Reviews | November 07, 2008 20:21

Review: Philosophy Looks at Chess

Philosophy Looks at ChessFrom time to time on this site I have tried to discuss chess from a philosophical point of view. No wonder: chess is very often the subject of philosophical discussions. In the past, famous philosophers like Rousseau and Wittgenstein have used chess in their thinking. In the recent book Philosophy Looks at Chess (edited by Benjamin Hale) twelve contemporary professional thinkers discuss various aspects of our royal game.

Let me start by telling you how to judge a non-fiction book in ten seconds: you go to the 'index' and simply look up your heroes, i.e. favourite writers, chess players, philosophers etc. and see how many 'hits' you score. It's simple, but very effective, especially if you don't know the author(s). When I read a book on philosophy and chess, I want it to at least mention Jonathan Rowson's book Chess for Zebras. I want it to discuss Dennett's and Searle's views on artificial intelligence. I want it to mention Kasparov and Deep Blue and Rybka or Fritz. And hey, let's toss in some Plato as well. Otherwise, it's simply not a book on philosophy and chess.

In fact, all of these names are indeed mentioned in Philosophy Looks at Chess (published this year by Open Court Publishing) and this made me a fairly happy man within ten seconds ... all of them, except two: the Dutch writer Tim Krabb?ɬ©, and the father of the phrase that ends this review. Several authors, including the editor, have failed to mention Krabb?ɬ©'s monumental work Chess Curiosities (1985) which deals, among much else, with retrograde chess analysis and computer chess ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú two topics that are also discussed extensively in the book we're discussing here.

Indeed, the first essay, written by Bernd Graefrath, is about retrograde chess. In brisk and crystal-clear prose, and with equally effective examples, the author introduces us to the ideas of the logician Raymond Smullyan, who has composed many retrograde problems to illustrate crucial philosophical questions, such as: can something be true yet unproveable? Well, using retrograde analysis, this has indeed be shown in brilliant and funny way by Smullyan. It's a great and highly accessible article to start with, and serves as a nice appetizer for the rest of the book.

As could be expected, most articles in the volume deal with computer chess and artificial intelligence. I guess one of the problems the authors of these articles had to overcome is that there has been written so much about it already. The articles by Andy Miah and Tama Coutts are pretty good, but also pretty technical. They deal wiith questions such as: is chess suitable as an indication of machine intelligence, and is there a difference between how humans and machines understand chess? Important ideas like the Turing Test, the importance of the Kasparov-Deep Blue matches, weak and strong Artificial Intelligence and the Chinese room argument are explained nicely.

Another good overview article is Ahti-Veikko Pietarinen's 'who's who' of philosophy and chess (or, more generally: games). What did philosophers like Saussure, Wittgenstein and Habermas have to say about chess? For anyone who's always wanted to know, this is the article to read. However, I should also mention that in all these three essays, I somehow missed a 'spicy' bit of love for the game, which was definitely present in Graefrath's article.

Kasparov vs X3D Fritz

Kasparov playing with 3D glasses against the program X3D Fritz | Photo ?Ǭ© Owen Williams

On the other hand, John Hartmann's love for the game and the practical problems that players have to deal with in everyday chess life is undeniable. His article (with the great title Garry Kasparov Is A Cyborg) elaborates on the idea that ever since we started using chess engines to analyse our games and ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú most vividly ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú to prepare our novelties, we have all really changed. When Kasparov unleashed his partly Fritz-based home preparation upon Anand in the 10th match game of their 1995 World Championship match, that wasn't really Kasparov playing ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú it was a, well, a kind of cyborg. What I like about Hartmann's approach is his down-to-earth style of writing about chess. He gives several simple and recognizable examples from his own experience and still manages to cram a lot of philosophical ideas into his article, as well as a good overview of John Watson's and Jacob Aagaard's recent ideas on modern chess.

I now come to the two 'heaviest' essays in the book ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú sometimes a bit too heavy if you ask me, but hey, what's a philosophy book without difficult sentences and references to people you've never heard of? Let's start with the article that had me gripped despite the occasional lack of understanding: Prof. Evan Selinger's article on 'Chess-playing computers and embodied grandmasters'.

