Books: Pawn to be Queen

Alice won in 11 moves, Browne played with the devil, Luzhin just went mad: Steven Poole on the literary appeal of chess

CHESS is a deep pursuit. The number of possible chess games that last exactly 40 moves, for instance, has been estimated as 25 x 10 115. To get an idea of the mind-boggling size of this number, imagine a supercomputer that can play through a million billion different chess games every second. Now picture 10,000 billion such computers running the same program in parallel. If these futuristic slabs of silicon were each just a centimetre thick, such a stack of them would reach two-thirds of the way from the Earth to the Sun. Now, just think of 80 such high-rise stacks snaking around the solar system. A pretty impressive number-crunching network? Well, no. Unfortunately, to run through every possible 40-move chess game would still take as many years as there are electrons in the entire universe.

This very inexhaustibility has always attracted writers to chess. One of the game's genesis myths concerns the servant who invented chess as a pastime for his King, and as reward asked that he be given the amount of rice resulting from putting one grain on the first square of the chessboard, two on the second square, four on the third, and so on, doubling each time up to the 64th square. At present global levels of rice production, it would take 5,000 years to amass such an amount. The Hierarchy of Angels in Dante's Paradiso is described with reference to this stupendous number: we are told that they number "myriads more than the entire progressive doubling of the chess squares".

The first reference in literature to the ancient Indian game of chess ("shah") is by the Indian court poet Bana, in a manuscript dated between AD625 and 640. By the 11th century, the game was known throughout Europe. The 12th-century Hebrew poet, Ezra, wrote a "Song of Chess", and England's first printer, William Caxton, wrote a treatise on it, but its popularity exploded after the rules were rewritten in 1475, allowing for much sharper, faster play. The Royal Game was naturally played at court, and Renaissance political moralists liked to invoke the game as a perfect example of the rulers (King and Queen) working in concert with the Church (Bishops), the military (Knights) and their trusted officials (Rooks), along with the Third Estate (Pawns), all for the "common good". How, in the absence of an enemy, the common good might be defined, and by whom, was cunningly left unstipulated.

Enter the beaming Machiavel, and his genius for fluidity of definition. With its swindles, traps and gambits, chess is the perfect analogue, not of political philosophy, but of realpolitik. In the last act of The Tempest, Ferdinand and Miranda are discovered together at the chessboard. Chess was a quasi-illicit pursuit for young lovers - it often has erotic reverberations elsewhere, especially in cinema - but Shakespeare is also making a political point. For Miranda accuses Ferdinand of cheating, but reassures him that she doesn't mind: "Yes, for a score of kingdoms you should wrangle / And I would call it fair play." The next generation of Milanese rulers is already au fait with the tactics of political pragmatism. This seedy idea of chess would endure - Thomas Carlyle wrote in his Sartor Resartus (1833): "Councillors of State sit plotting, and playing their high chess-game, whereof the pawns are Men" - but the apotheosis of it is in A Game at Chess (1624) by Thomas Middleton.

The play takes the form of a game - it has a real chess opening, the Queen's Gambit Declined - with all the characters being chess pieces, but they are also recognisable contemporary political figures. The story concerns the trip made by Prince Charles (the "White Knight") and Buckingham (the "White Duke", or Rook) to Madrid in 1623 to negotiate a marriage between the prince and the Infanta Maria. They realise that the Spanish court have a perfidious ulterior motive - to convert the future King of England to Roman Catholicism - and so the White Knight at the last minute gives "checkmate by discovery" to the Black King.

But Middleton had broken the law forbidding the portrayal of a current Christian king - and perhaps even more seditious was his implicit suggestion that the kings were just pieces in a game played by higher powers. A warrant was issued for Middleton's arrest. (A legend relates that the dauntless playwright won his release from prison by addressing a short poem to the King himself.)

