Philosophical Perspective: Art, Analogies and Taste

Beauty and taste have long been topics for heated philosophical debate. Plato, Hume, Kant and Wittgenstein have been among those tackling questions such as: What is art, what is its value? How do you define beauty? How is it perceived? Can taste be objective? Not surprisingly, these questions lead to further and still broader questions. There are many conflicting theories and partial answers involving terms such as 'imitation', 'expression', 'representation', 'form', 'symbolism', 'yu_gen' and 'so_o_'.

Our book will assume no previous knowledge of any of this, but, in case you were wondering, the Japanese Zeami Motokiyo (1363-1443) argued that the value of art lies in Yu_gen ("mystery and depth") and that the artist should follow the rule of So_o_ ("appropriateness to context"). A fine theory when applied to chess, and he probably never even saw the game.

While reading up on aesthetics in general I was surprised just how well many of the theories applied to chess. It confirmed me in my view that chess composition is an art form to be reckoned with. Perhaps there are limits to what can be expressed (it is hard to show 'compassion' in a mate in two for example), but composition can evoke a wider range of responses than is commonly imagined. I've experienced surprise, astonishment, depth, pleasing geometrical patterns, humour and, of course, pleasure just looking at the solutions to positions. Naturally the competitive game can involve a range of other emotions (fear, relief, etc.), but that is not currently our concern.


It is quite easy and sometimes even useful, to draw analogies between chess and other forms of art. Take writing for example. If the game is likened to reality then the study is similar to the novel. There should be nothing irrelevant, no waste - both should, ideally, be crisp and clear and flow from start to finish carrying the solver/reader along. Extending the analogy further, problems (with their precise stipulation, 'unnatural' to the real game) would be like some form of more structured writing -limericks or sonnets perhaps.

To some extent it is possible to create criteria of aesthetic beauty applicable across the range of forms that beauty can take. Aquinas (around 1270) tried to define beauty as that which pleases solely in the contemplation of it, and which exhibits clarity, appropriate proportion and perfection. Around 1450, Leon Alberti (writing on architecture) proposed that beauty is an order or arrangement such that nothing can be altered except for the worse. Such thoughts apply quite well to chess, too. Some of the criteria for chess beauty we develop in this book may apply to other fields (such as literature, music, paintings, cinema, architecture, the human form, fashion, nature...) but, if so, that would be purely accidental. They are designed to incorporate only the individual nature of chess composition (it is even necessary to have additional criteria for competitive chess). Ultimately, chess is its own language.

Chess, however, may prove to be a useful testing ground for more general aesthetic theories, in the same way as computer chess has been a measure for artificial intelligence. Chess, being a closed system, can be clear and testable, which gives it a fair advantage over many other fields.

Relaxation of Tension

Earlier we discussed the possible educational, cultural and practical value of chess art, but what causes the intrinsic pleasure when somebody appreciates a fine chess game? One interesting description (or theory) is that pleasure results from the relaxation of tension. The pleasure of winning is because of the great relaxation of tension when the game ends. A chess problem (or a murder mystery) can create a certain tension which is resolved as the solution becomes clear, as the elements fall into place. Music can create a tension which results in pleasure as the brain processes and understands it. If the music is too simple, by the time you have heard it a couple of times it fails to create any further tension and consequently no further pleasure. If it is too complex, you may never resolve it and hence never enjoy it.

The ability to understand the content of something, be it a sequence of chess moves, a film, or a piece of music, is crucial to deriving pleasure from it. Of course, this ability to perceive the order and reasonableness of a chess sequence (or the harmony in music, or the consistency of a film) will depend on how sophisticated the viewer/listener is. You cannot expect to enjoy any form of chess without, to some degree, understanding it. Weaker players need not despair though, since all this means is that they may need to spend a little longer in discovering the 'truth'. In chess composition the truth is not necessarily beautiful (the 'truth' has ruined many would- be beautiful ideas) but when the two coincide we have before us real chess art.

Recognizing Patterns

Broadly speaking, we regard pleasure as very much a part of the aesthetic experience. The greater the relaxation of tension, the greater that pleasure. Tackling the question of what causes pleasure on a neurological level is way outside the scope of our book.

