chess: Just a pawn in her game

Chess has a lot of metaphors associated with it. It given rise to passions that make Jimmy Connors or John McEnroe arguing over line calls seem positively benign. Chess pieces have been used as murder weapons and the clergy in the middle ages was prohibited from playing.

"Ono's Chess modifications represent prime examples of a game—specifically a war game—adapted and utilized as a call for peace. In Play it by Trust, players ultimately lose track of their pieces as their forces move forward. The pieces become lost as "enemies" meet, and, unable to differentiate sides by color, players either must remember where their pieces are, remember the direction their pieces face, or realize that they are all the same. The experience of becoming lost ultimately shows that both sides are equal, forcing players either to follow the standard rules for Chess or to create a new way to play. Here a game that traditionally represents a war is used to show that there are alternatives to fighting, and that when people recognize their similarities, they can find new ways to play, work together, and coexist in peace...."

“Chess is the game of modernism, and its many detractors revile and fear on a smaller scale in chess that which they abhor and recoil from in the broader battlegrounds of culture and politics. The reason and system of chess, and the purity of its oppositions, present a world of irreconcilable differences and stark, uncompromising hostility: class war, implacable antagonism, a miniature formal version of larger obsessive enmities. East versus West, the Cold War, spy vs. spy, Spassky vs. Fischer – the harshness of the black and white squares becomes the battleground for a protracted inter-cultural and theoretical hatred.” …

….The peacenik critique of chess – as expressed in Yoko Ono’s mono-coloured, non-oppositional chess pieces – would prefer to see no war, ever ever, and no difference (partnered by Lennon’s thought that ‘if everybody wore sacks, then we’d get to know what people are really like’), again takes as its premise the idea that chess is a symbolic perpetual re-enactment of the reactionary forces at play on the larger geo-political stage. Similarly, Robert Filliou’s 1968 ‘Optimistic Box No. 3’ approximates a fold-up chess box, but with all pieces removed. A label on the outside reads ‘so much the better if you can’t play chess’. The stage, setting and the black and white contrast of chess are nevertheless all pilfered in the name of another opposition – anarchoid ‘play’ against austere rule-bound gaming. Read More: a

"Players take turns, as in chess. Unlike in chess, they move up to five pieces per turn. Each piece carries a numerical “offensive factor” in addition to its defensive factor; when an attack is under way, offensive factors are summed and weighed against the defense, à la Risk. The game ends when a player’s fighting pieces or arsenals are gone. In the match Debord played with his wife, this took fifty-five moves. Ludologists and the extremely anal-retentive will be relieved to find that errors in the 1987 diagrams have been corrected. The rest of us will be glad just to get the rules down....(Nathan Heller)

The Chair she sat in, like a burnished throne,
Glowed on the marble, where the glass
Held up by standards wrought with fruited vines
From which a golden Cupidon peeped out
(Another hid his eyes behind his wing)
Doubled the flames of sevenbranched candelabra
Reflecting light upon the table as
The glitter of her jewels rose to meet it
From satin cases poured in rich profusion;
In vials of ivory and coloured glass
Unstoppered, lurked her strange synthetic perfumes,
Unguent, powdered, or liquid – troubled, confused
And drowned the sense in odours; stirred by the air
That freshened from the window, these ascended
In fattening the prolonged candle-flames,
Flung their smoke into the laquearia,
Stirring the pattern on the coffered ceiling…( T.S. Eliot, A Game of Chess )

In any activity so passionate, there has to be an underlying subtext of sexuality; competition for the scarce beauty.An overabundance of desire and an often absence of pleasure.  This theme of sexuality is found  in T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land; in particular in the second and third sections, “A Game of Chess” and “The Fire Sermon.”This section takes its title from two plays by the seventeenth -century playwright Thomas Middleton;  the moves in a game of chess denote stages in a seduction. From one to the next a progression takes place; men and women are initially and favorably interpreted as equals  in “A Game of Chess.” Love is shown as a sort of competition between players of equal stature, each with his or her sixteen pieces, though each adopting a distinct and opposing color for those pieces. As in a game of any kind, loss is very much a possibility. In “The Fire Sermon” the sense of “equal footing” is destroyed by the abandoning nymphs, female beings of sexual desire. In their place come women indifferent to sex and love, women who, instead of giving themselves, allow themselves to be taken.