Still from The Seventh Seal

The character Max von Sydow playing chess against Death in Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal

Selinger compares two existential depictions of chess: one from Hubert Dreyfuss (who was introduced to us already by John Hartmann) and one from the movie director Ingmar Bergman (in his movie The Seventh Seal). Selinger's general point is clear enough: playing against another human is different from playing against a machine. The reason is that humans also play against themselves (who hasn't hated himself after a stupidly lost game?), and also against nature (not only because humans are mortal, and therefore time is an important factor in chess, but also because humans are biological entities which evolved to react to things like body language and so on.)

Well, you should really read the article yourself. It took me quite some time to appreciate it, but even when I didn't understand everything, I still liked the way Selinger illustrates his ideas not only with 'learned' philosophical theories but also with concrete and modern examples, for instance Jennifer Shahade's book Chess Bitch and psychologist Malcolm Gladwell's best-seller Blink.

The article I had most problems with, was Bill Martin's ambitiously titled The Difficult Ways of God and Ca?ɬØssa: Chess, Theodicy, and Determinism in Gadamar. This essay was simply one bridge too far for me. While I felt Martin does make some good and interesting points, he just tried to write about too much in this article. In fact, I sometimes got the idea he seemed to want to incorporate all of philosophy in his article. His name-dropping really got to me at some point, not to mention his overlong sentences and his many 'asides'. Here's an example:

(...) In this perspective, the contingent and the 'absurd' (in the form of the 'irrational' at least as it applies to calculability, and in the form of that which apparently happens 'without meaning' or 'without reason') may indeed govern 'reality, at bottom', reality in its 'foundations', or 'reality' in some 'timeless' sense, but the fact is that we humans are temporal beings, even 'temporalizing' beings (to use Heideggerian language) and the things we have to do in our lives in this world for the much greater part, at least, have little or nothing to do with the timeless or with metaphysical foundations. Pragmatism, at least in the forms practices by William James, George Herbert Mead, John Dewey and Richard Rorty, is geared toward the 'human scale'.

You still there? Further on, we get musings like these:

'Determiniation' cannot ultimately be the right term here, because the point is that it is in the nature of the good and the beautiful that, if they are simply the result of calculations, then they are not what they are.

At this point I desperately started searching where I had missed the introduction of the concepts of 'the good and the beautiful', but I found nothing. I'm not saying Martin doesn't have a point (I think his point is that if chess cannot be 'solved' by calculations, then 'absurd' moves which are still good, are a real possibility, and so there can be a kind of 'godly justice' in chess!), but I wonder how many readers will follow his argument until the end, even if he sometimes does make nice points.

On a more serious note, I have the feeling Martin's theories are not only vague, but simply based on a wrong assumption of how chess works. For instance, he gives the example of a player opening with an theoretically 'absurd' opening move (1.h3), who nevertheless wins the game. If I understand Martin correctly, he thinks that winning the game could somehow tell us something about the perceived absurdity of this opening move. This is clearly incorrect: winning (i.e. a practical game) is completely irrelevant since any chess game is full of mistakes. Only analysis can really tell us anything about the absurdity or correctness of a move. This may sound futile, but Martin stresses this practical winning of a game time and again. Perhaps I'm being unfair to Martin and readers can point out what I'm missing in this article?

Finally, I found Martin's 'name dropping' of (of all people) Eric Schiller as 'renowned opening specialist' a bit embarrassing, to say the least. To find Schiller's name in the company of ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú in the same article! ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú names like Socrates, Wittgenstein, Bach, Fischer and, indeed, God himself, is really more than I can handle.

It would go too far to discuss all essays in the book, but I just have to mention two more. First, by far the funniest (and weirdest) essay in the book. It's written by Tommy J. Curry, who does research in 'critical race theory' and 'africana philosophy', and is about ... chess and hip-hop. I agreed with virtually nothing in his article (I can't imagine any sensible person who would) but that's just a minor point really. His description of, for instance, the 'Black players on the south of Chicago' is simply hilarious, and, well, so are his theories about race and chess psychology. This article is a huge relief after the tough theories of Martin and Selinger!

Stuart Rachels

Stuart Rachels

Okay, I've saved the best for last. Stuart Rachels' essay The Reviled Art is a real gem. It's a personal story about Rachels' love for chess, his experience in the U.S. chess scene and his ideas about beauty and justice in chess, and its (lack of) popularity to the 'great public'.

