Arts & Culture

Autistic Enchantment: Why Chess?


David Mikics

This summer I spent two weeks on grand jury duty in Brooklyn. I had planned to reread War and Peace during the long intervals between cases, but instead I found myself poring over a copy of How Ulf Beats Black, about the chess games of the Swedish grandmaster Ulf Andersson. The book’s author, Cyrus Lakdawala, is a witty, entertaining stylist. But he is no Tolstoy. At least for a few weeks I abandoned literature for a rival: chess. I stopped playing the game forty years ago, near the end of high school, when I decided that despite all my study I still wasn’t good enough to make it worthwhile. Now I’ve plunged back in, with some ambivalence. Maybe chess is nothing more than a vast self-reflexive time suck, like Minecraft (sorry, Minecrafters). Shouldn’t I be writing more books instead?

Chess playing, like drug abuse, inspires fear. The late columnist Charles Krauthammer said of the game, “It’s like alcohol. It’s a drug. I have to control it, or it could overwhelm me.” Chess can seem a disease, a chemical dependency. To people like my wife, who doesn’t play, chess nuts look like zombies, lost in thought.

People don’t usually use the A word, addiction, when they talk about practicing the cello, painting, or sailing. But they do with chess, whose players lurk like vampires scouting for blood, leading the undead life hunched over a board or a computer screen. Chess threatens to take over your existence in a way that other hobbies cannot, because it makes you part of an ongoing, illusory world, one that easily usurps the RL (real life) happening somewhere away from the chessboard. After a while you start to daydream about positions you played or imagined, perfectly shaped victories unmarred by blunders. The dream victory is when your opponent asks you, bewildered, after resigning, “Where did I go wrong?” –having committed some almost invisible error that let you pounce and suavely triumph, using all the powers of an artist at work.

To the fanatical player chess is “an end in itself,” George Steiner writes, “a whole world next to which that of mere biological or political or social life seems messy, stale, and contingent.” On seeing a chess set, he adds, “one’s fingers arch and a coldness as in a light sleep steals over one’s spine”—a sensation any chess fan will recognize. This is “some autistic enchantment,” for sure, such that one might fantasize, as Lenin did, about giving up revolution in order to spend all one’s time on chess. With our customary reality chess has nothing at all to do; winning and losing replace living and dying, and what matters is the moves you play, not who you are. In fact, you become those moves.

Steiner notes that in chess, unlike cards, you see your opponent’s pieces and imagine his moves. The chessplayer “is, as it were, inside his opponent’s skull, seeing himself as the enemy of the moment, parrying his own moves.” When we lose a serious chess game, “we are defeated and at the same time defeat ourselves. Thus the taste of ash in our mouth.” There was something we didn’t see, an idea, a tactic, a weakness. We failed to look deeply enough through our opponent’s eyes.

In chess, you create something with, not just against, the person you are playing. When your opponent blunders, you feel relieved, even exultant, but also disappointed: you didn’t want to win in such an inartistic way.

Even grandmasters were once potzers (bad players). I am a potzer, which is to say: I blunder. Blunders are every chess player’s nightmare. At the board, everything balances on a knife edge. Make one bad move and all goes wrong: the antithesis of writing, where you can, must, always go back and revise. The irreparable character of the game is pure torture. Garry Kasparov still talks about an obvious move he missed years ago against another world champion, Vishy Anand, in a blitz (five-minute) game. “It’s a memory scar, this doesn’t go away,” he says.

The loser of a chess game bears the disgrace of failure, a purer feeling than the monetary blow that comes with losing at cards. After the game ends, you say to yourself, How could you blunder like that, you potzer? But the shame gets wiped out by the next game, which you might win. Another duel, with its thrusting and parrying, awaits you. The chess player is bound by momentary pride and humiliation, so distant from the sheer pacific absorption of the reader, or the self-nourishing writhing of the writer.

Chess offers endless possibilities for serious study. You might want to peruse three thick volumes on the endgame, with a few hundred pages on rook and pawn endgames alone. Or you can bone up on openings: the Yugoslav Attack, the Accelerated Dragon, the Zukertort, the Botvinnik System. Add computer databases and chess is a scholarly ocean of possibilities: try not to drown.

