Updated: Sep 21
Imagine you are the King of Persia. It is 600AD. You govern the Sasanian Empire during its Second Golden Era. Your jurisdiction extends from Central Asia, through Arabia and the Caucasus to Egypt and Anatolia. The vast intercontinental spread of Iranian culture has restored Persia to its global prominence. All around you, your citizens are pioneering the arts, science and literature. The Great Academy of Gondishapur is the intellectual centre of the world. Your empire is not only tolerant of diverse schools of thought but aspires to it. An Indian discusses the Vedics with a Persian while a Greek shares Hippocrates with a Syrian. Medicine accordingly sees unrivalled advancement. The economy thrives. Buildings are built. You stand as the successor of Cyrus to claims of Persian greatness. What more could you want?
Of course, you are not to last. You are blissfully unaware of the unborn Islamic threat on your borders. Soon it will be your replacement, and will reduce your empire to rubble. You will become, as Shelly’s Ozymandias, a relic of antique times. The lone and level sands will indeed stretch far away. Nonetheless, you are wise and know that nothing lasts. The vast might of the Achaemenids, your forebears, was crushed by Alexander. Even Western Rome, the greatest civilisation yet known, fell to the Visigoths and the Germanic kingdoms. You therefore muse on how you can cheat death, surviving through your accomplishments. But what will be your legacy? Your architecture? You cannot foresee that Islamic civilisation will annex it and cast it as their own, winged by the markers of the faith. You know though that the physical is always transient. Academia? Though you are its ruler, you have no claim to all of your nation’s intellectual achievements. Most people moreover will not be learned enough to properly understand them. What you will do is stimulate the spread of the greatest game ever made.
Indians will claim that chess predated the Persian invention. They made chaturanga, chess’ older brother. It is the Sanskrit word for ‘four limbed’, referring to ancient army divisions of infantry, cavalry, elephantry, and chariotry, and was made in by the Gupta Empire anytime between the 4th and 6th centuries AD. There is an apocryphal story about how this happened. The Indian emperor was bored of all the games surrounding him that involved the element of chance. He therefore asked his sages and advisors to invent one predicated purely on intellect. Someone managed it, save that in chess white gets the first move and thus gets the advantage of ‘tempo’, immediately putting black in a defensive position. The thrilled ruler offered the inventor anything he wished. He asked for a grain of rice on the first square, two on the second, four on the third and doubling on each square until all were accounted for. There are 64 squares on a chess board. It was calculated that what the inventor had really asked for was more grains of rice than had ever existed on the planet. So the emperor chopped the man’s head off.
So much for his cleverness then. As far as I can tell, the Indian predecessor relates to chess in all but one way, which is that the opposing kings do not face one another. I prefer the latter emendation- I imagine kings before battle staring each other down across a field, like two boxers in a weigh in. Be that as it may, India’s claim to chess has archaic weight. One could reach unimaginably far back in time for the true origins of chess. Excavations at the town of Lothal in the Indus Valley show terracotta figurines and game boards that resemble a prototype of early chess forms. Archaeological evidence dates them to the time of the Harappan civilisation in the 3rd millennium BC. Yet the common idea is that chess as we know it was, if not invented from scratch, refined and then populated by the Persians. In fact, the very phrase ‘checkmate’ is Persian in origin deriving from the Farsi ‘Shāh Māt’ meaning ‘the king is helpless’. From Persia in the 9th century, it reached Russia, and from then to Europe and North Africa. At times it has been politicised, stripping it of its innocence. During the 1930’s for instance, Nazi Germany co-opted chess as a political tool, circulating propaganda claiming that the age of Romantic chess, dominated by dashing Aryan players such as Morphy and Anderssen, had been derailed by ‘cowardly, stingy’ positional chess exemplified by Jewish players such as Steinitz and Lasker. Matches between the USA and the Soviet Union for the World Championship became almost proxy wars. Yet apart from such instances, Persia gave us a game of unrivalled appeal. It is in my humble opinion their finest achievement, and most enduring legacy.
This is because chess can have a positive impact on character. Other games have their worth; poker for instance trains one’s perspicacity, how to read people, how to manipulate them. It encourages a level of boldness and a level of self-restraint. Yet some view it as a scummy game, materialistic and encouraging deceitfulness. Chess can only offer the advancement of wholly beneficial skills. One can see this in each of the three sections of the game. The first stage, the opening, trains the virtue of diligence. The Oxford Companion to Chess lists 1327 named openings and variants, that is to say, 1327 different ways in which one can start a game of chess as either white or black. Each has its own theory behind it which, if one is to be able to play the opening proficiently, must be studied. Studying involves memorizing the moves and understanding why they are the best moves to play as well as the mistakes to look out for, the theory behind the theory. This to most people is the most boring aspect of chess but it is vitally important once at an advanced level. In doing this one has to be extremely meticulous. At the top level this involves intense opening preparation for matches. One must analyse one’s opponent’s games, recognising their favourite openings and styles of play, dissecting them, noticing the most minute weaknesses to exploit, all the while trying to optimise one’s own stock repertoire. For a World Championship match, players will have a team of chess experts, commonly grandmasters around them in order to maximise the standard of analyses and preparation. The best grandmasters will not only be the experts in their favourite openings, knowing all the recognised variations up to sometimes the 30th move, but be suitably proficient in a wide range so as to never be phased by an opponent’s choice. One of the world champion Magnus Carlsen’s most infuriating traits for rivals is that his range is so wide and often will even depart from established theory early in order to frustrate players prep. All of this takes extraordinary hard work, resilience, focus and flexibility and, most importantly, trial and error.
