The Case for Chess as Art in the Age of The Queen’s Gambit

By Rachel S. Kovacs, Professor, Arts Reviewer, Author, and Presenter at City University of New York

Have no illusions. I know next to nothing about chess. I’ve occasionally watched a game, and relished how calmly its players, oblivious to other stimuli around them, contemplate their moves and graciously accept their faux pas. Recently, my know-nothingness became obsessive. I binge-watched The Queen’s Gambit. Wide-eyed, I marveled how Elizabeth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy) had the skills and wits not only to defeat Russian grandmasters but also to transcend the rampant sexism in the chess world of her time. Know-nothingness didn’t stop me marveling at Harmon’s chessboard-on-ceiling visions or embedding them in my head. They were breathtaking beautiful.

Source: Netflix (The Queen’s Gambit)

Of course, we are talking about the Netflix world of fiction. Yet the show and the images piqued my interest in exploring if, and how, chess is regarded as art. In the real world, including the art world, chess can also be a breathtakingly beautiful art, as artists, grandmasters, and even digital game-makers have asserted. 

Consider the great Dadaist pioneer, Marcel Duchamp, contemporary and sometimes-rival of Picasso. He was a Renaissance man, who, at the height of his career, went from pioneering cubism in his art to adopting the lifestyle of an itinerant chess pro. As of 1923, Duchamp essentially abandoned his art career and entered amateur and then professional competitions, winning the Paris competition in 1924.  Duchamp said, “I have come to the personal conclusion that while all artists are not chess players, all chess players are artists.” In the New York Times, 1956, he proffered, “Chess is purer, socially, than painting, for you can’t make money out of it.” 

In today’s market, that may not be the case, but the quote demonstrates Duchamp’s reverence for the game. He painted it, as well as played it, and reputedly designed and carved his own chess set while in South America for a tournament. In 1968, he competed against the illustrious John Cage, who composed music to accompany the game. Photoelectric cells that moved under the table along with the chess pieces created the sound. So, for Duchamp, chess could be an all-encompassing art. 

We have barely touched on the beauty of chess pieces, such as those made by Duchamp, chess as sculpture, and the range of materials, from marble to wood and beyond, that are used to create those pieces. The artistry of those pieces can be subjectively judged on their own visual merits.

Duchamp’s acclaimed almost-contemporary, Alexander Alekhine, legendary grandmaster, and immortalized Soviet champion, said, “Chess for me is not a game, but an art. Yes, and I take upon myself all those responsibilities which an art imposes on its adherents.” 

PN Humble, a scholar of aesthetics, qualified chess as “a minor art,” based on the fact that “aesthetic values are derived from the contest…games are judged according to aesthetic criteria… players and spectators derive aesthetic pleasure from the medium of chess.” His comparison of a chess problem to a miniature and the game itself to a painting reinforces the notion that chess is art.

James Rachels analyzed renowned Czech mathematician Richard Reti’s writings and chess playing. Both consider chess as game and art. Rachels points out that prior to Reti, many grandmasters characterized the essence of chess as a struggle, “a contest of will and intellect with each player attempting to dominate the other.” Ultimately, this concept is not incompatible with the notion that chess is art, as art can also convey such a struggle.

Both non-academic and academic observers and players have commented on the artistry behind chess. Howseman, in a letter to the editor of The Guardian, notes that “Chess isn’t just a game but an art form where worlds like ‘beautiful,’ ‘elegant’ and artistic can be used to describe a particular sequence of moves.”  He quotes Argentinian grandmaster Miguel Najdorf, who made the following observations: “Chess is a mirror of the soul. Watch how a man plays chess and you will see his essence. Chess is a combination of art, knowledge, and risk.” 

Discourse about chess as art has even entered the realm of gaming and computational aesthetics. Myers discusses the “procedural aesthetics” of the game and “the capacity of the rules of chess, when manipulated properly, to evoke the human spirit – that elevates the chess problem to the status of art.” Iqbal and Yaacole cite the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of art– “the expression or application of creative skill and imagination, especially through a visual medium,” and so, they argue, chess can be considered an art.   

Chess as a sport may pale by comparison with the Western media’s focus on high-profile and highly profitable competitive sports like baseball, football, basketball, and soccer, yet in the former Soviet Union, this is surely not the case. Chess education for youngsters and talented would-be champions was always subsidized, much like fellowships and stipends given to artists, and those who rose to win tournaments were celebrated as heroes. 

It is in that culture, for over a decade, that venues for chess matches have reflected an integral  connection between chess and art on the highest professional levels. Andrei Filatov, an uber-wealthy Russian businessman, was not the first to hold a chess competition at a museum, but was a principal sponsor of the 2016 World Chess Championship where Viswanathan Anand was matched with Boris Gelfand at the Moscow’s State Tretyakov Gallery. He was quoted in Russian newspaper RBC Daily, “I think the synergy between chess and art holds great promise.”

