Beyond the Metaphor of sacrifice : the grandmaster as poet

In the Medieval period, an age of magicians and shamans, it was only natural that they should cast their spells over the game; and there were a great many chessboards on which it was considered sheer folly to be the challenger.  King Arthur’s Sir Gawain encountered one such set in an eerie and spooked castle where the hall was arranged as a chessboard and the chess pieces, all life sized moved of their own volition when they came into contact with a magic ring. Harry Potter’s chess experience had deep antecedents: Ivan the Terrible reportedly arranged living chess games in which human players were executed as they were captured over the course of the match. Aleister Crowley and his Enochian chess….

---G.K. Chesterton said, "Poets do not go mad; but chess-players do." The tragic life of Bobby Fisher illustrates that saying. He was one of the most brilliant chess players of all times, but he went off the deep end. When he faced a legal problem, he denounced America and abandoned his native country. He fell into a bizarre and bitter anti-Semitism, even though he himself had a Jewish mother. Chesterton thought that chess-players sometimes went mad because chess is a game of pure logic - and that logic by itself can drive a person crazy.* The remedy, he thought, was poetry. "Poetry is sane," said Chesterton, “because it floats easily in an infinite sea; reason (logic) seeks to cross the infinite sea, and so make it finite. The result is mental exhaustion..." I don't know how seriously to take Chesterton's theory about chess-players and poets, but it does seem this Sunday that the devil is a logician - a chess player who has one goal: to trap his opponent.---image:

Another magician, the Dutchman Guynebans made for himself a specially designed board of gold and silver, which along with ivory inlays was so arranged that it was impossible to win on those boards. Pursued like Arthur for the holy grail, any serious chess player dreams of acquiring that board.

G.K. Chesterton:Most of the very great poets have been not only sane, but extremely business-like; and if Shakespeare ever really held horses, it was because he was much the safest man to hold them. Imagination does not breed insanity. Exactly what does breed insanity is reason.Poets do not go mad; but chess-players do. Mathematicians go mad, and cashiers; but creative artists very seldom.

----Photograph of Marcel Duchamp and Eve Babitz posing for the photographer Julian Wasser during the Duchamp retrospective at the Pasadena Museum of Art, 1963 © 2000 Succession Marcel Duchamp, ARS, N.Y./ADAGP, Paris. “The goal of chess is to mate. We can thus see this picture as the record of a tableau vivant of a word play. Since Freud, vulgar theorists have held that chess and art, to pick two examples, are sublimations of sex. Given Duchamp’s attitude towards wordplay versus theory, it is better to see his life long interest in chess and eroticism as a sublimation of this picture’s wordplay! Given that the double meaning of “mate” does not exist in French, at last we have a satisfactory explanation of why Duchamp had to emigrate to America. In other words: in the beginning was the word; in the center the pun.” From: A Pun Among Friends by Steven B. Gerrard---

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I am not, as will be seen, in any sense attacking logic: I only say that this danger does lie in logic, not in imagination. Artistic paternity is as wholesome as physical paternity. Moreover, it is worthy of remark that when a poet really was morbid it was commonly because he had some weak spot of rationality on his brain. Poe, for instance, really was morbid; not because he was poetical, but because he was specially analytical. Even chess was too poetical for him; he disliked chess because it was full of knights and castles, like a poem. He avowedly preferred the black discs of draughts, because they were more like the mere black dots on a diagram.


The Seventh Seal. Bergman. "Fischer is the poster boy for the mad chess genius, a species with a pedigree going back at least to Paul Morphy, who after his triumphal 1858-59 tour of Europe returned to the U.S., abruptly quit the game and is said to have wandered the streets of New Orleans talking to himself. Others have verged more on the edge of eccentricity. The great Wilhelm Steinitz claimed to have played against God, given him an extra pawn and won. Neither player left a record of the game. " image :

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—-Caen Aerte:This is an extract from the Posthuman Dada Guide, about the infamous (and possible mythical) chess match between revolutionary and founder of the USSR Vladimir Lenin, and the Romanian-Jewish artist and o

f the founders of Dada, Tristan Tzara, at the La Terrasse cafe in Zurich, in 1916 or so:

