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The History and The Culture of Chess

Chess in the Press - Issue #6
    May  2006

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Volume 1 Number 6 CHESS IN THE PRESS July 6, 1993
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Intellectual Dishonesty or Self-Deception?

Some years ago at the local chess club, one of the regulars announced that
he was working on his dissertation and wanted to use us to collect data for
his research on chess and memory. He would set up a position, give us a
few seconds to look at it, then ask us to reconstruct as much of the
position as we could from memory. The researcher admitted that he had
already decided on his theories and would try to acquire data that supported
them; anything that didn't fit in would be ignored or, perhaps, interpreted
favorably to his ideas.

Some of the articles included in this issue reminded me of the researcher
and his modus operandi. Whether it's Huaco's hyper-praise of Cockburn, or
Fine's unwillingness to accept data that conflicts with his own theories,
it seems perhaps universal the tendency to support ideas in harmony with
our own agenda, and to condemn or mold conflicting ideas into something
less threatening. For those who have an intellectual or emotional stake
in a particular theory, it would seem that at times there is some difficulty
in walking the tightrope between intellectual dishonesty and self-deception
without falling into one or the other.

"Principles of Beauty." Margulies, Stuart. Psychological Reports (Aug 1977),
p. 3-11.
Thirty expert chess players examined pairs of chess positions to select
the more beautiful solution of each pair. Eight principles of beauty were
derived from these judgements: 1) successfully violate common strategies--
most moves which do this are ineffective, but the few which are both
contrary to usual strategy and also effective are beautiful; 2) use the
weakest possible piece--if checkmate can be accomplished with a bishop
rather than a queen, that is more beautiful; 3) use all the piece's power--
moving a queen across the board to checkmate is more aesthetically pleasing
than moving it just a few squares; 4) give more aesthetic weight to the
critical pieces; 5) use one giant piece in place of several minor pieces--
a hypothetical white piece on b6 controls a7, b7, c7, a8, b8, c8 and mates
the black king on b8, this is preferable to 3 hypothetical pieces on a6, b6,
and c6, each of which controls 2 spaces in front of it; 6) employ themes;
7) avoid stereotypes--Rd1-d8 mates the king on g8, as he has pawns on f7,
g7, and h7. This is a stereotype. Preferable is the black setup Kg8, pf7,
pg7, ph6, Bh7; 8) neither strangeness nor difficulty produce beauty. The
most difficult move is not usually associated with the most beautiful. The
author suggests an explanation for the connection between beauty and
effectiveness and also the enduring appeal of chess: as chess rules have
evolved, those forms of the game in which logic and beauty predicted
effectiveness won out--chess developed to meet the need for both.

"Comment on the Paper, `Principles of Beauty,' by Stuart Margulies." Fine,
Reuben. Psychological Reports (Aug 1978), p. 62.
Fine argues that Margulies used the standard approach in experimental
aesthetics, which has the disadvantage of ignoring unconscious determinants.
Fine asserts that a reference to psychodynamics is not only important, but
necessary, to obtain a complete psychology of something even as seemingly
trivial as chess. The standard psychoanalytic approach to chess motivation
is defined as the theories contained in his own book, The Psychology of the
Chess Player, and in the article "The Problem of Paul Morphy," by Ernest
Jones [see below]. Fine theorizes that beauty can be attributed to those
solutions where there is the greatest concealment of aggression, and asserts
that in Margulies' study, in every case, what is considered most beautiful
is the move which uses the least force. But this isn't true. In one example,
black has Ka8; white has Kc6, pc5, pc2, Q either at b1 or b5. 28 of 30
experts chose Qb1-b7 as more beautiful than Qb5-b7. Therefore the queen has
used more of its power. Fine calls this example "rather dubious, since the
differences between the two queen moves do not seem too important," yet he
is willing to accept the judgment of the experts in the other cases. Fine
seems to question this example because it serves to refute his own theory
that concealment of aggression/least amount of force is beautiful.

