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Modern Ideas in Chess by Richard Rèti

45. Symbolism in Chess

Chess has afforded writers an occasion for the suggestion of every kind of symbolism. Most of them thought by such means to produce ingenious comparisons, very few had the notion that this symbolism had its foundation only in the essence of chess and arose out of it, and I feel I am here confronted with the question: How does a chess player think during the game? To answer it, and to present the subject to my readers in the most popular way, I should say that a player when faced with a particular position puts this query to himself, namely, “In what way ought I to set about dealing with a matter of such a more or less complicated nature?” We see that it presents a practical problem such as we meet with in everyday life. Yet chess is purely abstract. The board and the pieces are suitable figurative presentations of abstract chess, somewhat as in analytical geometry figurative analytical functions are represented by curves. And just as in mathematics the relations of quantities are represented without the aid of concrete objects, and quantities in the abstract are the real subject matter of mathematical science, so the idea underlying chess is to bring the methods of practical dealing into agreement with methods that have no ultimate objects in themselves. From that we understand how it is that the comparisons between chess and life, so often made, are only symbolic. We have seen, for example, that in chess the principle that every move shuold advance development, is for most players of the greatest use; but that the most gifted masters of to-day prefer to play from the beginning according to a scheme. This problem applied to life would present itself in this form: “Should a man from the very outset develop all his powers and capacity or should he from the commencement of his career keep before his eyes a distinct object in life?” Equally as in chess, one feels bound to recommend to the average man the former alternative, whilst the genius does not adopt any such rules. The grasp of chess in that light enables us the better to appreciate the performances of the great chess masters. If we recognise life in chess we shall better understand the greatness of Steinitz, who disdained to play for proximate, yet transient advantages, but strove only after permanent ones. We shall no longer complain, as so many lovers of sacrificial attacks have done, but express our admiration of Steinitz who, for the sake of a pawn or other smaller but lasting advantage, lays himself open to an apparently dangerous attack.

To-day we see in chess the fight of aspiring Americanism against the old European intellectual life: a struggle between the technique of Capablanca, a virtuoso in whose play one can find nothing tangible to object to, and between great European masters, all of them artists, who have the qualities as well the faults of artists in the treatment of the subject they devote their lives to: they experimentalise and in striving after what is deep down, they overlook what is near at hand.[1]

At the last London Congress, with the time limit so unfavourable to the European type, they succumbed before Capablanca. Yet they go on investigating and building further. Who will come out of this struggle victorious? Nobody can prophecy the answer. But one thing is certain. If Americanism is victorious in chess, it will also be so in life. For in the idea of chess and the development of the chess mind we have a picture of the intellectual struggle of mankind.

[1]I should like to add here, that the Americanism of Capablanca’s play shows itself in a milder, more attractive garb, probably (as was the case with Morphy) by reason of his Latin ancestry.