I love chess. I’ve been playing since I was just a little boy. I’m no master, nor will I be, but I can play a decent game, and every now and then I have played an excellent one.

Chess is one of those rare examples of something that is just right. It seems to me sometimes that there are certain human creations that resonate, somehow, as if they were positioned precisely in some sort of cosmic “sweet spot”. The adagio cantabile from Beethoven’s Sonata Pathetique. Michaelangelo’s David. My friend David Wolfert’s vintage Stratocaster. Baseball. Steak for Two at Peter Luger’s.

I could go on for a while with those, but you get the point.

Chess seems perfectly tuned. Eight squares by eight. Add a rank or a file, and you ruin the sweet symmetry. Add both, and the resulting combinatorial explosion would turn a comprehensible microcosm into merely another confusing problem to solve. The transcendent beauty of the eight-by-eight arena in which chess is played is that it somehow boils down all of the essential aspects of human struggle into a model that we can fit in our minds all at once. At ten by ten, it just hasn’t been boiled enough.

Chess is simple. There are only six elements, and they have a tiny set of properties that a child can learn in a few hours. The “exit strategy” is simple enough to be expressed in seven words:

“Threaten the opponent’s King with unavoidable capture.”

Chess is unimaginably complex. The number of possible games has been estimated to be larger than the number of particles in the observable Universe. There is an antique saying:

“Chess is a sea in which the gnat may drink and the elehant may bathe.”

Chess has inspired men to feats of almost superhuman mental effort. In 1947, the Polish/Argentine grandmaster Miguel Najdorf played forty-five simultaneous blindfold games. I’ll repeat that: forty-five simultaneous blindfold games. He won twenty-five of them, drew four, and lost only two. Two.

There is also pleasure to be had from the physical and temporal context in which the game is played. Two people, usually friends, seat themselves at opposite sides of the board, knowing that for a brief interval the responsibilities and vicissitudes of the world are to be set aside. The contestants enter a realm of pure thought, sharing for this interval a commonly created theater of abstract intellectual struggle.

The equipment itself can be both a visual and tactile treat: my chessboard is a lovely ebony-and-maple artifact, and the large, hand-carved, weighted pieces occupy their squares with imposing gravitas, and offer a satisfying thump when moved.

It is not surprising that the game has endured for thousands of years, and is more popular now than ever. To quote the great Siegbert Tarrasch:

“Chess has the power to make men happy.”

Works for me!

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  1. Robert says

    Superbly expressed; I can but say, “Amen.” Perhaps we might play a game at Red Hot Pawn sometime.

    Posted December 5, 2005 at 7:57 pm | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Why thank you, Robert, and thanks for coming by. I’d be delighted to have a game; my member name at Red Hot Pawn is AntoniusBlock.

    Posted December 5, 2005 at 11:24 pm | Permalink