Limitations Of Our Method

Limitations Of Our Method

We should point out that our method is completely useless for classifying games or positions since any number of our elements (zero to all four) might be involved in a single piece of chess action. To classify positions, another approach to aesthetics would be needed, specifically, the one where the objective content of the 'work of art' is considered. In the case of chess this might involve such classifications as 'mate', 'zugzwang', 'positional draw', ‘perpetual check' and the like. John Nunn takes such an approach in his book Tactical Chess Endings. There have been books looking at a single theme, e.g. Kasparian's Domination in 2545 Endgame Studies.

Our approach is different. We are looking at the aesthetic response to the position and our categories are designed to help us do that. Aspects such as 'originality', 'economy', 'difficulty', 'spectacularity' and so on are part of the 'language of criticism' applied to works as a whole. We will be using such terms, but they are not fundamental elements of our approach. However a few basic thoughts should be articulated:


Naturally, when judging chess composition, originality is very important. After all, the easiest way to compose a great endgame study is to pick an earlier masterpiece and adapt it slightly! The new but unoriginal study might be just as good judged by purely aesthetic criteria but would (rightly) be disparaged by the critics if the 'anticipation' was noticed. Knowing whether or not something is original depends on the ability to research what has gone before and on a judgement as to how similar one idea is to another. We will not be tackling such questions.


Economy of material is a necessary condition of good composition. Anything wasted or heavy immediately jars the aesthetic eye. We will be assuming the reader understands this concept without further explanation and the reader may assume that none of the composed positions in this book have unnecessary material. We will only point out when compositions are particularly striking in their use of force.

Economy of time is another, more subtle notion. Repeating moves or winning by a long-winded method detracts from the artistic quality of a game. In problems it would be considered bad if a mate in three showed something that could be exhibited in a mate in two. Generally speaking, economy is more about 'form' rather than aesthetic content itself.


Earlier we pointed out that Lasker based his theory of chess aesthetics on the notion of 'achievement'. Actually, achievement is a very tricky concept to deal with, since it comes in several forms. One could talk of achievement of the pieces as part of the objective content of the chess. Then there is achievement of certain `tasks’ within the world of composition. Players and solvers can achieve things too. Within the language of criticism one can also talk of the achievement of the position as a whole and whether the composer succeeds in realising his intention. It is quite easy to confuse these different types of animal and, to avoid communication difficulties, it is probably best not to rely on this notion too heavily.


It is possible that there are forms of achievement not conveniently dealt with by our four elements. We believe our elements can be easily applied to almost all aesthetic chess positions, but it is difficult to be 'complete'. Chess art is a rich and enormous field and it is natural that there will be positions which defy attempts to categorise or explain their appeal. We considered adding a fifth element dealing with the appreciation of special forms of achievement ('special effects') but decided that it was not sufficiently useful. Of course, one could artificially achieve completeness by adding a fifth element that deals with everything not dealt with by the other four, but that would be even more pointless!

One further drawback to the approach of looking at aesthetic response is that such response is relative. To some extent we are relying on the concept of the typical man on the Clapham Omnibus, one who just happens to have a fair degree of chess sophistication and experience! Presumably an orangutan would experience no aesthetic response when presented with a piece of chess art (although there might be some rudimentary awareness of geometrical patterns). Despite this relativity, a certain consensus between experienced chess minds is hoped for, since we could not get anywhere without it.

We hope you'll forgive the theoretical and heavy nature of this last section. In that sense it should be the worst part of a book which is, essentially, example driven. It is, of course, possible just to enjoy the positions without having any artistic/philosophical context in which to place them, just as it is possible (and fairly normal) to play good chess without worrying about the place of the game in society.

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