The Russian Chess Federation has scheduled its top chess tournaments in art museums across the globe. Chess in Museums, a 2016 video produced by sportsmaster.ru, documents chess, art, and music (with concerts by renowned musicians) experienced in an immersive aesthetic environment. While clearly this is a promotional video and good PR for the tournament organizers, the museums, and the video production company, it lends credence to the premise that chess can hold its own as an art form alongside the fine and performing arts. Now its up to the reader to accept or reject that premise. Here’s hoping that he or she will choose the former. 

 

Isabel, 2021 Summer Youth Employment Program Intern Introduction

 

Hello, my name is Isabel! I work at Premier Chess and am a camp counselor and intern for the summer. I am from Brooklyn and am going to Adelphi University this fall. I am planning on taking up nursing to later become a nurse anesthetist. Going into the medical field and specifically the nursing profession, I want to create a space more safe for all kinds of people, where they are not discriminated against on the basis of their skin color or gender orientation. I am excited to begin my journey starting here!

 

Chess is a complex game that involves adaptable thinking and requires you to be on your toes when your opponent makes a move. I think it is the type of game where the player is on a higher level of thinking, which I really admire. I may not know much about the game of chess or the specifics but I am very curious and eager to learn about how complicated the game can be. The inner workings of how intricate chess can be is a bit daunting to someone who has the most basic knowledge of the game, but I am very excited to get started to learn more!

Evan Rabin’s New Video on Openings

By Cinthia Mcdonald, Summer Youth Employment Intern

Recently our CEO and National Chess Master Evan Rabin was able to participate in publishing a series of videos in which he explains the foundations and essentials of multiple chess openings and strategies as well as how each party can contribute and benefit from them. These videos are divided into multiple parts and goes as follows: 

Part 1: Elaborates on positions for (white’s) attack and defense which consists of the variational Sicilian opening, Ruy Lopez, Schlemann Defense, and many more. 

Part 2: Highlights plays that are easily accessible to both (black and white) parties such as the Maroczy Bond, and French Tarrasch just to name a few. 

Part 3: Focuses on learning opening for (black’s) deviation of strategy. Singles out repertoire in which the majority is enabled by the Caro Kann execution. 

Purchase the videos here.

Top 10 Chess Fun Facts You Probably Did not Know

By Cinthia Mcdonald, Summer Youth Employment Intern

Although chess has increasingly become more popular in the last millennia, there is still not nearly enough common knowledge on the sport itself for it to match its valued hype. Let us jump into some basic yet interesting facts that will make you fall in love with chess just a little bit more…

 

  1. Chess had been used as a form of strategic military training from as early as Ancient India to the current age of technology.

2. The first Chessboard with alternating light and dark squares appears in Europe in 1090.

3. The word “Checkmate” in chess originates from the Persian phrase “Shah Mat,” which means “the King is dead.”

4. The record of moves without capture is of 100 moves during the Match between Thornton and M. Walker in 1992.

5. Out of the 7 billion people that exist on Earth, about 600,000,000 people know how to play chess worldwide.

6. The longest possible chess game comes up to a whopping 5,949 moves!!

7. In the English language, the second book to ever be printed took was about chess (it must have been really popular!!)

8. There are a total of eight different ways from the starting position to Mate in just two moves, whereas there are a total of 355 different paths to mate using three moves.

9. In 1985, Eric Knoppert played 500 games of 10-minute Chess in 68 hours.

10. The record of moves without capture is of 100 moves during the Match between Thornton and M. Walker in 1992.

 

Is there anything else you want to learn or know about chess? Feel free to reach out and even sign up for our weekly chess camp along with lessons!!! Visit our page @ facebook.com/premierchess and we promise you will turn out into a strategic master.

 

Cinthia, 2021 Summer Youth Employment Program Intern Introduction

Hello! My name is Cinthia, I am from Brooklyn, NY and am attending Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, PA with a major in Biochemistry. I will be working with Evan over the summer for his in-person chess camp as well as virtual lessons. I enjoy being socially inclusive and meeting as many people as I can where I can learn from them and vice versa. I practice social cues to keep the younger youth minds engaged, as well as assisting behind the scenes. 

Although I am not very proficient in the sport of chess, I do intend to study and learn about the mental significance of it all. The process of the game itself is much more than moving plastic pieces across a board and I do believe that it will be a great learning experience that will hold longevity in my future career. It teaches one to think strategically and take every opportunity to their advantage no matter how small. It is literally the metaphorical business world easily accessible to your fingertips! I even had a quick 1 on 1 session with Evan to teach me the basic rules of chess in about an hour. I am now even able to play against other beginners with subtle technique and feign the impression of someone with more experience haha! Something that was very motivating to me was when Evan told me that we need more women in the chess world, and what is a more perfect example than a woman like me expressing how beneficial chess is for all genders. More women in chess means more inclusivity and social action in the business world. This is anyone’s world and success can only be made if the correct pressure is applied, even something as futile as playing chess. It can be assured that time will not be wasted with the effort that is put into this chess program and I plan to keep it running full circle for as long as I remain a partner and fellow colleague. 

