Becoming Chess | Written by Laurence Counihan

When your king, as a result of your inexperience, lack of attention, imprudence, or the opponent’s superiority, is ever more closely threatened (but the threat must be enunciated in a clear voice, it is never insidious), cornered, and finally transfixed, you cannot fail to perceive a symbolic shadow beyond the chess board. You are living a death; it is your death, and at the same time it is a death for which you are guilty. Living it, you exorcise it and strengthen yourself.(Primo Levi, ‘The Irritable Chess Players’, in ‌Other People’s Trades, 1989.) 

In what ways and by which means do games and play shape our relationship to the world? Both concepts are seen are foundational to a child’s development (early years pedagogies in this country and abroad are primarily focused on the necessity of play), yet are often times tacitly positioned as that which the human, en-route to rational maturity, simply outgrows. Our leisure time shrinks and with it the ability to indulge in the apparent frivolity of games, as we are pressured to allocate our limited resources to more serious economic, intellectual, cultural, or artistic pursuits.1 However, for some, such as the philosopher of communication Vilém Flusser, games remain and exist, throughout our lives, a foundational property of human experience. Writing in 1967 Flusser championed the concept of “homo ludens”, elaborating on earlier work by the likes of Johan Huizingo,2 in order to propose that the category of the human was principally defined by our capacity for play. This specific conceptualisation is set against other typical definitions of the human: “homo sapiens” (which Flusser sees as indicative of a scientific view of the world), “homo faber” (predicated on human mastery of the environment through the use of tools), and “animal laborans” (that what distinguishes humans from animals is the idea of labour). 

The stimulus for Flusser’s endorsement of play was the rising complexity of apparatuses, and a feeling that it was becoming evermore necessary to reassess the human relationship to tools, machines, and advancing technological systems. Therefore, in comparison to “homo faber”, the clearest dialectical opposition here, he presents “homo ludens” as the contrast to a belief system which would legislate that all tools succumb to the rational order and control of their human wielders. Instead, Flusser envisions a reality wherein tools, apparatuses, and games are partially autonomous agents which we interact with; this is a coming-together of material and conceptual operators, rather than an anthropocentric hierarchy that would seek to sever the human from both nature and technology. 

Flusser employs three brief examples — chess, language games, and the natural sciences — in order to sketch out how his concept works in practice. Effectively, every type of game that exists and which humans play with, comprises four core elements: (i) repertoire, (ii) structure, (iii) competence, and (iv) universe. In chess, for instance, the game’s repertoire “consists of the board and the chessmen”, the structure is the “globally consistent rules”, the competence is “all possible states of gameplay”, with the universe being the totality “of all the combinations that have been played.”3 Flusser extends this basic logic into his other examples of language games and the natural sciences, with a key distinguishing feature arising when it comes to open and closed systems. A game’s system is defined as closed if the repertoire and structure are fixed, otherwise it is open. So, whilst chess would be a closed game, language and the natural sciences are classified as open, as their primordial building blocks and models are constantly subject to change. However, at any moment a closed game can potentially be transformed into an open one, for example, if “we added an elephant between the rook and the knight” in chess.4 

This idea of the rearticulation of chess, transitioning it from a closed to open system, is central to Anna Barden’s recent body of work which was exhibited under the title of FALTER. CHECK. RESOLVE. Herein, the game has been filtered through its appearance in Samuel Beckett’s novel Murphy (1938), taking shape as a series of 18 grid-based drawings, a number of ceramic objects depicting the knight piece, and a wall text (recounting the experience of a chess game played in a lunatic asylum). The logic of opening up chess to a horizon of alternative possibilities, and with it the simultaneous opening up of oneself to reconfigurement by the structures of these differentiated game-states, is a theme whose current runs across the multitude of objects, images, and texts within the space. Dominating an entire wall, the grid-based drawings, derived from the 8×8 chessboard matrix, operate as the centripetal force binding the variated forms on display. 

As Rosalind Krauss has noted the grid is the index of modernity; that which austerely announces the autonomy of aesthetic form in the twentieth-century.5 The structure’s typology, in its clinical rigidity, penchant for seriality (both internally and externally), and modularity posits an enclosed framework that is logically coherent and robust. It is the foundation of Cubism, De Stijl, Suprematism and Constructivism, with its gestational presence interpolating all forms of geometrically-based abstraction. Although ostensibly bemoaning the supposed limitations of the grid (“never could exploration have chosen less fertile ground”6), Krauss proceeds down a path that wilfully ensnares itself within the inherent paradoxy of the grid as formal and conceptual device. The deficiencies of the grid can therefore be read as the problem of how an enclosed organisational system (the power and mythos of both the grid and chess are partially extracted from the consistency of their internal rulesets) can have any access to an outside which exists beyond its boundaries.7 Indeed, this problematic of the relationship between an internal cosmology and its relative outside figures in Beckett’s appraisal of the workings of Murphy’s mind: 

Murphy’s mind pictured itself as a large hollow sphere, hermetically closed to the universe without. This was not an impoverishment, for it excluded nothing that it did not itself contain. Nothing ever had been, was or would be in the universe outside it but was already present as virtual, or actual, or virtual rising into actual, or actual falling into virtual, in the universe inside it.8 

Ergo, the limitations of the closed system is offset by the already-existing presence of all externalised potentialities (as nascent virtualities or concrete actualities). Each of Barden’s grid-works adopts this logic (of the outside bleeding [into the] inside) in order to bend the formal coherency of the chessboard into new chimeric arrangements, that nevertheless retain their structural unity. Even with the voiding of the chessboard in three instances — the pieces signed with “The primary cause of all White’s subsequent difficulties”, “It is difficult to imagine a more deplorable situation than poor White’s at this point”, and “The termination of this solitaire is very beautifully played by Mr. Endon” (all extracts from Beckett’s Murphy) — the truth of the grid remains visible as the modularity of its form is dispersed across the entirety of the series. Printed pages, collage fragments, and a fractured CD (whose centre remains) all further and emphasise the insurrection of the outside into the rationally cool realm of the gridded chessboard. And so when the chess pieces leap out of these newly founded realities they do so in a seemingly alogical manner; as a new game comprising only of the knight’s horse in various melted configurations. Or, to be more precise, the logic they follow is no longer that of the traditional game of chess. 

Would it be possible to perhaps learn the esoteric rules and notation of this new game? To become acquainted with its novel language and structure? Is it a game bound up in dialectical conflict (as is chess from which its model departs), or does it abide by the laws of a non-combative idiom? Returning to Flusser, he suggests that the opening up of any closed system necessarily invokes the implementation of noise into elements at the level of repertoire and structure. This process requires treating these newly transformed materials in a poetic or philosophical manner.9 What he means by this is that we no longer believe in the rigidity or validity of the game’s ruleset, and instead endeavour to “cheat” it as we become aware that we are only ever playing an artificial construct. This is a discrete kind of entanglement which implicates that the player disinterestedly approaches the game’s materials and forms in their endlessly shifting capacities (rather than simply seeking victory; a mastery over the system and others). To become chess is therefore a call (or instruction) to break and modify the established rules of the game, whilst simultaneously allowing the possibility for oneself to be altered in return. 

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