Columns | February 06, 2011 18:26

The Dark Side

Darren Aronofsky's new movie Black Swan, featuring Natalie Portman as the increasingly tormented ballet dancer Nina who has to perform the dual role of both the white and the black swan in Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake, left me both puzzled and fascinated. And, inevitably, it made me think of chess.

As many critics have noted, Black Swan is actually more of a gothic thriller than a drama/dance movie. (For what it's worth, I think it's a much better goth movie than a dance movie.) Nina, the film's main character, is an extremely ambitious and gifted ballet dancer who is chosen to perform the lead in the 'Tata Steel A Group' of classical ballet: the roles of Odette and Odile - the white and the black swan - who represent opposing forces. Meanwhile, Nina herself is struggling with opposing forces inside her while trying to achieve "perfection" in her performance on stage. Ultimately, Black Swan seems to be about sexuality, death and the dark side of perfection. In one of the key scenes of the movie, the relentless director Leroy (played by Vincent Cassel) tells Nina that in order to be able to play the black swan, the white swan's evil twin, she needs to let go of her emphasis on technique, technique, technique and release a different kind of force. "Perfection is not just about control," he tells her. "It is also about letting go." Then he draws her attention to another dancer on stage, Lily (played by Mila Kunis), praising her performance as "imprecise, but effortless." This immediately made sense to me from a chess perspective as well. In chess, many players focus on technique and endless practice just to be "in control" for fear of having to face the dark side of chess, which is chaos. Black SwanThe personification of the chaotic in chess is, of course, Mikhail Tal, the "magician from Riga". The idea that chess was not only a strictly logical game (as Botvinnik had assumed) but also a game characterized by human imperfection - and that this actually contributed to the beauty of the game - added an entirely new dimension to the game that can be felt even today. Tal's motto that a move - some kind of crazy sacrifice, perhaps - could leave a position "sufficiently complicated", even though that concept might well be considered "incorrect" from an objective point of view, is of fundamental importance to many of the leading theories on how chess is played (at least by some) at the highest level. But there's another, less conspicuous aspect of the movie that reminded me of chess. Nina is not only struggling with her performance, but also with her identity. Natalie Portman is perfectly cast as an innocent little mommy's girl, but Nina discovers that there's a darker aspect of her personality that is waiting to come to the surface. It is this aspect that her director Leroy is encouraging her to release and discover, and it is this that forms the basis of the horror scenario that slowly unfolds. It is also something that's part of the chess world, even though it's often dismissed or even denied. With the epic rivalry between Kasparov and Karpov behind us, we might conclude that the current chess world is now populated by amiable folks who just happen to be good at a particular game called chess. They mostly get along fine, don't they? Well, I've never believed that, to be honest. It's a rare occurence, but some grandmasters, such as the Dutch GM Loek van Wely, have declared that there's much more rivalry and even animosity among the chess elite than most are willing to admit. And Van Wely wasn't talking about Kramnik and Topalov, but about your average role model chess grandmasters. There's a dark side to chess, after all. This dark element can be found in chess at all levels. On the internet, where everybody plays against everybody, the feeling of frustration and even anger after a lost blitz game against some anonymous 'clicker' even has a name: the hate. In a very instructive essay by FICS player "pdeck" on the subject, the author defines 'the hate' as follows:

I have the hate. I hate my opponent. I hate the spectators that goaded me into playing an extended series with someone who often gets my rating points. I hate the guys in the Lightning Channel for teasing me about my blunders and then logging off at midnight, leaving me to fester in a death spiral of worthless, repetitive chess punctuated only by one or two mad dashes to the men's room or poorly-stocked vending machines. More than anything, I hate myself. I spend too much god-damned time playing lightning, giving up both work and sleep. And what do I have to show for it? A shitty rating.

Now, I happen to have met 'pdeck' in real life and I can attest that he's a perfectly friendly, polite and intelligent guy. Still, I totally recognize what he writes about. I have often been surprised at my own strong emotional response after a particularly undeserved loss on the internet, and I have sometimes even committed that ultimate sin of online chess life: telling my opponent he was "lucky" or words to that effect. How pathetic! (A friend of mine once crushed his mouse after being flagged in a totally won position and smashing his fist on the table.) For me, one of the most credible aspects of Black Swan is that the good and evil sides of one's personality are not portrayed as two things entirely distinct from each other. Within Nina's character, both forces, however subdued and dim, are always present at the same time. Things are not as "black and white" as the cliche prescribes (even though there are plenty of cliches in the movie). In this respect, the movie reminded me of that other classic tale of personality change, R.L. Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde. Vladimir Nabokov, in his lecture on the story (from Lectures on Literature, 1980), gets to the heart of the matter:

Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. HydeIs Jekyll good? No, he is a composite being, a mixture of good and bad, a preparation consisting of a ninety-nine percent solution of Jekyllite and one percent Hyde (...). He is a hypocritical creature carefully concealing his little sins. He is foolhardy. Hyde is mingled with him, within him. In this mixture of good and bad in Dr. Jekyll, the bad can be separated as Hyde, who is a precipitate of pure evil, a precipitation in the chemical sense since something of the composite Jekyll remains behind to wonder in horror at Hyde while Hyde is in action.

