This blog shares my thoughts on two fields which engage the obsessive-compulsive side of my personality. I am an enthusiastic and unrepentantly mediocre player, whether playing music or playing chess.
That is to say, there are many contexts in which other people think I am quite a good player. As far as music is concerned, these are of course the contexts to which I try to confine myself: playing the piano at a community fund-raising event, playing the organ (very mediocre) at church. But musically, I am always chasing after the music I can hear, and know ought to be coming from the instrument. An endless quest that leaves me in genuine awe of those who really can produce the music that remains, for me, ideal. And so I teach music, I talk about it whenever I am asked, I write about it, I research into it. Because I cannot, quite, play it as I want.
As far as the game of chess goes, my standard of play is astoundingly similar. I might seem quite a good player in a casual or friendly game; I am proud to play for the fourth-best of my local chess club’s five teams. But in every serious game, I chase after the elusive brilliance I can admire in others, but never quite recapture myself.
And so I am writing this blog in the same spirit as I write about music: to try to understand what it is that enthralls me. I am convinced that the similarity of my competence in each field is no accident. The connections are multiple.
Do not expect posts in this blog to be either regular or systematic. But they will be thoughtful.
I want to answer the question, “Did Beethoven play chess?” because several people claim that he did. I remarked on this fact in my Book review: Music and Chess (Achilleas Zographos), where Beethoven is listed as one of the many chess-playing musicians of history.
Now, I am not an expert on Beethoven’s biography; I learned my lesson there when I speculated on the genesis of one of his works in a research paper, and discovered that a pre-eminent Beethoven scholar was in the audience. And I would love it if Beethoven turned out to have been a devotee of the Royal Game; Viennese classical music is under-represented on that score. Mozart’s favoured game was billiards; Haydn was not (as far as I know) among the ranks of chess-playing composers. Any excitement at finding the chess games of F. Schubert in book indexes is dispelled by learning that František Schubert was a Czech chess master who once beat Richard Réti, but was no relation of Franz Schubert.
There is no reason why Beethoven might not have played chess, after all: the first chess book in German was published in 1795 by a Viennese contemporary of his; the chess-playing automaton known as “The Turk” was one of the wonders of the age; Napoleon himself (whom Beethoven admired for a long time, although he lost faith in him when Napoleon became a dictator as self-declared Emperor) certainly was a keen chess player.
Tracing the evidence
I had, however, never come across any evidence that Beethoven even knew the moves of the game, let alone took a serious interest in it. And so I was fascinated to see him in the list of names in Achilleas Zographos’s recent book. When I expressed some dismay in my review at the lack of evidence presented to support his inclusion, the author himself paid me the courtesy of a reply, and made two helpful suggestions: one was to consult a book I should have thought of myself, The Even More Complete Chess Addict by Mike Fox and Richard James (which I have mentioned many a time in earlier posts), and other was to take a closer look at footnote 18 on page 26 of Music and Chess: Apollo meets Caïssa.
Turning to Fox & James first, they too ascribe a love of chess to Beethoven. But they are quite circumspect about it:
Jostling for a place among the reserves [of a fantasy musicians’ chess team] would be Schumann […] Mendelssohn […] Richard Strauss [… twenty other musicians are listed]. And, according to The Polish History of Chess, Chopin and Beethoven.(Fox & James, p. 33)
So they give a single source, which is another book rather than any primary evidence from Beethoven’s letters and so forth. After some further exploration, I identified “The Polish History of Chess” as Z Szachami Przez Wieki I Kraje (Jerzy Gizycki, Warszawa 1984). Courtesy of the Bodleian Library, I summoned it up and discovered that Fox & James were quite right: Beethoven and Chopin are both mentioned. But they are only mentioned once. Here is the paragraph, together with what I, Google Translate, and my good friend Geoff Chew (a musician who really does speak Polish) made of it:
Wielu szachistów można snaleźć pośród muzyków. Kompozytorem był słynny szachista francuski Philidor. Królewską grę znał Beethoven i Chopin. W posiadaniu doktora Jerzego Goreckiego, prawnuka Mickiewicza, znajdował się zabytkowy okrąkły stolik drewniany w naturalnym czerwonym kolorze, na którym, według jego oświadwicz i Fryderyk Chopin (od 1978 roku w zbiorach Museum Literatury w Warszawie).
Many chess players can be found among musicians. The famous French chess player Philidor was a composer. The royal game was known by Beethoven and Chopin. Dr. Jerzy Gorecki, great-grandson of Mickiewicz, possessed an old, round, wooden chess table in a natural red colour, on which Mickiewicz was said to have played Fryderyk Chopin (since 1978 in the collection of the Museum of Literature in Warsaw).
(Gizycki, p. 228)
This doesn’t get us much further. There is real anecdotal evidence given that Chopin played chess at least once with the poet Mickiewicz (whose lyrics he set to music), but nothing more than another bald assertion that Beethoven was a chess enthusiast.
So that left me with Achilleas Zographos’s footnote. Here it is:
The main sources for this list are the articles by Wall, Bill; Musicians and Chess; 8/8/2013, chessmaniac.com, and by Silver, Albert; Musical giants and chess; 3/7/2015, Chessbase.
Consulting these two online articles (both well worth reading, by the way) yielded less in the way of historiographical evidence than I had hoped. The second of them doesn’t mention Beethoven at all, although it does have a photo of David Bowie playing chess with Catherine Deneuve.
Bill Wall’s article, though, does mention Beethoven. Here is what it says:
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), the German composer and pianist, was a chess player. He was a good friend of Johann Maelzel, the builder of one of the first chess automatons.
That’s all. No mention of a source, but there is some detail. Beethoven’s “good friend” Johann Maelzel seems to be the link.
Maelzel’s mechanical marvels
Johann Nepomuk Maelzel (1772-1838) is one of the more colourful characters of music history. He was an inventor who settled in Vienna in 1792 (the same year as Beethoven), and soon afterwards began to display his “panharmonicon”, a kind of mechanical organ which played orchestral music. Maelzel was aiming to profit out of the popularity of automata of all kinds, especially automata which could play musical instruments. Maelzel and Beethoven met in 1812 or 1813, and the inventor persuaded the famous composer to write a “Battle Symphony” for his panharmonicon. Beethoven did so, and then expanded and arranged it for a regular orchestra (it was written in between the Seventh and Eighth symphonies). The “Battle Symphony”, or Wellington’s Victory at Vittoria as the orchestral version is called, was premiered, along with the Seventh Symphony, in two charity concerts organised by Maelzel in 1814 to raise funds for Austrian soldiers wounded and maimed in conflict. At this time, Maelzel also invented several ear trumpets in an attempt to help Beethoven’s progressive deafness.
To describe Maelzel as Beethoven’s “good friend”, though, is sadly not quite accurate. There was a violent quarrel following the concerts arranged by Maelzel, over the rights to Beethoven’s “Battle Symphony”, which Maelzel wanted to play on his tour to the rest of Europe with his panharmonicon. Beethoven describes him thus:
[…] his low and disloyal character is displayed in expressions such as the following: “I shit on Vienna and I’ll see to it that people in London are told that here in Vienna one is paid 10 gulden” […] Maelzel is an ill-bred fellow, quite uneducated and without refinement.
