Chess and music in a time of pandemic

A review of the extraordinary year 2020

It is well over a year since I last posted to this blog, with musings in November 2019 on a Renaissance painting, Baugin’s story about chess and music. It is over a year since I last faced a chess opponent over the board, a game in December 2019 where I essayed the Réti opening (a hommage to Réti the Modernist) and lost rather tamely. It is also nearly a year since I last gave a pre-concert talk, before the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment’s concert of Mozart’s last three symphonies at the Southbank Centre, London, in February 2020.

What has happened since then has been the Covid-19 pandemic. A global health crisis that has caused such widespread disruption to every aspect of life that no sense of “life as normal” has been felt anywhere, at any level of any society. Like many middle-class professionals in the developed West, my own life has been profoundly affected while I have been personally insulated from the worst consequences of the emergency. I have remained healthy, as mercifully have the other members of my household (two of whom are in the “vulnerable” and “extremely vulnerable” categories of risk from the virus). I have colonised my daughter’s bedroom while she has been studying at university, and worked from home.

While millions in the UK have been prevented from working at all, my own working life has become considerably busier. I have been profoundly grateful to be employed by a university that has spent fifty years acquiring expertise in distance teaching, but life has been filled with online meetings, revision of student assessments, and a much more complex process for editing and presenting multimedia teaching materials during a time when no-one is allowed into the office.

So I offer no apology for the lack of posts to this blog. Moreover, I can assure my still-growing number of readers and followers that I have quite a long list of posts planned and started, but not yet finished. But I do feel some responsibility not to let an entire calendar year pass without some thoughts and observations on what has happened to the two areas of human activity to which this blog is devoted.

The Chess and Music blog in a time of pandemic

One of the things that has surprised me during 2020 has been that lots more people have been reading this blog since I stopped posting to it.

2020 has seen further growth in readers of The Chess and Music Blog, topping 5,000 views in the year

Whether the tedium for millions of enforced time at home during the pandemic has been influential or not, the numbers are clear: as time passes, more and more people stumble upon and explore this blog. This is something that is obviously very satisfying for me, especially given the fact that I do virtually nothing in order to promote it. As I have remarked in previous reviews of my readership, The chess and music blog: one year onChess and music: another year passes and Who reads the Chess and Music blog?, I am constantly astonished as I acquire new visitors from every corner of the globe. During 2020, the countries that have been added to the tally on the home page have included Uganda, Cameroon, Trinidad and Tobago, Bolivia, Macau (please, no arguments about whether it counts as a country: WordPress lists it separately and that’s good enough for me), and tiny Sint Maarten (ditto as to its status as part of The Netherlands, and not to be confused with Saint-Martin – they are both of course part of St Martin). Welcome all.

The most popular posts viewed this year, again somewhat to my surprise, have been the pair on John Cage written in 2019: John Cage and his musical chess pieces: Part One and John Cage and his musical chess pieces: Part Two. These probably come closest of all my posts to being a proper piece of musicological research, which may be a lesson for the future.

The most remarkable day for the blog, however, was October 12 2020. On this single day, rather than the usual average of ten or twelve views, the blog recorded a massive 243 views, by 207 different people (or, at least, from 207 separate internet devices). 

12 October 2020 was an outlier in statistics

Of these 243 views, 230 were from Norway, and 228 of them were views of my profile of the last (defeated) challenger for the world title, Fabiano Caruana: hip hop chess. Now, 12 October fell in the middle of the first international chess tournament to be played “over the board” since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, The 8th Altibox Norway Chess Tournament, won by the World Champion Magnus Carlsen. Although Fabiano Caruana did fairly well, finishing fourth in the ten-person field, I have absolutely no idea why more than 200 of the tournament’s online spectators (presumably) simultaneously decided to read about his musical preferences while he and Carlsen were resuming their rivalry over the board – on 12 October they played twice: the first game was drawn, and Carlsen won the second, “armageddon” tie-break game. If anyone else knows why this prompted such interest in my blog, please tell me. I do of course fervently hope that one of my Norwegian readers is the World Champion himself.