The middle game is what follows when a new move is played, making a fresh game. As Magnus Carlsen puts it, this is when ‘pure chess’ begins. The battle of the books ends and the battle of the mind starts. Indeed, this is where originality can truly take over. The science gives way to the art form. Those who appreciate this will describe moves or styles in the most poetic of fashions. Players have been described as ‘with the spirit of a Roman rather than a Greek’. The classical chess of the 19th century was cast as the ‘Romantic’ era (as earlier hinted). Indeed, the creativity the game of chess allows is infinite. It is said that there are more possible arrangements of moves in the game of chess than atoms in the universe. This is called the Shannon number, represented by any value between 10 to the power of 111 and to the power of 123. Whether or not this is strictly true is less important than the notion it conveys. A player’s disposal is boundless. This of course means finding the best move, while sometimes obvious, is more often than not an outstanding trial. To choose between so many competing options, some good, some great, is the difference between a win and a loss at the apogee of the game. A mistake can merely be picking the second best rather than the best move. Hence the saying by grandmaster Emmanuel Lasker- ‘when you see a good move, look for a better one’. This relentless striving for perfection is chess’ method of encouraging personal development. Perfectionism is at the heart of the game. So long as one accepts that chess can never be mastered, the perfectionist ideal can be seen merely as the unachievable goal that motivates improvement. The complexity of the game can only really be appreciated by one who has embarked on such a mission of self-betterment. I play reasonably well- I am within the class of ratings that chess.com claims represents an advanced player, anything above 1500. A great friend of mine is rated 2450, which is within the top 400 players on the site for the time format (rapid). I know I will never be better than him and to me, it is hard to comprehend that there is much better. Yet there are multiple tiers of players better than him, and within the highest tier players who can crush members of that same tier. This game’s complexity is part of its attraction. The middle game also insists upon the ability to play with a range of different attitudes. Sometimes one must recognise that defensiveness is necessary. Sometimes one must play more slowly, waiting for a chance to break through, a ‘closed’ game. Sometimes one must play with urgency before the opponent can capitalise on one’s lethargy- a ‘sharp’ game. Sometimes one must be clever enough to recognise when a sacrifice must be made for victory, and bold enough to make it. Occasionally, especially under time pressure, one must trust one’s instincts as much as one’s belief in the accuracy of one’s calculation. All this trains a player to be creative and aware of the circumstances in which they find themselves. Blaise Pascal called chess ‘the gymnasium of the mind’. There is no better way of expressing the mental fortitude it fosters.
The endgame, usually the stage of the game when too few pieces are on the board or too little a material advantage has been gained by either player to checkmate the opposing king without a queen, entails the promotion of a pawn, the weakest piece, into a queen. If the opening is to be played like a book, and the middle game like a magician, as it is said, it is said of the endgame that it should be played like a machine. If concentration is at the very centre of every great chess player, then it requires maximisation in this critical part of the game. The endgame is all about strategy and is the stage when any sort of error becomes fatal. Whereas the sheer chaos of a middle game may allow for mistakes to be counteracted by another’s mistakes, in the endgame, where an error offers a decisive chance, a robotic degree of focus is required. The finishing touches of a match necessitates incomparable mental endurance. The 6th game of the 2021 World Chess Championship match between Magnus Carlsen and Ian Neponmniachtchi was won by the former and lasted 6 hours. The longest game ever reached 20. This commitment and willpower are perhaps the most edifying aspects of serious chess competition.
The admixture of these three parts makes for a phenomenally challenging whole. Of course, excellence involves failure. Capablanca believed that one had to lose hundreds of games to have learnt enough to become good. The frustration of losing a chess game can be immense, particularly if one blundered a winning position or failed to convert an advantage. There is no remorse like chess, as H. G. Wells opined, just as the satisfaction of delivering a flashy checkmate is unparalleled. In 1851 Adolf Anderssen beat Lionel Kieseritzky in what became known as the ‘Immortal Game’, as he won after sacrificing both his rooks, a bishop and his queen to deliver a checkmate with his remaining three minor pieces. I can’t imagine the euphoria he must have felt. Perhaps the joy of winning comes from the fact that it takes such a unique mind to excel at the game, entailing such a harmonious combination of willpower, strategy, mental clarity and creativity. Napoleon, one of the greatest military minds of all time, was horrendous at chess. Chess demands so much more of the mind than just strategic excellence. The kind of concentration chess invites is, as grandmaster Jonathan Rowson wrote, ‘a method of corralling and coordinating fissiparous parts of our psyche’. It’s not just about paying attention or directing emotion to positive action. It is the synergy of the mental faculties towards a single goal, devoid of unrelated thought, and foregrounded in a primal will to win. One of the reasons for chess’ enduring popularity is that the experience of playing it symbolises an intense self-absorption in the activity. When our skill level and challenge level are optimally matched, we find it deeply rewarding, a state of mind that Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls ‘flow’. This quality of consciousness offers the potential for extreme pleasure when the challenge is overcome by the skill level to match. Chess in this sense is a sort of drug for the better. The chess addiction is very real- once someone is introduced and has won a few games, often they spend some time obsessing over it until they reach a wall, wherein lies the real difficulty. The persistence to improve and break down barriers to do so on the path to self-betterment is a part of life as it is crucial to chess. So here’s to that arrogant beheaded wiseman from India. Your death was not in vain.