(Letter to Dr Carl, Edler von Adlersburg, July 1814: The Letters of Beethoven, trans. Emily Anderson, London: Macmillan, 1961, Vol. I, letter 485, p. 461)
Beethoven also describes Maelzel’s ear trumpets as “not of any real use” and accuses Maelzel of stealing his work.
There seems to have been some sort of reconciliation, however, since Beethoven was very impressed by the one of Maelzel’s inventions which you may own yourself: the musical metronome. From 1817, Beethoven started to put metronome indications on his works to indicate the speed he wanted. How accurate Maelzel’s metronome was, and how realistic Beethoven’s expectations were of performers as his deafness became complete, are things still vigorously debated to this day.
So, if “good friend” doesn’t really fit the bill as far as Beethoven’s relationship with Maelzel goes, what about the other claim by Bill Wall, that Maelzel was “the builder of one of the first chess automatons”? This too, unfortunately, isn’t quite true. The automaton in question was in fact the most famous of all chess-playing machines before Deep Blue, known as “The Turk”.
The automaton could move the pieces on a chess board, and appeared to be able to beat any human opponent. It was a marvel of its age, and exhibited all over Europe.
It was not, however, built by Maelzel. Its inventor was in fact a Hungarian called Wolfgang von Kempelen, who first demonstrated it to Empress Maria Theresa in 1770. Maelzel bought it from Kempelen in 1804, a good few years before he met Beethoven. Maelzel repaired it, and exhibited it to Napoleon in Vienna in 1809. He then took it to Milan, where he sold it for a huge profit to Napoleon’s stepson, Eugène de Beauharnais. A few years later he managed to buy it back, and took it to Paris and then London on the European tour over which he and Beethoven fell out so badly.
The Turk was a remarkable machine, but it was a fake as far as playing a game of chess was concerned. You can see in the photograph the compartment on the right where a small grandmaster had to be concealed to control the machine’s moves. This subterfuge meant that Maelzel had to hire short, impoverished chess masters (of which, then as now, there was a ready supply) wherever he exhibited the machine. Napoleon was actually defeated by Johann Allgaier, the strongest player in Vienna in Beethoven’s day, whom I mentioned earlier as the author of the first chess tutor in German.
So, did Beethoven play chess?
It has been an interesting search through published books on chess, and a fascinating encounter with that entrepreneur, inventor and showman Johann Maelzel. But there is, I am afraid, no evidence at all that Beethoven did have an enthusiasm for chess.
The English translation of Beethoven’s letters runs to three thick volumes (I quoted Beethoven’s view on Maelzel’s character from them earlier). I have looked through them all, and there are no mentions of chess, or The Turk, in any of the letters involving Maelzel, and no mention anywhere of Allgaier (who was known in the city as well as being the inhabitant of The Turk). No mention either of François-André Philidor, a contemporary of Beethoven and by far the best-known chess-playing musician of that or any other time.
Sadly, I have to conclude that the assertions with which I began, that the composer of The Eroica symphony, Fidelio, and Wellington’s Victory had a particular interest in the battle of the wooden soldiers over the sixty-four squares, are without evidential basis. The search has emphasised to me the pitfalls of wishful thinking, which can undo your attacks over the chessboard as easily as your search for historical truth.
Books on chess are a curious genre. There are an awful lot of them, they are very hard to find in libraries. They nearly all fall into one of a few categories. Books on openings. Books on improving your chess technique. Collections of games (by an individual, or from a world title match, or from a significant tournament).
And that is about it. What all these books share as a quality is that they are absolutely incomprehensible to anyone who is not a keen chess player. I have many of them, and if I leave them lying around, members of my family ask me when I am going to read a “proper” book.
There are just two kinds of exceptions to this rule, and these exceptions contain my favourite kinds of chess book. The first is chess biography or autobiography: Korchnoi’s Chess is my life is worth reading as much for its picture of the privations of the siege of Leningrad as for its depiction of one of the most obdurate personalities ever to have graced the game. Emanuel Lasker: The life of a chess master (J. Hannak) is a riveting account of an extraordinary personality. But the second kind of exception to the normal run of chess literature is my favourite: books which take chess into other realms, such as literature or film (see my earlier post on Nabokov’s The Luzhin Defence), or the anecdotal and eccentric (by far my favourite is The Complete Chess Addict by Mike Fox and Richard James, and its enlarged version The Even More Complete Chess Addict). And now – joy of joys! – the chess publisher Russell Enterprises has presented a book on exactly the topic of this blog.
The first thing I want to say about this book is that you should definitely get yourself a copy, if you are reading this blog. I need to put that first, because I could hardly fail to welcome a publication such as this. Having said that, there are of course lots of things here which I would have put differently or with which I don’t quite agree. But these are the kinds of things one should discuss over a convivial drink, not reasons for disparaging the book.
Achilleas Zographos (since I contacted him, this blog has gained Greece as a new country in its stats profile) is a much better chess player than I am (he is a FIDE trainer) and also a much better performer (he is a concert pianist). There are times when his perspective is clearly that of a performer rather than a composer. But there are a lot of things I like about his book.
Things I like about this book
The author is clearly a man after my own heart, with a taste for the quirky and occasionally bizarre which I love. Perhaps all of us who love both chess and music as arts are similar in that way. He has compiled a huge quantity of anecdotes and information of the sort I find fascinating. Quite a lot of it I knew already (unsurprisingly); Fox & James (see above) are frequently cited as a source for anecdotes. But there is plenty in the book which I didn’t know: for instance, I didn’t know the sixteenth-century Italian poem which invented the dryad Schacchia, goddess of chess, and the eighteenth-century English poem in which she acquired the name Caïssa (the poems are described here); I had never come across Guido van der Werve’s chess piano (here is his concerto in three movements); and I did not know that GM Levon Aronian, who is about to compete in the 8-player knockout to determine the next World Title Candidate, has a passion for jazz.
The book is sumptuously illustrated. At the back are links for internet sources for the illustrations and YouTube videos. Sadly, some of these links seemed to be broken when I tried them; but I loved the quality of the illustrations reproduced. Trying to download one of the illustrations led me on an interesting detour. On p. 128 is printed a lovely canvas by Kandinsky, with the title Schach-Theorie [Chess Theory], and the date 1937. I did not know that Kandinsky (one of my favourite artists and a collaborator with the composer Arnold Schoenberg) had an interest in chess. When I found that the link at the back of the book seemed to be broken, I tried an internet search for the painting, and discovered that it has two quite different attributions. The canvas is owned by the Guggenheim Museum in New York, where it has the title Graceful Ascent and the date 1934.
I have to say that Graceful Ascent seems more convincing as a title, although there are some details near the top of the canvas that could conceivably be chess pieces.
So where do the probably false title and date come from? Further internet searching turned up what seems the likely source, and a wonderful anecdote. In 1937, the year that many of Kandinsky’s paintings were confiscated by the Nazis and displayed in the Exhibition of Degenerate Art, a retrospective of his work was displayed in the Swiss city of Bern. The city was home to another of the Bauhaus artists, Paul Klee, and the exhibition was to be the last time that the two artists met (Klee was seriously ill and died in 1940). According to the Bern artist Peter Matter, the two giants met in front of Kandinsky’s work Schach-Theorie, and both were seized by a sudden desire to go back to Klee’s house and play each other at chess. So perhaps the internet translation of Matter’s diary is the source of the misattribution. And perhaps it was a different canvas: both Klee and Kandinsky produced other works at that time that suggest the game of chess much more clearly to me (hover your mouse to see the titles).