The old method was to teach computers to play chess by feeding them many thousands of master games. But now computers like Alpha Zero have taught themselves to play chess. (Don’t ask me how; ask a computer scientist.) They can beat any human, but in a way that’s hard to explain, their games are boring, unlike the human ones. No one studies the games of Stockfish, Kommodo, Houdini or Alpha Zero (to name some of the leading computer engines). Every grandmaster now relies on computers to analyze positions. But when the engines play a game, there’s no drama. Unlike people, they don’t do things that are shrewd, risky, cautious, underhanded, or perverse. They’re simply correct, and as a result they will never be interesting.

This November an American challenger, Fabiano Caruana, will face off in London against world champion Magnus Carlsen. My young son, a chess player, is rooting for Carlsen: he was inspired by the film Magnus, a portrait of the world champion, whose face and body communicate thought as clearly as a dancer’s. It will be a tough battle. Lately the 26-year-old Caruana has been winning one tournament after another; he seems to get better every week.

Caruana, who dropped out of school after seventh grade to focus on chess, is the first American since Bobby Fischer to play in a world championship match (oddly, they both learned to play the game in Park Slope, two subway stops from my apartment). Fischer won against Boris Spassky at Reykjavik in 1972, the seismic event that plunged me into learning chess at age eleven.

Bobby Fischer’s shadow still haunts the chess world. Fischer is often called the second greatest chess player of all time, after Garry Kasparov and ahead of Anatoly Karpov. His play had a stunning halcyon clarity that seemed to contradict his turbulent, even mad behavior. After his 1972 triumph, Fischer quit chess, to return only one more time, for a rematch against Spassky in 1992.

Like the first world champion, Paul Morphy, who left chess and spent years distractedly wandering the streets of New Orleans, Bobby Fischer went crazy. Fischer, who was Jewish, was once spotted handing out anti-Semitic leaflets in an LA parking lot. Another time he prevented a passenger from entering a car until the man, a Jew, agreed to say that the Holocaust never happened. Fischer ranted about Jews not only to his sister and her family (she eventually threw him out) but to the Jews he stayed with during his long exile from America, which the tax evading Fischer fled a few years after Reykjavik. In Hungary Fischer stayed with the Polgars. Laszlo Polgar was the father of three daughters, all of them chess prodigies (the youngest one, Judit Polgar, is probably the strongest woman player ever). When Fischer shouted that the Holocaust was a fraud, Laszlo said to Bobby, What do you think happened to my relatives? Did a magic trick make them disappear? Fischer was undeterred. “The Holocaust never happened, okay? They made it up for money,” he announced in his braying New York accent in a 1999 Hungarian radio interview.

Fischer decided he wasn’t a Jew and that he wasn’t an American. He renounced every part of his identity except what he had achieved on the chessboard: he was only the transcendent games he played, while in the degraded outside world everyone and everything conspired against him. And so Fischer railed against the Jews, against America, against the Soviets, all who had plotted to destroy him. He was convinced he was still the real world champion until the day he died in 2008, decades into the Kasparov-Karpov-Anand era.

“The ‘truth’ of a position energized” Fischer, Lawrence Lipking writes. He compares Fischer to Isaac Newton: “People seldom mattered to Newton…But when he cared about something, he saw it with incredible, unshakable clarity: the world became transparent to him. Such clarity can seem more than human—at once inspiring and monstrous.” In Kasparov’s view, Bobby was the purest player of all time, yet as Lipking remarks, “people who strive for purity usually crack.”

Fischer’s repellent behavior tauntingly reminds us that the art on the board is the music of the spheres, unaccountably sprung in this case from a mind polluted by lies. It’s as if this were Fischer’s point in his madness: to show that real life, which occurs only in a chess game, is infinitely preferable to the spoiled illusory existence all around it.

