Stefan Zweig’s 1942 novella, Chess Story, set on a steamer headed from New York to Buenos Aires, recounts the tale of a Viennese lawyer, Dr. B., who had been imprisoned by Nazis and subjected to an extreme form of mental violence. Held in a hotel room in total isolation for one year, with nothing to distract himself—no pens, paper, cigarettes or even a wristwatch to mark the days—he was thrust into “a completely timeless and dimensionless void.” It was a punishment meant to break a man as surely as the rack, yet Dr. B. managed to preserve his sanity, he explains one night to an intrigued passenger, by pilfering a book of nothing more than 150 master-level chess games. There were no accompanying illustrations, but he nonetheless proceeded to lose himself in the notations of these concluded matches, memorizing the variations and replaying them on his checkered bedspread, until one day he found he no longer needed the book or the squares and could simply shut his eyes and visualize the pieces on the board, separating his mind into opposing armies of black and white, ferociously attempting to mate himself even as he deftly avoided being mated. He stopped sleeping and focused all his energy on searching for the right move. The psychological toll of this “chess sickness,” as he later calls it, had caused Dr. B. to suffer a breakdown. When he recovered and was finally freed, he didn’t dare go near a chessboard again, until it came to his attention that the reigning world champion, an idiot savant named Czentovic, was onboard the same ocean liner. Dr. B. sits down and defeats him, before making a fatal error in the rematch and slipping back into madness.
Marveling at the thought of such single-minded obsessives, the narrator of the story, himself an amateur, reflects:
The more I now sought to form an impression of such a temperament, the more unimaginable appeared to me a mind absorbed for a lifetime in a domain of sixty-four black and white squares. From my own experience I was well aware of the mysterious attraction of the “royal game,” which, alone among the games devised by man, regally eschews the tyranny of chance and awards its palms of victory only to the intellect, or rather to a certain type of intellectual gift. But is it not already an insult to call chess anything so narrow as a game?
In real life, perhaps no figure in recent memory so exemplified the idea of “chess sickness”—that insatiable need to find the right move at the cost of everything else—as the pioneering French artist Marcel Duchamp. The father of Dada and inspiration to the Surrealists, Duchamp was, by the end of his life in the late 1960s, widely considered one of the finest, most original minds in twentieth-century art, alongside Picasso and a handful of others. He achieved immense renown (and even infamy) for for his 1913 painting Nude Descending a Staircase, the practically unclassifiable The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass), and the groundbreaking readymade sculptures that for better or worse provided a preview for so much contemporary art. Nonetheless, he essentially turned his back on painting, complaining that “after ten years … I was bored with it. … From 1912 on I decided to stop being a painter in the professional sense.” Instead, he tried “to look for another personal way.” “Of course,” he acknowledged, “I couldn’t expect anyone to be interested in what I was doing.”
By the 1920s, when he was in his early thirties, Duchamp seems to have found this more personal way forward. A large part of what was so frustrating and uninteresting about modern painting, in his view, was its overly aesthetic, “retinal” nature: the inherent superficiality of visual representation. Duchamp was foremost an ideas man, for whom a work of art needed to accomplish significantly more than to please the eye. According to his biographer Calvin Tomkins, he was increasingly driven to “make visible a ‘nonperceptible’ experience”—in other words, to render states of mind manifest. Two paintings he completed during a short stint in Munich, with their emphasis on inside jokes and what he preposterously referred to as “eroticism,” were a turning point. And it was while working on these nonrepresentational but not quite abstract—and still meticulously painted—canvases that he began to conceive his enigmatic masterpiece The Large Glass. Constructed from two large panes of glass with various materials inserted between them, it is less a painting than a humorous, pseudoscientific gesture at the hidden psychological forces and urges that animate our libidos. At least that is one take on this “picture,” which in no way resembles the wedding party invoked by its title, and which required Duchamp to concoct a new physics and mathematics to convey its inner “laws.” (His copious notes, published as The Green Box, only further complicate the work’s meaning.)