Klee, ‘Überschach’ (1937)
Kandinsky ‘Trente’ (1937)
So this is probably an error, as far as the content of the book goes; but I could hardly complain at that, since it sent me on a rewarding hunt which enabled me to place these two alongside Schoenberg as artists enthusiastic for the Royal Game.
Things I don’t like so much about this book
Most of the things I am less impressed with in the book are not the fault of its author. While the publisher should be applauded for commissioning this work, the author is not writing in his native language, and the services of a copy-editor would have improved it as a text to read. Infelicities such as “At the moment of writing” (rather than “At the time of writing”, p. 13); or grammatical lapses such as Steinitz’s “systematic, scientific approach of the game” (rather than “…approach to the game”, p. 21), are frequent and irritating. My annoyance at the blurb on the back cover engendered an earlier blog post, Prodigies: the preserve of music and chess? although I did discover on p. 39 that it was the American grandmaster Edward (not the World Champion Emanuel) Lasker who originally commented on child prodigies as a phenomenon of chess, music and mathematics.
Things that puzzle me in this book
There are a lot of lists in this book. That is no bad thing in itself; I like lists. The last chapter, ‘Quotations’ is in fact just a list of good quotations, which ought to delight designers of chess-related t-shirts.
Other lists are more intriguing. For instance, Beethoven appears in a long list of musicians who had a passion for chess on pp. 23–24; he is mentioned a dozen times elsewhere (the book has a good index), but always just as an emblem of “the great composer”; nowhere are we told the source for believing he had an interest in the game of chess. My scan through the several hefty volumes of his letters could find no mention of it at all; but I would love to know what evidence there is.
But lastly, the thing which puzzles me most about this book is actually the way that it compares the technical elements of chess and music. Several times, the author’s love for the quirky leads him to the most extraordinary chess compositions to illustrate the most ordinary elements of music. One is the study by Petrovic which is presented as an example of the role of rhythm and tempo in chess:
Another is the beautiful but totally bizarre study by van Reek which illustrates the musical idea of ‘texture’:
But the puzzlement I felt reading through the lengthy chapter entitled ‘Components’ which works its way through ‘Time, rhythm and tempo’, ‘Melody and movement’, ‘Harmony’, ‘Texture’, ‘Structure’, and ‘Timbre / colour’ turned from slight annoyance to perfect calm with the realisation that this most difficult of fields, making detailed and persuasive comparison of the technical aspects of the arts of chess and music, is left open to my own blog to attempt. Keep reading my posts here to see how well I get on with trying.
Patterns analysed by the Réti brothers in music and in chess
It is hardly controversial to say that both chess and music rely on the recognition of recurrent patterns. Is this a trivial observation? Or is there a deeper connection in terms of the kinds of patterns that structure and make meaningful the experience of playing the game of chess or listening to a work of music? Does the observation that both activities rely on pattern recognition actually indicate a cognitive similarity between the two arts?
This post explores these questions. In this I am once again guided by the Réti brothers whom I introduced in Réti the Modernist: Rudolph, the pioneer of music analysis, and Richard, the visionary chess grandmaster.
It is one thing to say that chess and music both require pattern recognition; quite another to define what constitutes a “pattern” in this context. To begin with, I am going to work with two different kinds of pattern: firstly, general patterns that are found everywhere and without which the piece of music or game of chess doesn’t make sense; and secondly, individual patterns that define specific examples in either field. The first category comprises patterns that define well-formed pieces of music or legitimately played games of chess; the second category comprises patterns that are memorable enough to act as “signatures” for their author (whether a composer or a chess player).
I am in fact much more interested in the second kind of pattern than in the first; but please bear with me while I start with a comparison of generic, universal patterns in chess and in music.
Checkmates and cadences
Beginning students of music, and beginning chess players, are alike taught certain basic patterns as the essential first step towards understanding how the respective arts of composing and chess-playing work. Every game of chess aims towards a checkmate; every piece of music aims towards a final cadence. Admittedly, here I am talking about tonal music in the Western tradition; but that is going to be my focus for this post. Other posts have considered atonal music, such as that of Réti’s friend (and chess player) Arnold Schoenberg (see Réti the Modernist).
Sticking with tonal music, here is a cadence:
To repeat the point that this is the place where students of composition begin, this example (with the analysis underneath the staves) is taken from my own Open University module. I suggest you sign up for it now: it’s called Inside Music.
There are many different ways of approaching a cadence. Here are two:
And here is one from a real piece of music that you might recognise:
Just as there are many ways of approaching a cadence, there are many ways of approaching a checkmate. Here are four, which all aspiring chess players have to learn (hover your mouse over each to see its caption):
The back rank mate
The knight with bishop mate
The rook with bishop mate
The rook with knight mate
These are all patterns which recur again and again, in many different forms (whether you are thinking of pieces of music or of chess games). They are meaningful: the meaning of the patterns in music is to signify the end of a phrase, or the end of the whole piece; the meaning of the chess patterns is to signify the end of the game. In both cases, these patterns accord with Wolfgang Köhler’s definition of a pattern in Gestalt psychology, which is that their meaning is different from that of the components of the pattern: the individual notes forming harmonies in accordance with the rules of tonal composition, or the individual pieces moving in accordance with the rules of chess. It is the pattern itself that signifies ‘cadence’ or ‘checkmate’, and this makes it a Gestalt.
The Réti brothers and pattern recognition
The patterns just identified are generic: they are learned by students because they have a level of generality that makes them recognisable in innumerable contexts. What fascinated both the Réti brothers was the recurrence of patterns which have a quite different level of individuality, so that instead of signifying something general, they identify something unique.
In both cases (music and chess) the relevant Réti identifies these patterns as the signature of the creator of the artwork in question. These patterns personalise the musical work or the game of chess, and in each case this was a significant innovation in the understanding of the field. Rudolph Réti was one of the first thinkers (along with Schoenberg and a few others) to develop a theory of how patterns in melody shape a work of music; a topic strangely absent from the centuries of theory of harmony, tonality and form. And Richard Réti was one of the first thinkers (along with Nimzowitsch and a few others) to develop a theory of manoeuvring pieces not in order to win material or deliver checkmate, but in order to create a better pattern to their disposition.
Rudolph Réti and patterns in Schumann
Let’s start with the older brother, Rudolph, and his analysis of a wonderful work by another chess-fanatical musician, Robert Schumann (1810-56).
The work in question is Kinderszenen [Scenes of Childhood], a multi-piece consisting of thirteen short individual pieces written in 1838 while Schumann was engaged to be married to Clara Wieck (her father was opposing the match). Rudolph Réti devotes a whole chapter of one of his books to this work (Rudolph Réti, ‘Schumann’s Kinderszenen: A “Theme with Variations”’ in The Thematic Process in Music (Macmillan: New York 1951) pp. 31–55).
With a work like Kinderszenen, it is always worth asking whether the pieces are entirely separate from each other, linked just by a general mood summed up in the title of the whole collection; or whether there is some musical connection between them that links them together. Rudolph Réti sets about demonstrating that a single “musical idea”, an individual pattern of notes, links together all the pieces. This pattern is found in the melody that begins the first of the pieces, which is called “Von fremden Ländern und Menschen” [“Of Distant Lands and Peoples”]. Réti doesn’t actually think that the opening melody of the work is the “basic pattern” that unites the whole. It is the first individualised example of a “basic pattern” that is ideal, abstract: it underlies all its individual occurrences in the work, but isn’t identical to any of them. Réti infers the “basic pattern” from the opening melody and its slightly altered repeat at bars 14-15.
