Fabiano Caruana: hip hop chess

At the press conference that served as the opening ceremony for the World Chess Championship match between Magnus Carlsen and Fabiano Caruana, being held in London at the time of writing, the American challenger was reminded by a chess journalist that Carlsen had been described as “the Mozart of chess”. He was asked what similar comparison he would make of himself. His reply was:

My musical tastes lie more outside classical music, so I would probably pick someone either in the hip hop or the rock genre. This comparison to Magnus was made a long time ago, when he was a very talented up-and-coming player, and I think it was very fitting because of his great talent in chess.

(Fabiano Caruana, 8 November 2018)

The second part of Caruana’s answer shows that he may not fully appreciate the reasons for comparing Carlsen with Mozart, which have as much to do with the elegance and apparent simplicity of his play as with the fact that he was a child prodigy. Carlsen as a player reminds many of his great predecessor as World Champion, José Raul Capablanca, whom I compared to Mozart in my post Mozart and Capablanca: playing jokes on the amateur.

It is true that Caruana was less of a child prodigy than Carlsen: in his first chess tournament, he lost every game. On the other hand, he developed fast, earning the grandmaster title a few days before his fifteenth birthday (Carlsen became a grandmaster aged thirteen). But his suggestion that his play might be better compared to hip hop or rock is suggestive. For a start, it recalls the player he is most regularly compared with, the only American chess World Champion, Bobby Fischer.  Fischer, an unpredictable genius over the board, considered himself a great rock singer, as I pointed out in Bobby Fischer: lost rock god?.

In part, Caruana’s answer simply refers to his musical tastes, which he also described in a pre-match interview for The Guardian:

He [Caruana] grew up on classic rock and spent many tournaments listening to Metallica and Led Zeppelin during his downtime, but has taken a shine to hip-hop in the last few years. “I’ve been listening to a lot of Kendrick Lamar and a lot of Killah Priest,” he says. “But it changes all the time. When I’m bored and I have nothing to do, I’ll just listen to random pop music.”

(Interview with Bryan Armen Graham, The Guardian, 7 November 2018)

Nevertheless, I see no reason not to ask: what would “hip hop” chess look like?

Hip hop chess

HHCF logoBefore going further, I must point out that there indeed exists a Hip Hop Chess Federation (HHCF). It is a California-based charity which uses chess and other disciplines to help children’s academic and social development in some of the most deprived urban areas of America and elsewhere. Its work is clearly brilliant, and I urge you to read about HHCF here.

However, to stay with hip hop as a music genre and the playing style of Caruana: in hip hop, an essential effect of the music is its non-stop urgency: a rapper has to obey the rules of rhyme and metre, impress the audience with verbal dexterity, and create the impression of unstoppable force, often with a shocking or sudden punchline as the end-point. Here’s an example from Kendrick Lamar, the artsit mentioned by Caruana above. It’s the end of “King’s Dead” (an appropriate title for a chess rap), from the soundtrack to the 2018 film Black Panther:

Who am I? Not your father, not your brother
Not your reason, not your future
Not your comfort, not your reverence, not your glory
Not your heaven and not your angel, not your spirit
Not your message, not your freedom
Not your people, not your neighbor
Not your baby, not your equal
Not the title y’all want me under
All hail King Killmonger
Red light, green light, red light, green light
Red light, green light, they like, we like
Fast cars

Now here is one of Caruana’s great wins. It was played in Dortmund in 2014, against the Ukrainian grandmaster Ruslan Ponomariov. The devotee of hip hop in this game cultivates on the chessboard a “rapping”, non-stop urgency in his play, with threats maintained on both sides of the board simultaneously. Ponomariov, having to rush his defensive pieces from one side to the other, ended up with the following position:

Caruana vs Ponomariov Dortmund 2014 move 39.
Caruana vs Ponomariov, 2014, move 39. White to move.

Black’s bishop and rook have been decoyed to the far side of the board from the black king. But Caruana’s next move, which of course he had foreseen several moves in advance, comes like a Led Zeppelin power chord:

Caruana vs Ponomariov Dortmund 2014 move 39...
Caruana plays 39.Re7 [R-K7]!!
To Ponomariov’s credit, he did not resign immediately, but allowed the combination to unfold on the chess board (Fischer once described his opponent’s resignation in similar circumstances as “a bitter disappointment”.). Like a non-stop rap, Caruana has given up his rook only to have the chance to give up his bishop:

Caruana vs Ponomariov Dortmund 2014 move 40b
Caruana plays 40.Ba6 [B-QR6]!!
The ending is a wonderful checkmate:

Caruana vs Ponomariov Dortmund 2014 move 41

“King Killmonger”, indeed!