Well, that is all from me folks and I hope you all would give Premier Chess a try. I already can tell that this will be a great networking opportunity as well as helping young and old minds alike think critically, efficiently, and healthily. There are also several opportunities for personal lessons as well as room for group sessions for your children to remain social and active in this state of COVID-19. Stay happy and healthy all and you will hear from me again. 

Aden Ho, 2021 Summer Youth Employment Program Intern Introduction

“I’m bad at chess,” I’d say before almost every chess game whether with family or friends — who would become foes for the next 60 minutes or so. I learned how to play chess in the second grade of elementary school, but would always lose to my best friend Dario, a champion of Brooklyn at only 8 years old. Checkers seemed to fit me better: more fast paced, less thinking, and I’d often win when playing. I rarely played either game in my free time anyway, and as I grew older and more busy, to me the ancient game of chess became just that. 

About a year ago, my friends started playing more chess. They’d challenge each other whenever we had free time during zoom class (essentially all the time). I’d normally spectate as they played, trying to justify their moves and looking for potential better ones. Watching them play piqued my interest and inspired me to get better at the game I said I was bad at. I was taught at a young age the importance of adaptability and what better game than chess to reinforce that? When I saw Premier Chess as one of the employers under the Infinity SYEP Provider, I knew it would be an amazing opportunity to not only make some money so that I wouldn’t fulfill the stereotype of a broke college student (as early at least, I hope), but also one to learn the facets of the game of chess. 

I’m Aden, I recently graduated from Brooklyn Technical High School under the finance major, and will be attending Bowdoin College in the fall as a prospective economics major. I’m ecstatic and enthused to be working with National Master Evan and fellow SYEP employees (or partners as Evan says) this summer! At the end of it I hope to be able to say “I’m not bad at chess.” Thanks for reading 🙂

Matthew Nedderman, 2021 Summer Youth Employment Program Intern Introduction

My name is Matthew Nedderman. I am 19 years old and attend Queensborough community College. I am studying Digital Art and design and am considering getting a Job in the Animation Industry. I have a huge passion for art and design. I have gotten the title of best artist in my senior year of High school. Some interest that I have include Basketball, Art, Animation, Music, and Clothing/Sneakers. I am excited that I was given the opportunity to work at Premier Chess. I am exciting to meet new people and improve my social skills. I am hoping to learn how to play chess because I feel it is a skillset that could benefit me in the future. Learning Chess has a lot of cognitive benefits. Skilled chess players can anticipate an opponent’s next move. To gain the ability to predict what another person will do next, a player must develop the ability to gain the opponents perspective and predict what action they will take next.

     Experienced Chess players have highly developed thinking abilities in Fluid intelligence (The ability to consider new kinds of problems and use reasoning to solve them) and Processing Speed (The ability to swiftly comprehend tasks and respond efficiently to challenges). Chess also improves the memory since the game involves memorizing numerous moves, combinations and their possible outcomes.  Chess also leads to better planning skills. This is because chess games are known for long periods of silence where players anticipate each other’s moves.

Somaiya Ahmed, 2021 Summer Youth Employment Program Intern Introduction

Hello.  My name is Somaiya. I am from Brooklyn, New York. I recently graduated from high school (Brooklyn College Academy), after a year of remote learning and a worldwide pandemic. Quite the usual. Jokes aside, I am proud of myself and my class year for being resilient through it all. I am especially grateful to say that this fall I will be attending Tufts University, through the QuestBridge National Match Scholarship. I am planning to study studio art with a concentration in film and media. I am excited to see what my future holds!


Before my college plans unfold, it is essential that I begin saving up! Thankfully with the help of New York’s Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP), I have earned the opportunity to intern at Premier Chess, a chess teaching business led by National Master Evan Rabin. My work entails promoting the art of chess through my expertise in visual arts. Now you may be wondering why chess? Well, after watching Queen’s Gambit, “Netflix’s most-watched scripted limited series to date,”  I adopted a new perspective for chess. Watching the show’s protagonist, Beth Harmon, dominating games left to right while battling with addiction and loneliness, providing a dynamic viewing experience. I have to praise show creators, Walter Tevis and Scott Frank, for doing an excellent job at capturing Beth’s complex emotions through the game of chess. As a film enthusiast, I found it beautiful how they portrayed the game of chess through the light of emotions and thoughts. 

All in all, I am excited to take my newfound interest in chess and weave it into this summer’s work. With the company of my peers and Mr. Rabin’s supervision, I am certain this summer will be awesome!