What is Chess?


I have seen and taken part in many discussions about what chess "really" is.

Is chess a mere game? Is chess a sport? Is chess an art? Is chess a science?
Everyone seems to have an opinion on this and for the most part one person's opinion is as valid as any other's. But throughout the modern history of the game, certain, influential individuals with their individual visions of chess, determined the manner in which the game itself developed and evolved.

Before the 20th century chess was for the most part a diversion, a pastime, and there were few professional players. Those that did play professionally were considered akin to gamblers and card sharks. Playing chess for money gained a bit more repute after the St. Petersburg Tournament of 1914 when Czar Nicholas II proclaimed the original Grandmasters - Capablanca, Lasker, Tarrasch, Marshall and Alekhine. With this newly establish designation chess seemed to become something more than a mere game.

Lasker was the main proponent of chess as "a fight", a struggle, and that the winner would always be the player with the strongest character and not necessarily the player with the greatest technical skill. He discounted chess as an art, believing that winning was the most important thing. Concerning his main adversary, Tarrasch, he wrote:

 "Dr. Tarrasch is a thinker, fond of deep and complex speculation. He will accept the efficacy of a move if at the same time he considers it beautiful and theoretically right. But I accept this sort of beauty only if and when it happens to be useful. He admires an idea for it's depth. I admire it for it's efficacy. My opponent believes in beauty, I believe in strength. I think that by being strong, a move is beautiful too."

Capablanca, the World Champion after Lasker, didn't accept Lasker's ideology. He considered chess less a struggle of character and certainly not an intellectual pursuit. He once said:

 "To play chess requires no intelligence at all."

But rather, due to his clarity of vision and innate, intuitive style of play, he considered chess a high art form; an art in which two people create together. His games reflected this flow of artistic beauty.

Alekhine followed Capablanca as the champion of the world. His style was completely opposite that of Capablanca. If Capa loved simplicity and clarity, Alekhine lived for complexity. It's peculiar that with these two opposed styles, they both had the same vision of chess. Alekhine, even more than Capablanca, was intrigued by the artistic side of chess and at the same time frustrated at the difficulties this presented. He wrote:

 "Right here enters the moment where the art of chess may be called the most tragic of arts, because the chess artist, in a measure, is dependant on an element that is totally outside the scope of his power: that element is the hostile co-workers who through carelessness constantly threaten to wreck a flawless mental edifice. The chess player who tries to demonstrate the 'how' of a game will view the single point scored a poor offset for the failure to gratify his artistic yearnings."

Nonetheless, Alekhine created many wondrous works of chess art.

With the death of Alekhine, Botvinnik became the new World Champion and with him came a new approach to chess. Botvinnik was an electrical engineer who wrote such books as The Theory and Prospects of Application of Asynchronized Synchronous Machines. Quite an ordered mind! His entire life was equally structured, as was his approach to chess. Botvinnik left nothing to chance. Every second of his day was planned and accounted for; every aspect of his opponent was taken into consideration. He was always prepared thoroughly in mind and body. He wrote:

 "If acoustics was a science that informed the world about sounds, then music was an art that revealed the beauty of that art; if logic was a science that revealed the laws of thought, then chess, in the form of artistic images, was an art that illuminated the logical side of thought."

To him  Art and Logic were synonymous. He made chess a science.

He was World Champion for a long time and lost and regained the title against Smyslov and Tal. Smyslov probably should never have won the championship, but Tal is a different story.

Tal was the exact opposite of Botvinnik. Totally unorganized, Tal reveled in chaos. He created impossible-to-calculated diversions on the board, defying logic and reason. To Tal chess was a battle of wills. He could spin threads of magic and dare his opponent to unravel them and prove it was just sleight-of-hand -- few could, not even Botvinnik.

But Tal's health problems cut his career short and Botvinnik's sustaining power allowed him to regain the title. He soon lost it again. This time to Petrosian. Petrosian's style was defensive and, like Smyslov, he added little to the idea of chess. Spassky took the title from Petrosian. Spassky was an incredibly versatile player. He didn't regard chess as an art or science. In fact he probably didn't spend all his time thinking of chess. His seemed to view chess as a contest or a sport: "may the better man win."  He appeared almost relieved to give up his title, and the responsibility it required, to Fischer.

Fischer saw chess different than anyone else. He viewed it as a personal thing. It was an extension of himself and he was it's logical extension. If anything, he looked at chess as a truth and his duty was to find and expose this truth judging everything else in relationship to this truth. He was a culmination of all those who went before him. Once he proved he was the best in the world, that also became his truth - an one that he never could allow to be challenged and possibly destroyed - so he,in effect, retired without ever having to re-prove himself.

Karpov became World Champion by default and, because of this, always felt the need to prove himself. He saw chess as a technical achievement - gain a tiny advantage and nurse it into a winning advantage through precise technical skill.

Kasparov, on the other hand, was and possibly still is, a creative genius. He was a lot like Tal but with control. He could envision possibilities like no one before him and coupled that with superior technical skills to make the seemingly impossible happen through sheer will power and an insatiable drive to win. He was Tal, Alekhine and Botvinnik rolled into one: the final product of the Russian chess machine. He saw chess as a fight, as an art, as a science, as a sport, as anything but a mere game. And he has shown the world during his tenure that chess is not one thing nor another, but rather a fertile ground for ideas.

Who knows what tomorrow will teach us.