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….
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.
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.
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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 of 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.
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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.
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.
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