---Reminds me of Spock in a few famous chess playing episodes: Spock: Your illogical approach to chess does have its advantages on occasion, Captain. Kirk: I prefer to call it inspired. Spock: As you wish. From Court Martial episode: McCoy (on finding Spock playing chess while Captain Kirk is on trial for negligence): "Mr. Spock, you're the most cold-blooded man I've ever known." Spock: "Why, thank you, Doctor."---

“…two opposing scenes, one of high society and one of the lower classes. The first half of the section portrays a wealthy, highly groomed woman surrounded by exquisite furnishings. As she waits for a lover, her neurotic thoughts become frantic, meaningless cries. Her day culminates with plans for an excursion and a game of chess. The second part of this section shifts to a London barroom, where two women discuss a third woman. Between the bartender’s repeated calls of “HURRY UP PLEASE IT’S TIME” (the bar is closing for the night) one of the women recounts a conversation with their friend Lil, whose husband has just been discharged from the army. She has chided Lil over her failure to get herself some false teeth, telling her that her husband will seek out the company of other women if she doesn’t improve her appearance. Lil claims that the cause of her ravaged looks is the medication she took to induce an abortion; having nearly died giving birth to her fifth child, she had refused to have another, but her husband “won’t leave [her] alone.” The women leave the bar to a chorus of “good night(s)” reminiscent of Ophelia’s farewell speech in Hamlet.Read More:

Daniel Kramer Bob Dylan Playing Chess, Woodstock, NY, 1964 silver gelatin print 20 x 16 in.

“Duchamp’s desire to win both against the art world and against his chess opponent (even if it had perhaps been, once or twice, Samuel Beckett) is just too damn teleological. Those uppity mavericks with their word games (Nabokov), misery (Bergman) and perversions (Carroll) – why can’t we all just get along in a meandering fuzz-out of slightly distracted, fragmentary amusement?! Chess is just that little bit too real, too close to serious passion to be anything other than the subject of contemporary derision – chess is for nerds, weirdos, obsessives. Pudovkin’s 1925 Chess Fever, even at the height of its comedy, understands the beauty of this obsessive quality perfectly: It’s either love or chess, or a love that is itself chess. In an odd linguistic and thematic prefiguration of Casablanca, the few minutes off screen where real-life chess champion Capablanca somehow infuses the heroine with an all-encompassing love of the game exist

that she may experience a new kind of joy with her previously estranged chess-infatuated fiancé. At the culmination of a chess tournament, they run off together to practice the Sicilian Defence. The greatest threat to love is not chess, says Chess Fever, but the denial of the seductive qualities of chess.” Read More: a

"Yoko Ono and Fluxus scholar Jon Hendricks play chess at Ono’s 1997 “Play It By Trust” last Friday at the List Visual Arts Center. “YES Yoko Ono,” on which Hendricks consulted, features Ono’s work from the 1960s to present."

Fifty years later, Guy Debord too understood something of the wit of chess with the invention in 1977, of his board game, ‘Game of War’. Played on a checkerboard of five hundred squares with two opposing armies of equal force, consisting of a number of regiments of infantry, cavalry, and artillery, with forts and arsenals, Debord created a kind of deranged chess proliferation that extends to absurdity the supposed agonism of ordinary chess. After Duchamp and Debord, we are left in a post-avant-garde era which operates with the sorry opposition hyper-chess or no chess at all.Read More:

…The first strophe in “A Game of Chess” (T.S. Eliot) shows a woman unapproachable. The appearance of the throne icon could liken her to the Ishtar of Lilith’s origins. Whether or not Eliot was aware of Lilith’s Sumerian roots is questionable, though; it is safest to say she is a woman of pride and artifice incapable of being conquered. She is cold and unloving, but is described in a setting disgustingly beautiful; that is, a setting made of things to be recognized as beautiful, but which, in conjunction with one another and the woman in their midst, fail to convey a true sense of beauty. This woman is our first indication of the lack of love which characterizes both genders in this and the following section.( Nate Jarvis )

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The first strophe also introduces the other motif which marks these sections: that of rape. The rape depicted is that of Philomel, a rape described with the words “so rudely forced” (words to be echoed, later on). The rape of Philomel is a transgression against her, from which she escapes by way of a drastic, cosmic change. Lilith is first seen here. The rape of Philomel is the rape of Lilith, “so rudely forced” into a subordinate position during the act of physical love. Lilith, too, initiates a cosmic change, and both escape to the desert. After the detailing of the rape the enthroned woman is shown again, now crying, now brushing her hair into “fiery points.” A cognizance is gained, an awareness of the destructive nature of male domination. The woman responds with tears, then with the ambiguous act of brushing her hair. This act can be seen as a control of female identity, the woman putting her hair into a position pleasing to male eyes. Or it can be seen as the opposite. Lilith was well known for her “fiery hair,” often the key to identifying her when represented artistically. In this case the woman is branding herself as an iconographic representation of Lilith, and in so doing likens herself to the iconographic ornamentation which surrounds her.Read More: a

…Huge sea-wood fed with copper
Burned green and orange, framed by the coloured stone,
In which sad light a carved dolphin swam.
Above the antique mantel was displayed
As though a window gave upon the sylvan scene
The change of Philomel, by the barbarous king
So rudely forced; yet there the nightingale
Filled all the desert with inviolable voice
And still she cried, and still the world pursues,
“Jug Jug” to dirty ears.
And other withered stumps of time
Were told upon the walls; staring forms
Leaned out, leaning, hushing the room enclosed.
Footsteps shuffled on the stair.
Under the firelight, under the brush, her hair
Spread out in fiery points
Glowed into words, then would be savagely still. …( T.S. Eliot, A Game of Chess )

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