Schoenberg’s Coalition Chess

While I was doing research for my post Réti the Modernist, I was delighted to discover that the composer Arnold Schoenberg, as well as being a central figure in Modernist music of the first half of the twentieth century, and as well as being a noted painter, was also a chess enthusiast. Not surprising, as my previous post pointed out; but satisfying nonetheless.

Schoenberg evidently thought that the realities of modern warfare (he had served in the First World War) suggested that the game of chess might be updated to reflect its times. While Richard Réti (the chess master of the Réti brothers) revolutionised thinking about the traditional game in the light of Modernism, Schoenberg invented a new variant on the game, reflecting his equally modernist beliefs.

This is the set-up at the start of the game, which is played on a board of 10×10 squares:

Schoenberg's Coalition Chess set (Jewish Travel) no background
Image from ‘The Jewish Musical Genius behind the Coalition Chess: Arnold Schoenberg

At least, this is one possible starting position. One of Schoenberg’s innovative ideas was that each player arranges their forces, within the designated area at their side of the board, before the game starts. In a way this anticipates Bobby Fischer’s invention of the “Fischerandom” variant of the game (also known as “Fischer Random Chess” and “Chess960”, the latter referring to the number of possible starting positions — there is a comprehensive article on this chess variant on Wikipedia).  In Schoenberg’s Coalition Chess, the players are able to rearrange their starting setup again, once they can see their opponents’ forces as well as their own. These new rules obviously reflect Schoenberg’s experience of trench warfare: the opposing sides spend time on careful preparation before “going over the top” and engaging the foe when the game starts. Equally, from a chess-playing point of view, the idea of gradual preparation before launching an attack is intrinsic to Modernist (or, in chess parlance, “hypermodern”) opening theory, where pieces are activated at the side of the board before central pawns rush into battle.

Reti opening example
White and Black are both playing like Modernists (the Réti opening)

Chess960 has had a fair degree of success in establishing itself as a serious variant of the game, rather than a mere amusement (such as “suicide chess” in which each player tries to be the first to lose all their pieces, with capturing compulsory if it is possible on any move). The world’s elite grandmasters have taken part in Chess960 tournaments, and in 2018 a World Championship was held, won by Magnus Carlsen, a few months before his successful defence of his title as the regular World Chess Chess Champion (see my post Magnus Carlsen: the Mozart of the chess board). Schoenberg’s Coalition Chess, by contrast, has faded into obscurity.

I have to confess that I have never played a game of Coalition Chess, so I cannot really comment on its merits, or judge whether it is as challenging and bewitching as its cousin, the Royal Game. But its disappearance is something of a shame, I think, both because of what it might tell us about Arnold Schoenberg, and how it might make us think of the sport of chess.

How do we know about Coalition Chess?

Arnold Schoenberg Center (Vienna)
The Arnold Schoenberg Center

Coalition Chess was to some extent recovered from near-oblivion by an exhibition entitled Arnold Schoenberg’s Brilliant Moves: Dodecaphony and Game Construction, held at the Arnold Schoenberg Center in Vienna (Schoenberg’s native city) from May to September 2004. My two main sources for this blog post both stem from this exhibition.

An academic conference was held alongside the exhibition, and its proceedings were published as a scholarly book in 2006 with the dual-language title Schachzüge Arnold Schönbergs / Arnold Schoenberg’s Brilliant Moves (ed. Christian Meyer; Universität für Musik und Darstellende Kunst Wien: Wissenschaftszentrum Arnold Schönberg: Wien). This is a book with lots of fascinating stuff in it, but the chapter I am interested in here is by Ernst Strouhal, Nach eigenen Regeln: Wahlverwandtschaften und Differenzen von Spiel und Kunst bei Arnold Schönberg. The main reason I have taken so long to write this blog post is that I have been trying to translate this article from German. The title I render as Playing by His Own Rules: Similarities and differences between game-playing and art in the work of Arnold Schoenberg. There is a lot more in this article besides what he says about Schoenberg’s Coalition Chess, including analysis of other puzzles invented by Schoenberg, Bauhaus chess sets, and Marcel Duchamp’s contention that “All chess players are artists”. If I ever finish translating it, I may post it to this blog.

