Chess and Music

Chess, more than any other game, challenges the player’s ability to think ahead.  Nothing is left to chance; everything depends on careful planning, patience, and skill.  What has this to do with music?

Well, there are certain analogies between chess and music.  The idea is that chess players and composers think and work alike in many respects.  The materials may be different, but both are engaging in the creative process, the chess player with his 16 pieces, and the (other) composer with his 12 notes.  Chess players and composers manipulate their materials to build a structure that will be durable enough to stand the test of time.

The structure of the chess game is formalized like a composer’s Sonata form.  In a Sonata, the composer starts out with an idea or “exposition”, puts that idea through its paces or “development” and brings back the original idea or “recapitulation”.

A full length chess game has many points in common with  the Sonata.  The chess player also starts out with an idea which is analogous to the so-called “first subject” of the Sonata form.  He may open with the King’s pawn, Queen’s pawn, or even the Knight’s pawn.  Whatever opening he selects, that opening has its own laws of development.  The player with the black pieces is in a similar position.  He defends according to certain well-known laws of development.  There is a name for this phase of the game; it is called “the opening” just as the first phase of the Sonata is the “exposition”.

Just as exposition is followed by development, so in chess the opening is followed by the middlegame.  As the composer of a sonata develops his original ideas, so the chess player develops his.  In Sonata form a chess game’s development or middlegame is by far the most complex and hazardous part of the totality.  It is there that the imagination and resources of the composer or chess player come into flower.  It is there that the worth of the original ideas becomes apparent.

Then, comes the recapitulation in music and endgame in chess.  Here the analogy becomes a little forced, for in music the original ideas come back whereas the endgame in chess is the distillation of the original idea.  Pieces have been traded off.  One player may have a slight edge and must rely on his technique to make use of that edge.  What sets off the genius in great composers and great chess players from the average layman, is a special quality of imagination.

Young chess players study in much the same way as do music students.  Both spend hours and hours on repertory, reading through works of the past, memorizing the great ones, and constantly studying technique and theory.  No music student in history has spent more time on his art than the young Bobby Fischer spent on chess.  Memory is important.  Great chess players and great musicians have incredibly retentive memories — and it is a memory, incidentally, that does not carry outside of their fields.  It is not only openings that have to be memorized. Just as musicians study books on harmony and counterpoint, so chess players study books on middlegame and endgame theory.  The great artist, however, — the Beethoven’s and Wagner’s (in music) — the Fischer’s and Korchnoi’s (in chess) rely as much on intuition as on book learning.  Geniuses of this caliber leave the rules far behind; they make their own.  Players on that level are not content with routine; they do the unexpected because they have the gift to conceptualize the unexpected.  They modulate and their modulations are of intense power and beauty.  For in chess, as in any art, the aim is to create a logical and expressive structure and do it through the use of ideas that nobody else ever had.