"The Problem of Paul Morphy: A Contribution to the Psychology of Chess."
Jones, Ernest. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis (Jan 1931).
Jones recounts the life of Morphy, as well as the history of chess,
placing especial importance on the transformation of the vizier (male) into
the queen (female) during the Middle Ages. The effect: "it is that in
attacking the father the most potent assistance in afforded by the mother
(=queen)." Extensive quotations from F.M. Edge's book "Exploits and
Triumphs of Paul Morphy." Morphy's mental instability was due in large part
to his failure to secure a match with Staunton: "The cold fact remains that
this arch-opponent eluded him. The dreaded father was not merely still at
large, but had himself shown signs of unmistakable hostility." Staunton's
insinuations--that Morphy was a penniless adventurer, his motives were
mercenary, and that he had nothing more serious to do than play chess--
led Morphy to abandon his chess career: "It was as if the father had
unmasked his evil intentions and was now adopting a similarly hostile
attitude towards him in return." Morphy's chess talents betray a capacity
for sublimation: "The essential process seems to me to be a libidinal one.
I conceive that the parricidal impulses were `bound' by an erotic cathexis,
actually a homosexual one, and that this in turn was sublimated."

"Review Feature: Symposium Review of Idle Passion: Chess and the Dance of
Death by Alexander Cockburn." Sociological Quarterly (Winter 1976),
p. 130-142.
Two essay-reviews of Idle Passion are presented: one is laudatory, the
other, not. Both reviewers are professors of sociology (not psychologists,
as we had advertised).
"Review Essay." Huaco, George. p. 130-133.
Idle Passion is an exciting, well-written presentation of the
psychoanalytic interpretation of chess, as well as a social history of the
game. Cockburn's ideas have "some of the intuitive brilliance and self-
evidence of the best of Freud." Huaco admits that he is convinced by the
central argument of the Freudian interpretation: that chess involves
sublimated aggression and that it dramatizes the male Oedipus complex.
He allows that Cockburn's use of the Freudian argument is "overdone."
He quotes Cockburn's assertion that Emanuel Lasker liked early queen
exchanges: "to clarify the situation, he gets rid of women." Huaco calls
this idea "quite arbitrary," but seems unaware that Cockburn merely copied
those words from Reuben Fine's book. Cockburn, Huaco says, sees the history
of chess as downward mobility: it was first played by aristocrats, then by
people who enjoyed aristocratic patronage, and then "by people like Bobby
Fischer." Despite some "exaggerations and blind spots," Huaco sees Idle
Passion as "a valuable and imaginative thrust into the domain of a sociology
of chess."

"Chess and the Stress of Conflictual Interaction." Redlinger, Lawrence.
p. 134-142.
In contrast to the above reviewer, Redlinger feels that Idle Passion is
"a very shoddy volume which must be taken lightly if taken at all."
Cockburn's data, explanatory schemata, and presentation of the issues are all
critically lacking and offer few new insights. "Most, if not all, of the
interesting findings are those of scholars which he so liberally synopsizes."
Redlinger asserts that there is no original data gathering; the entire work
is based on secondary materials already published. "What, if anything, is
there to recommend this volume? I would never buy it....I would hope the
book would pass largely unnoticed for both our and Cockburn's benefit."
But Redlinger makes clear that despite Cockburn's incompetence, the issues
raised deserve careful consideration. He offers his own ideas on the role
of stress in chess, and mentions many previous studies on the sociology
of chess. The world of chess "offers sociologists a naturally occurring
laboratory where people willingly put themselves under stress...the study
of chess interaction offers a setting where the variables of stress can
be more carefully defined and measured."

[After writing Idle Passion, Alexander Cockburn began his career as a
Marxist essayist for The Nation.]