The same could be applied to Nina's two characters in Black Swan, and it is the reason why the movie remains so interesting despite what we might otherwise think of it. (The "dark side" is also present, of course, in the Star Wars movies - and here, too, things are not as straightforward as we might assume.) And I think it can also be applied to many chess players. Consider John Kuipers' description of 'endearing' schoolboy and super talent Anish Giri in the latest issue of the Dutch magazine Matten, which I reviewed some time ago:

For a moment, a fragment of a second, Giri sent a superior glance across the audience, before producing the most haughty grin of all time. First, he raised his eyebrows high: surprise. Then his eyebrows rose to unknown heights: respectless condescension tumbled out of him. This was followed by a brief nodding of the head, the crown to this magnificent display of humiliating superiority. Then followed, of course, the simple little winning move.

While not daring to compare Giri's behaviour to the nightmarish and hallucinatory events in Black Swan (let alone to the things Jekyll and Hyde get up to in Stevenson's story), it's interesting that Giri, at 16, seems to incorporate both aspects inside himself already. He can play nice (as he recently did, for instance, in the Dutch TV show De Wereld Draait Door) and he can play rough (when he needs to beat his opponent). In this regard, his behaviour is not at all unlike that of Muhammad Ali, who could be both charming and unbearable. Based on this observation, one might conclude that Giri really is world champion material! Chess players, like ballet dancers, can't always be "white swans". If we want them to be as good as they are, they have to be entitled to display some "black swan" behaviour now and then as well. Perhaps realizing this will help discussions about cheating accusations in chess, or about "unpolite" chess players refusing to shake hands. If movies like Black Swan show us anything, it's that performing at the top level demands more than just being nice. We don't have to approve of certain actions to understand them.

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Arne Moll's picture
Author: Arne Moll


lefthandsketch's picture

I thought this was one of the best articles I've read on this website in a month at least. I was ready to attack it, since I generally think it's absurd to have a movie review on a chess website (think of Silman's joke of a website, with its astrology!! haha) but in the end it was oddly academic for this outlet.

The Juxtaposition of control and chaos as an interpretive lens of both dancing and chess styles is uncommonly intellectual for the kind of grist that usually comes out of this mill.

And wow really? You want to censer it? In general, I dislike censorship, especially when it's motivated out by a religious or "think-of-the-children" argument. Go ahead and censure what your kid sees, but please If you wish to hide the world from your child I suggest covering his eyes rather than telling the rest of us which articles are and aren't appropriate.

Alexander's picture

"Many things can be compared to chess ... But chess itself can be compared with nothing!"

Anastasia's picture

Super article and anyone criticising is too dumb to figure it out - or rather lets not be critical and say dumb but maybe not evolved enough. This is surely an awesome article. Lovely to read one after so long. Fulfilling for the soul. Awesome.

JM's picture

I'm not even sure I should respond to this... Surely you can come up with better arguments than "you are dumb, or not evolved enough"?

Tim's picture

Funny how seriously some people take these columns. Just a bunch of interesting ideas, I think.

VladimirOO's picture

Ivanchuk for instance.

But what about Korchnoi? You may say that his "hate", figthing spirit is a kind of "white swan" attitude that prevents him from any compromission? That may be the difference between him (who fled from Russia) and Petrosian or Karpov (who dilligently used the system to advance) or Kasparov (who went rougher, darker to succeed immediatly against the system?)

Arne Moll's picture

Thanks for the thoughtful comment, VladimirOO. It made me realize that, indeed, the concepts 'black' and 'white' can mean different things to different people, depending on the circumstances they find themselves in. Korchnoi is a great example!

S's picture

What a waste of my time in reading it and youres in writing it this was.
As Tony Miles would have said having reviewed a Silman book 'Utter crap'.

S's picture

Hey, S, not saying you are right or wrong, but is it on purpose that you are posting with "my" name?

Peter Doggers's picture

Why not just your own name...

S's picture

for the record, the initial comment was not made by me.

Septimus's picture

What is utter crap? The movie?

CAL|Daniel's picture

"Utter Crap" is a famous Tony Miles review given about a book Eric Schiller produced. Indeed this review has often been extended to all of Eric Schiller's work and reused for jokes in the chess world ever since.

Anyhow. I like this short piece by Arne.

lefthandsketch's picture

Does anyone know how Eric Schiller gets published in the first place? He must pay for it himself right? Better yet, have you checked out his website that looks like some geocities page from 1997?

