Project Write-Up



"The chessboard provides a powerful metaphor for the limits of an assassin's debased imagination when Kinbote contrasts Gradus's inability to conceive of the "possible consequences" of his violent act with the way a chess knight at the edge of the board "feels" the board's "phantom extensions" even though these immaterial squares "have no effect whatever on his real moves, on the real play"
The Garland Companion to Vladimir Nabokov

History


The project began with the idea to document the coding of a chess engine. I planned to use open source resources with a focus on wikis and blogs. I also planned to couple this with a history of chess programming, so that every step of the coding process was loosely paired with its historical equivalent. For the first half of the project, this went as planned. There were posts on Alan Turing and board layout, introductory processes of how to program rules, and the history of algorithms. I created pages of terms for beginner programming including CSS, and HTML as well as covering some jQuery and GitHub.

Around the halfway point, I discovered a couple projects similar to what I was intending on doing, and at the same time began to discover some really interesting connections between fin de siecle art and chess. I made a decision to focus on the art connection for the next few posts and see if uncovered anything interesting. It did.

I began to find connections between hypermodern chess theory and themes in modern art and explored that a bit. Especially because hypermodern concepts were and still are used in "anti-computer" tactics. For the next few posts, I covered more on chess A.I. theory and how the human strategy was used to effectively stave off a computational powerhouse.

But I started to uncover too many fascinating things in the realm of art and chess and eventually gave this aspect my full attention. In modernism chess is everywhere -- and I didn't know why. I had known that Duchamp liked chess, but I didn't realize the degree of his involvement. I couldn't believe it, when I read he played chess with Samuel Beckett all one summer in Paris before the Nazi invasion. Beckett himself an expert chess player, having written "Endgame" and "Murphy" (after the chess great Paul Murphy"). Picasso, T.S. Elliot, Ezra Pound, and Wassily Kandinsky all had a bit of art inspired by the game.

The pivot from chess computing history to chess art history was a success and writing posts was inspired and enjoyable.

A Note on Design

I used black and white photos and drawing whenever possible across a black backdrop to create the feel of both a chessboard and newsprint. This had the effect of highlighting everything that was in color as an upshot.

What does it mean?


The "Moby Dick" effect
Part of what the project means to me is that given enough time and imagination, the topic is less important than the execution. The ability to freely explore a topic and wonder into every corridor that looks interesting can be a rewarding experience, and I think a blog is a great medium for that. At times it felt like I was growing further and further out from the central point, climbing towards the light of interest, while reaching out in all directions. With blogs as you cover more and more ground, you add more depth and dimension on your topic and journey. As the content of the blog matures with time and context the meaning the reader/writer gets is amplified similar to how a fan of Moby Dick feels after reading the half of the book purely dedicated to whale descriptions.

Sourcing
A surprising amount of the information I found on chess history that was in print format was wrong. In contrast, "batgirl"(an avatar on Chess.com) wrote several very well documented blog posts on cafe culture. Eventually, following some of her links, I found an obscure website called "Chess Notes" (it won't show up in Google results no matter how you search) is primarily dedicated to the proper detailing of chess history. Everything there is supported by primary sources or as near too, whenever possible. These sources are almost universally out of print and in another language. Many are in Dutch, which I can not read at all. So, I learned that sometimes the internet is a better source than print books, silly sounding avatars don't necessarily mean their work is silly and that even with the internet information can still be hidden and hard to find.

Exigency
It may at first appear difficult to relate a sense of urgency to a blog. But, I think for writers the process of pushing out copy to meet a deadline is not new. In blogs putting out thoughts on early research, still shaping opinions, and notes on instincts and hunches can lead to a sharpening of the insight on the writer's end but also a sense of suspense on the readers. The popular podcast "Serial" was able to enthrall their audience and keep them itching for a "development" in a decade-old murder.

Moreover many were so caught-up in the investigative aspect of the podcast they began to participate in there on sleuthing. Blogs can produce the same participatory impulses. The documentation of a writer piecing together something previously unknown, and/or forensic can be exciting for both reader and writer, especially if it feels like a joint effort.

Post-Chess as Game
Though not intentional, the blog started off its course dissecting chess at it's most analytical. It methodically, took apart the game to the degree that it could be executed algorithmically. But as the blog progressed it moved little by little to the human and more abstract elements. The last few posts focus on the role of the game in culture and human activities and have been divorced completely from an analytical analysis, and there was more in that arena that I had imagined. Nabokov says that each of his novels solves a "literary chess problem". In "The Real Life of Sebastian Knight" characters are named Knight, Bishop, and Black. Sebastian signs his letters with small black chess knight and buried in St. Damier (damier is french for chessboard) cemetery. Nabokov goes further in some novels including chess compositions as a means of communicating to the reader.

Several blog posts feature Duchamp and Kandinsky's use of chess themes, and there is another where Pound has suggested a series of paintings based on hidden movements of chess.

Red knights, brown bishops, bright queens,
Striking the board, falling in strong ‘L's of
colour.
Reaching and striking in angles,
holding lines in one colour.
This board is alive with light;
these pieces are living in form,
Their moves break and reform the pattern:
luminous green from the rooks,
Clashing with ‘X's of queens,
looped with the knight-leaps.

‘Y' pawns, cleaving, embanking!
Whirl ! Centripetal ! Mate ! King down in the
vortex,
Clash, leaping of bands, straight strips of hard
colour,
Blocked lights working in. Escapes. Renewal of
contest.

Beyond literature and painting, I found uses of chess in the scientific community. Notably, Richard Feynman:
"One way that's kind of a fun analogy to try to get some idea of what we're doing here to try to understand nature is to imagine that the gods are playing some great game like chess. Let's say a chess game. And you don't know the rules of the game, but you're allowed to look at the board from time to time, in a little corner, perhaps. And from these observations, you try to figure out what the rules are of the game, what [are] the rules of the pieces moving."

Feynman uses chess allegorically, as different means and expressing thoughts and concepts. An idea used by artists as well. Chess seems to have the unique capacity to be elastic enough to be an expression of art, yet exist as a purely analytical pursuit with no meaning whatsoever.
Part of what the project means to me is that given enough time and imagination, the topic is less important than the execution. The ability to freely explore a topic and wonder into every corridor that looks interesting can be a rewarding experience, and I think a blog is a great medium for that.
Where to go from here?

Many other ideas to post about:

Vienna Cafe Life: Cafe de la Regence with Voltaire, Benjamin Franklin, Philidor and Grimm!
Judith and Susan Polgar: Born to be Raised A Chess Genius
Charlie Chaplin-- The two pages of his autobiography dedicated to chess
Lewis Carroll-- Chess in through the looking glass
James Joyce-- A chess filled summer with Duchamp and Beckett in Paris before the Nazi Occupation.
T.S. Elliot-- Wasteland: Part II
John Cage-- Chess music with Duchamp
Edgar Allan Poe-- Debunking the Chess Playing Turk
Fidel Castro and Che Guevera-- Chess Games and History
Man Ray, Dali, and many others who all-- Designed a chess set for Duchamp
Leonard Euler-- Value of the Pieces
Benjermain Franklin-- "Morals of Chess" First American chess publication and it's moral teachings.

Vladimir Nabokov: More Chess Problems and the Novel
Janet K. Gezari and W. K. Wimsatt
Yale French Studies
No. 58, In Memory of Jacques Ehrmann: Inside Play Outside Game (1979), pp. 102-115


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