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.
Bourdieu used this term in part because it derives from ludus, Latin for “game”. It is no surprise that the chess-fixated Desjarlais embraces Bourdieu’s expansion of this fundamental insight: “The game presents itself to someone caught up in it, absorbed in it, as a transcendent universe, imposing its own ends and norms unconditionally.”
Although this might seem an isolated kind of pleasure, the fact that chess is a game means that we must play with others; and while a big tournament for amateurs might appear to be nothing more than hundreds of people sitting in silence, that is to ignore the post mortems: after the game (if neither is too upset) the participants will go into an analysis room, and spend time discussing what happened and, much more fascinatingly, what might have happened, if only…
This is where the illusio is fully shared: two people with nothing in common except the game they have just played, who may never see each other again, yet who for an hour or so will be absolutely focused on each other’s thoughts in a way which renders them unaware of anything else in the world. Bliss, in other words.
It is also possible that the struggle in the game has been so uncomfortable, with such underlying feelings of unexpressed hostility, that no amiable sharing of the illusio is possible. Desjarlais writes well about this, describing how some seemingly trivial personal tic of one’s opponent can become inexpressibly infuriating, making the sense of harmony in which one would like to play all but impossible.
In the spirit of Desjarlais’s own admissions of fear and loathing on the amateur chess circuit, I own up to behaving rather less than perfectly in the Hastings New Year Weekend Tournament in 2010. In the first round I lost to a 13-year-old Indian girl, who twirled her hair in a teenagerish way while unleashing a series of tactics which destroyed my position and my self-esteem. Then, in the next round I found myself paired against an 11-year-old: a boy called Peter Andreev, who had recently performed outstandingly for England in the European Junior Team championships. Nevertheless, my rating was still much higher than his, which meant that I had even more reason to dread a second humiliation at the hands of a child.
Before the game his father appeared to be whispering words of advice in Russian, which was fine; but then the tiny boy spent the first few minutes of the game staring at me with what seemed a deliberate look of contempt. As a result I did something appallingly childish myself: when young Andreev made a bad error as early as the 11th move, I thumped out my reply and glared at him with what I intended to be the same look he had given me.
Here, with apologies to my opponent, is that game: I had the Black pieces. 1.e4 d6 2.d4 g6 3.f4 Bg7 4.Nc3 a6 5.a4 b6 6.Nf3 Bb7 7.Bd3 Nf6 8.e5 Nfd7 9.0-0 0-0 10.Be3 c5 11.Ne4? c4 (This trick was what Andreev missed, although 11…cxd4 12.Bxd4 Nc6 would also have been bad for him) 12.Bxc4 Bxe4 13.e6 d5 14.exf7+ Rxf7 15.Bb3 Bxf3 16.Qxf3 e6 17.c4 Nf6 18.Rac1 Ra7 19.g4 Qd7 20.g5? (20.f5 was his last chance to confuse the issue) Ne4 21.cxd5 exd5 22.a5 b5 23.Rc2 Nc6 and White resigned, since his entire position is about to drop off.