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Whether The Large Glass is the most important artwork of the last century or a complete hoax—these are open questions—Duchamp claimed, during the eight years it took to complete it, to have lost interest in the artistic process so completely that he left the work “definitively unfinished.” (When the glass panels were cracked in transport, he even noted approvingly that this had been an improvement.) Having gone as far as he could with fine art as a means of conveying pure ideas, and relentlessly searching for a way to create without filters, the lifelong amateur began dedicating himself to the game of chess. Indeed, he became a full-fledged slave to the 64 squares. In a letter back home to France from New York, where he lived after the War, he acknowledged that “the only thing that could interest me now is a potion that would make me play chess divinely.”
So dedicated was Duchamp to this pursuit, Tomkins reports, that on his 1927 honeymoon in the south of France he “was mostly absent, playing in a chess tournament in Nice that he had entered as a warm-up for the French championships, which were being held the next month in Chamonix.” At night he would stay up studying chess problems, frustrating his fiancée Lydie to the point that, according to Man Ray, one day she glued all of the pieces to his board. Incredibly, this was not some quixotic vanity project on Duchamp’s part—he achieved the equivalent of a master-level command of the game, played on the national team alongside Alekhine, the world champion at the time, and was ultimately considered by many to be one of the finest players in France in his day.
This improbable, practically monastic midlife pivot away from the demands and rewards of artistic production and toward the cerebral pleasures of this insular game both mirrored and anticipated the progression of modern art—the impulse being always to strip down and arrive at what is most essential. “Reduce, reduce, reduce was my thought,” he explained years later. “But at the same time my aim was turning inward, rather than toward externals. And later, following this view, I came to feel that an artist might use anything—a dot, a line, the most conventional or unconventional symbol—to say what he wanted to say.”
Duchamp’s sudden turn to chess might be seen as nothing more than this modernist impulse taken to its logical extreme. Though in the popular imagination we tend to think of the game of chess, when taken as a serious pursuit, as the domain of extreme nerds of the Bobby Fischer mold, in the figure of Duchamp we can see something much more romantic and daring at work. Chess, far from being some dry or merely scientific hobby, becomes a legitimate artistic endeavor in its own right—and perhaps even a purer creative expression than all of the rest. Duchamp seemed to conclude as much: “Not all artists are chess players,” he famously quipped, “but all chess players are artists.”
But if chess players are artists, who is their audience? One of the great ironies of early modern art, as Tomkins points out, was that “in trying to break down the traditional barriers between artist and viewer—and, by implication, between art and life—advanced artists alienated a large part of the public.” This was especially true in painting and the visual arts, but also evident in jazz music, literature and, perhaps most obviously, the post-Bauhaus and Corbusier aesthetic that dominated twentieth-century architecture and design. The flip side to this alienation was supposed to be a deeper and more fruitful interaction with the rare audiences capable of involving themselves as spectator-partners in the creative process—an aspiration that became “an essential element of Duchamp’s thinking from 1912 on.” In chess, this aspiration is taken to an almost absurd extreme: one’s opponent becomes the sole intelligent spectator-consumer of one’s imaginative output.
And the game itself becomes the absolute reduction of the artwork to the most elemental means of creative expression—a complex, fleeting and hermetic procession of elegant thoughts.
“Much of an exile’s life is taken up with compensating for disorienting loss by creating a new world to rule,” wrote Edward Said. “It is not surprising that so many exiles seem to be novelists [and] chess players.” A little over three years ago, I moved from New York City, where I had just started a novel, to Paris. I didn’t come for studies or a job; I simply moved here with my wife, who is French, because she had a work opportunity and we were both vaguely aware that it would be easier to start a family in France than in New York. But it wasn’t so calculated as that: we were freshly married and in love and the idea of moving to Paris, her hometown and a city I had often visited and adored, didn’t require a tremendous amount of analysis. We quickly packed up our apartment in Brooklyn and shipped it overseas. Within a few weeks I was back sitting at my dining room table working on my manuscript; only the slant of the light outside my window had changed—at least initially that’s how it seemed to me.
I have come to think a lot about Duchamp and his unencumbered style of living and creating during these past few years. Such an example seems especially apposite now that I find myself in my thirties, an immigrant in a foreign land, consumed by a prolonged struggle to convert ideas into that precarious thing “art,” and slipping deeper into my own prolonged periods of what I can only call a comparatively-mild-to-at-times-rather-intense strain of chess sickness. During these days away from home, I have occupied both of the introverted roles Said mentions, though neither pursuit is new. I had published a book (albeit a memoir) before leaving, and I grew up locked in mental combat with my father—a scholarly chess autodidact who will forever be for me the other emblem of the game’s Sisyphean struggle.