So, who will win? Mozart or hip hop?

Image may contain: one or more people and people sitting
Caruana and Carlsen during the first game of the 2018 World Championship

Of course, I cannot predict the outcome of the current title match: World Championship matches can take surprising turns; I covered one of the most surprising of all time in my post Music in Glavinic’s chess novel. As I write, the first four games have all been drawn, although in my judgment the World Champion has had the edge whenever there has been an edge to have. All of us who follow the game hope to see a genuine clash of styles: the classical, cool calm of Carlsen (who has already tested Caruana through an endgame that lengthened the first game to 115 moves played over seven uninterrupted hours) against the unpredictable “hip hop” of Caruana. The match is not unlike the 1927 World Title match when the Mercurial Alexander Alekhine defeated the first “Mozart of chess”, Capablanca, to the astonishment of most onlookers. Notoriously, Alekhine avoided ever giving Capablanca a rematch.

Perhaps Caruana should remember, though, that the title that denotes a rapper of distinction – the one at the top of the game – is made up of a significant two-letter acronym: MC.


Bobby Fischer: lost rock god?

When is chess rock ‘n’ roll?

There have been any number of chess giants who were also musicians, of course; the greater their standing in the world of chess, the more intriguing their musical achievements. Some could have been professionals in either sphere, the concert pianist Mark Taimanov and the operatic bass Vasily Smyslov being examples. There are many more in Richard James’s chess and music posts.

Here, however, is a case of a chess giant who could also have been a singer to rival John Lennon, or at least so it would seem from this intriguing 1961 interview with the great American champion Bobby Fischer:

D. ANDRIC: Some other participants of the tournament [in Bled, Slovenia] persuaded Fischer to sing when at a Bled night club one evening, hoping to have some fun at his expense. They were hushed to awe however, when he sang a series of rock and roll songs attractively and well.

FISCHER: “My main talent lies not in chess but in music: I’ve written this somewhere in my diary. Grandmaster Smyslov who could be an opera singer anywhere admitted I had a suitable voice, and I’ve got rhythm, too.”

As far as I know, this is the only recorded instance of Fischer’s claim that in becoming the only chess player ever to achieve truly global celebrity, he robbed the world of a true rock god. I owe this fascinating quotation to the chess writer and researcher Jeremy Silman, who unearthed it in the March 1962 edition of the American magazine Chess Life, a journal whose early issues are particularly hard to obtain: no library in the UK, not even the British Library, keeps copies. Silman’s article on these treasures of chess journalism (Part Two of a three-part series) can be found here.

The 1961 tournament in Bled was a good one for Fischer: at the age of eighteen, up against many of the world’s best players, he was the only player to remain unbeaten throughout, and he finished a very narrow second to Mikhail Tal, who had been World Champion until a few months previously:

Bled 1961 final standings
Bled 1961 final result. One former World Champion and two future World Champions led the field.

Even better, Fischer defeated Tal in their individual game, the only one that Tal lost in the tournament:

Najdorf watching Fischer vs Tal Bled 1961
Fischer vs Tal, Bled 1961. The great Miguel Najdorf watches over Fischer’s shoulder.

Bobby Fischer was born in the same year as Mick Jagger, George Harrison and Roger Waters. His teenage claim that his musical talent was even greater than his chess-playing ability obviously tells us more about his incredible self-confidence and self-belief than anything else. But it is a reminder that he was of the same generation as the Stones, the Beatles, Pink Floyd, and the other greats of 1960s and 1970s rock and roll. Perhaps the rock legends who played chess will be a future post in this blog. Here are four:

When is chess rock ‘n’ roll?

Bobby Fischer came closest of anyone to playing chess like rock ‘n’ roll. First of all. there were the tantrums: forfeiting a match when the start time of a game was rescheduled; accusing the Soviet chess establishment of cheating by fixing results to prevent him from winning a tournament (he then refused to play at all for nearly two years); insisting on playing some of the world title match against Boris Spassky in the tiny room at the back of the hall reserved for table-tennis instead of on the main stage (which he claimed to be too noisy). Fischer was as much a nightmare for officials and organisers as any rock diva demanding, say, a particular brand of white socks be supplied to their dressing room (Status Quo once refused to play on those grounds). You can read more about such things here.

But more to the point, Bobby Fischer was someone who could play chess like rock and roll. Here’s what I mean:

Fischer Reshevsky move 10
Bobby Fischer vs Samuel Reshevsky, US Championship 1958, move 10. White to move. What would you play?