My other source is, I was astonished to discover, a term paper written by an American college undergraduate. The author had the generosity to make it available online, which is how I found it. The paper is called ‘Constraint and Craft in Schoenberg’s Coalition Chess‘ and its author is Bennet Lin, who studied music at Washington State University (where he wrote the paper in 2012), is nowadays a software engineer, and who gave me a very friendly reply when I contacted him via FaceBook. I have taught music undergraduates, at several universities, for more than thirty years, and I have very seldom seen anything as well written as this paper. I hope he enjoys reading this blog post. The connection of the paper with the exhibition is that it makes use of the catalogue, published as Arnold Schönberg: Games, Constructions, Bricolages (ed. Christian Meyer; Universität für Musik und Darstellende Kunst Wien: Wissenschaftszentrum Arnold Schönberg: Wien 2004) which I haven’t been able to find myself in the UK but which provides diagrams of how the pieces in Coalition Chess move.

How do you play Coalition Chess?

Coalition Chess requires four players, who take the colours Black, Yellow, Red and Green. Schoenberg made a set of pieces for the game himself, which are pictured at the head of this blog post (the image is from the Schoenberg Center’s page for the 2004 exhibition). The pieces are all named after modern military personnel, weaponry and vehicles.

List of Coalition Chess pieces (Meyer 2004)
Coalition Chess pieces (from Games, Constructions, Bricolages, reproduced in Lin 2012)

Schoenberg was following a long history of chess piece naming here — for instance, the English word ‘rook’ for the chess piece derives from its Persian name, rukh, meaning ‘chariot’. The same piece is called an ‘elephant’ in Russian (слон), and a ‘cannon’ in Bulgarian (топ).

You can see from the table that only two of the players have Kings. In this respect, Schoenberg’s game reflects his fundamentally binary perception of the First World War as a conflict between two sides (of which he was, at least initially, a patriotic and enthusiastic supporter of the Habsburg Imperial Monarchy). Also significant is the fact that it is the potential allies — the powers without Kings — who have the most powerful pieces, the Planes and Submarines, whose moves double the range of the chess Knight in the case of the Plane, and combine the powers of Knight and Queen in the case of the Submarine:

According to Lin, a demonstration game of Coalition Chess was played during the 2004 exhibition and conference, partly to confirm the rules based on Schoenberg’s notes. He does not say whether or not it turned out to be a good game to play; but it appears that the forces are indeed balanced and the rules make the game feasible.

Why did Schoenberg invent Coalition Chess?

Coalition Chess was a piece of fun, as far as Schoenberg was concerned. Strouhal recounts the story that Schoenberg was once introduced to Emanuel Lasker, the second World Chess Champion. When asked by a friend why he had not told the great chess player about his invention, Schoenberg replied, “It would be as awful for him as looking at one of his compositions would be for me.”

Strouhal describes Schoenberg’s variant of the game as a ‘bricolage’, something made with odds and ends. Schoenberg loved inventing things, he loved puzzles, and he loved making things with his hands. Another example is ‘the 14-15 puzzle’ the invention of which was claimed by the great American composer of puzzles (including chess puzzles), Sam Lloyd. Schoenberg made a wooden version of this puzzle with holes and counters.

Schoenberg 14-15 puzzle
Schoenberg, ‘the 14-15 puzzle’ (Arnold Schoenberg Centre, Vienna)

The counters have to be moved sideways, using the vacant sixteenth hole, to place them in numerical order as a grid. Sam Lloyd did not in fact invent the puzzle, but he did invent the variant in which the challenge is to reverse the order of the 14 and 15 within the grid. This is impossible.

As a bricoleur, someone who relies not on the specialist tools and materials of an engineer, but on ‘making do’ with whatever is to hand, Schoenberg’s practice is not unlike that of other experimental artists of the 1920s and 30s. The idea of the ‘readymade’ found object that could be considered a work of art was developed most thoroughly (and shockingly) by Marcel Duchamp.

Duchamp’s most famous work, ‘Fountain’, on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Modern Art in 2005 (Wikimedia Commons)

It will come as no surprise in this context that Duchamp, apart from being a revolutionary experimental artist, was also a chess player. In fact, he was a recognised master who represented France in four Chess Olympiads between 1928 and 1933, for two of which he was a team-mate (in a team of five) of the great Alexander Alekhine, the fourth World Chess Champion.

What has Coalition Chess got to do with music?

Strouhal is quite sure that Schoenberg regarded his activities as a bricoleur and as a composer as entirely separate. Commenting on Schoenberg’s remark concerning why he did not tell Emanuel Lasker about Coalition Chess, Strouhal says,

The anecdote is not just typical of Schoenberg’s dry humour; it also marks a fundamental difference between art and game-playing. In Schoenberg’s mind, his chess game is a diversion, not art. It is just craftsmanship, which may indeed be challenging, but which has to be “cleanly” separated from art.