Whatever else one does, one does not readily elude one’s father. And however much my adult interest in chess follows the example set by Duchamp, I am still constructing my proverbial game in relation to his. Pappy is in his late seventies now and remains a formidable opponent, though he never joined clubs or sought to play competitively. He’s far too solitary for that. And unorthodox—he only ever wants to use black. I suspect this is because even in make-believe he would rather not allow himself to forget that his starting position has been a comparatively disadvantageous one. (This insistence on beginning behind only seems to reinforce his deeply American can-do belief that despite—or maybe even because of—the riskier opening, victory always remains a possibility; as a result, he refuses to concede even practically irreversible positions and has salvaged more than a few of them.) In any event, it is certainly the case that he has spent his entire life in exile (in the fullest sense of the word) in his own country—most notably as a Southerner fleeing Jim Crow, first for the West and then the Northeast, and as a black man surfacing in social and professional spaces almost always devoid of similar faces.
When they were living in Santa Monica in the Seventies, my mother tells me, Pappy would often pass the evening hours hunched over his chessboard with their taciturn neighbor, a Russian émigré my parents referred to, descriptively enough, as “Rudy the Russian.” The two men scarcely spoke—they didn’t need to. Rudy would knock after work, they’d shake hands with formality and then together they would dissolve into those familiar checkered squares. I had not thought of this before, but now that I do, I am positive that both of these men were using the game as Said suggests—to gain entry into some other dimension beyond the absurdity of their respective heres and nows, to that place where things would be compelled to make logical sense. I am not that kind of exile, then, not at all. But for what it’s worth, I am often looking for some clarity and, perhaps more than that, a little silence too.
“Chess is a school of silence,” Duchamp once reminded a puzzled interviewer. What a wonderful phrase. I couldn’t count the number of times a day that—even as my grasp of French progresses—I am tongue-tied, at an agonizing loss for basic words, or worse, beset by the nightmarish sensation of being some hapless dog, chasing the tail end of conversations I can tantalizingly envision but will never quite grasp. And yet there is rarely any genuine quiet to be had here, just a continuous rush of semi-intelligible background noise. It is no coincidence that it wasn’t until I found myself far from family and friends and the comfort of ambient English—which is to say, far from a fully legible world—that my lifelong interest in the game metastasized into full-on chess fever. I wouldn’t be able to pinpoint when precisely this transition began, were it not for Chess.com’s impressive record-keeping features. A quick search as I write this reveals that, since joining on April 22, 2012, I have clocked some 8,691 games of five- and ten-minute “live blitz” on my main account alone. (I have several.)
For large swaths of the past two years, then, I have found myself enthralled by this game for two, four, five, six, sometimes even eight hours a day, the time flitting past not in increments of seconds, minutes or even whole nights and days, but as a series of opening, middle- and end-game scenarios to be solved. The sheer fecundity of the internet, the inexhaustible supply of skilled partners from Singapore to Malta, the YouTube video tutorials and those Borgesian über-libraries of past games scrupulously archived and indexed, have all conspired to facilitate a level of chess binging that Duchamp could only dream of and that would absolutely shatter Dr. B.
I began visiting this world with such regularity and insistence that it struck my wife as a problem of some gravity. But what she observed was only the half of it. I was surreptitiously conjuring the board with my third eye while standing in line at the grocery store, while falling asleep, and increasingly even while I was sitting at the table, purportedly writing. There is a particular, deeply satisfying game with black that comes up rarely but with a reliable consistency, which I am perpetually on the lookout for. Once played, it can take cycling through three- or four-dozen games to encounter it again. The situation is as follows: Black opens with a Latvian Gambit—pawn e5, pawn f5—in response to White opening with pawn e4, knight f3. In so doing, Black invites White to ransack his king’s side for material advantage. If White too aggressively takes the bait, however—which is not uncommon—there is a line of play in which Black further sacrifices a rook to White’s invading knight to achieve a cunning bishop attack on White’s queen. As White scampers to protect its most valuable piece, the attack progresses by way of a subtle undisclosed check from Black’s queen (seemingly defensively positioned) on e1. White will make several more attempts, in vain, to evade check and save its queen, but the latter has been irretrievably lost for several moves now, usually unbeknownst to White. After the queen falls, checkmate or resignation happens very swiftly.