When this game was played, Fischer was fifteen. He was also the defending US Champion. Reshevsky, playing Black, was one of the strongest grandmasters in the world, who had previously won the US Championship seven times, and would again one last time in 1969.

In this position, Fischer played the chess equivalent of a rock power chord:

Fischer Reshevsky move 10B
Position after Fischer’s 10.Bxf7+ [B x KB7 check] !!
Astonishing! After ten moves, Reshevsky is lost. He gamely took the marauding bishop with his king, and Fischer played:

Fischer Reshevsky move 11B
Position after Fischer’s 11.Ne6 [Kt-K6] !!
Another power chord! In the resulting position, either Reshevsky is going to take the knight with the king, in which case it is checkmate in a maximum of six moves (Fischer had worked that out); or Fischer is going to win the black queen (which is what actually happened — Reshevsky took the knight with the pawn, allowing Fischer to take the black queen with his queen). Reshevsky eventually resigned on move 42.

That’s chess rock ‘n’ roll.

Here’s another chess rock moment, from Fischer’s game against Robert Byrne (another American grandmaster) in the US Championship of 1963:

R.Byrne Fischer move 15B
Robert Byrne vs Fischer, US Championship 1963, move 15. Black to move. What would you play?

Time for another power chord:

R.Byrne Fischer move 16
Position after Fischer’s 15…Nxf2 [Kt x KB7] !!
Fischer’s opponent did not realise until several moves later why Fischer had given up a whole piece. After move 21, Byrne resigned. The two grandmasters explaining games to the public in the commentary room thought, when the game ended, that Byrne must have won since Fischer was so far behind in material. Fischer later described his opponent’s resignation as “a bitter disappointment” — it had prevented the following position actually happening on the board:

R.Byrne Fischer move 23B never played
Byrne vs Fischer, the position that would have occurred on move 23. Black to move. What would you play?

Here, Fischer had foreseen another two-piece sacrifice leading to mate:

Checkmate on move 25, following a piece sacrifice on move 15. That is chess rock ‘n’ roll.

Rock and roll in performance is very loud; chess is usually very quiet. But the display, bravado and technical brilliance of Bobby Fischer was the same as that of the greatest rock performers. The brilliant moves above did not come out of nowhere; they rely on absolute technical mastery, as much as a Brian May guitar solo.

Perhaps the best moment to end on is the turning point of Fischer’s greatest match, when he won the world championship by defeating Boris Spassky in 1972. In the first five games of the match, Fischer had lost two (one of them by not turning up), and won two. In the sixth game, Fischer played an opening he had almost never played before. He proceeded to win with such style that Spassky, on resigning, stood and applauded him.

Spassky applauds Fischer (Pawn Sacrifice)
Spassky applauds Fischer on losing the sixth game of the world championship match in 1972 (scene recreated in the 2014 film Pawn Sacrifice).

That’s rock ‘n’ roll.

Does practice make perfect?

The value of five-finger exercises and pawn endings

One of the things I disliked most in my childhood was piano practice. Not that I disliked playing the piano; in fact, I spent quite a lot of time sitting at the piano and playing things through. But I did very little practising. Playing scales, or other keyboard exercises, were things I almost never did. Partly, this was because my piano teacher (whom I liked very much and to whom I owe a great deal) did not teach me how to practise, nor explained to me why practising is important, and how it differs from playing pieces through and hoping that by repetition you will play them better.

Much the same was true of my early experiences of playing chess. I learned the moves from my father; I played at a club at school and later for a club in the local league; but all I ever did was play games. I did try to memorise some common opening moves (which I found very difficult to do beyond the second or third move), but no-one ever suggested to me that playing chess might be a skill that required practising.

The proverb, “Practice makes perfect” therefore intrigues me. What exactly is practice? Is it just playing a piece on the piano again and again, or playing games of chess as often as possible, with the hope in both cases that  improvement will be the inevitable result? Or is there more to it than that? Equally, what does it mean to play music, or to play chess, “perfectly”? Is that even possible? And will it result from proper practice?

My attitude to piano practice changed abruptly and forever when I was sent to a new teacher as part of starting my music studies at university. That teacher was Phyllis Palmer, who is something of a legend amongst those who ever studied with her. At my first lesson, she told me that the piece I played to demonstrate my standard was badly chosen, my posture was dreadful, and my technique was poor. She also introduced me to a book of piano exercises, recommending I try the easiest two. “These,” she remarked, “are what a professional would use for the whole of their career.”

What do you do when you practise?

