Chess and literature: a weird parallelism

Author:  Aditi Chandrasekar 

Chess has always been more than simply a game. Since time immemorial, it has been used as a metaphor, an inspiration and a lesson. Consequently, chess and the most prominent art form, literature have been intertwined for centuries. The game has made multiple appearances, and has even been a significant leitmotif in many renowned works throughout history. For example, in ‘The Tempest’, William Shakespeare depicts a chess match between lovers Ferdinand and Miranda. In the classic ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ by Walter Tevis, a chess prodigy struggles to handle the emotional rollercoaster that is the competitive chess circuit. Chess was an important participant in many of 20th century novelist, Vladimir Nabokov’s works, either as an aid underpinning the theme or in explicit scenes featuring the game. 

Arguably, the primary objective of poetry is to evoke emotion out of the reader, comparable with the objective of the game to “checkmate” the opponent’s king (here, the opponent’s king is equivalent to the reader). Chess’ game play consists of two distinct parts-strategy and tactics. Chess strategy involves achieving long-term advantages during the game, while tactics concentrate on immediate movements. These two aspects of the game play cannot be separated, because strategic goals can only be accomplished through tactics, while tactical manoeuvres are based on the strategy of play. Identical to the concepts of strategy and tactics in chess, the aesthetic appeal and the grammatical structuring of poetry are two inextricable components, which when bound together appropriately, produce a lovely work. 

Prose, with its carefully woven story-lines, is very similar to chess. Every move on the checkerboard is analogous to a development in a story’s plot. A game of chess is typically divided into three parts: the opening, the middle-game and the endgame. This can be compared to the structuring of an essay or a novella. Another obvious similarity is that each piece in chess has its own way of moving, much like the characters of a story. Each character in a tale has a set of qualities that the writer appropriately utilities to advance the story. It is not a surprise then, that this evident correspondence was addressed in one of the first works ever published in English- William Caxton’s book ‘The Game and Playe of the Chesse’, uses different chess pieces as metaphors for different classes of people. Chess strategy is similar to literary devices used by writers in their works to assist future happenings in their story, like epigraphs or foreshadowing. 

Much like chess’ ever-evolving metaphorical meanings through the ages, the world of drama has seen drastic advancements as well. Drama is thought to have originated from religious observances during the Middle Ages, while modern playwrights use theater to express opinions about current events, typically cultural or political. Chess, as much as it is a game, is also a performance. The chessboard can be thought of as a miniature stage on which the performance is carried out. Mine, a popular form of drama, bears a resemblance to chess in the sense that observers have to make sense of the internal meanings that the silent performance represents. The expressionist core of chess has been addressed by many, most notably by Fernando 

Arrabal, a Spanish playwright, once said of chess “I know of no spectacle on Earth that can keep thousands of spectators enthralled for five hours.” 

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