneer of electro-acoustic music had participated in 1968 at the event of “Reunion”, a special performance with Marcel Duchamp and some experts in electronic music in order to make an innovative experiment by which the sound distribution on a chessboard should offer a musical interpretation of a chess game. Together with Lowell Crass, who had constructed a chessboard with electronic circuits, Cage had installed microphone on it, so that the moves of chessmen on the board could transmit or cut off sounds produced by several musicians. A brief description of this event was given by the Duchamp’s biographer Calvin Tomkins. [7] The event, entitled Reunion, showed Cage and Duchamp playing chess on the board equipped with contact microphones, so that whenever a piece was moved, it set off a gamut of amplified electronic sounds and oscilloscopic images on the television screens visible to the audience. Ancillary effects of sound choices and piece motions resulted also from the shadows of hands and arms, as the players moved the pieces, with original sounds following the moves played in the game.






The event of Reunion (1968)

J. Cage installing microphones. D. Tudor and L. Cross (behind).

Symbolism and Myth


The book "The Immortal Game" tells an anecdote from ancient India, where chess was used as a means to reveal hidden truths. A Queen’s young son and heir was murdered.  Her advisers, seeking a delicate way to communicate the tragic news to their sovereign, turned to a philosopher. After three days of silence and meditation, the philosopher commissioned a carpenter to carve 32 black and white wooden figurines and to cut a tanned skin in the shape of a square divided into 64 smaller squares. After having placed the figurines on the board, he turned to one of his followers, saying: "This is a war without bloodshed".  Having been shown the rules of the game, they began to play. Soon after, the rumor of a mysterious invention began to spread and the Queen summoned the philosopher.  She observed him playing the game with his disciple. Eventually one of the players was checkmated, thereby ending the game.  The Queen understood the hidden message and said: "My son has died." "It is as you have said, my Queen," replied the philosopher. The Queen then turned to the Royal Palace Guard with these words: "Let the people come to console me."  This story is from "The Immortal Game" [17], by David Shenk which traces a history of chess, explaining how thirty-two carved wooden pieces moving on a chessboard of 64 squares, can illuminate our understanding of war, art, science and the human condition. This book presents an appealing overview of the game, charting its history from 5th century Persia to the present day.

There are hundreds, perhaps thousands of stories and legends about chess. Their historical veracity is less important to us than their symbolic meaning and message. Joseph Campbell argues in "Myth and Modernity" [18] that myths are a kind wisdom that has accompanied man in his survival through the millennia.  Many of these legends and traditions still play a role in our daily lives.

We still find some echoes of such myths in our actions, our feelings, in the labyrinths of our psyche. With reference to the myths surrounding science it is interesting to note the opinion of one of the great physicists of the 20th century, Edwin Schrödinger (1887-1961), as expressed in his collection of essays entitled "The image of the world". [19] He was professor at the Universities of Zürich, Berlin, Oxford and Dublin and Nobel Prize in Physics in 1933. Schrödinger's book begins with the great debate on the fundamentals of wave mechanics, the theory of which he was one of the founders and one of the first critics. In a second group of essays he presents a discussion on the roots of rational understanding of the world in classical Greek thought. He sheds light on their extraordinary effort, finding essential characteristics common to both ancient Greece and the western world. Finally, in the concluding part of the book, in which it emerges its broader philosophical and religious knowledge, Schrödinger discusses the common substrate of the individual performances as a reflection of the Unity of Consciousness, of which the individual consciousnesses are only a partial reflection, as well as the faces of a precious crystal that refracts and reflects in various rays a single beam of light. This concept refers to the Indian Vedanta philosophy, according to which plurality is the result of our ignorance of the act of creation. It states that only mystical experience can lead to the perception of the Universal Mind. This experience, gained through the reading of the classic Indian text "Bhagavadgita", was of fundamental importance to Schrödinger.