You can hear the great pianist Vladimir Horowitz (1903–89) perform the piece here: his sensitive playing of these pieces depicting the carefree days of childhood, as an old man (the concert was recorded in 1987), is suitably elegiac.
Having identified this “basic pattern”, Réti sets about discovering it in every single one of the pieces that make up the Kinderzszenen. Here it is in the melody of No. 2, ‘Curiose Geschichte’ [‘Curious Story’]:
As Réti points out, the basic pattern here uses exactly the same notes as in the first piece, even though the key has changed from G major to D major.
Horowitz’s performance of this piece is well worth hearing, although the link here lacks video:
And here is the same basic pattern in possibly the best-known of the Kinderszenen, No. 7, ‘Träumerei’ [‘Daydreaming’], where Réti finds it in the middle of the theme, transposed down from G major to F major:
Horowitz’s performance is spellbinding:
Réti also thinks he can detect the basic pattern at its original pitch, in the middle of the texture rather than in the melody, at the climax near the end of the piece. Personally, I think this is pushing things a bit; but it shows Réti’s deep belief that the basic shape recurs everywhere:
I’ve circled in red the notes that Réti thinks make the basic shape; the first two are both in the first chord, but played one after the other according to the arpeggiation marking included by Réti; presumably it was in the edition he owned, since it isn’t in Schumann’s original edition. Horowitz plays the chord as Schumann wrote it, without arpeggiation; but he did have huge hands.
Richard Réti’s brilliant checkmate pattern
One thing that certainly does make playing chess a different kind of thing from writing music is that no-one who uses an idea from one of the great players of the past is going to be accused of plagiarism. If I were to write a piece that started with the “basic pattern” used by Schumann in the Kinderszenen, I would at the very best be credited with a conscious hommage to the nineteenth-century master. If I ever manage to reproduce Richard Réti’s most famous mating pattern, I would not only be delighted, but my chess-playing friends would congratulate me.
The pattern in question comes from a game Réti played against Savielly Tartakower in 1910. Over their careers, these two grandmasters played each other many times: Réti won on fifteen occasions, Tartakower on fifteen, and a further fourteen games were drawn. But this game is the best known. Réti won in just eleven moves. The game was played in Vienna, where both chess masters lived. Réti was 21, Tartakower 23. After eight moves, the game had reached the following position:
Tartakower had just taken Réti’s knight on e4 with his own knight [8…KtxKt], apparently winning a piece, although White can regain it with the move Re1 [R-K1]. However, Réti had set a trap: White wins, with mate in three moves.
DON’T CONTINUE UNTIL YOU HAVE GUESSED THE MOVE!!
The move Réti had foreseen was Qd8+!! [Q-Q8ch!!]:
Black can take the white queen — in fact, that is the only legal move — but then a double check from bishop and rook simultaneously, Bg5+ [B-Kt5ch], leads (depending on how the king moves) to one of two very pleasing checkmates:
The mate played in the game
The alternative possible mate
The game became well known. However, one has to wonder whether Réti knew a game played sixty years earlier in a box at a Paris opera house between Paul Morphy, the world’s strongest player of the time, and two French aristocrats:
Morphy’s stunning win was, like Réti’s, a queen sacrifice leading to that same rook-and-bishop mating pattern:
The queen sacrifice
The story of this game is told in more detail here.
Or perhaps Réti knew a game of 1864, a defeat for another top player of his day, Ignaz von Kolisch:
Once again, a queen sacrifice leads to checkmate, this one even more like that in Réti’s game:
The queen sacrifice
Whether Réti knew these earlier games or not, it is as I remarked a fortunate aspect of playing chess that no-one is bothered by accusations of plagiarism. Certainly not Georges Koltanowski, who arrived at the following position on his way to becoming Belgian chess champion of 1923. Black has just played Qxh2 [QxQR2] and is threatening Qa1 [Q-QR1] checkmate:
By now, the winning combination should be familiar:
The queen sacrifice
Finally, a more recent game between two strong amateurs:
This time, it was Black (Rene Gralla, a Hamburg lawyer and rock journalist who has interviewed Mick Jagger, Ringo Starr, and others) who unleashed the ‘Réti combination’:
The queen sacrifice
So that is five games, played over a span of nearly 150 years, all as it were variations on a recognisable theme.
So far, all these chess patterns have led to checkmates. They can only happen on the rarest of occasions, and are so memorable that they are associated with Richard Réti’s name, simply because his win against Tartakower became well-known.
But these chess patterns are not really like the patterns observed by Richard’s brother in the music of Schumann. To find a kind of pattern that can properly be called a Gestalt pattern that carries the sign of its creator’s authorship, we really need to look at the most complex phase of a chess game, the ‘middlegame’: the phase between the opening (roughly the first dozen moves or so, in which generally each side tries to move each piece no more than once), and the endgame, where just a few pieces strive to hold a draw or deliver checkmate.
One would think that the middlegame in chess is unique in each game, and so it would not be possible to create patterns more complex than very general rules (“control the centre”, “find a square for a knight where it cannot be attacked by an enemy pawn”). Richard Réti, however, showed that even in the middlegame it is possible to create a recognisable pattern that recalls his authorship whenever it it seen.
Richard Réti’s middlegame pattern
Like so many memorable creations in chess and in music, the middlegame pattern that bears Réti’s name was invented in Vienna. Réti’s opponent was called Fischer (absolutely no relation to his much better-known namesake born twenty years later). Here is the position in which Réti’s genius came up with a unique manoeuvre:
This is what chess players call a “closed” position, with all the pieces and pawns still on the board. Réti has played the “Réti opening”, positioning both of his bishops at the sides of the board and leaving the centre squares free of white pieces.
In this position, Réti came up with a startling idea. He moved his rook from c1 [QB1], in order to slide his queen right into the corner of the board:
Réti vs Fischer, move 11
Réti vs Fischer, move 12
This is modernism in chess: from what appears to be the very worst square from which the most powerful piece can operate, Réti hopes to influence the long diagonal that runs from that square to the far corner of the board. In this closed position, the long diagonals are the straight lines from one side of the board to the other with the least number of obstructing pawns on them:
The pattern is more than just an inventive and unusual disposition of the pieces. It is a Gestalt, a shape with meaning: the curious position of the white queen aims to dominate the game by controlling the long diagonal leading to the enemy king.
Fischer was a local amateur player competing in the annual Vienna tournament; Réti was an acknowledged grandmaster. So it is hardly surprising that Réti won this game. However, later that same year, he was playing in the strongest tournament organised, at Karlsbad. Here, facing one of the strongest players in the world, Akiba Rubinstein, the following position arose:
Réti reproduced his idea from the Vienna tournament, this time creating two lines of attack into the enemy camp:
Once again, the pattern was the basis of a winning strategy. Like Schumann’s recognisable motif that holds together all the pieces of Kinderszenen, Réti’s motif not only had perfect meaning in the context of the games in which he played it, but was also memorable and unusual enough to carry his signature, as it were. It is “Réti’s middleground pattern”.