Vladimir Nabokov’s great chess novel, The Defense, expresses this same theme: chess is reality for Luzhin, Nabokov’s hero, in contrast to the muddy, confused world around him. People baffle him, like badly placed pieces whose meaning is unclear. In Nabokov’s hands Luzhin’s childhood discovery of chess carries a Proustian intensity: the game is “a newborn wonder, a dazzling islet in which his whole life was destined to be concentrated.” More than a refuge, chess is the clear, crystal world, whose every feature is necessary and just.

Luzhin becomes a famous grandmaster, but one day he has a nervous collapse on the eve of a crucial tournament game. After he recovers, he promises his wife that he will quit chess. But one day, seeing a game in a newspaper, he slips back into the perfect realm where he feels “that physiological sensation of harmony which is so well known to artists.” In one of Nabokov’s most marvelous passages, Luzhin recalls his tournament victories:

He flew from one game to another, instantly running over this or that heart-rending combination. There were combinations, pure and harmonious, where thought ascended marble stairs to victory; there were tender stirrings in one corner of the board, and a passionate explosion, and the fanfare of the Queen going to its sacrificial doom….Everything was wonderful, all the shades of love, all the convolutions and mysterious paths it had chosen.

Nabokov returns again and again to his key word, harmony. Chess, Luzhin knows in his ecstasy, is a miracle of organization, in which all the pieces sing together, though they may seem awkward and unruly in the hands of a lesser player. Here are all the shades of love, a drama rich and endless as Tolstoy.

Even as Luzhin directs the pieces, they also control him. “The chessmen were pitiless, they held and absorbed him,” Nabokov writes. “There was horror in this, but in this also was the sole harmony, for what else exists in the world besides chess?” Then comes the revelation–it occurs to Luzhin that he has been living in a chess game. The moments of his life, he now knows, form a pattern: the people around him have been executing a combination designed to entrap him, and what will be his defense? Nabokov, we realize with a shock, has been weaving a web around his character as if he were the enemy king. In the end Luzhin’s paranoia, like Bobby Fischer’s, dooms him.

According to his biographer, Frank Brady, Fischer was convinced that Kasparov and Karpov had prearranged all the moves in their 1985 world championship match. Fischer never explained why they might have done this, but his own motive was clear: the two Russians couldn’t possibly be creators of his own stature, able to discern over the board, with the clock running down, how to turn an ordinary game into a permanent work of art. Fischer seems to have played over one Kasparov-Karpov game at least a hundred times, more and more convinced that it was a fraud. He even asked for a copy of the game on his deathbed: his perverse homage to his rivals’ genius.

There are a few dozen truly immortal chess games, and the greatest of all might be Fischer’s win against Spassky in game 13 at Reykjavik, which some say resembles the works of Mozart. Another is game 20 of Kasparov-Karpov 1990, which floats somewhere high in the air, above mere mortals. “These guys are playing alien chess,” remarks grandmaster Yasser Seirawan. When you look at the Kasparov-Karpov game, you feel that no one, not even other world-class players, could have come up with these moves. It’s like watching the movie of Picasso sketching faces, or Aretha Franklin in her 1968 Amsterdam concert. They are, maybe, gods disguised in human form.

Stefan Zweig’s superb novella “The Chess Game” (Schachnovelle) shares much with Nabokov’s Defense. Here too the chess player is an obsessive, someone who gives over his whole existence to the game. Zweig’s hero is an Austrian doctor imprisoned by the Gestapo in a hotel. Between his interrogations he remains, for months on end, in solitary confinement: he is forbidden books, newspapers, any contact with the outside world. One day, after being questioned yet again by the Gestapo, he spots a book in someone’s jacket and carefully steals it, carrying it secretly back to his room. The book turns out to be a collection of 150 famous chess games, and it preserves his sanity. Over the next few months, he memorizes the games and plays them over in his head, analyzing one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Tiring of this, he begins playing blindfold games against himself, coming up with the moves on both sides.