We have seen how chess have exerted their charms on very different cultures and have entered people's lives, pervading the world of culture and art and inspiring artists, writers, playwrights and musicians. Masterpieces of literature have been created around the game, played in the most varied circumstances, like in “Murphy” or in “The Royal Game”. Music and chess also are connected in most interesting and varied ways. It suffices to mention the name of Philidor, the famous 18th century composer and chess player or the contemporary composer John Cage with his original and bold experiments in electro-acoustic music.  

An abundance of myths concerning chess unveil its ancient origins and clearly show  that chess was never considered  a simple pastime, but often  a metaphor for war, human intelligence and spiritual values. It is also important to recall the ethical dimension of the game of chess, with its numerous and precise rules. Compliance with these rules is an indispensable condition for proper play.  Faithful obedience to these rules can develops concepts of fairness, reciprocity and can constitute a guide towards the rejection of those attitudes of impropriety and unfairness which disturb the smooth course of the game. In short, chess is a competitive game where the respect for one's opponent and the acceptance of the result is fundamental. Finally, in order to improve one’s game it is necessary to study: "Knowledge is the essential weapon" proclaims an ancient Persian poem (the book of Chatrang), one of the oldest documents mentioning the game, and the victory is achieved with the intelligence and the knowledge. It is also said that "Ideas are weapons" and that in this war game the ideas are more powerful than luck or brute force.


Notes to the text


1. Sir William Jones (1746-1794) was an Anglo-Welsh philologist, famous in particular for his claim of a existence common thread between Indo-European languages. He was a linguistic prodigy, learning Greek, Latin, Persian, Arabic, Hebrew and the basics of Chinese writing at an early age. By the end of his life he was fluent in thirteen languages  and knew another twenty-eight reasonably well, which made him a hyperpolyglot. In 1763, at the age of 17, he wrote the poem Caissa in Latin hexameters, based on a 658-line poem called "Scacchia, Ludus” of 1527 by Marco Girolamo Vida, attributing mythical origins to chess

2.Modernism was a literary movement typical of English-speaking countries during the years 1900 to 1945. The main exponents were the poet and critic T. S. Eliot; the American poet and essayist Ezra Pound and the Irish writer James Joyce. Modernism  has affinity with the work of non-English writers, such as Luigi Pirandello in Italy, Louis-Ferdinand Céline in France and Franz Kafka into Czechoslovakia. For all intents modernism was contemporary of various European artistic avant-garde movements in the first 1900s, as the Futurism, the Dadaism, the Cubism and the Surrealism.

3.Murphy - Mr. Endon - Magdalen Mental Mercyseat:

1.e4 Ch6 2. Ch3 Tg8 3. Tg1 Cc6 4. Cc3 Ce5 5. Cd5 Th8 6. Th1 Cc6 7. Cc3 Cg8 8. Cb1 Cb8 9. Cg1 e6 10. f3 Ce7 11. Ce2 Cg6 12. g4 Ae7 13. Cg3 d6 14. Ae2 Dd7  15. d3 Rd2 16. Dd2 De8 17. Rd1 Cd7 18. Cc3 Tb8 19. Tb2 Cb6 20. Ca4 Ad7 21. b3 Tg8 22. Tg1 Rc8 23. Ab2 Df8 24. Rc1 Ae6 25. Ac3 Ch8 26. b4 Ad8 27. Dh6 Ca8 28. Df6 Cg6 29. Ae5 Ae7 30. Cc5 Rd8 31. Ch1 Ad7 32. Rb2 Th8 33. Rb3 Ae8 34. Ra4 De8+ 35. Ra5 Cb6 36. Af4 Cd7 37. Dc3 Ta8 38. Ca6 Af8 39. Rb5 Ce7 40. Ra5 Cb8 41. Dc6 Cg8 42. Rb5 Re7[q] 43. Ra5 Dd8 [r] (0-1)

4. Surrealism was a cultural movement which originated in Paris in the early 1920s. The movement, best known for its visual artworks and writings, later spread around the globe, affecting the visual arts, literature, film, and the music of many countries, as well as political thought and practice, philosophy and social theory. The leader of this movement, André Breton, was explicit in his assertion that Surrealism was above all a revolutionary movement. Freud's work with his research on free association, dream analysis and the unconscious was most important to the Surrealists who were developing ways to free their imagination. Several composers were influenced by Surrealism. Among the most prominent artists associated with it were Erik Satie, with his score for the ballet “Parade”, and Guillaume Apollinaire who coined the term “Surrealism”.