Chess in a time of pandemic

Death plays chess (Albertus Pictor, c. 1480. Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Mention of the Norway Chess 2020 tournament brings me onto what has happened in the world of The Royal Game this year. Chess can, of course, easily be played online. The World Champion has been at the forefront of organising online tournaments for the elite grandmasters who rely on competitive chess for their living. At the time of writing, eight of the very top players have just begun the final, knockout phase of the online “Airthings” Masters tournament.

Carlsen is playing Daniil Dubov in the first knockout round of the Airthings Masters tournament (sensationally, the World Champion was later knocked out by the young Russian grandmaster)

Online tournaments have certainly kept chess going as a professional sport: Magnus Carlsen, for instance, demonstrated in his first game against Dubov on the 29th December that his magic touch in endgames has not deserted him. Encouragingly, with all the potential for computer-aided cheating that comes with playing online, his win is one with which my own (very sophisticated) computer software would not have helped. After sixty-one moves, Carlsen and his opponent Daniil Dubov arrived at the following position: 

Carlsen (White) vs Dubov, position after Carlsen’s sixty-first move

The position certainly looks even, although White’s pawn is further advanced than Black’s. If I were playing either side, I would be happy to offer or accept a draw. But at this point, Dubov blundered. His move is one I struggle to see as an error, let alone a losing one:

Dubov plays 61…Ra2? (R-QR7?)

Now, if White takes Black’s pawn, then the black rook gives check, forces the white king further up the board, and the black king comes over to stop the white pawn. But the World Champion found a better, and winning, move: one that even my computer does not rate as the best choice:

Carlsen plays 62.Kd5! (K-Q5!)

The white king comes to the aid of his pawn. Dubov resigned ten moves later.

So chess has not ceased in the pandemic, neither at a professional nor an amateur level: at any moment, tens of thousands of online games are taking place on the many internet platforms available. My own local chess club now has an online version of itself:

About half of our usual members have signed up to the virtual chess club

And yet, what has been borne out most clearly and most painfully over the last year is the fact that online chess simply is not as rewarding as sitting opposite your opponent and pushing little pieces of wood (or more often plastic) around on a board of sixty-four marked squares. This is not just my opinion: Magnus Carlsen himself remarked how good it felt to be back playing over the board at the Norway tournament (he gets to play with exquisite wooden pieces, of course). And Grandmaster Daniel King, who maintains one of the most-watched YouTube channels devoted to chess, has also gone out of his way to cover the few “real life” tournaments to have taken place during recent months.

But this is beside the point. What the pandemic has shown more clearly than anything else is the fact that chess as an activity (whether thought of as a leisure interest or a competitive sport) relies on social interaction both for its appeal and its popularity. It only makes sense as a pursuit between friends: sitting down at a chess board is a gesture of friendship, not a challenge to a rival. Even if the comradeship extends only for the duration of the game, for that period the players are united in mutual effort to create something together. 

Well, perhaps I exaggerate. But the reason that mediocre amateurs like me never tire of sitting down to play is that we value the society of chess players. This is the reason that, along with the other members of my club (half of whom have not played at all, not even online, during the pandemic), I am ready to bid a hearty “good riddance” to 2020 with the genuine expectation that at some point next year (perhaps in September when the new chess season begins), we will once more sit in a rather draughty church hall and push small pieces of plastic at each other for hours on end.

Records and gambits

It would be wrong, though, to consign all that has happened in 2020 to oblivion. The astonishing form of the World Champion continues: when on 10 October Magnus Carlsen lost a game in the Norway Chess tournament, it brought to an end a streak of 125 games (since July 2018) without a loss, a record unlikely ever to be equalled by a reigning World Champion, and dwarfing Capablanca’s famous winning streak of 52 games (although that streak extended over a longer period of time, between 1916 and 1924).

