Friday, May 24, 2013

Chess as Art, Chess as Violent Sport

Grandmaster Lubomir Kavalek, a two-time U.S. Champion who once ranked among the top 10 players in the world, used to write a weekly chess column for the Washington Post but now his writing is regularly published by the Huffington Post. His most recent column begins with a famous quote from artist (and chess player) Marcel Duchamp: "While all artists are not chess players, all chess players are artists."

GM Kavalek notes that the fourth World Chess Champion, Alexander Alekhine, also saw a connection between chess and art: "To me, chess is not a game; it is art," Alekhine declared.

With all due respect to Alekhine, these categories are not mutually exclusive; chess is both an art and a violent sport. Later in his column, GM Kavalek offers a vivid description of chess' brutal nature--and its tremendous allure:

It doesn't hurt your body, but your brain, your ego. Instead of concussions chess players suffer humiliation after a terrible loss. They start to question their confidence, doubting the worthiness of what they do. But in the end, they collect themselves and go back to the chessboard. And some of them may remember Alekhine's words: "I consider chess an art and accept all the responsibilities that art places upon its devotees."

Here are two other notable Alekhine quotes that fit in with GM Kavalek's exploration of the dual themes of chess as art/chess as violent sport:

"For success I consider three factors are necessary: firstly, an awareness of my own strengths and weaknesses; secondly, an accurate understanding of my opponent's strengths and weaknesses; thirdly, a higher aim than momentary satisfaction. I see this aim as being scientific and artistic achievements, which place the game of chess on a par with other arts."

"During a Chess competition a Chessmaster should be a combination of a beast of prey and a monk."

Achieving chess mastery involves much more than simply acquiring basic technical knowledge about how to play; a master must have an artistic sense, a great fighting spirit and very stable nerves in order to withstand the highs and lows that inevitably occur in a chess game and in a chess tournament. Chess is highly respected as both an art and a sport in many cultures, though Americans often dismiss chess' artistic value and scoff at the notion of chess as sport.

Basketball, chess and boxing share fascinating similarities in terms of preparation, intensity and skill development but some people insist that chess is not a sport because it lacks the obvious physical component inherent in basketball, boxing and other activities that are universally considered to be sports. This way of thinking ignores two important points: (1) there is a physical component to chess in terms of energy exertion and mental/physical/emotional stress and duress; (2) it has not always been the case that sport is defined exclusively as an activity involving a certain amount of physical movement. Rune Vik-Hansen asserts that the idea of chess as sport should not be summarily rejected:

Claiming chess "is just a game," because it is rule based, and therefore unworthy of undue attention, is a tautology and explains nothing. Mind you, the activity we call life may also be perceived to be a game with rules and recipes. When asking if chess is a sport or athletics, what we're really asking is if chess players perform, and more so, in the physical sense of the word...Despite agreeing in newspapers' commentary fields that games and activities like chess, bridge, archery, dart, shooting etc., involve performance of some kind, still, the physical aspect seems to saturate contemporary understanding of what a sporting or athletic performance is. In a country obsessed with countables and quantifiables--what cannot be measured does not exist--we may ask if not the accent on the physical excludes the possibility for a finer perception of what "performance" or "achievement" might be. Few doubt mental gladiators perform, but what, where and how?  Is "blood, sweat and tears" (Johan Kaggestad, Norwegian athletics coach and TV commentator) or "motion" (1500-meter runner, Henrik Ingebrigtsen) the only criterion in a sporting or athletic performance or achievement?

I think that many people have a deeply ingrained bias against sustained intellectual concentration and against finding value in people who spend a lot of time thinking; that is why people who do well in school and/or express interest in non-mainstream subjects are often ostracized as "nerds." It is not considered normal to think too much or too deeply, so an activity like chess--which takes place in the minds of two competitors before being expressed physically/symbolically by the movement of chess pieces--is viewed with suspicion and even mockery in many quarters. Chess is difficult, chess involves thought and concentration, so it inevitably arouses suspicion among people who would prefer to think as little as possible and who see more value in running, jumping and throwing.

Instead of limiting the definition of sport to only include activities that generate "blood, sweat and tears," any rule-based activity that relies on skill should be considered a sport; some sports are mainly physical activities that include a mental component (such as basketball, boxing, football, etc.), while chess is a sport that is mainly a mainly mental activity that also includes a physical component in terms of energy exertion. It is not accidental that top level chess is dominated by young players; chess is very strenuous and thus energy and physical conditioning often outweigh the value of accumulated experience/wisdom.

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