5. Cubism was an early 20th century avant-garde art movement pioneered by Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso and later joined by Juan Gris, Fernand Léger and other artists who revolutionized the European painting and sculpture and inspired related movements in music, literature and architecture. The term of Cubism was broadly associated with a wide variety of art produced in Paris (in Montmartre and Montparnasse) in  the years 1910-1920. A primary influence that led to Cubism was the representation of three-dimensional forms in the late works of Paul Cézanne, displayed in a retrospective at the “Salon d’Automne” in 1907.

6. A. Einstein - R. Oppenheimer - Princeton, USA 1933 - Ruy Lopez:

1.e4 e5 2. Cf3 Cc6 3. Ab5 a6 4. Aa4 b5 5. Ab3 Cf6 6. O-O Cxe4 7. Te1 d5 8. a4 b4 9. d3 Cc5 10. Cxe5 Ce7 11. Df3 f6 12. Dh5+ g6 23. Cxg6 hxg6 14. Dxh8 Cxb3 15. cxb3 Dd6 16. Ah6 Rd7 17. Axf8 Ab7 18. Dg7 Te8 19. Cd2 c5 20. Tad1 a5 21. Cc4 dxc4 22. dxc4 Dxd1 23. Txd1 Rc8 24. Axe7 (1-0)




[1] Thomas Middleton: “ Women beware Women”, Nick Hern Books Ltd., London 2005

[2] T. S. Eliot: “The Waste Land and Other Writings”, The Modern Library, New York 2002

[3] Thomas Middleton: “A Game of Chess”, Manchester University Press, Manchester 2003

[4] Samuel Beckett: “Murphy” Faber and Faber, London 2009

[5]  Aron Nimzowitsch:” My System - A Chess Treatise”, G. Bells and Sons LTD, London 1968

[6] Richard Reti: “Modern Ideas in Chess”, Dover Publications, New York1960

[7] C. Tomkins: “Duchamp: A Biography”, Henry Holt 1996

[8] Samuel Beckett: “En attendant Godot”, Les Editions de Minuit, Paris 1952

[9] Ivano E. Pollini: “Dal Mondo degli Scacchi al Mondo della Bellezza”, SoloScacchi 2012

[10] Samuel Reshevsky:”The art of Positional Play”, David McKay Company, INC., New York 1976

[11] David Bronstein: “Two Hundred Open Games Dover Publications, New York 1991

[12] Alexander Alekhine: “Gli Scacchi Ipermoderni”, Mursia, Milano 2000

[13] Dr. J. Hannak: “Emanuel Lasker: Biographie eines Schachweltmeisters,

       mit einem Geleitwort von Prof. Albert Einstein”, Verlag “Das Schach-Archiv”, Hamburg 1984

[14] Vladimir Nabokov: “La difesa di Lužin”, Adelphi, Milano 2001

[15] Stefan Zweig “Schachnovelle”, S. Fischer, Taschenbuch, Verlag GmbH, Frankfurt am Main 2007

[16] Arturo Pérez-Reverte: “The Flanders Panel”, Vintage Books, London  2003

[17] David Shenk: “Il Gioco Immortale”, Mondadori Editore, Milano 2008

[18] Joseph Campbell: “Mito e Modernità”, Red Edizioni, Milano 2007

[19] Erwin Schrödinger: “L’immagine del mondo”, Universale Bollati Boringhieri,Torino 200









































































 PdiP 6/2/2013 

This article is fascinating. It situates chess within a greater context and opens rich new vistas. The colour illustrations are beautiful. In order to see them you need to access the article via Firefox or Netscape as only the text is visible on Internet Explorer. Congratulations SchemingMind for including such a high standard of article.

 Michael Christensen 8/5/2013 

I think so too – very well done!

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