I don't think it really qualifies as a 'philosophical' essay (it has more of a cultural-sociologicial critique) but who cares what it's about if it's so well written? His analysis of the U.S. chess climate ('our country's deeply engrained anti-intellectualism') seems pretty accurate to me, and here's what he has to say about boxing:

Perfect play (...) cannot guarantee a beautiful game. For one thing, it is not enough that you play perfectly: your opponent must also play well. (...) Muhammad Ali's defeat of George Foreman in the 'Rumble in the Jungle' in Zaire was beautiful only because Foreman's power posed enormous problems for Ali.

I cannot resist to toss in a few more quotes from Rachels:

A master cannot see the bishop on e3 as a chunck of dead wood, and more than you can look at your best friend's face and see a meaningless matrix of colors and shapes.

Chess writers often refer to chess as a sport. One can understand why they want it to be a sport. Many sports are popular. Sports stars get rich. They sign autographs and appear on TV. Movies and books lionize them. They are allowed to perform at the Olympics. They are mobbed by admirers. Chess players would be happy if just one of these things were true of them. When chess players call chess a sport, this strikes me not only only as false, but as pathetic. It's pathetic in the same way it's pathetic to ask someone out on a date who said no the last three times you asked. American culture has rejected chess. For the chess player to insist that chess is a sport is a way of not taking the hint.

How I love writers like Rachels who can not only write well and clearly, but who can also make a deeper point without sounding pompous or using difficult words. In Philosophy Looks At Chess, many deep points are made, and most articles are extremely well and clearly written.

This book is highly recommended to anyone who is interested in chess ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú not as a sport, not even only as an art. But as a way to think about life, the universe, and everything.


Arne Moll's picture
Author: Arne Moll


Manu's picture

Wow , great article , great links.

John Hartmann's picture

Glad you liked the article!

Ratjak's picture

'When I read a book on philosophy and chess, I want it to at least mention Jonathan Rowson?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s book Chess for Zebras. I want it to discuss Dennett?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s and Searle?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s views on artificial intelligence. I want it to mention Kasparov and Deep Blue and Rybka or Fritz. And hey, let?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s toss in some Plato as well. Otherwise, it?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s simply not a book on philosophy and chess.'

A sweeping statement. As as wit most sweeping statements, a load of crap.

Arne Moll's picture

Perhaps, Ratjak. Sweeping statements are not always meant to be 100% true. But still, it's hard to imagine a book on evolution without mentioning Darwin or Dawkins, or a book on physics without mentioning Newton or Einstein, don't you think?

Conqueror of Anand's picture

I am apalled that John Hartman did not include Edward Lasker's "Chess for fun and chess for blood" in his "must mention" list.

Conqueror of Anand's picture

A highly interesting perpsective that was not discussed in this book would have been the comparison between chess and mathematics. The geat British mathematician GH Hardy, well-known for his discovery of Ramanujan, writes in his "A Mathematician's apology":

"A chess problem is genuine mathematics, but it is in some way `trivial' mathematics. However ingenious and intricate, however original and surprising the moves, there is something essential lacking. Chess problems are unimportant. The best mathematics is serious as well as beautiful - `important' if you like, but the word is very ambiguous, and `serious' expresses what I mean much better." He goes on to say that "the seriousness of a mathematical theorem lies, not in its practical consequences, which are usually negligible, but in the significance of the mathematical ideas which it connects." He concludes later that "the inferiority of the chess problem lies not ints consequences but in its content."

It would have been fascinating to have had a deep discussion of the comparison of chess to mathematics and also a critique of Hardy's views.

Ratjak's picture

'Perhaps, Ratjak. Sweeping statements are not always meant to be 100% true. But still, it?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s hard to imagine a book on evolution without mentioning Darwin or Dawkins, or a book on physics without mentioning Newton or Einstein, don?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t you think?'

That depends entirely on what exactly is said about (the work of) the people mentioned. I still do not see how the mere mentioning of names could be a viable indication of the merits of a particular book without actually reading the thing

John Hartmann's picture

I didn't have a 'must mention' list in my chapter. But thanks for being appalled enough to think I did?