Lenin is impatient: revolution is all about timing and the time is now. Lenin is one-quarter Mongol (Kalmyk) and one-quarter Jewish. Tristan Tzara is one hundred percent Ashkenazi Jewish, but there is a persistent question about the origin of the Ashkenazi Jews in Eastern Europe, about whether they are partly or wholly Khazar (a Mongolian people who converted to Judaism in the 10th century), or direct descendants of Abraham. In any case, it is Lenin who most clearly embodies warring Mongol impatience with Jewish thoughtfulness and reasoning. The revolution must be conducted like a Mongol attack, a swarming of the enemy, and so it is. The Bolshevik attack on the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg in October 1917 is the Mongolian chess opening: a handful of armed and angry Bolsheviks seizes power from the weak Duma and takes control of Russia. What happens afterwards is tactical, and Lenin has given it only a little thought, trusting that every situation that will arise after the revolution will be solved given the context and the situation, if one acts according to the principles of dialectics, which is History.

(playing Chess in Cuba): Historical Chess Picture: Bobby Fischer and Fidel Castro's photograph - Bobby Fischer and Fidel Castro analysing a position during a Chess Olympiad in Havana (Cuba). «Bobby Fischer and Fidel Castro's photograph» Historical Chess Picture: Bobby Fischer and Fidel Castro's photograph - Bobby Fischer and Fidel Castro analysing a position during a Chess Olympiad in Havana (Cuba) - Image Copyright © 2007

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Tristan Tzara desires most earnestly to overthrow reality, not just art, and to this end he would rather play anarchist chess, moving pieces situated at random on a board occupying any number of dimensions. He is nonetheless fascinated with the limitations of the game because there are infinite possibilities within these limitations, a paradox much like the study of the Torah, the reading of one verse numerous times so that it loses its apparent meaning and becomes pure sound, referencing something primal and unknown. He waits like a junkie for the moment when the high hits and the apparently banal turns magical. At that moment, the mechanical movements of the head moved by reason become abstract. Abstraction is freedom and, amazingly, abstraction appears most accessible through the narrow gate of rules. Each square is a mouth opening into Chaos and each piece, once moved, changes the entire universe, like words rearranging the cosmos.

This is way beyond Lenin’s play. Lenin wants to win and he stubbornly insists on the rational unfolding of the plan of History, a process that is as objective and solid as the wooden chess pieces on the board. The wooden knight in his hand is real, it exists beyond him, but it must move two and one squares because that is the Law. History has Laws that proceed from objective reality.

Lenin and Gorky. 1908.

The Laws of Chess have on occasion accommodated politics. Benjamin Franklin is said to have lobbied for the taking, not just the surrender, of the King because he did not want to play a royalist game. A republican game, he thought, would make the King a citizen, as mortal as a pawn. Lenin decided something similar when he ordered the Tsar and his family killed. I doubt if Franklin would have gone so far: abdication and removal from the board would have satisfied him.

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For both Tzara and Lenin, chess is fascinating beyond metaphor. Chess is the Bible of war. Jews were enabled by their portable religion, the Bible (the Book), to keep the faith. They idled the time between pogroms and expulsions by studying the Bible. Chess enabled nomad warriors to while away the time between battles by playing chess, a game of divine origin that was a transcendent mirror of war that validated their campaigns. Fundamentally different languages attend the players: Lenin is validated by the logic of the board, Tzara by its possibility of transcendent egress. Lenin has his hand on the knight when he realizes that his opponent is none other than the Tzar. Tzara. He pulls on the reins and the knight leaps forward.

Nazi propaganda poster reading "Check the war-mongers of the world. Every vote for the Führer!". (From the German Propaganda Archive.)


---The image is said to have been created in Vienna by Hitler's art teacher, Emma Lowenstramm, and is signed on the reverse by the two dictators. Hitler was a jobbing artist in the city in 1909 and Lenin was in exile and the house where they allegedly played the game belonged to a prominent Jewish family. ---

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