The following year, Réti again played in the strongest tournament organised, this time in New York. He faced the former World Champion, Emanuel Lasker:
Once again, Réti manoeuvred his pieces to create a new line of attack into the enemy camp:
Lasker, a superb defender, prevented Réti’s idea from bearing fruit. Later in the game, after Réti had sacrificed rook for knight in an attempt to break open Lasker’s fortress, the following position arose:
With typical inventiveness, Réti tried playing the motif from the other corner:
The game was a terrific struggle, which Réti eventually lost. Lasker went on to win the tournament by a clear 1½ points, ahead of the reigning World Champion, José Capablanca.
In the plagiarism-free world of chess, even motifs forever identified with their creator are free for all to use. Capablanca himself, more than a decade later, was faced with the following position against another strong grandmaster:
By now, it should come as no surprise to see the pattern created by Capablanca’s next two moves:
This may have been some sort of hommage to Réti, who had died in 1929; but it was still the basis of a winning strategy for Capablanca.
Conclusion: patterns and meaning
I have tried to point out several times that the significance of the kinds of patterns I have been exploring, in music as well as in chess, is that they have meaning. They are not just pleasing configurations of chess pieces or of musical sounds; they are what a psychologist might term a Gestalt: a pattern whose meaning is different from the meaning of the individual components which constitute it.
This appeal to psychology is not accidental. Schumann’s music evokes more than just simple pleasure at its melodic beauty: it summons forth the world of childhood experience, tempered by memory and nostalgia (particularly the way that the aged Horowitz plays it).
Equally, when Lilienthal saw Capablanca move his queen to the corner square of the board, the gesture must have had a psychological effect: Lilienthal was just too young to have played Réti, and Capablanca signalled with the “Réti manoeuvre” that he was employing against him the kind of “hypermodern” attack Capablanca was himself famous for having refuted time and again by his legendarily precise play. It was Lasker who first wrote about the importance of psychology in chess; he would select not necessarily the objectively best move in a position, but the strategy he thought best suited to his opponent. One of his dictums was “Chess is not an art, or a science, but a struggle”.
The Réti brothers were alike in many ways, and we know from Rudolph that they discussed the similarity of their ideas regarding chess and music. The topic of pattern recognition is probably the one in which their ideas came closest to each other. It is no accident that it was the topic that enabled both brothers to become great theoreticians in their respective fields.
This short blog post is inspired by a statement I read this week in the publisher’s blurb for what looks to be an interesting book, Music and Chess: Apollo meets Caissa (Achilleas Zographos, Milford: Russell Enterprises 2017). This is not a review of the book – you can expect one of those in due course – and, with one book to my own name, I know better than to attribute what you read in the blurb to the author of the book. It is printed on the back cover, and also on all the websites from which the book can be purchased. Here it is:
It has long been recognized that there are only three major areas of human endeavor which produce prodigies: music, chess and mathematics.
Is this true? I found myself wondering (a) whether this assertion is justified, and (b) whether it does indeed demonstrate an innate connection between these three fields in particular.
I shall have to leave to one side the question of definitions of the terms “prodigy” and “major areas of human endeavour”. After all, this is a piece of advertising copy rather than a philosophical proposition. But the more I looked at it, the odder it seemed.
Are there prodigies outside of music, chess and maths?
If “prodigy” means someone who attains mastery of a field at a very young age, it seems to me that there are other “areas of human endeavour” which produce this phenomenon. I can think of three straight away:
Sport in general. Even without turning to womens’ gymnastics in the 1970s, when it seemed that mastery of the sport was the province only of pre-pubescent girls, exceptional talent in many sports shows itself very early indeed. I remember reading an anecdote of John McEnroe’s father throwing a baseball for his five-year-old son to hit in Central Park, when a passer-by asked whether the talented midget worked in a circus. Wayne Rooney was the top goal-scorer in his father’s local pub football league at the age of nine.
Acting. The number of incredibly talented child actors is long indeed. Shirley Temple was the highest-paid actress in Hollywood before retiring at the age of 22 and becoming a diplomat (American Ambassador to Ghana and Czechoslovakia). Mark Lester, Macaulay Culkin, and more recently, Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson all demonstrate that exceptional talent can show itself early and stay with its owner into adulthood.
Romantic poets. They may not have been children, but the whole movement of Romantic poetry in the early nineteenth century was certainly the province of teenagers: Keats, Shelley, arguably Byron, Wordsworth and Coleridge, all produced their best work in their teens or perhaps early twenties.
Are the greatest musicians and chess players always child prodigies?
It is undeniable that some of the greatest musicians, and some of the greatest chess players, were also child prodigies. In chess, the clearest example is the third World Champion, José Raul Capablanca (1888–1942), whose ability was reported in the Cuban press before his fifth birthday.
In music, the obvious candidate is of course Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791), who learned to play the piano at three, was touring Europe with his father as a soloist before his tenth birthday, and composed his first symphony at the age of nine.
However, these two are not typical. Indeed, Richard Réti was of the opinion that Capablanca’s exceptional talent (his predecessor as World Champion, Emanuel Lasker, and his successor, Alexander Alekhine, both rated him as the greatest player of all time) stemmed from the fact that he learned the game so early, so that it was like a “native language” to him. Much the same could be said of Mozart. But many other great chess players learned the game later: for instance, Emanuel Lasker (eleven), one of his challengers for the World title, Carl Schlechter, (thirteen), another World Champion, Mikhail Botvinnik (twelve). Equally, while most musicians begin playing early in life, exceptional talent may not show itself until much later. Had Beethoven died at the same age as Mozart (35), he would have left just three symphonies, no operas, and only one set of string quartets.
When do artists reach their peak?
While some chess players and some musicians do show exceptional talent as children, this does not mean that they attain the greatest heights at that age. While most sportsmen and sportswomen reach their peak in their twenties or thirties (as I believe is true for some mathematicians), this hardly means that they are prodigies when they do, or have to have been prodigies in order to excel. Bobby Fischer learned the game of chess at the age of six, was hailed as the best player in America when he was thirteen, but did not become World Champion until he was 29. Chess and music are both reassuring (to people like me) in that age can be defied by the greatest exponents: Emanuel Lasker, having held the title of World Champion longer than anyone else (27 years), returned to competitive chess at the age of 66, having lost his fortune in Hitler’s persecution of Jews; he attained third place at the Moscow tournament of 1935, remaining unbeaten, defeating Capablanca (who came fourth), and ending just a half-point behind the winners (Botvinnik and Salo Flohr). The pianist Alfred Brendel caused dismay in the world of music when he announced his retirement at the age of 75, still considered by many to be the greatest living performer. The composer Havergal Brian produced his thirty-first and thirty-second symphonies at the age of 92.
Are chess, music and maths linked?
To me, the most irritating aspect of the statement with which I started this post is that I agree with its basic contention, which is that there is cognitive similarity between the intellectual skills and mental stimulation that chess, music and mathematics all provide. But I don’t think that this guarantees that talent in any of these fields must necessarily show itself in childhood. Nor do I think these are the only “areas of human endeavour” in which prodigies occur. Nor do I think that some competence in any of these fields is impossible for those who, like me, attempt in their middle life to apply the hard work and practice to these activities which they were incapable of mustering earlier on.
A comparison of a chess puzzle by Réti and a musical puzzle by Bach
Here is a puzzle composed by Richard Réti in 1921. It looks impossible.
Here is a puzzle composed by Johann Sebastian Bach in 1747. It also looks impossible.
