Why do people play chess? And, more puzzlingly, why do people with no special gift for the game devote themselves to it? Since I come into this category, I was delighted to receive from Grandmaster Jonathan Rowson a copy of Counterplay — An Anthropologist at the Chessboard, by Robert Desjarlais. Jonathan, who is a fine writer himself, as well as being a three-times British champion, believes this book, published a few months ago by the University of California Press, convincingly addresses the mystery of chess addiction.
Desjarlais is an anthropology professor, as well as an obsessive chess amateur, who for many years spent his weekends and evenings playing in competitions, often involving exhausting travel across the US. And for what? His rating makes him no more than an averagely strong club player and he writes of the countless disappointments as game after game fails to produce the flawless gem which he dreams of playing.
That aspiration is one with which all amateur enthusiasts will sympathise. We know that we will never become a grandmaster, or get anywhere close to it: but we are all captivated by the elusive geometric beauty of chess and want so badly to add something valuable of our own to this aesthetic heritage — just as the amateur painter craves to produce at least one work worthy of hanging in a gallery for others to admire.
This is the point which the French sculptor Marcel Duchamp — who was also a fanatical amateur chess player — touched on when he declared: "From my close contacts with artists and chess players, I have come to the personal conclusion that while all artists are not chess players, all chess players are artists." Desjarlais relates that when Duchamp married in 1927, he spent much of his honeymoon at a chess club. His bride became so exasperated by his habit of staying up all night studying chess problems, rather than coming to bed, that she glued his pieces to the board. They divorced weeks later.
There is an echo of this in Desjarlais's painfully honest description of his own domestic life, as he spends night after night playing chess games on the internet: "I hear my partner, Tracy, moving about getting ready for bed. She's not keen on my playing late at night...She stands by the door, sees the digitalised play. I sense her presence but don't acknowledge it. ‘Do you need the car tomorrow morning?' she'll ask. Yet since ‘tomorrow' entails a realm of thought foreign to the one in which I'm enveloped and any words cramp my thoughts, I wave her away soundlessly. She's not fond of such gestures." One would imagine not.
Being so enraptured by this abstract world that the very concept of "tomorrow" seems of no conceivable relevance or interest, is a state of mind very familiar to chess addicts — and much more painfully so to our unfortunate partners. Desjarlais borrows a term from the social sciences to encapsulate this phenomenon: illusio. It was employed by the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu to describe the investment people make in activities that give meaning to their lives — this might be cliff — climbing, dog-showing, whatever captures the individual and to which he commits his hopes and expectations.