The Importance of Chess Aesthetics


Just in case you were not completely convinced by the blurb on the back of this book - and it would be most worrying if you were - it is worth considering some of the points in more detail.

The case for chess aesthetics - the value of developing an eye for the beauty of the game - can be argued on several different levels. We will consider four of them:
i) hedonism (pleasure-seeking);
ii) cultural/artistic value;
iii) educational and, crucially for the competitive player,
iv) practical value.

i) Hedonism

Bertrand Russell once wrote that strawberries, in themselves, were neither good nor bad. He went on to argue that, all other things being equal, the man who likes strawberries is at an advantage over the man who does not. He concluded "But the man who likes them has a pleasure which the other does not have; to that extent his life is more enjoyable and he is better adapted to the world in which both must live." As it is with strawberries so it is with chess problems and studies. They are simply a great source of pleasure and delight to those who develop a taste for them. Quite a refined form of hedonism maybe, but one which, unlike strawberries, is readily available any time, any place. A book like Kasparian's Domination in 2545 Endgame Studies could give you hundreds of hours of entertainment and pleasure - at a price much cheaper, per hour, than strawberries. Seriously, there are an enormous number of studies, games and problems to enjoy and if you are not satisfied you can always compose your own...

ii) Cultural and Artistic Value

Paintings are generally accepted as a valid art form, and rightly so. There is every reason why chess composition should be treated in the same way. Just as paintings exhibit the skill and genius of their artists, so can chess positions show the brilliance, imagination and depth of thought of their composers. Some chess compositions require greater technical skill than others. There are different schools of chess composition as well as a great heritage and history to the development of the art.

It could be argued that paintings are simply pretty, and that alone is sufficient reason for looking at them. Such a limited view of art can also be applied to chess composition, but, even within these confines, there is more than enough `justificationí for its existence. Problems and studies help brighten up the intellectual world. That is something of great value.

The term 'art of chess' can mean two things: either true art (which is the meaning we will be using) or craft. The craft of chess, the skill by which you achieve victory, is something quite different.

iii) Educational Value

As an experienced teacher of chess in schools, I (J.L.) am a great believer in the general educational benefit of our game. Apart from logical thinking and planning ahead, children also learn from the feedback they get in playing chess. They can see their own thinking process in action and can start to feel responsible for their own decisions. Good problems and pretty studies are a wonderful tool for anybody trying to teach chess to children. The puzzle element captures their concentration and the surprising solutions can capture their imagination.

Of course, great games and endgame studies can have a clear didactic value in teaching chess technique, too. However there is more to it than that and the next section is dedicated to sceptical competitive players who don't see the point in looking at chess composition.

iv) Practical Value

'Will looking at problems and studies actually help me play better chess?' This is a question I have been asked many times. The answer is yes.

If you want to become a stronger player, following the example of Garry Kasparov might have its advantages. Let us hear a few things he has written about this subject (see, for example, the chapter entitled 'The Beauty of Chess' in the Batsford book 'Learn Chess with Garry Kasparov'):
'I am fond of solving chess problems and, particularly, chess studies. Chess problems are full of paradoxes and original ideas.' 'There are some studies which I like to play through again and again.' 'Chess composition, the most beautiful and mysterious aspect of the art of chess.'

'It was the beauty and brilliance of tactical blows that captivated me in early childhood.'

'Chess for me is art.'

It is fairly clear from that barrage just how important the aesthetic side of chess has been in the development of Kasparov the player. He is by no means the only one. Smyslov, Botvinnik and Lasker have all composed endgame studies. Practically all world class players have an interest in this side of the game - it is part of what a true love for the game consists of.

Looking closer to home, the top English players (as of 1995) provide further examples. John Nunn is one of the world's best problem solvers and has written books on studies and problems. Jon Speelman is also a good solver (though not competitive) and has composed endgame studies. Mickey Adams has entered British Chess Problem Solving competitions. Nigel Short sees chess as primarily a competitive sport with the artistry of the game as an important by-product. Julian Hodgson has a splendid eye for beauty in chess and has shown me several of the positions to be found later in this book. Jon Mestel is also a world class solver. To use an overworked pun, it has been very hard to determine, in recent years, whether he is second to none or second to Nunn - their solving skills are that close. Internationally speaking, grandmasters Benko and Timman are both brilliant study composers.

The correlation is very clear; a sophisticated aesthetic sense and appreciation of chess beauty go hand in hand with top class play. For those not convinced by the empirical evidence, there are several plausible reasons why looking at chess problems and studies will improve your chess.

Firstly it should enhance powers of chess fantasy by building up the 'vocabulary' of tactical ideas and patterns. As Kasparov put it "Chess problems are full of paradoxes and original ideas" - so even he came across ideas and 'vocab' he had not previously encountered.

Secondly, solving problems and studies requires very clear, logical, precise, goal-orientated thinking. Such thinking is very valuable, but not exclusively so, when playing chess at any level.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, there is the question of motivation. Again, this is complex and there are several aspects worth considering (even if they are slightly tangential to the central theme of this book). I intend to show why motivation is crucial to competitive success, then to analyse motivation itself and, finally, to discuss why developing your aesthetic sense and fantasy will enhance your motivation.

The next section of this introduction, entitled `Fantasy and Motivationí, is divided into three. Only the final part fits the context of explaining why looking at studies and problems - or reading a book such as this - will help improve your chess; but the rest is necessary to put that final part itself into a slightly different context!

Extract from Secrets of Spectacular Chess (J.Levitt,128 pages,Batsford,1997,£12.99 ISBN 0 7134 8049 1)
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