There is a scene in The Queen’s Gambit in which 15-year-old Beth Harmon, the chess prodigy, has just won the Kentucky State Champion and a reporter from Life magazine is interviewing her. Between the blinding flashes of the camera and the intrusive, condescending questions of the reporter, Beth, clutching to her trophy as if she were holding a doll, explains with candor in a hushed voice the reason why she plays chess:
It was the board I noticed first. It’s an entire world of just 64 squares. I feel safe in it. I can control it, I can dominate it. And it’s predictable. So, if I get hurt, I only have myself to blame.
Viewers spend the rest of the series rooting for Beth Harmon’s ascension and success — her storyline that of a part-underdog, part-unstoppable genius — but it is that scene that explains, in the simplest words, the appeal of chess. It is that moment that makes younger generations fall in love with chess after merely watching the series.
Chess is a beautiful game. Like artists painting their worlds within the confines of a canvas, so do chess players build their vision within the square-format of their board. Any art lover will be awed to notice how grandmasters — the best players of chess in the world — will follow similar principles of composition in their strategy that artists use in their art. There’s symmetry, rhythm, an understanding of line and negative space. And just like in all compositions, no element is truly independent, but connected to the whole. The best-placed pieces will attack, threaten, defend and block the opponent’s movement, all at the same time.
Throughout the Netflix show, visual thinking is the key to Beth’s success as she lies in bed and envisions sequences of chess moves on her ceiling. It is a dramatic Hollywood effect, inspired nonetheless from the practice of real grandmasters.
With this clear overlap between chess and art, you would think that artists — especially abstractionists — would jump at the opportunity to combine these two visual realms, the same way they have done with geometry and music. But instead of getting a chess-like strategic approach to art, as we look back through art history we get to witness the social role chess has played through the ages.
The modern-day impression of chess as a slow-dragging, boring game played by the elderly rich was already captured in Gérard Portielje’s nineteenth-century paintings Chess Match and The Chess Players.
In warm plush interiors extolling a comfortable life, for Portielje’s players chess is more of a sensual pleasure than an intellectual exercise. There is a heaviness present that subdues and cocoons them, like the fog of sleepiness descending after a large meal. The chessboard may be the pretext for these paintings, but it is not the central element. Portielje’s artworks are about social status and comfort, and chess is merely an indicator of status.
The story changes when looking at Thomas Eakins’s The Chess Players. Again, we have a rich, lavish interior, where chess and brandy seem to go hand in hand. But there is so much concentration in the body postures and face expressions of the players and their witness – Eakins’s father – that we can start gauging the intellectual effort this game requires. It is exhausting to even look at them, empathizing with the complicated mental calculations they must be running.
Nineteenth-century idea of chess as a lonely, quiet game comes at odds with the bustling Renaissance crowds chess used to draw. I used to think that artists stopped painting crowds and groups of people because it was more challenging to stay true to reality that way. It’s one thing to ask one individual to pose, and a whole different endeavor to demand the same thing, at the same time, from ten different people. Yet a similar thing happened over the centuries in literature and music. We went from tracing the history of family dynasties and composing goosebump-inducing symphonies to a dispiriting minimalism centered on one-note individuals. Art wasn’t the initiator, but a symptom of change.
The first painting that comes to mind from the days of yore is Sofonisba Anguissola’s depiction of her sisters playing chess in The Chess Game. On the edge of the chessboard Anguissola, then only 20 years old, left this inscription: “Sofonisba Angussola virgin daughter of Amilcare painted these three sisters and a maid from life.”
The fact that girls within a household would be taught chess the same way they were expected to learn sewing strikes us as odd today, when we still associate the game with men and high intellectual achievement. Such were the days when women were just as likely to play chess as men, and both genders prized the social side of the game.
Even though the eldest sister has just won the match, there is no display of competitiveness, but warm camaraderie and kinship. Chess is a central element here — not least thanks to the zooming in and cropping technique used — animating the picture and the relationships between the siblings. The game is their bond and their entertainment, far more lively than Portielje would depict it centuries later.
