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Chess - The Battleground of Art and Science


Pasan glances at the board, eyeing his bishop. He knows exactly what his next play is and Nic hasn’t even decided which of his sixteen pieces should move next. Most chess players would call it tactical vision or mathematics. Pasan believes his playing style is that of a crocodile. Nic sits on the edge of his seat, fingers pressing into his temple, calculating seven, maybe eight moves ahead, while Pasan kicks back, a smile breaking out on his face. He loves facing gazelles. His eyes dart towards the chess clock as he dons his grey fedora and props himself up. His opponent is down on time, now to get serious.

Thirteen years ago Pasan sat on the front doorstep of his house, etching a picture into the ground with a rock. His father strolled outside, carrying a board the boy had never seen. ‘Here’s a new game we can play!’ his father announced in Tamil. In a game that most would consider a pastime for nerds, Russians and greying men trying to combat the arrival of dementia, some zealous chess players see the game as a skirmish between science and art. A historical rivalry governs the royal game, mirroring both Classical and Romantic ideologies that underpinned the Counter-Enlightenment era. With Romantic chess players viewing the game as a work of creativity, often their style can be described as intuitive and emotion-driven. They simply interpret chess differently. Not unlike musicians and artists, Romantic chess players live for their craft, are consumed by it, and can also be tortured by it.

Pasan's Romantic chess style was obvious from the beginning. He picked up chess very quickly but was steamrolled by his father for the first fifteen games they played. Eventually, he began to block his father’s advances and fight back. ‘I didn’t teach you how to block’ his father quipped. ‘Well, I see what you were doing with your queen and bishop and I just naturally knew what to do’. It wasn’t long before Pasan was defeating his father constantly and within a month his parents threw him in the deep end, enrolling him at the Anatoly Karpov school of chess. During this time he could not comprehend his classmates abilities to prepare opponent-specific moves before each game. Despite their superior preparations he found himself crushing his opponents in the middle-game. One year later Pasan managed to win the under eight Sri Lankan Championship before his family moved to Australia in the hope that more opportunities would arise.

‘How could I be so stupid! I always ruin beautiful positions.’ Pasan slams his fist into his forehead repeatedly. The second game had ended in favour of Nic, who had calculated his way to victory. ‘Pfft’ Pasan spits. Wearing an Armani suit, Pasan stands out in Nic’s dining room, which is dimly lit by two hanging light fixtures, one of which is broken. Completing his outfit with a music note and chess piece cufflink on each sleeve, he collects himself for the rapid portion of the match. Nic opts for a billabong shirt tucked into his track pants, which are almost high enough to choke him. He chooses to not wear shoes. Nic’s dining room table, where the players duel, is covered in chess books by past world champions, textbooks from his medicine degree and boxes of fruit and biscuits. The smell of burning chicken nuggets wafts from the kitchen. Fixated on the board in front of him, Nic has forgotten that he put them in the oven. With the score hung at 1-1 after three hours of play, both players stare each other down. Pasan starts the chess clock, and after Nic’s first move, he immediately responds, thrusting his queen pawn forward and slapping the clock. Pasan shifts his arms upright, his nose resting on his palms. All the while he maintains his glare. He can smell blood in the water.

Grandmaster Lubomir Kavalek, a prolific chess journalist, suggests that chess should be viewed as an art-form. While some players see chess as more Yahtzee and Monopoly than Beethoven and Da Vinci, the few who view chess in such an artistic way can often feel that their work is not appreciated in the way it should be. This lack of recognition lines up with the archetype of the tortured artist, and likening musicians and artists with Romantic chess players is not necessarily farfetched. In 2015, expert chess player Craig Woolcock committed suicide after years of severe depression directly related to his chess form. Much like late artists Van Gogh and Kurt Kobain, Woolcock’s creative ambition led to his downfall, and he succumbed to his craft. For the average non-chess player, chess trivia knowledge extends as far as one name, Bobby Fischer. Considered by many as the greatest chess player of all time, Fischer encapsulated the artistic nature of chess as well as the dark side. The American biographical drama pawn sacrifice, starring Tobey Maguire as Bobby Fischer, lends itself to the idea that chess is a much an art as a science. The consuming, addictive and potentially negative impacts of chess is brought out in this film. Both Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky, world champions in their time, are painted as chess players who became victims of their profession and were driven mad.