It is a stunningly gorgeous and powerfully counterintuitive trap, one that has transfixed me and taken on a kind of metaphorical symbolism in my mind for the idea of noble abandonment. Perhaps it is even an image of the writing life itself, which after all is always premised upon tremendous initial risk in the hope of some nebulous future payoff. Here I am, three years into a novel that has required no small amount of material sacrifice and yet, at this point, exists solely in a Microsoft Word document and in a corner of my mind—which is to say, exists solely as a strategy. And the lesson that these hundreds, if not thousands, of Latvian games I’ve played through have taught me is that Black can also lose. There are many ways for that to happen, even in the best-laid scenario.
On days when the correct word eludes me, when I find myself deleting entire scenes and chapters and starting over from a blank, when I find myself in this still-foreign land where the sockets in the walls do not accommodate all of my plugs, where I still do not speak the language fluently and am still searching for order and quiet, on days when I cannot help wondering whether I will ever finish this manuscript or whether I have already sacrificed too many valuable pieces for a relatively tenuous position, I open my browser and seek refuge in those squares and in that perfect calm. Only there, as Duchamp observed:
It’s complete. There are no bizarre conclusions like in art, where you have all kinds of reasonings and conclusions. It’s absolutely clear-cut. It’s a marvelous piece of Cartesianism. And so imaginative that it doesn’t even look Cartesian at first. The beautiful combinations that people invent in chess are only Cartesian after they are explained. And yet when it’s explained there is no mystery. It’s a pure logical conclusion, and it cannot be refuted.
Of course, there remains the question of whether an artist ought to idealize this kind of “Cartesianism” or try to challenge it. Art, in the fundamentally Tolstoyan sense my exiled father reared me to conceive of it, would bear scant resemblance to disinterested philosophical investigation; rather, aesthetic values are determined by moral ones and must serve some larger purpose, addressing ethical, metaphysical—or at least social—issues in order to help real human beings understand how best to live, or how best to live better. A lifelong admirer of Maimonides, Pappy would have literature—would have all creative output—function as one more entry in the necessary and ever-expanding guide for the perplexed.
Chess by comparison would seem a selfish and lonesome pursuit. Indeed, so would most Duchampian art. Duchamp “had no affinity for social causes or for any view of art as a direct expression of personal emotions or communal yearnings,” notes Tomkins. In his own words, “Art is like a shipwreck … it’s every man for himself.” Which is why chess, an utterly disengaged mental exercise, could come to represent the best possible kind of art for Duchamp—the figure who perhaps more than any other functions as the progenitor and prophet of our received aesthetic preferences. In the wake of modernism and all the subsequent permutations and movements, it has become rote to accept Duchamp’s conclusions almost prima facie. Indeed, there have not been many major artists (of any discipline) since Tolstoy to earnestly espouse the moral imperative of art over the modernist one.
Perhaps it sounds naïve and sappy, but there seems to be a certain perversity, or at least a distinct lack of courage, embedded in the impulse to reduce the entire forest of art to a singular, recondite tree—tempting as such a delimitation may be when struggling to encompass the multitude. With this in mind, not so unlike Dr. B., I find myself having to guard against overexposure to the board. Far from moving on a continuum, my own creative life has become a divided one: the private pleasures of the chessboard a temptation I must actively counterbalance with a sustained effort to engage, however vainly and ineptly, the world beyond these 64 fixed-yet-unlimited squares.
And yet isn’t there always an incongruity between intent and result? Duchamp’s great achievement—indeed what, despite his claims, makes his work worthy of even my father’s esteem—cannot be found in the particular pieces he made or in the records of games that he played (though some of both were great). Rather, it is a byproduct of the fact that he managed simultaneously to excavate a measure of transcendence in the familiar (a bathroom fixture, a bicycle wheel, a board game) and in turn to render familiar the transcendent—showing us that even if no one else sees it, art is, or certainly can be, encountered everywhere around and even inside us. In that way, then, it is indeed a lot like the game of chess: both are aspects of the same indispensable philosophy of survival.
Photo credit: Lutz Bacher, The Lee Harvey Oswald Interview, Portikus Gallery