The same social attitude towards chess can be seen in other Renaissance paintings, as well. When the genders mix, the chessboard becomes the equivalent of a modern-day dance rink, where advances are rewarded or punished with an erotically-charged tease.
You can see this in Liberale da Verona’s The Chess Players. Alongside its companion piece, this panel was used to decorate the front of a chest and shows two episodes from an unidentified novella. In the first scene a young man falls in love with a beautiful maiden who appears at a window. In the other panel, The Chess Players, the lovers are engaged in a game of chess, while their arms overlap with a gentle sensuality. Playing chess is an act of courtship.
Bleached blond hair was all the rage in fifteenth-century Siena, which makes the pair and the group of people surrounding them almost look like angels, if not for the highly expressive faces of the women present. I wonder if that was da Verona’s missed attempt at showing blissful joy and ecstasy. To me these faces reveal a wide range of negative emotions, from the boredom of the maiden to the angry frown of the woman in red and the vacant stare of the woman next to her.
In Giulio Campi’s The Chess Game the intellectual courtship gets more allegorical and physical, as we look at the match-up between a fashionably dressed voluptuous woman and a man-at-arms. The pair alludes to Venus, the Roman goddess of love and beauty, and Mars, the god of war. Although the chessboard is only partially revealed, it animates this whole scene, connecting the lovers and on-lookers who have gathered around them.
What’s most admirable about this picture is its duality and symmetry. At first glance the group seems disordered and convoluted like a whirlwind of figures, with each person looking in a different direction — exciting, in its own way, since it adds a three-dimensional quality to the painting. But through the use of line, you get to see these eight characters bonded by invisible chords in mutable pairs.
The Venus and Mars counterparts seem to be pulling in different directions, yet they’re the mirror-image of each other, insomuch as they are both seated and leaning towards their left with their heads tilted down. I think of this as such a beautiful metaphor for the differences amongst us which we find insurmountable when we’re essentially alike. It is the lack of a mirror, or self-reflection, that convinces us otherwise. And it is striking how much Campi insists on these apparent yin-yang opposites: man – woman, front – back, war – beauty, left – right. These differences charge the painting with an undeniable tension, yet they are sides of the same coin.
You cannot help but love how Campi constructed his composition. If you were to draw lines between each of the characters you would get a bouquet of parallel and diagonal lines revealing both similarities and contrasts between them. Part of me even wonders whether the artist intended to show this assortment of figures as a replica to the chess pieces, which also come in pairs. I say this because in French (fou) and Romanian (nebun) bishops are called “madmen”. The jester in the bottom right corner could play the madman role, just like the little girl on the left could pass for an allegorical pawn. I do not think that this was Campi’s intention, but this approach gives you a glimpse of the lively universe you can discover within a 64-square checkered board, with repercussions far beyond it.
It seems that chess’s metaphorical potential is almost inexhaustible. There’s life, there’s comfort, there’s family, there’s love and then… there’s death. Who can forget the image of Death playing chess in Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 film The Seventh Seal?
When a disillusioned knight returns from a long crusade to his village decimated by plague, he meets Death along the way. As he tries to buy himself more time, the knight challenges Death to a game of chess. The stakes couldn’t be higher, for if he wins, he can go on living. It seems like an impossible wager, but this forestalling is successful in granting the man enough time to redeem himself through one last act of kindness and bring himself closer to finding the meaning of life, a meaning that is not beholden to God.
The inspiration for the film came from Albertus Pictor’s fifteenth-century mural Death Playing Chess. Above a man and a skeleton huddled around a chessboard, a now-faded ribbon used to carry the inscription “I checkmate thee”. A far cry from the chess love games played in France and Italy during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, this chilling line aptly finds its cinematographic expression in Bergman’s film. You cannot change the rules of the game or escape a preordained defeat, but there is merit in playing at all, in trying to find meaning along the way. That goes for chess, as well.