Nic rocks back and forth in his chair, his buck teeth chattering and hands shaking. The gas heater in the corner of the room hisses, questioning whether Nic is cold or simply nervous. The game follows theory for the first few moves. He is very comfortable in the Sicilian Defence, Dragon Variation. 1.e4 c5, 2.nf3 d6. After two moves, Pasan, playing white, plays an astounding move. 3.h4! He chooses to ditch theory and prepares an attack. Nic’s normally beady eyes double in size and with eyebrows raised he declares ‘Ridiculous, what an absurd move!’. Pasan, grinning, rolls up his sleeves and licks his lips. Nic pauses, considering a response. With his opponent bearing down on the side of the board he had planned to seek refuge with his king, he has no choice but to change his plans. To castle queenside in a Sicilian Dragon would take far too long and he would surely lose. Tick, Tock… Tick, Tock… Tick, Tock. The clicking of the chess clock jolts Nic from his daydream, he has lost a precious four minutes of thinking time. With only eleven minutes remaining on the clock Nic panics and grasps his ‘h’ pawn. Pushing it forward two squares and releasing, he presses his clock. Pasan gasps. ‘What have I done’ he bellows, acknowledging Nic’s reply. For the first time in the match Nic stops shaking, and sits back in his chair. Before he can even truly relax however Pasan perks up, this time flashing a cruel smirk. He had been crying crocodile tears, Nic had actually created a weakness.

Challenging for the world championship in 1972 against the Russian Spassky, Fischer managed to end the long reign of Russian world chess champions. With the pressure of the United States of America behind him at the height of cold war, Fischer suffered from severe anxiety and paranoia, believing that the KGB were spying on him in an attempt to learn his opening preparations and counter them. As a result he would spend weeks on end locked in his hotel room preparing for the match. Fischer’s creative mind went far beyond the game of chess, transcending reality. His creative flair peaked in the famous game six of the championship, where Fischer chose an opening he had never played before, thwarting alleged spies. Upon winning the game, Spassky and the audience gave him a standing ovation in recognition of his creativity. After the championship match Fischer’s mental health deteriorated to the point where he forfeited his world championship title and passed aged 64 in 2010. Fischer’s legacy in the chess community holds him in the highest regard. He is remembered for his original contributions to the game, eccentricity and creativity in chess on a whole new level. In review of Fischer’s career there can be no doubt that chess can be an art.

With the scores locked at 2.5-2.5, Pasan and Nic take a small break before commencing the final blitz game. Nic decides to remove the crusty, charcoal nuggets from the oven and places them among several weeks worth of plates blanketing the kitchen bench, which includes last nights lasagne. ‘Such a mixed bag of games today, that last one was a brilliancy though’ Pasan declares. ‘I can never pick it with you, always dodging theory. You might as well flip a coin every time we hit unknown territory’ Nic answers. The two move back to their seats and sit opposite each other. Pasan sets the clock to five minutes, his favourite time control. Nic gulps and flips his uneven fringe off his face before it falls right back into its original place. He knows Pasan is a blitz specialist and if there is one thing to expect, it is the unexpected. Reaching over to the chess clock, Nic taps the start button. Pasan propels his ‘h’ pawn forward two squares, 1.h4. Considered the worst first move in chess, Nic cannot help but chuckle. He knows very well that his opponent is once again trying to throw him off with unorthodoxy. Fortunately, Nic has seen Pasan play the same opening move at the Oceania Championships earlier in the year, and has studied the theory. He snaps into action, taking control of the centre of the board. The two develop their pieces rapidly. As usual, Nic’s moves are more sluggish than Pasan’s however both of the players reach the middle-game within a minute of their time expiring.

Pasan’s eyes roll back into his head as he chooses his candidate moves. As if possessed he puts his knight En Prise on the g5 square, where it is able to be captured by blacks pawn. Seeing the free piece Nic plucks his pawn from the h6 square and knocks the stallion over. He hits his clock. Pasan retaliates, and as a reflex action captures the pawn back with his own. By winning a pawn he had opened up the ‘h’ file, uncovering a discovered check on Nic’s king. Almost mechanically, Nic makes his only legal move, bounding away from the rook which devours the ‘h’ file. Seizing the opportunity, Pasan picks up his queen, the final death roll. With nowhere left to hide Nic can only slump in his chair. ‘Queen to h7, checkmate! Better luck next time mate’ Pasan announces. Stunned, Nic outstretches his arm offering a handshake. Accepting his gesture, Pasan shakes his hand, gets up from his seat and walks towards the front door. Without turning back he proclaimed ‘I’m going to meet Clive now at Hyde park. We’re gonna go and play all the hustlers.’

The clash between science and art in chess is paramount to the games relevance and commerciality in the future. Whilst players who reflect these styles often antagonise each other, they also compliment each other. Chess provides one of the only battlegrounds for musicians and artists to come face to face with scientists and mathematicians in an all-encompassing battle that revolves around the strength of mind and emotion. While the archetypal tortured artist lies deep-rooted within the minds of Romantic chess players, in moderation, the game is beneficial. Chess truly provides a multidisciplinary experience which has already been translated into one universal language for all to enjoy.

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