Here is one of those piano exercises by Dohnányi to which the redoubtable Phyllis Palmer introduced me:

Finger exercise (Dohnanyi) transparent

When I first saw this, it looked trivially easy. You put your five fingers on the five white notes C, D, E, F and G, and only use one hand (to begin with; you add the other hand, an octave lower, later). You keep one note depressed while you play the others. The pattern changes by one note in each bar until it repeats itself. Easy.

Then I tried playing it. I couldn’t.

Nowadays, I often start a practice session with this exercise, which trains your fingers to move independently, and makes them stronger. It is an exercise that shows the value of practising.

Now here is a chess position to which, a year or two earlier, an older member of my chess club introduced me:

pawn ending exercise 4 (Black to move and lose)
A pawn ending. Black to move.

“What do you think of this position?” He asked me. “It’s Black to move.”

“It looks like a dead draw,” I replied.

“Quite right. Try and play it out.”

Since Black’s king  can’t go forwards, I moved it one square backwards. “Ah!” said the older player who then, in a few more moves, forced my king into the corner, took all Black’s pawns, and won.

The position should indeed be a draw. But of Black’s five legal moves, four lose. It is a position which shows the value of practising.

Five-finger exercises and pawn endings

There is an affinity between five-finger exercises and pawn endings like the ones above. They enable you to develop the kind of ability which underlies much more complex tasks, which however cannot be attempted unless the “practice” task is completely mastered.

The piano exercise by Dohnányi is not a great piece of music, but if you can play it perfectly, then your fingers will be able to attempt the counterpoint of a Bach fugue or the figuration of a Chopin Étude. Equally, the pawn ending is not a great game of chess; but if you know how to draw and not lose the ending, you will be able to tread a path through real, tricky endgames.

Both kinds of exercise look deceptively simple. The first bar of the Dohnanyi exercise is fairly easy, in fact; the second bar is a lot harder, and the third bar really takes practising. Pawn endings share this deceptive quality. Here is an apparently symmetrical, equal position; White is to move. It is a win for White.

pawn ending exercise (White to win)
White to play and win

On the other hand, if the kings are anywhere except in the corners, the result is different:

And here is a similar position where, if White is to move then White will win, while if Black is to move then Black can draw:

pawn ending exercise 3 (White move win Black move draw)
White to move and win; Black to move and draw

How do you practise?

Now that I am no longer a child, and thanks to Phyllis Palmer’s accurate assessment of my weaknesses, I enjoy practising the piano. A regime of Dohnányi’s A Legfontosabb Ujjgyakorlatok [Essential Finger Exercises] and Bach’s immensely beautiful, immensely tricky 48 Preludes and Fugues (Book 1 in odd-numbered years, Book 2 in even-numbered years) will keep me happy for the rest of my life, I should think.

Practising chess technique used to be more laborious, requiring books of puzzles, endgame studies, and the like, as well as a board and pieces (unless you could play blindfold, which I cannot). That, however, has been entirely changed by the internet. Nowadays, a regime of practising using an internet chess site is a direct parallel to practising a musical instrument. The examples above were endgame puzzles; here is an example from Chess.com’s training website, where you need to remember basic pawn technique to win an ending that looks as if it comes from a real-life chess game:

pawn ending exercise (Chess.com tactic 175366)
Chess.com tactic 175366. White to move and win. Click to try it yourself!

I try to practise every day. Like Schumann, I try to make Bach my “daily bread”. In chess, I am still very poor at endgames, partly because I prefer to practise tactical puzzles which reinforce the kind of pattern recognition I waxed lyrical about in Creating patterns.

I certainly don’t manage to practise the piano every day, but I do usually manage to practise chess tactics (which takes a lot less time). And in both realms, there is no doubt that my technique has become a lot more secure.

So, does practice make perfect?

No, of course it doesn’t. At least, not in the sense that I will ever become a pianist to rival András Schiff or a chess player to rival Magnus Carlsen. However, what practice can perfect is that underlying technique that can allow you to aspire at least to competence. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred I can play that Dohnányi exercise as well as anyone; and ninety-nine times out of a hundred I can draw a drawn pawn endgame, or win a won pawn endgame. It is practice that enables me to stop worrying about the routine business of playing the right notes or choosing reasonable moves, and get on with the rewarding business of interpreting great music or formulating chess strategy. But in both contexts, that is true only if I keep practising, daily if possible.

Even a professional pianist or a professional chess player has to practise – in fact, professionals practise an awful lot more than I do or could. It was Phyllis Palmer herself who first gave me that well-worn adage: “An amateur practises until they can get it right. A professional practises until they can’t get it wrong.”

