Letters From Santorini: The Significance of Chess

Somehow, chess has become an essential component of Atlantis Books. Many of the founders of the shop have a passion for the game; chess boards are scattered in various hidden corners, and the staff library is well stocked with chess theory. There is something in the mindset of people drawn to the shop that is also drawn to chess; a certain level of monomania, a particular kind of intellectual arrogance, a fascination with patterns, logic, and the intersection of psychology and probability, calculation and intuition.

It is a beautiful game. At its best, it is a symphony of attack and defence, where economy of motion and the combination of disparate elements are the keys to victory – and to beauty. Much like mathematics, truth and beauty are one and the same in chess. To a mathematician, numbers and patterns have an attraction that is invisible to the layman. But through mathematical mediums, like chess and music, even numerical philistines like myself can appreciate the poetry and cadences of logic and numbers. The algebraic chess notation of a match like the Immortal Game is majestic to those who know how to read it.

I now find myself in a chess rivalry with Vlad, a good friend of the shop. Having comfortably distpatched another member of the shop in my first chess game on the island, I was filled with confidence and willingly accepted Vlad’s challenge. But he is cunning, craftier even than Crafty Odysseus in our opening match, his rook proving mightier than my knight and bishop in the end game. In the evening’s candlelit rematch, after an hour an a half’s heated combat, he was forced to concede, an elegant bishop/pawn combination ensnaring his key pieces in a corner to fatal effect.

One all. I hope for our rivalry to hit triple figures by the time that I leave.

I have started down the dangerous path of reading chess theory. Dangerous, because it is an obsession that has no end. At lower levels, chess is an enriching and satisfying game that stills the mind. But at higher levels, the mind threatens to disintegrate entirely under the weight of opening variations, counter attacks, calculated gambits and precisely engineered end games.

The satisfaction of playing chess is a trap, like the piece that tempts the Queen forward too early in the Sicilian Defence, or the pawn that draws an opponent away from the crucial centre in the Queen’s Gambit. The insanity of Grandmasters perhaps belongs more to the world of fiction (where every great chess player is mad) than to reality, but there is madness to be found in those sixty four squares. At the higher levels of skill and dedication, this ultimate contest of logic and tactics pushes at the boundary of human nature. To perfect yourself in the game of chess is to become superhuman, then not a human at all – a madman, or a genius, or both.

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