Tommy J. Curry's picture

The dismissal of the theories that account for the recent intersection between hip and chess is typical for a white theorist unfamiliar with other cultural accounts of the game of chess.

Perhaps you should familiarize yourself with some other aspects of the game before writing such opinions. (

Arne Moll's picture

Tommy, thanks for your reaction. Perhaps you should have mentioned these 'other aspects of the game' (apart from the ones you write about in your essay) in your article if you thought them essential for understanding it properly.
Let me elaborate a bit more on your essay, perhaps you'll understand my point of view better after you read it (that is, if you don't dismiss my reply again as 'typical white' - and therefore wrong - in the first place.)

I'm not denying a possible 'recent intersection' between hip-hop and chess - I just think playing chess or thinking about it has absolutely nothing to do with being black, African-American, or whatever.
First of all, Ashley's comparison of creative hip-hop artists and creative chess players, to which you attach high importance, is both flawed and preposterous, for at least two reasons. It first of all implies black hip-hop artists are somehow 'more' creative than, say, white country & western artists, and secondly it supposes the levels of creativity between, say, Kasparov and Ice Cube could in any way be comparable. Well, Kasparov has been creative throughout his entire chess career - over 25 years and has played thousands of games, whereas Cube has recorded only a few albums and his last good record dates from at least a decade ago. I'm sure you'll agree that we're not even talking about the same sport - it's a whole different ball game.

More to the point, 'White' chess players like Shirov and Morozevich have every bit as much 'hip-hop' in their chess, if not more, as the 'Black players on the south side of Chicago', Maurice Ashley or the hip-hop artist Eminem (who is white, by the way.). As for psychological warfare or the feeling of a 'dynamic momentum on the board' or whatever: I'm sure every chessplayer - black or white - has experienced it. At least I know I have. It has absolutely nothing to do with the colour of your skin or your roots, but with the nature of the game.

I also found many of your chess analysis unconvincing or even sloppy, which gave me the idea that you don't really care for facts or correctness of your theories. For instance, in your game against 'An A player from Chicago' you mention 'dynamic compensation' after 13...exf5 14.Qd5 whereas in that line White simply wins material. There's nothing 'dynamic' about it - it's totally 'solid' and 'materialistic'. (This is also the only justification for hanging a piece and playing 13.Nf5 - after all, if you so desperately wanted to prevent d6-d5, you could also have played 13.Nd5 which I'm sure would also have giving very interesting 'dynamic compensation'). The fact that you didn't, proves in my opinion that you simply saw that after Qd5 you would win the exchange (or at least your piece back), and you were in fact thinking 'traditional' and 'materialistic' after all. (And even if you did manage to find a move like Nf5 on 'dynamic thinking' only, it would still be nothing special. Such cases happen in almost every game, by every player, of any descent.)
Also, calling 25.Qxa6 a 'blunder' (in your game against 'Zukertort') is very sloppy since White is lost anyway and indeed, if White recaptures on c3 he loses not just a piece, but his queen. This makes Qxa6 in fact White's relatively best move. Hence, there is also no 'narrative triumph'.

Perhaps my answer has not satisfied you, but I hope that you can at least appreciate why I chose to 'dismiss' your article. Best regards, Arne

Tommy J. Curry's picture

Here again your response reads as someone unfamiliar with Black psychology or Black philosophy. The issue is not that because you are white your opinion is false, but that because your are white you dismiss other cultural accounts as "hilarious" or "preposterous" without knowledge of them. This again is reflected by your casual dismissal of GM Ashley's statement.

First, my article does not say that "skin color" absolutely determines one's style of chess. If you took the time to read the footnotes, you would see in footnote 9 (pp.153-154) that I in fact argue against essentialism--the idea that skin color determines values, perspectives, etc. In fact, I say "my chapter is not to be seen as an essentialist piece claiming innate chess ability, but rather a discussion of learning styles and worldview analyses that are becoming the centerpiece of multicultural education and African centered psychology" (p.154).

I would continue with your arguments against GM Ashley and the "debate between white and Black chess players," but it seems that your perspective is already dedicated to a specific viewing of this issue.