CAL|Daniel's picture

Eric Schiller was originally under contract to produce chess works for public consumption REALLY fast at a time when there was no 'chess for idiots/dummies' series and chess books came out very slow due to meticulous nature of the non computer research generation. Therefore it is no surprise that such speed to produced such 'utter crap.'

E's picture

Don't be a hater.

Portman is 'utter HOT' btw :)

arkan's picture

I found this article highly interesting and thought-provoking, especially the part where it culminates into the ''worldchampion material'' - that's what it is all about essentially.

As in every sport, the most talented ''white swans'' don't always become world champions - the slightly less talented but with the ruthless, rigid attitude towards winning (killer instincts) are usually seen grabbing the titles.

In chess, i would say that there are a load of very gifted 2700+ players who will simply never make it because of psychological barriers (white swan attitude)

I guess that holds true for every other sports competition as well, there can't be world champions without a field of white swans to beat anyway

Anastasia's picture

Awesome superlative

Josh's picture

"David Aronofsky’s new movie Black Swan..."

Hmm, you mean Darren Aronofsky, i suppose ;)

Peter Doggers's picture

Thanks, corrected.

Win's picture

Names should be translated if possible. Most names are possible to translate.

Guillaume's picture

Bad idea. Unless you want to refer to the famous Grandmaster who recently won the Tata Steel Chess tournament as "Shining Center-Village".



JM's picture

Frankly, I do not want to post a 'black or white' comment like S did. Nevertheless, I do feel he has a point that this particular column does not meet the standards we've become used to when reading Chessvibes' material. Arne, I want to stress that I mostly do like your columns, please understand that this comment is only meant as honest and constructive critcism.

In the first part of the text you write down some interesting observations about the 'dark side' of chess. It makes for a fairly reasonable contemplation about various aspects of chess that usually stay under the radar. The writing style is rather whimsical, quite appropriate considering the almost reverie like manner in which you present the subject.

However, in the last two paragraphs you suddenly make a couple of very opiniated statements, giving the impression that the previous part of the article was meant as argumentation. I got the feeling that the last paragraphs were meant to be humoristic, but it falls short.

If the intention of the column is to make an argument for the statements you made in the last paragraphs, the writing style of the first part is slightly off. Instead, if you set out to write a neutral contemplation ending on a slighly humorous note, then the last paragraphs were too ambiguous.

Thomas's picture

In other words: You like most of Arne's columns, but not this one - and "standards we’ve [rather, I, JM have!?] become used to when reading Chessvibes" burns down to "I like it ...". !? I guess any provocative and thought-provoking column will have mixed reactions, while a more factual (Tata round) report can get near-universal praise. Chessvibes - as part of their "standards" - has both.

For what it's worth, my own opinion on this column is ambiguous: It has interesting ideas, but I am not sure if I can agree with the final conclusions. But that's just my opinion ... . Also for NewInChess or 'mainstream' newspapers, I (or anyone) might like most of their contents, but not every single piece they ever publish.

CAL|Daniel's picture

I think both of your problems lies in thinking you have to completely agree with all the sentiments and arguments put forth by an article in order to have enjoyed it or found it worth reading. I would argue the complete opposite. I liked this article cause it caused me to think in a different way. I don't agree with most of what it has to say but I still enjoy the way it made me think.

JM's picture

Well, I did try to give objective reasons, although they are probably influenced by my opinion to a certain extent. I do not want to criticize any article for disagreeing with the writer, because I totally agree that everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion. When I mentioned 'standards' I wasn't talking about 'opinions', but rather about technical writing.

The greater part of the article consists of reflection, well researched and thought provoking. Suddenly, out of the blue, the column becomes opiniating. The resulting ambiguity about the intent of the writer diminishes the merit of both parts of the article.

The contemplation would have carried more meaning without the doubt that the author might have written it just to support his own opinion. On the other hand, if the author wanted to persuade ("If we want them (top players) to be as good as they are, they have to be entitled to display some “black swan” behaviour"), there are some obvious gaps in the document structure. For instance, why not mention some white swans who failed to fully capitalize on their talent (maybe Paul Keres)?

Personally, I feel that while the content of the article is quite interesting, some elementary mistakes in technical writing reduce the quality. I apologize in advance for the possibility of insulting someone, but surely a proof reader should have caught those quirks?!

Arne Moll's picture

Thanks for analysing my internet column as if it were a serious literary piece of prose (with "proof readers" and what not!), JM - I take it as a compliment!

I guess I was kind of aware of the difference in style between the first and second part, but I just thought it would be nice to end the piece on a 'lighter note' - a literary device in its own right, is it not?