When he is released by the Gestapo, Zweig’s Dr. B gives up chess, which has become an all-absorbing mania. But one day years later, quite by chance, he glimpses the world chess champion on a cruise and is convinced by the kibitzers standing around to play a game with him. Dr. B wins, astounding the champion and everyone else; but during a rematch, he starts shouting out his moves impatiently, madly. Used to playing only against himself, he cannot adjust to the idea of facing someone over a board, waiting for his response, pondering what he might do. Again like Fischer: Zweig’s hero finds it intolerable that an outsider has broken into the perfect structure of his chess thinking. (Fischer in his later years often analyzed games, but it seems that he never played, except for a few weeks before the Spassky rematch.) Zweig’s protagonist breaks down, leaves the ship, and swears off the game for the sake of his sanity. He has been a prisoner, not just of the Gestapo, but of chess.

Chess is seductive because it is pure absorption. Someone once asked Kasparov why he and Karpov got into such bad time trouble, taking so long on certain moves that they had only a few minutes left at the game’s end. “We like to think,” Kasparov answered. “The more a person restricts himself, the closer, conversely, he approaches to the infinite,” writes Zweig. Nothing matters but thinking, and the materials of thinking are very clear, bishops and knights and rooks, attack and defense. But they are also infinite.

The opposite of Fischer, the wildly improvisatory player who had more ideas than anyone, was Mikhail (Misha) Tal, the Magician of Riga. Like Oscar Wilde, Tal could resist everything but temptation, Cyrus Lakdawala jokes. At the drop of a hat he could turn an orderly position into a cluttered one, baffling his opponent, and he loved to sacrifice his pieces for greater attacking chances. He worked in part by intuition, not knowing whether he was getting enough of an edge for the pieces he gave away. During one world championship, Tal’s game had to be shifted halfway through to another room because the audience wouldn’t stop arguing loudly with each other about his moves. (This was in Russia, of course.)

Tal had three fingers on one hand (he was known as “the Claw”), chain smoked at the board, and was briefly world champion in the early 1960s. The man he beat, Mikhail Botvinnik, was his antithesis, methodical and precise. Another world-class grandmaster, Miguel Najdorf, joked that when Botvinnik gives you a piece you feel like resigning, but when Tal gives you a piece, you feel he might give you another, and then another, and then who knows? Tal loved to push the chaos button, but he probably had the longest winning streak ever in top play. Tal’s games even confuse computer engines, which at times have no idea how he won.

What, then, is the meaning of chess? At the risk of sounding crazy myself, I’d suggest it’s not so different from the meaning of having a child–a world unto himself, or herself, that takes you up completely. The child takes you with all your heart; chess absorbs all your mind, at least while you’re playing. Children are better than chess, agreed, but not because they achieve more than a mere game; indeed, they bless us because they don’t need to achieve anything in order to mean everything. I am unconvinced by the philosopher Susan Wolf, who argues that a meaningful life is one in which you connect yourself to something larger, something shared with others, as if to console yourself for the smallness of your mortal existence. There are times when we forget about large or small, mortal or immortal, and playing chess, like playing with a child, is one of those times.

American chess might be returning to the glory days of Fischer’s victory. Though our appetite for chess has never been comparable to Russia’s, the game now seems to be taught in every grade school classroom. The US beat out Russia in the last chess Olympiad, and will probably do so again this November. Grandmasters have gravitated to St. Louis, lured by the Missouri billionaire and chess enthusiast Rex Sinquefield. There are some superb chess commentators these days on sites like chess24 and youtube: Ben Finegold, Maurice Ashley, Jennifer Shahade, Yasser Seirawan.

Seirawan says that, when he was young, a friend told him he would never be world champion. Somewhat taken aback, he asked why not. “Well,” said the friend, “there are these two guys, Gelfand and Ivanchuk, and they’re geniuses.” Later on, Seirawan played Boris Gelfand and discovered that, instead of looking at the board, Gelfand liked to stare straight down (“at d-zero,” behind the white queen, who stands on d1). Ivanchuk, by contrast, gazed at the ceiling, “studying the cosmos,” Seirawan said. After a while, he started glancing up there too, thinking he might be missing something.

Vasily Ivanchuk, like Gelfand, like Seirawan, never became world champion. “Chucky,” charming and odd, probably was a genius, but he was erratic at times, and his mistakes tormented him. What his hand played didn’t always match the perfect pattern up there in the heavens. Ivanchuk recently quit chess to take up a more worldly game: checkers.