Another theory (the first part of which is due to the Austrian Ernst Mach, around 1890) which helps to explain chess aesthetic pleasure runs as follows: In order to survive by intelligence, the human brain has become very quick at recognizing patterns, repetitions and symmetries. The ability to discover order has been crucial to the success of human beings and their brains have evolved in such a way as to be very good at it. A number of these geometrical ideas occur on the chessboard, and the brain enjoys discovering such order. Using familiar patterns to help resolve and sort out a chess position causes pleasure since the tension created by the (initially chaotic) position is reduced. As will be seen shortly, chess `geometry' is one of the key elements of our theory.


What creates tension in one brain, may or may not create tension in another. As pointed out above, people's ability to understand a piece of work may also vary. We have moved onto the difficult question of taste which Hume described as a peculiar kind of 'emotionally inspired discrimination'. It may vary because of intelligence, it may vary with experience, but one thing is for sure: it certainly varies! Is there such a thing as objectively good taste? Yes, we believe so. It is simply a lazy option to dismiss the subject with something like 'beauty is in the eye of the beholder'. Some chess games are better than others, some literature is 'good' and some 'bad'. Of that much we are reasonably convinced, but proving it is another matter. Perhaps, dear reader, you feel you have good taste in music (and that there is some objectivity about that taste) but could you prove it?

Rules of Assessment

Believe it or not, people have actually attempted to create a formula for the assessment of mate in two chess problems. Feed in a couple of positions and the formula decides which is the better one! We believe this is going too far. Formulating guiding principles is not easy, but if you can do it successfully (usefully), fine. Having rigid rules for assessment, an absolute formula, is another matter. Rules for assessment would imply associated rules for creation. There would be no creativity or freedom left and the art-form would be stifled. Even if the price you have to pay for freedom is that 99% of what you produced is garbage, it seems better to have that freedom than a rigid set of rules. Paradoxically, the attempt to have such rules for art generally may have helped the development of chess. Communist states greatly restricted the freedom of their artists ('socialist realism') and many frustrated and talented minds turned their attention to our politically neutral game. It was not just the Soviet players who were way ahead of the rest of the world, but also their problem and study composers.

So, although the choice of positions in this book was dictated by our taste, and we will often try to say why we like certain aspects of those positions, do not expect to find any clear rules for assessment. For the reasons given above we think it better not to undertake such a task. In other words, we will only partially be attempting to validate our judgements. We neither are, nor wish to be considered, arbiters of taste.

Balance and Tension.

In most art forms, introducing tension while maintaining balance is a delicate matter. How does the notion of 'balance' apply to chess and chess composition?

At the start of a game of chess, two equal armies stand facing each other across the board. There is a balance between the forces (and resources) available to Black and White. With good play, that balance is maintained. After a serious blunder, the balance is upset and the other side obtains a winning position. There have been many grandmaster games where a symmetrical type of position is reached, the pieces come off and the game heads inexorably towards a draw. Such games fail to capture the interest since, although balance is maintained throughout, there is no tension. It is far more exciting when there is a balance between conflicting elements after for example, a sacrifice. Perhaps then there could be a balance between initiative and material. Broadly speaking, the greater the tension and the longer the balance is maintained, the more 'interesting' the game.

But where is the balance in a White to play and win study? Here the notion is quite subtle, and in fact the 'rules' of creating a sound study ensure a certain balance. For a sound study, there must be only one solution (if there are two ways to do it, the study is 'cooked'). If White does not have sufficient resources there will be no win. Too many resources and there will be several wins. The ‘balance’ must be just right so that there is precisely one win. Similar considerations apply to problems with stipulations such as 'mate in two'. There must be a balance of force such that there is a unique solution (assuming the problem is sound). This could also be regarded as 'economy of solution'.

Here is a tricky one for you: place the white king on a6, the black king on a8 and a white rook on h1. White to play and mate in one! Here, in the sense discussed above, there is a balance - the problem is sound with a unique solution (1 Rh8, heartfelt congratulations). However it is trivial and does not deserve a diagram, since there is practically zero tension. Because there is no tension, there is no pleasure in finding the solution (resolving the tension) and no aesthetic effect (perhaps a complete beginner might think otherwise; these notions are relative to the observer). It is the composer's job to play around with the balance and create as much tension as possible.

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