"Thinking about chess beauty is not an idle indulgence," notes Jonathan Rowson in his interesting essay "The Difficulty is the Difficulty" (New in Chess 7-2005, pp. 85-91), "because understanding it better might help us to promote and popularise the game." Yet, the important paradox he observes is that, "this aesthetic satisfaction is inaccessible to most spectators." Unlike with many sporting events which have an immediate visual appeal, you actually have to understand the game at a rather sophisticated level to appreciate its beauty. In fact, enjoying chess "spectatorship" is such an active process that those viewing a game and enjoying it are, "in some sense, a participant" (85).
If you are not a participant, in fact, then the things you observe will seem absolutely boring or absurd. Rowson quotes at length from a marvelous passage from Julian Barnes's Letters from London (Penguin 1995) in which he describes the Short - Kasparov match as viewed by someone who does not understand the game. The passage begins: "It is a most curious form of theatre: austere, minimalist, post-Beckettian. Two neatly dressed men crouch attentively over a small table against an elegant greay and beige set..." and "there are only entrances and exits during these four to six hour matinees: one character will suddenly stand up as if offended and depart stage left..." and "Every so often, in an audacious device, both may be off stage at the same time" (quoted, 85). Only a fan of Brechtian theatre could enjoy such a spectacle.
Despite the "Catch-22" that Rowson points up, I think he is onto something when he suggests that the game's beauty may be useful to marketing it. In a Chessville.com discussion on "Marketing Chess in the 21st Century" (something about which he obviously knows a great deal, as evidenced by his work with Susan Polgar), Paul Truong makes a similar point, emphasizing that the aesthetics of chess are especially important for getting girls into the game. As he says,
"Most women do not like violence. Most women are not into brut force. Most women approach chess with a more friendly, artistic point of view... I’ve worked very closely with Susan Polgar in the past few years and we have known each other for about two decades. When we look at various chess positions, she will always look for the nicest, most beautiful, or most artistic way to win. In the meantime, I always look for the most brutal, most crushing way to win."
Yet there is always the problem of getting girls past that "males-only" aura so that they can discover the art of it. And they have to get to a certain depth before that can happen, though perhaps it is possible for the aesthetics of the game to be appreciated at a number of different levels?
The idea of levels in appreciating chess as art comes up in a conversation between artist Ugo Dossi and Vladimir Kramnik, in which Dossi suggests that many people study Kramnik's games at various levels of understanding, and "The deeper they immerse themselves, the more they can get out of it." Kramnik responds:, "...beauty is always conveyed on different levels. In order to penetrate the depth of the game, someone must have acquired a lot of knowledge. One needs much preparation, and also experience in playing. I believe a musician experiences this similarly. But the more there are in the audience, the more intense the effect of the concert will be on everyone. When I am in a concert, I know that I only reach a certain limited depth of the music. But to feel that it goes even deeper than that, has always fascinated me."
So we return to the problem as Rowson lays it out: one of the main draws of chess is its aesthetic qualities, yet you have to become quite immersed in the game before you can appreciate them?
Puzzling over this a bit, it occurred to me that perhaps we have rejected too soon the possibilities of the surface appeal....
After all, at the simpest level, there is always something beautiful about the pieces themselves, which have a lot more character than those found in most other games. The mystery of the pieces, in fact, may be a large part of what first fascinates young players and draws them to the game. How many of us can remember the first time we held a chess piece in our hands? For myself, I remember a very unusual, 18th-century style plastic set owned by my grandparents that always interested me long before I learned how the pieces moved. I have sometimes entertained the idea of making my own set (if only I knew something about woodcarving!) -- including one with which to play "Dracula Chess." And I know that I have always been fascinated by the lovely books, such as Gareth Williams's Master Pieces or Colleen Schaffroth's The Art of Chess, which show and discuss historical and artistic sets. The Noguchi Museum in New York recently completed a show titled "The Imagery of Chess Revisited" and the book by the same name captures some of the interesting modern chess piece designs that it exhibited. (If you are interested in seeing some, ChessBase ran a story earlier this year and the exhibit was first restaged in London -- and likely the show is going on the road to a museum near you.)
Is it possible that a new chess set design "for the 21st Century" is called for, as a vehicle for marketing the game anew among the young? Perhaps the feudal mythology overlaying the currently dominant Staunton design is not the most compelling for the young today? Just a thought.
In any event, the most successful ways of marketing the game will lend it a surface appeal that can be appreciated even by those who have no appreciation for the game's depths. Celebrity Chess Showdown. Beautiful women playing the game. Chess and boxing. Speed chess. The surface spectacle seems critical as a first step.... And I think anyone who values chess should not be put off by these more spectacular ways of generating interest in the game. It seems to me that ultimately they are a necessary first step....
"Beauty in chess is closer to beauty in poetry; the chess pieces are the block alphabet which shapes throughts, and these throughts, although making a visual design on the chessboard, express their beauty abstractly, like a poem. Actually, I believe that every chess player experiences a mixture of two aesthetic pleasures: first, the abstract image akin to the poetic idea of writing; secondly, the sensuous pleasure of the ideographic execution of that image on the chessboard. From my close contact with artists and chess players, I have come to the personal conclusion that while all artists are not chess players, all chess players are artists."