What is the connection between these two puzzles? What makes them puzzles, and what are their solutions?
In Richard Réti’s puzzle, there is a race between two pawns: the white pawn is racing up the board, the black pawn is racing down. If either of the pawns reaches its final square, it becomes a queen and that side wins the game; if both become queens simultaneously, the game is drawn.
The puzzle requires the White player, who moves first, to draw the game. What makes the puzzle seem impossible is that the black king is easily able to stop the white pawn from queening, whereas the white king seems to have no hope at all of stopping the black pawn. This is best shown by a concept taught to all beginning chess players, “the square of the pawn”.
The square of the white pawn
The square of the black pawn
When you have no pieces left except your king, and your opponent is racing a pawn towards its queening square, you can stop it if — and only if — your king can enter “the square of the pawn”. As you can see, the black king is already in the white pawn’s “square”, while the white king is three moves away from the black pawn’s “square”. The white king also seems hopelessly far away from protecting its own pawn if the black king approaches and captures it.
However, the puzzle does have a solution. The study consists of three elements: the square of the white pawn; its upside-down counterpart, the square of the black pawn; and the “Royal Piece”, the white king. The movement of the white king is the key: it has to move in relation to both the “squares of the pawns” simultaneously. As if the Royal Piece has the job of harmonising both other elements in a kind of counterpoint.
Now back to Bach and his impossible puzzle.
Bach’s puzzle is from one of his last pieces, the Musical Offering [Musikalisches Opfer]. The story of the piece is that Bach visited the court of Frederick the Great of Prussia in 1746. The king played Bach a theme of his own composition (the king was a keen and accomplished flute player):
At the king’s request, Bach proceeded to improvise a three-part fugue on the theme. He then apologised that he could not improvise something more worthy of such a wonderful theme, and promised to send King Frederick a finished piece once he had returned home to Leipzig. The result was the Musical Offering, which consists of three groups of pieces, all based on the “Royal Theme”. One of the groups is a collection of ten canons, which Bach presents in the manuscript as puzzles.
A canon is a piece in which a musical theme plays in one voice and is repeated by a second voice before the first one has finished: the simplest kinds of canons are rounds, such as London’s Burning or Frère Jacques. Puzzle canons, which were very popular in Bach’s day, provide just the melody of the canon, with cryptic instructions for constructing the second (and possibly third or further) voices. The solver has to work out how to create a harmonious result while obeying the instructions.
The canons of the Musical Offering all harmonise the “Royal Theme”, a meandering and chromatic melody which is hard enough to harmonise without making the accompaniment work as a canon at the same time. In the canon I am discussing here, the instructions are that it must work “Per augmentationem, contrario motu”, which means that the second part must play the melody in notes twice as long as they were originally (augmented, or “Per augmentationem”), and also upside-down (in contrary motion, or “contrario motu”). At the same time, the result of these two melodies playing together must harmonise with the notes of the “Royal Theme”. Quite a task.
By now, the similarity that I find between Bach’s puzzle canon and Réti’s chess puzzle might be clear. In Bach’s canon, the “Royal Theme” must harmonise simultaneously two other themes, which are upside-down versions of each other and proceed at different speeds. In Réti’s puzzle, the “Royal Piece” must coordinate simultaneously with two areas of the chess board, which are upside-down versions of each other, featuring pawns racing at different speeds. Réti’s puzzle is a study in counterpoint, as is Bach’s.
The solution to Réti’s puzzle
The first move in Réti’s solution is not hard to see — the white king advances in chase of the black pawn:
But the king does not just chase after the black pawn: the Royal Piece moves not to h7 (KR7) but to g7 (KN7). He moves towards the “square of the black pawn”, but also towards the “square of the white pawn”. By harmonising his move with both squares, the white king can, contrapuntally, achieve the harmonious equilibrium of a draw.
If the black pawn simply races to become a queen, the white king supports and advances his own pawn:
The black pawn races
The resulting position
In the resulting position, black has the choice of queening the pawn and allowing White to do the same, or attacking the white pawn, when the Royal Piece harmoniously supports it:
Either way, a draw is achieved. And astonishingly, Black cannot disrupt this contrapuntal harmony by first advancing the black pawn and then attacking the white one:
The pawn and king both race
The resulting position
By continuing to approach both “squares of the pawns”, the Royal Piece keeps them harmonised in counterpoint. In the position above, Black can take the white pawn, but then the Royal Piece will enter the “square of the black pawn”; or Black can race the pawn towards queening, but then the Royal Piece will save His own pawn.
The solution to Bach’s puzzle
The following realisation of Bach’s puzzle features Frederick of Prussia’s own instrument, the baroque flute, which is entirely appropriate. The cool animation shows the musical lines as blobs: you can see the Royal Theme (played twice, with orange blobs when the viola da gamba plays it, and red blobs when the flute does), accompanied in counterpoint by the canon, played by the harpsichord (green blobs) and the violin (blue blobs). You can see that the shape of the blue blobs is an upside-down version of the green blobs (contrario motu); you can hear that it is going at half the speed (per augmentationem), which is why the line of blue blobs is only half the length of the line of green blobs.
This particular solution to the puzzle was arranged by Silas Wollston, whom I happen to know: he studied with my colleagues at the Music Department of The Open University, gaining his PhD in 2009. Today he is a Fellow of Queens’ College, Cambridge. I don’t know if Silas plays chess; he certainly plays Bach as few people can.
Conclusion: chess, music, counterpoint
The intellectual pleasure to be had from solving each of these two puzzles (or, in my case, marvelling at the solutions without being able to solve them) seems to me to be of the same kind in each case. Both studies, when solved, produce a result that is elegant, sophisticated and deeply satisfying to witness. On one level, there is the technical brilliance of manipulating a restricted range of materials: just four pieces on Réti’s chessboard; the constraints of harmonising the Royal Theme in Bach’s canon. On another level, though, each study demonstrates the challenge set by all counterpoint in music, and by all games of chess as well: that of holding in the mind simultaneously several different fields of action, which behave independently of each other and yet interact and may alter each other at any moment. This, I believe, is why so many musicians are also lovers of the Royal Game, and vice versa. Certainly Richard Réti was, as I discuss in Réti the Modernist. Chess is a contrapuntal art.
The Reti brothers stand out as one of the most remarkable stories there is to tell about chess and music. Not just because one was a professional musician and the other a professional chess player, but because they are both celebrated, in their respective fields, as founders of Modernism. The phrase used by chess writers since the 1920s is “hypermodern chess”, which reflects the fact that “Modernism” as a term in the history of the arts took quite a while to become established: in fact, I believe that the use of “Postmodernism” to describe an artistic movement predates the use of “Modernism” in that sense.
Whatever the history of the word, what we understand today by Modernism is what unites the Réti brothers. An artistic movement that flourished in the early twentieth century, Modernism is distinguished broadly speaking by a constellation of ideas: the rejection, often violent, of nineteenth-century assumptions; the search for new techniques; the belief that art must always inevitably progress to its next phase of expression.
In music, the quintessential modernist has to be the Viennese composer Arnold Schoenberg and his pupils Alban Berg and Anton Webern.
In visual art, probably one thinks first of Pablo Picasso and other cubists.
