Sarah's Chess Journal

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The History and The Culture of Chess

Le Funambule
    May  2006
I had noticed a long time ago how things tend to come to me in groups.

Maybe it's just a coincidence or maybe I'm some sort of cosmic lightening rod or convergence point for ideas traveling through space and time.
While I don't really believe in the second explanation, I can pretend.

I had been thinking of the various ways chess has been used as a metaphor or in some other symbolic way when, without even looking,  I came across two extremely diverse subjects in the same day. Each one dealt with this symbolic use of chess in its own unique way.

The first subject is rather straight forward, but the second requires some detailed explanations. So, please bear with me and if my words are insufficient to command your attention, believe in the thoughts behind them and follow me to the very end. It's not at all about chess - and it's all about chess. It all depends on how you want to see it. You can pretend.


The Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Brandeis University offered in its Fall 2005 line-up a course entitled The Royal Game and the Game Of Life. The course proposes to explore the relationship between chess and life, both in fiction and in reality.

This is no light task. The instructor (or "leader" as BOLLI calls the presenter or organizer of a class), Mr. Maurie Stiefel, has laid out a course of study involving more than several areas, each of which could be a course in itself. The syllabus states:

"This course will explore how the fine arts, literature and drama have used chess as metaphor - for life, creativity, war and death. Quite apart from metaphor, we shall see how chess has been a lifeline for change in the lives of young people from poor inner-city neighborhoods. We will consider the roles of intuition and psychology, and will look at brilliant eccentric players who have become household names (Bobby Fischer, for one). We will consider psychiatric studies of some of the world’s greatest players. We also will grapple with fascinating questions. Why do genius and mental instability often go hand-in-hand? Why are there no women in the top tier of chess? Why are most chess experts superb in mathematics, while most mathematicians are only mediocre at chess? Why is man unable to win against the computer? Is the game addictive? Why are some players hooked on it?"

What caught my attention more that anything was the coincidental required or recommended reading list which includes only three titles:

The Problem of Paul Morphy: a Contribution to the Psychology of Chess by Ernest Jones.
The Psychology Of The Chess Player by Reuben Fine
On The Morals Of Chess by Ben Franklin



On the dawning of August 7, 1974,  he danced in the sky.

That Wednesday morning all New York woke up to see Philippe Petit connect the Rooks of a structure that no longer exists. Walking, strutting, marching, running, dancing, on a 7/8" thick cable, 1350 feet above the street, he strolled back and forth from the rooftop of the South Tower of the World Trade Center to that of the North Tower for nearly an hour.

Petit - a street performer, a juggler, a magician, a pick-pocket, a lock-picker, a unicyclist -
"To indulge my gourmandize for knowledge while honing my perfectionism," he learned to speak Russian, to play chess, to fight bulls in la corrida, to build a barn using only 18th century tools.
Philippe Petit - Le Funambule - the high wire artist.

As awe-inspiring and unimaginable his feat may seem, it was really the culmination of what may have been an equally impossible arrangement. Before attempting a walk, everything must be carefully studied and measured. All contingencies must be considered. The weather must co-operate, the proper permits must be obtained. The equipment must be bought, set-up and tested. The engineering is complex and the details are mind-boggling.

Now, imagine attending to all the preparations in secret, measuring a 104th storied rooftop in a building you are forbidden to enter, buying equipment with no money and no backers, having as your team of experts a few people who either know nothing about the art of rigging or who care little about the success of the project, knowing that no permission would ever be given and that if you are caught, you will be arrested, understanding that everything must be assembled in a rush in one night by amateurs while avoiding detection of the guards and that nothing would be tested, aware that of the hundreds of things that could go wrong, nothing must go wrong - imagine spending 6½ years of your life planning such a project, thinking of nothing else.

Impossible, yet irresistible. He must pretend.

In his beautifully written book To Reach the Clouds Philippe Petit describes his venture from the moment of its conception at age18 to its completion six years later and beyond. He writes of his almost inborn "disdain of my fellow man" that leads him into a life few of us would ever contemplate. He reveals his soul as an artist who is consumed by his art as it permeates every facet of his daily living.

A large rusty nail... punctures my right foot... there goes my research. There goes my coup... I end up in bed with a pachyderm's ankle...
I play chess with friends, but in between turns, I see my rooks becoming twin towers, and after each defeat, my excuse is the same: "Oh, I was thinking about WTC."

 In an interview [published in the Daily News on June 21, 1974] by Sidney Fields, Petit inadvertently, and  coincidentally, reminded me of another funambulist, Charles Blondin, who, during the "Morphy" years of 1858-1859, gained fame by his crossings of Niagara Falls.

He would not reveal when or where he was going to walk across the top of New York, only that it would be a big surprise. "I want to walk across Niagara Falls," he said, "but I know they won't give me permission. So, I will have to do New York without permission."

I know I'll never dance in the sky, nor will I ever play chess like Tal.
But I can pretend.





Sarah's Serendipitous Chess Page
The Life and Chess of Paul Morphy

Chess - in  general

Chesslinks Worldwide
Rythmomachy Chess Links

Chess History

Mark Week's History on the Web
Chess Journalists of America
Chess History Newsgroup
Hebrew Chess
Chess Tourn. & Match History
Super Tournaments of the Past
La grande storia degli scacchi
Bobby Fischer
Bill Wall's Chess Pages
Edward Winter's Chess Notes
Schaaklinks - biographical links
Cambridge Springs



My Chess Biographies

Carlos Repetto Torre
Gioacchino Greco
Henry Thomas Buckle
La Bourdonnais
Francois Andre Philidor
Philidor's Opponents
Rashid  Nezhmetdinov
Rudolf Charousek
William E. Napier
G. H. Mackenzie
Lisa Lane
Karl Schlechter
Prince André Dadian
Henry Thomas Buckle
Joseph Blackburne
Isodore Gunsberg
James Mason
William Lewis
George Walker
Augustus Mongredien
Adolf Anderssen
Saint Amant
Daniel Harrwitz
Samuel Boden
Johann  Löwenthal
Howard Staunton
The Duke of Brunswick Charles Henry Stanley
Louis Paulsen
Jacob Henry Sarratt
Alexander McDonnell
Joszef Szen
Vincent Grimm
John Cochrane
George Atwood
del Rio, Lolli, Ponziani
Arpad Elo
Sultan Khan

My Historical Explorations

    Seeds to the Renaissance
    The Catalysts
    Chess Literature
    Chess Players

    Sofonisba Anguissola
    Schaccia, Ludus by Vida
    The Black Death
    Da Vinci
William Jones
    Aristotle's Children

Chess Automatons
The Origins of Chess
Chess History is a Pain!
Girl Chess I
The Forgotten Philidor



Franklin's Morales of Chess Pandolfini's Comandments
Six Chess Vignettes
Fischer's 10 Greatest
My Life as a Chess Criminal Celebrities Playing Chess
Mis/Dis Information
Morphy's Brilliant Moves
What is Chess
Schachdorf Ströbeck


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