Ever since I was taught how to play at the age of 10 years old, I’ve been rather fond of chess. I like to say it’s my favourite sport, along with bitching. It is a board game that never disappoints, can be as fast-paced or as slowly thought-out as the players desire, and involves reserves of foresight and strategy. An individual can reveal much of their personalities, strengths, and weaknesses through their manner of playing. And the way in which they win, or more crucially, lose a match. There is something rather special about the hierarchical arrangement of the pieces and their capabilities, with the most important piece, the king, being effectively imprisoned by its token greatness.
The most powerful piece, given what it can do on the board, is the queen, but this was not always so. Since chess is so ordered, it has echoed major social trends across the centuries. In Birth of the Chess Queen: A History, Marilyn Yalom details how this piece’s power on the board increased with the influence of female wives and rulers in medieval Europe. Yalom views the chess queen as “the quintessential metaphor for female power in the Western world”. Before around 1000 AD, there were no female chess pieces, the queen’s role being occupied by a vizier or advisor in the Middle East and India, where the game originated. Yalom suggests that its creation was as a result of Empress Adelaide (931-999), the second wife of the Holy Roman Emperor Otto the Great. She was later canonized. As a result of having to escape from an attempted political marriage to the son of her first husband’s assassin by means of an underground tunnel, she is the patron of victims of abuse, as well as of second marriages, prisoners, and people experiencing conflict with their in-laws. The great medievalist Jacques Le Goff has pointed out another marker of social change in the rules of chess: with the social mobility afforded to craftsmen because of the advent of strong, large stone structures in the Middle Ages, peasants could learn a trade and become wealthy, a impossible prospect before the eleventh and twelfth centuries. It is at precisely this juncture that the pawn, the humble, doggedly populous piece of the game -there are 16 pawns in all and, as in the Lewis Chessmen above, the pawn is often faceless and therefore dehumanized- suddenly has the possibility of being queened, that is of becoming any greater piece (generally though by no means always the queen) if and when it reaches the final row of the board.
Because of its extraordinary tenacity and enduring relevance -and one can think of the Cold War chess games to know how long it has functioned as an effective emblem of power and struggle- chess has a long and varied pedigree of use in art and literature. I am particularly fond of Lucas van Leyden’s “The Chess Players”, above, painted in 1508. The game depicted in this canvas is courier chess, the forerunner to the modern game in which there were more squares and the queen was only empowered to move one square at a time, exactly like the present king. That would change during the sixteenth century with effective queens who yielded power as regnants rather than spouses or dowagers, such as Isabella I of Castile and Elizabeth I of England. There is so much going on in this painting and, as the title suggests, the interest is focused on the people rather than the pieces. The scene is positively crammed with people, mainly men, and there is the definite impression that the authentic game is not that being played in plain sight. The two women stand out both by the relative luminosity given to them but also in less aggressive features. While there is a female player, her male opponent appears to be disinterested in her and a male figure seated to her right is advising her. It is not difficult to see this gentleman as a “mansplainer” and it is tempting to interpret the painting as a representation of women, like the chess queen, having to negotiate the brutal rules of patriarchy in the midst of which they find themselves, caught up but there is not, however, the slightest hint that the females are at all subjugated or browbeaten.
There are countless examples of chess in literature across the centuries, such as Thomas Middleton’s A Game of Chess (1624), an allegorical play in which political tensions between Spain and England are satirized in a chess match. As well as being an apt source for political tropes, the game has featured in more whimsical works, such as Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass (1871), above, and has also been brought into play -dreadful pun alert- to reflect the power struggles involved in love. I’ve long been planning an article on chess in French literature, particularly during the early modern period when the first chess manuals were published in order to cater for the upwardly mobile who had to learn to navigate the treacherous waters of high society and be able to converse and act as if to the manner born. Chess has, naturally, loomed large in film and television and there are iconic chess matches such as the one played in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) between HAL and Frank, this particular match -based on a real game- symbolizing and foreshadowing the sinister power struggle between the computer and the human. Kubrick was obsessed with chess, an affliction that blights many creative people; Vladimir Nabokov also possessed an obsessive-compulsive relationship with the game.
For me, there is only one cinematic depiction of chess and that is Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 movie, The Seventh Seal. If you haven’t seen this film, I would urge you to. It is a brilliant work by a brilliant writer and director. I wrote a few blog entries ago that you never forget your first kiss nor your first Bergman movie. Set in the fourteenth century, a knight returns back to his native Sweden after having survived a decade on the Crusades. The film opens on a beach, shortly after his return, and the vivid sound of the sea of the first couple of minutes subsides as the crusader, Antonius Block, faces the personification of death, come to remove him from his mortal coil. Block challenges Death to a game of chess, and the movie’s action veers around this staggered game. Block is, of course, playing for time. As indeed are we all in this game of life and love and ultimately we will lose since Death cheats us all. The film is the first of Bergman’s series exploring faith -and doubt, and the work is at once spiritual and existentialist, austere and rich, uplifting and pessimistic. Like life itself, then.
There are countless other examples of chess, such as in The Prisoner (with Patrick McGoohan) and Star Trek but only one blog entry. I could not talk about artistic depictions of chess without alluding to the inspired and inspiring use of it in the 2005 spring and summer collection of the late, gifted Alexander McQueen. The theme was “It’s Only a Game” and the catwalk was replaced by models who went through a choreographed game of chess, which can be seen here. The concept is breathtaking and McQueen holds up a mirror to fashion itself, which is, after all, a vicious, ephemeral game with prizes to be won and victims to be vanquished. As Roland Barthes noted in Système de la mode (Paris: Seuil, 1967), clothes are, above all, not about concealing the flesh but rather constitute an expression of the individual wearing them, which he terms a description. Our dress describes us to others. What we wear is, then, completely about deceit based on the conceit of covering our bodies or keeping us modest and warm. Sartorial garments are all about power and seduction and little else, so McQueen’s chess topic hints at the depression that would later, very sadly, take him.
Today’s cufflinks are a really exquisite pair, made from sterling silver which has developed interesting oxidization. They each have each of the six chess pieces on the faces with very Nordic lines. The cufflinks have date stamps to 1957 and also bear the place mark of Stockholm. The maker’s mark is BHS, which is B. Sorlings Konsthantverk of Stockholm, active with this mark from 1949 to 1986; I’m grateful to Patrick Kapty for supplying information about this designer. The artist was very skilled and I would like to think that the chess-themed cufflinks are linked to the screening of The Seventh Seal that very year, a source of great pride for Sweden and Swedish cinema, though, of course, it didn’t win an Oscar; another striking and outrageous example of the vicissitudes of the game of life.