Chess

Three years ago a student asked me to be the faculty coordinator of the Trent Chess Club.  I agreed to do it, even though I hadn’t played chess in years and had never been any good at it. I unexpectedly fell in love with the game that year, and since then I have devoted at least one hour a day to the sixty-four squares. Chess has recently found its way into both my research and teaching, and in the last year I have organized several free chess programs for Peterborough youth: Kids Chess at Trent; Chess Day at the Peterborough Public Library; Learn to Play Chess! at the Public Library; Chess and Logic during the Trent high school Enrichment Program; and The Science of Chess during the Indigenous Science Camp at Trent.

Random Quotations, Facts, Links, and Unsolicited Advice about Chess

“Chess, like love, like music, has the power to make men happy.” (Siegbert Tarrasch, The Game of Chess, 1931, Preface, trans. G.E. Smith/T.G. Bone).

“Is it not an insult to call chess anything so narrow as a game? Is it not also a science, an art, hovering between these categories like Muhammad’s coffin between heaven and earth, a unique yoking of opposites, ancient and yet eternally new, mechanically constituted and yet an activity of the imagination alone, limited to a fixed geometric area but unlimited in its permutations, constantly evolving and yet sterile, a cogitation producing nothing, a mathematics calculating nothing, an art without an artwork, an architecture without substance and yet demonstrably more durable in its essence and actual form than all books and works, the only game that belongs to all peoples and eras, while no one knows what god put it on earth to deaden boredom, sharpen the mind, and fortify the spirit? Where does it begin, where does it end?” (Stefan Zweig, Chess Story, 1941, trans. Joel Rotenberg)

“Today we see in chess the fight of aspiring Americanism against the old European intellectual life: a struggle between the technique of Capablanca, a virtuoso in whose play one can find nothing tangible to object to, and between great European masters, all of them artists, who have the qualities as well as the faults of artists in the treatment of the subject they devote their lives to: they experiment and in striving after what is deep down, they overlook what is near at hand… Who will come out of this struggle victorious? Nobody can prophesy the answer. But one thing is certain. If Americanism is victorious in chess, it will also be so in life. For in the idea of chess and the development of the chess mind we have a picture of the intellectual struggle of mankind.” (Richard Réti, Modern Ideas in Chess, 1922, trans. Bruce Alberston)

In the last three years my chess rating (on chess.com) has increased from 800 (25th percentile) to 1720 (93rd percentile). I give most of the credit for this improvement to a single open-access book, beautifully written by one of the most interesting authors I know, Ward Farnsworth, currently Dean of the University of Texas Law School. I recommend Predator at the Chessboard and everything else by Farnsworth.

Like many adults who take up chess (among other things), I’ve often wondered whether it’s too late for me to become any good. And when I teach local kids to play chess, they also ask me whether I think they can become good. So naturally I philosophized about the meaning of the term “good at chess” and wrote an article about it in an attempt to give the most concrete answer possible to the question, “Are you good at chess?”

But, of course, this question should not preoccupy us. On that note, here’s another gem from Tarrasch’s Preface to The Game of Chess:

“The right standpoint is to play for pleasure–and do not think that pleasure is proportional to skill. The greatest bunglers are constantly deriving the greatest pleasure from chess–they go into ecstasies of delight when their Knight forks a King and Queen.”

The best book about chess pieces is Nancy Marie Brown’s Ivory Vikings: The Mystery of the Most Famous Chessmen in the World andthe Woman who Made Them (St. Martin’s Press, 2015).

The chess queen used to be one of the weakest pieces in the game before it became the most powerful. Stanford’s Marilyn Yalom gives the history of the chess queen and its significance for politics and women in Birth of the Chess Queen: A History (Harper Collins, 2004).

Chess is just propositional logic with wooden premises and a heartbreaking conclusion. (Trying to be quotable? Me? Pffft. No. But if you quote me don’t forget to cite this website.) Two of my favourite books in the chess improvement genre present chess as a form of logic: Irving Chernev’s Logical Chess and Erik Kislik’s Applying Logic in Chess. I recommend the former to serious beginners and the latter to fed up intermediate players.

The Bo Jackson of chess was Marcel Duchamp, a rival of Picasso in the art world even while he competed in chess Olympiads for France.

Every son wants to one-up his dad; that’s tough, however, when dad is James Murray, founding chief editor of the Oxford English Dictionary. So what did young H.J.R. Murray do to best his famous father? He learned a dozen languages, traveled the world, and produced the most complete and well-documented history of chess ever written. It will remain the standard reference on the subject for a long time.  I’ve read both the OED (in part) and A History of Chess (in its entirety), and let me tell you, the latter is by far the more engaging of the two books!

One of my free chess programs for youth at the Peterborough Public Library.
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