"Paul Morphy: Louisiana's Chess Champion." Kurtz, Michael. Louisiana
History (Spring 1993), p. 175-199.
A lengthy essay on the life and career of Morphy by a professor of history
at Southeastern Louisiana University, and past president of the Louisiana
Historical Association. Kurtz disputes many psychoanalytic interpretations
of Morphy's behavior, as espoused by Ernest Jones and Reuben Fine. On Jones'
popular theory that chess players harbor a latent ambition to murder their
fathers, Kurtz believes these kind of ideas are "irresponsible speculations
of someone indoctrinated with Freudian jargon, but with no serious training
in psychiatry." He notes that when Jones' ideas were made public in 1930,
a senior lecturer at the London Institute of Psychiatry said that they
should be "received with skepticism." Reuben Fine, Kurtz notes, relied on
dubious, inaccurate accounts of Morphy's life. In his book, Fine mentioned
an infamous anecdote about Morphy: that he had a fetish for women's shoes
and liked to arrange them in a semicircle in his room. "No verification
exists for either story [the other story is that a young lady who caught
Morphy's fancy refused him because he was "a mere chess player"], and since
virtually nothing is known about Morphy's sexual demeanor, any attempt to
explain it clearly represents speculation." Although Morphy undeniably
exhibited paranoia, he was in good control of his mental faculties. Steinitz
met him on Canal Street and they spoke a year before Morphy's death. Steinitz
said, "Morphy is shrewd and practical and apparently in excellent health."
Includes an appendix with three famous Morphy games.

"Writer's Gambit." Yost, Scott. The Writer (Feb 1990), p. 9-10.
Most of you probably weren't aware that chess openings and fiction have
a lot in common. Common opening maxims also apply to writing fiction.
"Grab the Center." Begin your story in the middle, get to the heart of the
matter. Open with a bang. "A good chess player doesn't fool around with
those side pawns at the beginning." You can use flashbacks or dialog to fill
in background material later. "Get the Pieces Out Fast." In fiction, your
pieces are your main characters. Introduce them early, doing whatever it is
they are supposed to do. "Make Moves that Threaten Something." Pretend your
protagonists are opponents in a chess game, give them problems. Make each
new event apply additional pressure. Don't be afraid of conflict, you need
it for a good story. "Don't Bring the Queen Out Too Early." In fiction, the
queen is the Big Problem. Set the stage with minor hindrances: "Knock the
characters down and hold them there; then start kicking them" with the
Big Problem, making a solution appear impossible. "Make Each Move Accomplish
Several Things." A description should advance the plot and characterize as
well. Dialog can characterize, give exposition, and move the story. "Castle."
Don't reveal your strategy. The solution should be safely tucked away,
but in plain sight.

"Chess Grandmaster Drives a New York Cab." Buckley, Thomas. New York Times
(Nov 23, 1958), sec.5, p. 8.
Making a living playing chess wasn't too easy for a grandmaster in 1958,
so Nicolas Rossolimo drove a cab to make ends meet. He wasn't getting much
business in his chess studio in Greenwich Village. His studio contained 18
new chess tables and a refrigerator. The customers were what you might
expect of Greenwich Village; Rossolimo thought most were artists or writers.
"They respect chess, even those who don't play a single game. The rich
have no time for chess. My customers have much time but little money."
Rossolimo charged 15 cents per person per hour at a table. Lessons cost
$3 an hour. A neighborhood paper made the mistake of announcing that he
gave lessons for 15 cents an hour. A student came in. "Set up the pieces,"
Rossolimo said. The student played 1. d4. Rossolimo clapped and said,
"Bravo, bravo," as he walked away. When Rossolimo played on the US team
at the Munich olympiad, the guys at the taxi company followed his progress
in the papers. He won 7, lost 1, and drew 8--the team's best scorer. His
taxi boss congratulated him on his return and assured Rossolimo that from
then on, he would always have a new cab to drive.

NEXT ISSUE: Mongolian Lamas (for sure); Teaching children; A village where
everyone plays chess; College offers chess degree.

Editor: Stephen Leary []
Chess in the Press is cross-posted to CHESS-L on Bitnet & RGC on Usenet.
Back issues are available via anonymous ftp at:
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Sarah's Serendipitous Chess Page
The Life and Chess of Paul Morphy

Chess - in  general

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Rythmomachy Chess Links

Chess History

Mark Week's History on the Web
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My Chess Biographies

Carlos Repetto Torre
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Henry Thomas Buckle
La Bourdonnais
Francois Andre Philidor
Philidor's Opponents
Rashid  Nezhmetdinov
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del Rio, Lolli, Ponziani
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My Historical Explorations

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    Sofonisba Anguissola
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William Jones
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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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