And yet … there is an awful lot in Schoenberg’s compositional habits that seem to me similar to the way a chess player thinks about the game. The experimental tinkering with different orders of notes in a tone-row before finding the order that makes musical sense; the refusal to compromise with his audience’s expectations any more than Kasparov would compromise with Karpov’s opening preparation; the manic invention of chords with unprecedented sonorities, such as those at the beginning of his one-singer opera Erwartung:



Schoenberg Erwartung bar 2 example from AA302
Chords at the beginning of Erwartung. An example taken from an old and much-loved Open University module.


These chords show Modernism in music. They aren’t random, and they still play the game of creating an emotionally charged effect using an orchestra; even the game of using chords in parallel motion to outline a melodic line — the game played by Rossini, Bellini, Verdi. But Schoenberg has completely re-thought the way the game should be played, just as Réti and Nimzowitsch re-thought the way chess should be played. He is playing by his own rules.

However, Strouhal is quite right — Coalition Chess is still bricolage, while the sounds of Erwartung  come from a lifetime of study and honed expertise. As he also points out, though, there is a deeper level of connection between Modernist music and the game that Schoenberg loved and sought to expand. Strouhal quotes two authors who describe the effect of Schoenberg’s music. The first is the sociologist and philosopher Theodor Adorno, who as a young man studied composition with Schoenberg’s pupil Alban Berg. Adorno writes,

With Schoenberg, affability ceases. [He demands] from the very beginning active and concentrated participation, the most acute attention to simultaneous multiplicity, the renunciation of the customary crutches of a listening which always knows what to expect.

Theodor Adorno, Prisms (1967)

The second is Michel Leiris, the French poet who in 1929 reviewed a concert of Schoenberg’s music and wrote,

[…] not much thought – or daring – had been given to driving [musical] logic to its awful conclusion, to its frenetic limits, where that benevolent [mathematical] divinity stood, stripped of its final veil, abruptly revealed in its terrible, dazzling form, evincing that it is far more capable of provoking horror than desperate desire.

Michel Leiris, On Schoenberg 1929, updated 1966, taken here from the version published by the Arnold Schoenberg Center

Strouhal comments, “Different as the two authors may be, and different as their approaches to Schoenberg may be, both passages could equally well be describing a game of chess.” The impulse to take ideas to their logical conclusion, no matter what that may be, and without flinching from what Leiris describes as the “moment of cruelty” that accompanies “bewitching intimacy” — that is indeed the instinct shown by the chess grandmaster.

For the music scholar, it will always be a fascinating sideline to Schoenberg’s biography to know that at exactly the time that he was evolving the “twelve-tone system” that proved so influential on twentieth-century music, he was also inventing Coalition Chess. Playing music and playing games are intimately connected, never more so than with Modernist thinkers. Apart from anything else, it highlights the impulse to invent that drove so much of Schoenberg’s endeavours, in music and in all other areas of life. He was first to last an inventor, whether of musical Modernism or of Coalition Chess. Those who knew Schoenberg often recalled him to be a warm and generous personality, quite unlike what many might expect from his music. Much the same of course could be said of many chess players — Mikhail Tal, Boris Spassky, Viswanathan Anand — whose good-humoured humanity is hardly reflected in the “moments of cruelty” of their attacking play on the chess board.

Perhaps the last word should go to Schoenberg himself. He acknowledged the value he placed on invention over what might traditionally be called music composition in a telling reply he gave to a music journalist who asked him if he thought any of his American pupils (he taught at the University of California for over twenty years) was a great composer. His reply was “No…” followed after a pause by “…except one — John Cage. But he isn’t a composer. He is an inventor. And an inventor of genius.”

No surprise, then, that John Cage was also a chess player. And, incidentally, a friend of Marcel Duchamp. But that will be the subject of a future blog post.



Author: Robert Samuels

I teach music for The Open University and play chess for Cowley Chess Club in the Oxfordshire Chess League.

4 thoughts on “Schoenberg’s Coalition Chess”

  1. Fascinating stuff. I feel there’s scope to deploy the standard 32 black and white pieces on four sides of the board, with the same colours opposite or adjacent. I can’t find anyone selling a coalition chess set…

    Liked by 1 person

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