What is so amazing to me is not only are you willing to dismiss the statements of Rza, the Hip-Hop chess community, GM Ashley, and myself as "ridiculous" statements, but you propose an analysis that is superficial at best to what is actually said in my article. You seem to believe that your 50 word summation has comprehensively spoken for the Black community and their description of how and why they play chess. It must be amazing to have such intellectual insight into different cultures without any knowledge of them. If you perhaps engaged the hip-hop and chess community, which holds its own tournaments and has its own website, then you could have explained why my account does not accurately portray this communities sentiment. But given your ignorance on this matter, I find it troubling you wish to continue defending your position.

Arne Moll's picture

Tommy, I do not claim to know much about how and why the Black community plays chess. I did read what you said on p. 154 but it seemed to contradict much of what you claim in your article. At best, many statements in your article are simplistic and require further explanation without which they are meaningless.
You seem to suggest that someone who is 'unfamiliar with Black psychology or Black philosophy' cannot understand your article. Well, if that's the case, I will argue with you no further. Let me just say that I have made a serious attempt to understand what you write in your article. I'm sorry I didn't have time to go to the library and look up what people have said about it in the past. I based my opinions solely on your article (what else can a reviewer do?), and I found many of your arguments simply unconvincing or unconvincingly explained, if that's a better word.

You say, for instance, 'Black players take chess to a whole new level' (ALL black players? anyway, the 'level' you describe is anything but new in chess), 'hip-hop structures the way people of African descent frame chess' (doesn't everyone have an 'African descent' anyway?) and 'Hip-hop artists like Jay Z and GZA have made chess a demonstrable aesthetic that maps itself onto the Black experience of the racist American society' (What about black people outside American society? Is it possible for White people to experience this aesthetic?) . These are not my interpretations, but literal quotes from your article. On top of that, your chess analysis is very sloppy or plain incorrect. This is why I wrote that I disagreed with almost everything in your article.

If there are more convincing arguments or explanations to be found, I think you should have mentioned them in your article, rather than throw them at people after they have read it.

By the way, you apparently haven't noticed that in my review, I said that while I do not agree with most of what you say (I have that right, don't I?), I still liked your article. I was trying to give you a compliment. Instead, you accuse me of being a 'typical white theorist' who should not speak his mind.
Best regards, Arne

TrapArecev's picture

Tommy, American society apparently is not that racist that it prevented the election of Obama, so leave your phoney black supremacy theories behind!

Conqueror of Anand's picture

Hi Ame & Tommy,

I think a brief look at the field of mathematics might help clarify the discussion on the role of ethnicity (which encompasses race and culture), since I believe that chess shares many similarities with mathematics in terms of its abstraction and the creative process. Much has been written about it. I would like to know if Tommy Curry had studied that literature.

We should first ask the question of why one should care to consider the interaction between chess (or mathematics) and ethnicity. It is important for the study and evaluation of the historical development of the field. For example, much of the historical contributions in mathematics have been erroneously attributed to Greeks (i.e. as sole contributions) ignoring the influences of Egyptian, Babylonian, and Indian mathematicians. Cultural and/or racial considerations might also be important for the teaching of aspiring minds, in terms of bringing out their best at least during the developmental stages. However, such considerations would be irrelevant at the deepest level, where only objectivity must matter. For example, in terms of making seminal contributions to number theory, it did not matter that Ramanujan came from a poor, Brahmin background in rural India, but yet was able to communicate and collaborate perfectly well with GH Hardy and J Liitlewood, who were the beacons of number theory in the European world. However, I would argue that his approach to the field, and the source of his creativity had deep cultural underpinnings.

F3MDR's picture

Peter Doggers or Peter Parr?

The Closet Grandmaster's picture

Hey Arne -

Just now I've emailed to Peter an article entitled, "On the Philosophical Dimensions of Chess", published in Inquiry. I sent it to him as I don't have your email addy. Anyway, hope you enjoy reading it.



RFTJD's picture

"This is the point of brotha Senghor. The African is intimately connected to the use of hip-hop tactics because it is the African that "is" in the potentiality of creating "creative creations" from the participating self."
--- The concluding sentences, or at least, strings of words, from Curry's article. Like something out of Alan Sokal's "Social Text" hoax.
I studied philosophy in graduate school; but even without that, this strikes me as almost total gibberish. Black, white, you name it --- as the blues pianist Lafayette Leake said, `The piano doesn't know what color your fingers are.'

Latest articles