The chess and music blog: one year on

Chess and Music Blog stats after one year
My readers come from every continent except Antarctica.

It is now a year since I began this blog, so I thought it was time that I thanked everyone who has taken the time to read any of the posts which have been appearing at the rate of about one per month (this is in fact the fourteenth).

I was asked recently whom I thought I was writing for. It was (and is) a very difficult question to answer. The truth is that I write these posts for myself, of course. I remain fascinated by the connections between the human activities of chess and music, and I am sure I shall remain so.

What has been gratifying, though, has been the discovery that others share my fascination – enough to read this blog, at least. In the twelve months that I have been posting, more than 500 visitors have paid this site a visit. More surprisingly to me, the site has been viewed from a total of 55 different countries across the world. Most of you come from the UK or the USA, of course; but this is my opportunity to hail whoever you are from Estonia, Honduras, Kenya, Palau and elsewhere who have stumbled across this blog at least once.

I do know some of my readers, who are club-mates from Cowley Chess Club, colleagues from The Open University (which has had an extremely eventful year since this blog started, although I would not claim any causation either way), and friends prepared to indulge me. But I have also made friends through writing here: I suspect that Greece features high up in the list of countries where the blog has been read mainly because I have come to know Achilles Zographos since his excellent book was recommended to me. If you haven’t read his book, at least read my book review: Music and Chess (Achilleas Zographos). And I have become at least a Facebook friend of Richard James, whose book with Mike Fox, The Even More Complete Chess Addict, and whose own chess and music posts remain constant sources of inspiration.

Finally, as I begin a second year of these blog posts, I do want to reassure my readers that I haven’t exhausted my topic. I am rather well aware that it has been quite some time since I last posted (when I answered the question Did Beethoven play chess?). Partly this has been due to the demands of earning a living during troubled times for my employer; partly it has been because the post on which I have been working for some time, a return to the Vienna of the early twentieth century and Arnold Schoenberg, has led me down paths I did not suspect and which have taken time to pursue (including attempting to translate a lengthy academic article written in German). But rest assured that my thoughts on Schoenberg will appear before long, and that I have plenty more musico-caissic topics to write up.


Book review: Music and Chess (Achilleas Zographos)

A recent book on my favourite subject

music_chess_frontcoverMusic and Chess: Apollo meets Caissa. Achilleas Zographos. Milford, CT: Russell Enterprises, 2017. ISBN: 978-1-941270-72-1 (print); 978-1-941270-73-8 (ebook)

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.

Vassily Kandinsky, Graceful Ascent (1934). Or is it Chess Theory (1937)?

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.

Could some of these shapes 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).

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

Tarrasch quote
Wouldn’t you buy this t-shirt?

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:

Mate in 271 (Petrovic 1969)
White to move. Mate in 271 moves.

Another is the beautiful but totally bizarre study by van Reek which illustrates the musical idea of ‘texture’:

White to win (texture study)
White to play and win

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.






Prodigies: the preserve of music and chess?

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?

Capablanca aged 4, Chess Notes 6521
Capablanca aged 4 (from Edward Winter’s Chess Notes no. 6521)

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.







Mozart by Louis Carrogis (1763) wikimedia commons
Mozart with his father and sister. Painted by Louis Carrogis when Mozart was seven years old.

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.

Réti and Bach: four-piece counterpoint

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.

Reti endgame study
White to move and draw

Here is a puzzle composed by Johann Sebastian Bach in 1747. It also looks impossible.

Musical Offering Canon 4 autograph
Canon per augmentationem, contrario motu

What is the connection between these two puzzles? What makes them puzzles, and what are their solutions?

Réti’s puzzle

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”.


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

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):


The Royal Theme.png
The Royal Theme

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.

Federick the Great & CPE Bach (Adolph Menzel 1852)
Frederick the Great shown playing his flute, accompanied by Bach’s son, CPE Bach, at the harpsichord. Perhaps they are performing the canon Per Augmentationem, Contrario Motu.

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.

Musical Offering Canon 4 Bach edn
The score of the canon from the Bach Gesellschaft edition. The top stave shows a decorated version of the “Royal Theme”; the upside-down clef at the start of the lower stave indicates that the second voice (not shown) must play upside-down in relation to the first, in notes of twice the time-value (in augmentation). Bach inscribed the canon, “As the notes increase, so may the King’s honour”.

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:

Reti endgame study move 1
The first move

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:


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:

Reti endgame study final dilemma 2
The Royal Piece harmonises with His pawn

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:


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.