Modernism, chess, music: a Viennese story
Rudolph Réti was born in Serbia, Richard in Hungary. But both grew up in Vienna, where their father, a doctor, moved in 1890 when his sons were aged four and one. Vienna in 1890 was the capital of the Austro-Hungarian empire, and a centre of activity for both music and chess. In the years that the Réti brothers grew up there, it was also the birthplace of Modernism, along with many other currents of twentieth-century thought: the Rétis grew up in the city of Freud and Wittgenstein, Kokoschka and Schoenberg. The best guide to the character of the place is Wittgenstein’s Vienna by Allan Janik and Stephen Toulmin (Simon & Schuster 1973).
The world of chess owes Rudolph a great deal, since it was he who in 1903 took his younger brother to meet the best-known chess master in Vienna, Carl Schlechter. Richard lost their first game in a matter of minutes; in their second game he resisted the grandmaster for more than an hour, and was taken along to the Viennese Chess Club as a result. The club, patronised by Baron Rothschild, had not previously admitted a junior player to membership. Twenty years later, Richard was to take second place in the Vienna chess tournament held as a memorial to Schlechter, who died in the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918.
Music also owes much to Rudolph. He gave the first performances of Schoenberg’s seminal modernist pieces Three Piano Pieces Op. 11 of 1909 and Six Little Piano Pieces Op. 19 of 1911 (see his Tonality–Atonality–Pantonality, 1958, p. 42n). From the musical score pictured above, Schoenberg’s abandonment of tonality (writing in a musical key) is evident; so is his exploration of new techniques: the long. held chord in the right hand of the piano in the last line of the page is to be held down silently, to create resonance effects when the left-hand melody is played.
Rudolph ended up in America in the 1930s, and his theoretical writing on music is dedicated, as Schoenberg himself was, to showing the continuity between Modernism in music and its past, especially the music of another foreign-born Viennese resident, Beethoven. Rudolph’s insight was that music theory had not previously focussed on melody and theme, over centuries developing instead an intricate theory of harmony. Rudolph sought instead to theorise what he terms “The Thematic Process”. Modernist music may have abandoned traditional harmony, but it retains the expressive potential of musical theme and melodic expression. This links together the music of the past and the music of the modernists, and also explores how music communicates. I have relied on and tried to expand Réti’s work in my own professional career as a scholar.
Modernism and the twentieth century
One thing that unites the Réti brothers is their belief that what they were doing was part of the new discoveries of the early twentieth century: Einstein’s theory of relativity, Freud and Jung’s theories of the unconscious, Wittgenstein’s philosophy. Like other modernists, Rudolph felt that his ideas were part of his age:
Around the turn of the century the physical sciences, as is generally known, underwent an extraordinary change. […] However, even if the actual force of the old laws seemed to have vanished, their usefulness and validity within their own realm did not by any means disappear entirely. In fact, one main goal of modern physics seems to be centred on the endeavour to comprise and unify the old and new principles in one all-comprehensive law or formula.
The whole process, which is especially conspicuous in physics due to the paramount importance physical discoveries have assumed with regard to our material way of life, can also be observed in many other spheres, for instance in the psychological, the social and the political domain, and even in the arts, and particularly in music.
(Rudolph Réti, Tonality–Atonality–Pantonality,London: Rockliff, 1958, p. 1)
The list of areas showing a similar process to the new physics could have included chess. Rudolph wrote of his brother’s area of expertise in identical terms:
Even for me, poor as was my understanding of chess, it was fascinating to watch Richard try to demonstrate [his] ideas through concrete examples. […] For my brother did not fail to emphasize – and this, of course, interested me particularly and was discussed at length between us – that, after all, this same trend is visible in our time in almost any artistic field, in literature and the fine arts no less than in music, and even in science, where the rational Newtonian physics has to yield to the almost mystic theory of relativity.
The brothers are in agreement: Modernism in art is an aspect of the new thought of the early twentieth century, its ideas overturning previous assumptions just as relativity overturns Newtonian mechanics; and chess is one of the modernist arts.
Modernism in Chess
Richard Réti echoes his brother when he describes modern chess as a modern art:
In his booklet “The Tree of Chess Knowledge” [Der Baum der Schacherkenntnis, Berlin: Kagan 1921] Dr Tartakower describes the style of the “Hypermoderns.” […] This lucid sketch contains the following: “Chess can also show its cubism. Its chief representatives […] attracted the attention of the whole chess world to the most modern school. The tenets of the latter school had, till then  indicated a state of secession. […]”
(Richard Réti, Modern Ideas in Chess, trans. John Hart, London: Bell & Sons, 1923, p. 140)
The title of his book, Modern Ideas in Chess, allies his thought to Modernism as a movement. For Réti, chess in 1920 is an example of cubism; its foremost artists resemble the Viennese Secessionists led by Gustav Klimt.
So what does “cubist” chess look like? Here is the opening which is named after Richard Réti:
And here is another, a gambit against the French Defence:
Both these openings demonstrate an essential principle of “hypermodern” or Modernist chess: to control the centre of the board from the sides, instead of trying to occupy it with pawns. This is what White’s knight and c-pawn are doing in the first diagram, and White’s dark-squared bishop in the second. Richard Réti’s signature move, 1.Nf3, is now the third most-played opening move. His opening is frequently seen at the very highest levels of chess: for instance, the world no. 3 player, Fabiano Caruana, used the Réti Opening in 2016 against the world no. 1, Magnus Carlsen. In the film of Nabokov’s novel The Luzhin Defence (2000), we see the climactic game open, of course, with the Réti Opening (see Music in Nabokov’s chess novel).
This style of play disrupts the perspectives of chess theory developed in the nineteenth century; it forces the players to look at what makes a “good” position from a different angle; in fact, from more than one angle at once. This disruption of “normal” or “natural” perspective is why Réti describes his thinking as “cubist”. He explicitly links the new ideas in chess with the Modernist swerve away from naturalism in visual art:
New ideas rule the game and have considerable similarities with the ideas of modern art. As art has turned aside from naturalism, so the ideal of the modern chess master is no longer what was called “sound play” or development in accordance with nature.
(Richard Réti, Modern Ideas in Chess, p. v)
Next time I am disorientated at the chessboard by an opponent’s devastating attack on the centre launched from the very corner of the board, I shall at least know I am participating in the history of modern art. I shall have Schoenberg’s music ringing in my ears.
Music’s role in Nabokov’s 1930 Novel “The Luzhin Defense”
The Luzhin Defense, described by Mike Fox and Richard James as the best novel about chess ever written, is an early (1930) work by Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977). The central character is the Luzhin of the title (we never discover his first name), one of the strongest chess players in the world. The “Luzhin Defense” is the chess opening he prepares to combat his chief rival for the world title, the Italian grandmaster Turati. Ironically, although the encounter between Luzhin and Turati forms a crucial passage of the book, the defense is never played, since Turati avoids his own trademark opening when they finally meet over the board.
Nabokov himself was a chess enthusiast. Like the Luzhin of the novel, he was born and raised in St Petersburg; also like Luzhin, he left Russia after the 1917 Revolution to live abroad. Nabokov is better known as a composer of chess problems than as a player. In his autobiography, Speak, Memory (New York: 1960) he compares the intellectual challenge that the composer of a chess problem sets the solver to the challenge that the author of a book sets his reader. The fact that Nabokov felt this comparison to be apt explains at least two aspects of his work: firstly, his liking for unreliable narrators or other narrative devices that make following his novels a problem-solving challenge for his readers; and secondly, the frequent appearance of chess within his books, always with metaphorical significance. In his most famous work, Lolita (1955), there is an early scene in which Humbert Humbert (an extremely unreliable narrator) plays a game of chess; in the game, he freely sacrifices material to achieve his goal: to turn a small, white pawn into a queen, and using her to mate. Indeed a metaphorical prefiguring of the action of the novel. The role of chess in Nabokov’s fiction generally is explored in ‘Solus Rex: Nabokov and the Chess Novel’ by Strother B. Purdy (Modern Fiction Studies 14:4, 1968).
