Over the past few weeks and until October 3, a most unusual travelling exhibition has made its home in the Saatchi Gallery: the RS&A's Contemporary Artists Chess Set Collection. I had some involvement with its first appearance in London — at Somerset House in 2003 — but I had no idea that my brother-in-law Charles Saatchi was masterminding a repeat appearance, or that he had commissioned some new pieces (in the literal sense of the word).
I wouldn't have expected him to let me know: Charles regards me as the rankest of philistines as far as the visual arts are concerned — a panic-stricken expression crosses his face if ever I express a liking for any of his exhibits. So he will be reassured to discover that I found most of his favoured modern artists' interpretations of chessboard and pieces puzzling, at best. There's a reason for that: as a chess player, my only thought when looking at a set and table is: would this be a joy to play with? The sensuousness of a piece in the hand — at least for those who play the game — lies partly in its correspondence (real or imagined) with the geometry of the moves it will make. Sorry, but Damien Hirst's lumpy chess pieces as medical bottles don't inspire. The Man Ray chess set of 1946, spare and streamlined, does: but then he was an artist who liked to play chess, so he understood.
The most desirable of all artists' hand-crafted table and pieces are those made by Marcel Duchamp in 1919: I can't look at his subtle reinterpretation of the classical Staunton design without being overcome by covetousness. Duchamp, though, was a unique figure: not just an artist of historical significance within the Surrealist movement, but also a man who represented France at the chess Olympiads between 1928 and 1933, and who in 1925 nearly became French champion (an ambition much more important to him than any recognition his paintings or other artworks might achieve). His most celebrated work — The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even — is highly geometric; and geometry is at the heart of chess.
In an address to the New York State Chess Association in 1952, Duchamp attempted to define the link between chess and art: "I believe that every chess player experiences a mixture of two aesthetic pleasures: first, the abstract image akin to the poetic idea of writing; secondly, the sensuous pleasure of the ideographic execution of that image on the chessboard. From my close contacts with artists and chess players, I have come to the conclusion that while all artists are not chess players, all chess players are artists."
At one level, I am sure that is right. I don't know anyone devoted to chess who is purely motivated by the desire to win; that is, for whom it is simply a mental sport, as everyone outside the game seems to suppose. When we sit down to play our intention is to win; but we also start the game looking at the pieces in their original positions and feeling overcome with a sense of the possibility of creating something beautiful with them. At the end of the game we are almost invariably disappointed. If we lose, of course, that's bad; but also if we win, yet then discover that we missed a more incisive way of concluding the game, we are filled with what I can only describe as a sense of artistic dissatisfaction — that we have made a crude daub on an otherwise harmonious work of art.