The Art of the 64 Squares

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. 

This is caused, in large part, precisely because we are not playing alone, but in conflict with another person whose objectives run exactly counter to our own. He, or she, wants to destroy what we are trying to create: it is completely different to the chess problem, where a single mind attempts to devise something with a solution of such mathematical purity as to take the breath away. In fact, Duchamp did create a chess problem — an endgame — as his contribution to a 1943 exhibition in New York entitled The Big End of the Opera Glass. Ever the surrealist, Duchamp’s problem has no solution (though grandmasters have tried hard enough to find one).

One might have thought that Duchamp’s chess style would be as imaginative as his work while part of the Surrealist movement; but a study of his games reveals him to have been quite conventional. Though his period of greatest over-the-board activity between 1923 and 1933 exactly coincided with the chess revolution known as hypermodernism, his games are not part of this counter-culture: if anything, they might be described as conservative, more in the style taught by that somewhat dogmatic classicist, Siegbert Tarrasch (1862-1934). 

Naturally, beauty in chess is not the exclusive property of those who break with convention; but I have struggled to find any game of Duchamp which could be described as truly beautiful. This may partly be because he was not as strong as most of the masters he was matched up against when he played for France in various Olympiads: they were just too good at destroying the patterns he was trying to create.

The following game, from the Folkestone Olympiad of 1933, the last event before Duchamp abandoned his full-time chess career, gives a good sense of his approach to the game. He is playing White against the Latvian champion Movsa Feigin: 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 d6 3.Nc3 g6 4.e4 Bg7 5.f3 0-0 6.Nge2 Nbd7 7.Be3 c6 8.Qd2 a6 9.g4 b5 10.Ng3 bxc4 11.Bxc4 d5 12.Be2 e6? (Black should keep the centre fluid with 12…dxe4. Now he is quite efficiently strangled) 13.e5 Ne8 14.b4 Qe7 15.Rab1 Nb6 16.0-0 Nc7 17.a4 Rab8 18.Rfc1 Bd7 19.a5 Nc8 20.Na4 Nb5 21. Nc5 Ra8 22. Bxb5 cxb5 23.f4 Bh6 24.g5 (24.f5 was the most active way of exploiting Black’s last move, but Duchamp was clearly unwilling to be diverted from his grand strategy of complete encirclement) Bg7 25.Kg2 Rd8 26.h4 Be8 27.h5 Qc7? 28.hxg6? (Duchamp refuses even to be distracted by a blunder: 28.Nxe6! Qxc1 29.Qxc1 fxe6 30.Qc7 is decisive) hxg6 29.Rh1 (again Duchamp dogmatically insists on sticking to Plan A, rather than executing the tactical short-cut 29.Nxe6!) Ne7 30.Rh3 Nf5 31.Nxf5 exf5 32.Rbh1 Bd7 33.Rh7 Bc8 34.Qe1! and Black, now completely asphyxiated, resigned. Also, there is no escape by fleeing with his King: if 34…Kf8 35.Rxg7! Kxg7 36. Qh4 Kf8 37.Qh8+ Ke7 38.Qf6+ Ke8 39.Rh8 is checkmate.

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