The purely ludic aspects of chess have also been celebrated in literature. Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass (1872) is peopled by living chess pieces, and prefaced with a schematic diagram and a list of 11 moves. Alice, a mere white pawn to start with, defeats the Red Queen by advancing up the board and becoming a Queen herself (above). Ezra Pound, in his Imagist phase, wrote a muscular hymn to the intertwined, pulsing energies of the squares in "The Game of Chess" (from the 1916 collection Lustra): "This board is alive with light; these pieces are living in form, / Their moves break and reform the pattern: luminous green from the rooks, / Clashing with Xs of queens, looped with the knight-leaps."

In The Flanders Panel (1993), by Arturo Perez-Reverte, the characters hope to discover the identity of a serial killer through the knotty logic of retrograde analysis, which involves deducing what moves must have been already made to arrive at the position in question. Brooks Hansen's The Chess Garden (1995) is a gorgeous meditation, part fairy-tale, part war story, on the divine cosmic order of which chess may be an earthly reflection. Where Pound used the metaphor of light for its swirling structures, Vladimir Nabokov, in The Defence (1930, translated 1964), uses music, in the hero Luzhin's central game with his rival Turati. "A kind of musical tempest overwhelmed the board, and Luzhin searched stubbornly in it for the tiny, clear note that he needed in order in his turn to swell it out into a thunderous harmony."

One of Nabokov's most affectionate works, at least until its icily callous denouement, The Defence is a triumphant synthesis of many traditional chess tropes. There is the popular father-son axis: the father teaches the son to play, and is then himself defeated; or a third man teaches the boy to play (becomes his "master"), and thereby assumes the role of surrogate father. Hearken now to the chorus of psychological reductionists gleefully invoking the name of Oedipus - Nabokov sarcastically anticipates them in his Preface: "the curative insinuation that a chess player sees Mom in his Queen and Pop in his opponent's King". Still, Luzhin eventually goes mad, believing that his very life has become a chess game against an invisible enemy who is plotting a "monstrous combination".

If you do not go mad with chess, you might instead conceive of it as not just a mental battle, but a moral-religious one. The game pits White against Black: clearly an eternal, Manichean struggle between Good and Evil. In Thomas Browne's memoirs, Religio Medici (1643), a period of doubt and temptation is described thus: "The Devil played at Chess with me." Marcel Duchamp, the French conceptual artist whose marriage broke up after a week when his new bride, fed up with the amount of time he spent studying chess problems, glued the pieces to the board, wrote that chess was "somewhat like religious art - it is not very gay ... it is a struggle."

An apocalyptic struggle over the chessboard, indeed, is the setting for the latest chess fiction, Paolo Maurensig's The Luneburg Variation, first published in Italian in 1993, but only now published here (trs Jon Rothschild, Phoenix House, pounds 12.99). It opens with the suicide of a businessman and chess magazine editor named Dieter Frisch. The previous night, Frisch had met a young man on the Vienna train, who had told Frisch of his own induction into chess at the hands of a mysterious figure, Tabori, who haunted the coffee-houses.

For training purposes, Tabori had a metal chessboard which gave the young man an electric shock whenever he played a weak move. When he was satisfied with his pupil's play, Tabori had sent him out to compete in public tournaments, armed with a special defence, the Luneburg Variation of the title. As the novel, like the train journey, thunders relentlessly on, it becomes clear that Frisch and Tabori had once faced each other over the board, in a match for which there had been horrific stakes: this had made them eternal adversaries. A paradigmatic social interaction, here coloured stormily: "Nothing binds two people like a serious challenge on a chessboard, making them counterposed poles of a jointly produced mental creation in which one is annihilated to the other's advantage." Maurensig's is a beautifully classical schema, told in limpid, cool prose, and it ends in an appropriately melancholy triumph.

One lesson the narrator learns, however, is that: "although I won on the chessboard, I was defeated in reality". This distinction is what makes possible the very richness of the art of chess as a source of literary metaphor. Writers can become obsessed with chess - the young Tolstoy, as a gunnery officer in the Caucasus, deserted his post one night in order to play a game and was arrested: he thus missed out on the St George Cross he was due to be awarded the next day - but in using it as a metaphor for life they must recognise that it is something apart from life (this is what Nabokov's Luzhin disastrously fails to do). For chess is distinguished precisely by its absolute uselessness. It is, after all, only a game.

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