The Luzhin Defense, however, is the only one of Nabokov’s novels in which chess is, as it were, the main subject of the narrative. Luzhin is taught the game by an aunt, when a boy of 12 or 13, after being fascinated by the sight of a chess set in his father’s study. His phenomenal powers in the game are quickly evident, and innate (in this, his story is not unlike that of Bobby Fischer much later, who was taught the game at the age of six by his sister, from the instructions in a set she had happened to find in a local candy store).
What Nabokov’s novel captures, entirely successfully, is the obsessive compulsion of the game, which occupies Luzhin entirely and to the exclusion of all other interests, skills or social relations. He meets and marries another Russian emigré, and settles in Berlin. There he reaches the pinnacle of his career, playing chess of an unbelieveable standard in a major tournament which culminates in his confrontation with Turati. During this long-anticipated game, he suffers a kind of mental collapse and is hospitalised. He gives up the game in order to preserve his sanity, and is nursed to health by his new bride. At the denouement of the novel, he is lured back to the game by his former manager, with catastrophic consequences.
The character of Luzhin is a literary creation, but is also to some extent an amalgam of real people: some of the events recounted of his childhood are those of Nabokov’s own; the end of the story was suggested by the fate of a real Berlin chess master, Curt von Bardeleben (1861-1924); as a Russian escapee from the Bolsheviks who reached the very heights of the game, he recalls Alexander Alekhine (1892-1946), the fourth chess World Champion. His arch rival Turati is hardly developed at all as an independent character in the novel; but his name recalls that of Richard Réti, as does Nabokov’s description of Turati’s playing style, which corresponds exactly to the “hypermodern” style of play developed by Réti and others in the 1920s:
This player, a representative of the latest fashions in chess, opened the game by moving up on the flanks, leaving the middle of the board unoccupied by Pawns but exercising a most dangerous influence on the centre from the sides.
(Vladimir Nabokov, The Luzhin Defense, trans. Martin Scammell [1930, translation 1964], Penguin Classics 2000, p. 61)
Music in the novel
Why, then, write at length about this novel in a blog devoted to the connections between chess and music? The answer is that, throughout the novel, Nabokov himself makes analogies between the two. Sometimes the connection is overt, sometimes hidden or symbolic. But it is a theme that runs through the whole book, as the following quotations demonstrate.
The first time that Luzhin sees a chess set is during a party given by his father in their St Petersburg home. The boy is hiding in his father’s study, trying to avoid attention, when a violinist, who has just performed for the guests, enters to take a call on the telephone. He opens a box of chess pieces on Luzhin’s father’s desk, and on seeing the boy (who has never seen the set before), he asks him if he knows how to play:
‘What a game, what a game,’ said the violinist, tenderly closing the box. ‘Combinations like melodies. You know, I can simply hear the moves.’
Luzhin steals the chess set, and asks his aunt to teach him the game. When his extraordinary talent is discovered, his first chess teacher is an elderly doctor friend of the family:
He spoke about the grand masters he had had the occasion to see, about a recent tournament, and also about the past of chess, about a somewhat doubtful rajah and about the great Philidor, who was also an accomplished musician.
Music is already a Leitmotif of the narrative.
Later on, once Luzhin is celebrated as one of the great players of his day, his father, a writer, imagines writing a novella about his son. He remembers watching him giving a simultaneous chess display as a child:
The writer Luzhin did not himself notice the stylized nature of his recollection. Nor did he notice that he had endowed his son with the features of a musical rather than a chess-playing prodigy, the results being both sickly and angelic […].
Finally, the crucial episode of the novel arrives, when Luzhin is to encounter Turati at last. Nabokov turns again to music; not this time using the craft of a musician as an alternative or parallel occupation to that of a chess player, but using music as the metaphorical backdrop to the game itself. Just as the violinist at the St Petersburg party could “hear the moves”, the grandmasters seem to find music within the board:
At first it went softly, softly, like muted violins. […] Then, without the least warning, a chord sang out tenderly. This was one of Turati’s forces occupying a diagonal line. But forthwith a trace of melody very softly manifested itself on Luzhin’s side also. […] Turati finally decided on this combination – and immediately a kind of musical tempest overwhelmed the board and Luzhin searched stubbornly in it for the tiny, clear note that he needed in order in his turn to swell it out into a thunderous harmony. […] But the chessmen were pitiless, they held and absorbed him. There was horror in this, but in this also was the sole harmony, for what else exists in the world besides chess?
This game is never finished. Luzhin’s mental crisis intervenes, and the remainder of the novel charts his attempted recovery, which depends on his avoiding the game of chess at all costs. It is his wife who superintends this, and at a party that mirrors the one at the start of the novel, she regrets that Luzhin is no longer recognised, as she overhears another confusion of the careers of chess master and musician:
A rather pretty but boring young lady. And that strange marriage to an unsuccessful musician, or something of that sort. ‘What did you say – a former socialist? A what? A player? A card player? […]’
As the end of the novel approaches, representations or artificial reproductions of both chess and music become prominent. Luzhin is tracked down by his former manager, a man called Valentinov, who wants him to return to the game; not to play competitively, though, but to take part in a film about the game. This is enough, however, to provide a fatal and musical recapitulation of Luzhin’s past:
To the sound of this voice, to the music of the chessboard’s evil lure, Luzhin recalled, with the exquisite, moist melancholy peculiar to recollections of love, a thousand games that he had played in the past. […] There were combinations, pure and harmonious, where thought ascended marble stairs to victory; there were tender stirrings in one corner of the board, and a passionate explosion, and the fanfare of the Queen going to its sacrificial doom.
And the final denouement of the novel comes when Luzhin gives up trying to avoid what seems to him an inevitable chess combination played against him by fate:
And suddenly Luzhin stopped. It was as if the whole world had stopped. It happened in the drawing room, by the phonograph.
The appearance of the phonograph here is significant: it reproduces music mechanically, just as Valentinov’s film reproduces the life of a chess master artificially. In the early part of the novel, the music was real, and the chess was Luzhin’s real life too; at the end, he is trapped in an unreal world of mechanical reproduction: on a pocket chess set, he repeatedly sets up the pieces as they had stood in his game with Turati at the point that they had adjourned play. He distracts himself by listening to music with his wife, but as reproduced on the phonograph. Chess and music still mirror or echo each other, but no longer sustain lived experience.
Why chess and music?
Nabokov, it seems to me, understands intimately and at first hand the power and seductive attraction of the game of chess. It is small wonder that he turns to music as the central metaphor to articulate his novel. Great technical skill, unremitting devotion to practice, a reliance on inspiration, and the appreciation of great aesthetic beauty by connoisseurs: all these are shared by both music and chess. The two arts are also, of course, bound up with Russian cultural and political identity in the early twentieth century.
If you have read this, I urge you to go and read (or re-read) the novel. Try and read it as if you were listening to a recital.