Magnus Carlsen and Fabiano Caruana

Sport and common endeavour

Is there something more to chess than the desire to win? Peter Manson thinks there is

You may not have noticed, in view of the rather meagre media coverage, but the world chess championship final - played in London between Magnus Carlsen from Norway and Fabiano Caruana from the USA - finally ended on November 28 with a victory for the Norwegian. Carlsen, the champion since 2013 and current world number one, defeated Caruana, the world’s second-ranked player, who qualified as the world’s youngest ever grandmaster just a few days before his 15th birthday.

The only time I know of when a chess event made consistent headline news was way back in 1972, when another US player - a certain Bobby Fischer - won the world championship by seeing off Boris Spassky from the Soviet Union. The reason for that, of course, was that it took place at the height of the cold war and - what is more - the USSR had provided all the previous world champions since 1948. In fact Fischer’s three-year reign was followed by another unbroken run of Soviet victors, which only ended with the collapse of the USSR in 1991.

This time around, however, most of the media scarcely covered the event - the main exception being The Guardian - with just an occasional feature in other papers and the likes of Radio 4. That despite the fact that the establishment claims to admire the skill, imaginative thinking and intellectual insight of top chess players. For example, Theresa May’s proposed deal with the European Union elicited the following comment from hard Brexiteer Allison Pearson in The Daily Telegraph: “We need a new leader - a chess grandmaster to wrangle with Brussels, not the runner-up in the 1973 Towcester tiddlywinks competition” (November 16).

Speaking as a keen player myself (one whose chess ventures are now, unfortunately, limited to friendly online matches), I gained huge satisfaction from the game during my years as a serious competitor. The reason for that derived, in particular, from having taken part in some outstanding games against strong opponents, where it sometimes seemed to both players that we were jointly engaged in the creation of something approaching a work of art.

That may seem surprising, because, after all, the idea is to outplay and defeat your opponent, isn’t it, not collaborate with them in some combined, constructive enterprise? Well, things are not quite so simple. Yes, you adopt all sorts of long-term strategies and tactics that will hopefully deliver eventual victory, but what frequently happens between two evenly matched players is that your opponent cottons on to what you are up to. Both may resort to attempts to disguise and obfuscate, but what results is a kind of coded endeavour, shared between these two alone, where both are largely aware of all the possible outcome of every manoeuvre. At the end of such a game - whether it results in a win, loss or draw - both know that it has not just been a question of competition: they have also been engaged in a joint enterprise, of a kind that may deliver something of outstanding beauty.

Of course, it is only when such games are played at the highest level that they are shared by many others - keen chess players will follow online or in specialist publications all the ins and outs of top games played between grandmasters. They will often gain from the insight of expert commentators, who explain exactly what has been transpiring beneath the surface - in the shape of possible moves that were not actually played, for example.

This duality between competition and cooperation also exists in other games of skill, including sport (although in my opinion in chess it reaches its zenith). Have you ever watched a tennis match between top players, involving a high degree of tactical finesse on both sides of the net, where there is a large element of foresight and pre-emption? Perhaps it involves attempts to wrong-foot the opponent by switching between forcefully struck passing shots and delicate lobs - and that opponent will equally try to mislead. Once again, what results is a thing of beauty - jointly produced by two individuals, who, on the face of it, are striving only to do down the other.

This contradiction totally exposes the folly of those on the left who write off sport as merely an example of capitalist competition. As Chris Bambery, formerly of the Socialist Workers Party, once put it, “under socialism there will be physical recreation, but not sport” (‘Marxism and sport’ Socialist Review December 1996). Yes, goes the argument of such comrades, we will still attempt to develop and extend all kinds of human achievements, physical as well as mental. The ability to run faster than before, for instance, will be a cause for celebration, yet the element of competition in achieving this will be removed. However, once again, when top sprinters attempt to break the world 100-metre record, they usually do so in circumstances where competition is actually combined with a form of cooperation - that very competition serves to achieve what could probably never be accomplished by an individual acting alone.


Returning to chess itself, how is all this affected by the advent of computer technology? I remember reading an interview conducted by Chess magazine back in the early 1960s with then world champion Mikhail Botvinnik. Having pointed out to the interviewer that it was not correct to refer to the Soviet Union as a “communist country” (“We call the USSR a socialist state”), he went on to explain why a computer programme could never reach the standard achieved by top grandmasters.

While it could easily be programmed to counter a threat to capture your queen or prevent checkmate, he argued, how could it come up with a move aimed at “consolidating your position”, for instance? Such a concept is so abstract that it cannot be expressed mathematically, claimed Botvinnik, and only the human mind could translate it into reality. How wrong can you be?! Today the best chess programmes are more than a match for everyone but a handful of the very top grandmasters.

What was overlooked by ‘comrade Botvinnik’ - who had three spells as world champion from 1948 to 1963 - was that, if humans are capable of envisaging a means of ‘consolidation’, eventually they will be able to devise a programme capable of carrying it through. It is not just a question of making a move aimed at countering a threat - either immediate or long-term - or posing you own. For example, if you begin the game by advancing a central pawn two squares, there is no threat of any kind involved in that. It is merely a question of creating space for the placement of other, more powerful pieces later on. Yet such moves have been programmed in from the very start of chess computing. In reality, computers can be an aid to the advancement of chess artistry, which, of course, always emanates from humans in its original form.

The fact that chess has now been played for more than 1,300 years (the game originated in India in the 7th century and came to Europe a couple of centuries later) says a lot about its enduring attraction. It was, of course, coloured by the various forms of class society in which it was played - which is why we ended up with pieces named kings, queens, bishops, knights and castles (rooks). There are also those pathetic pawns - infantrymen who can only advance one or two squares at a time and by the rules of the game may never retreat under any circumstances! It is, however, interesting that the queen is by far the most powerful piece on the board, while the king is by contrast a virtual cripple - the entire game is based on capturing the opponent’s king, while prioritising the protection of your own.

Nevertheless, as I have already implied, it was officially and extensively promoted in the Soviet Union and other ‘official communist’-controlled states. In the summer of 1970 I was in Sochi on the Black Sea, where a row of around a dozen chess tables were laid out in a park. I was able to play a couple of games against a local man, but, as the sun began to go down, the park attendant called a halt: “It’s a draw, comrades!” he said, as he went round taking away the pieces from unfinished games.

It was notable that all the tables had been occupied - in the USSR, as just about everywhere in the world, chess was hugely popular. And, despite what the likes of comrade Bambery say about competitive pastimes, it will flourish and continue to develop in the socialist future too.