And the most significant happening for the game of chess in 2020 may well have not been a game or a record at all, but a cultural event: the release in October on Netflix of the 7-part mini-series The Queen’s Gambit.

(Image: IMDb)

The most significant feature of this series about chess is that it is not a series about chess. It is a well-scripted and well-made drama about an orphan girl growing up in the America of the 1950s and 1960s, who turns out to have a remarkable and rare talent. This talent happens to be her ability to play chess; but the drama is about the challenges of poverty, abusive systems, sexism and the discovery of extraordinary gifts in adverse circumstances. In that sense, the chess is secondary.

For chess players, the series is a treat because the actual playing of chess looks real: unsurprising given that one of the technical advisers was the ex-World Champion Gary Kasparov, but the kind of thing that films often get wrong. Many Hollywood actors have given atrocious representations of playing the piano, for instance. Fortunately, The Queen’s Gambit gets that right, too.

Coming at last to the raison d’être of this blog, the connection of chess to music, music plays a crucial role in this chess-based drama. The central character, Beth Harmon, is saved from her life in an orphanage through being adopted by a wealthy middle-class American couple. It is her adoptive mother, Alma Wheatley, who enables her chess career to begin. Alma is frustrated and unhappy, partly through having been unable to pursue her own career as a musician. It is in fact through Beth’s attendance at an international chess tournament that Alma at last has a chance to perform before an audience, playing the piano in the hotel bar to deserved acclaim.

A more detailed discussion of music in The Queen’s Gambit may be a matter for a future post; for now, it is worth noting the way that chess and music have combined forces to entertain millions searching for newly-streamed television drama during lock-down.

Music in a time of pandemic

Death plays music (Basel, 1440. Image: Bridgeman education)

The image right at the top of this post really says all that needs to be said about music in 2020. It is a photograph of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra performing Mahler’s Fourth Symphony in April, hard though that is to believe. The concert hall is empty; the orchestra reduced to a mere handful of players sitting several metres from each other. They were actually playing an arrangement of Mahler’s work made for Schoenberg’s private concerts of new music given in Vienna in the early years of the twentieth century. The soloist, Christiane Karg, is singing of the joys of the heavenly life.

Music has been horribly affected by the pandemic, in ways that will take years, at the very least, to mend. Professional musicians the world over have seen their sources of income disappear overnight. Many have had no access to the various forms of state-funded support that have attempted to tide economies over the crisis. World-class performers with London orchestras have been stacking supermarket shelves or delivering parcels for online retailers.

There have, of course, been slight compensations. Just as technology has helped the game of chess continue while all chess clubs have closed, an enormous amount of creative energy has been focused on technologically-mediated musical performance. Musicians cannot, in real time, perform together over an internet link: the time-lag that is inevitable even with a super-fast broadband connection is an insuperable obstacle to that. But a lot of music has nevertheless been created in the time of pandemic. I was astonished and impressed by the professionalism and dedication of my own colleagues in our partner institution, a music conservatoire in London, who ran a virtual music residential school for our students in April 2020, even including sessions of non-synchronous improvised music making.  

As professional music making has all but ceased, the value of amateur music making has also been impressed on society as never before. To end this post, I want to invite you to enjoy a typical musical product of lock-down: a recording of Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus from Messiah assembled, over months, by members of my own church in Oxford. A very hasty ensemble performance during a brief period in which socially-distanced choir recording was possible began the process; individual choir members (including me) were encouraged and cajoled into recording single parts to a pre-recorded organ and conductor track; wait for the final “Hallelujah” to see the church’s “young singers” make a memorable final contribution to the whole. 

C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la guerre, someone is alleged once to have remarked of the charge of the Light Brigade. This performance of Handel may not be professional music making, and may leave a lot to be desired in terms of ensemble, intonation, and accuracy. But it is magnificent, in its defiance of the constraints of the last awful year, and its promise of hope.

May I wish all of my readers a very much happier 2021.