JM's picture

It was meant as a compliment. Chessvibes' quality is generally very high. Even in this particular column your dedication shines through. It is exactly because of that reason that I wrote my short critique: Chessvibes has shown the will to constantly improve itself (compare the discussion about the translations of the french articles in the cheating case) so I thought I'd explain why I think this article could have been better.

I was happily reading the article until the last paragraphs, when I was struck by a feeling of unease. It surprised me, because the column was a pleasure to read at first, so I tried to pinpoint the exact problem. This turned out to be rather easy, when I was looking for it. I still think most of the criticism is in fact caused by the style discrepancy, although I could be wrong, of course...

I had expected that a long column like yours would be read at least by one other person before uploading, as there are multiple persons working on Chessvibes, isn't it?! Oh well, I was probably mistaken...

Septimus's picture

Tal v Toloush 1956, Najdorf Poisoned Pawn is one of the most beautiful and stunning expositions of Tal's mastery (in my view). The guy was a genius OTB.

Giri as Ali...give me a break. The latter part of the article is something I don't agree with. Giri is a very promising player, but there is no need for the pedestal. He needs to achieve something before you writers go nuts...

max's picture

No, it's reasonable. Life imitates chess. I didn't read it fully myself. Learn to skip articles you don't like.

pj's picture

i hope the next masterful piece of journalism is about tom cruise and his crazy scientology cult in comparison to the sort of lonely alienation that the average chess player feels.

marlon's picture

white swan, black swan.. You don't have to be both just to become a world champion.

Septimus's picture

Who is this Silman guy? Never heard of him.

Mac's picture

This article should be titled: I like Ballet.. Therefore Giri should be world champion !

noyb's picture

I don't think that this article was appropriate in language or tone, considering many children like to view for news and education.

S's picture

wow...His book
The Sicilian Pterodactyl (Chessworks 2010)
should be good.

Jamie Jordan's picture

Given that black swans are by their very nature unpredictable how do these observations fit? But both Taleb and Mandelbot appear to believe that it is a black swan event.

test's picture

In ANY competitive sport you are each others enemies during the game. But I don't see why you can't be on friendly terms away from the game. There is no excuse for bad behavior away from the game.

(Even during the game there are limits, but at least I can understand when one opponent gives another a "murderous" look or whatever, it's simply the adrenalin or the competitive spirit taking over.)

So in other words: questionable behavior away from the game (or board); imo there is not much to understand except that it's a symptom of a bad character, immaturity, or both.

Jul's picture

"So in other words: questionable behavior away from the game (or board); imo there is not much to understand except that it’s a symptom of a bad character, immaturity, or both."


Logic never works for feelings: we can be nice in the same way we can be cruel, it doesn't matter if we are chess players, musicians or teachers. Humans are humans, not "always nice, funny and adorable creatures". At least, we dominate the world because we can destroy the others.

Also I usually find people who think that "hate" is the-feeling-who-I-never-felt-and-I-wil-never-spell (or something like that). It's another feeling part of our nature, and we should asume when we feel it (it's the better way I found to avoid rancor).

P/s: Sorry for my english...

Excalibur's picture

You also forgot to point out the occultic vibe of that film.

Excalibur's picture

I agree with some of the above posts.I just dont get the point of the article.You also forgot to point out the occultic vibe of that film.

marlon's picture

one thing i'm sure of is that i love the star wars chess set...

Balasubramanian Krishnan's picture

This is an excellent analysis of the human mind. I can relate to all aspects of the article. I haven't seen the movie, though but plan to see it.

Some interesting thoughts here: I now understand why Aronian describes Anand as "a beast" - although outwardly, Anand is one of the finest gentlemen in chess. Vishy can be "vicious" when necessary. I can well imagine that Anand still smarts from the losses to Gary but he has matured well to understand that Gary simply recognized his fears and played to take advantage of it.

Even more interesting, Gary (in his moment of nicety) helped Anand during his World Championship match...

On an another (unrelated) note, I find Anand's maturity (and lack of recent losses in classical chess) entirely related to his match experience. An interesting parallel - Gary's match experience with Karpov helped him to be almost unbeatable during his reign. Magnus might want to read this and reconsider his non-participation in the world championship cycle.



Winterschaker's picture

I think there's a lot of good stuff on Chessvibes, but I hate to say it...I think this article is just plain bad. But - as a lot of people seem to like it -....maybe I am wrong

Paul Austin's picture

For what its worth, I enjoyed the article- It was lovely. Besides, I too feel an utter hatred for my opponents so I can relate to the metaphorical symbolism without caring too much about thr film itself.

Anonymous's picture

I think there is a lot of white swan and black swan psychology going on in these comments. I can feel the hate oozing from some posts. How could you not love what's going on here....such wonderful irony.

Philipp Somrowsky's picture

very enjoyable read

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