A chess-player is not simply one who plays chess just as a chess piece is not simply a wooden block. Shaped by expectations and imaginations, the figure occupies the centre of a web of a thousand radiations where logic meets dream, and reason meets play. This book aspires to a novel reading of the figure as both a flickering beacon of reason and a sign of monstrosity. It is underpinned by the idea that the chess-player is a pluralistic subject used to articulate a number of anxieties pertaining to themes of mind, machine, and monster. The history of the cultural chess-player is a spectacle, a collision of tradition and recycling, which rejects the idea of the statuesque chess-player. The book considers three lives of the chess-player. The first as sinner (concerning behavioural and locational contexts), as a melancholic (concerning mind-bending and affective contexts), and as animal (concerning cognitive aspects and the idea of human-ness) from the medieval to the early-modern within non-fiction. The book then considers the role of the chess-player in detective fiction from Edgar Allan Poe to Raymond Chandler, contrasting the perceived relative intellectual reputation and social utility of the chess-player and the literary detective. IBM's late-twentieth-century supercomputer Deep Blue, Wolfgang von Kempelen's 1769 Automaton Chess-Player and Garry Kasparov's 1997 defeat are then examined. The book examines portrayals of the chess-player within comic-books of the mid-twentieth century, considering themes of monstrous bodies, masculinities, and moralities. It focuses on the concepts of the child prodigy, superhero, and transhuman.
‘Of magic look and meaning’: themes concerning the cultural chess-player
‘Of magic look and meaning’: themes
concerning the cultural chess-player
This inquiry concerns the culturalhistory of the chess-player. It takes as its premise the idea that the chess-player has become a fragmented collection of images.
The formation of these images has been underpinned by challenges to, and
confirmations of, chess’s status as an intellectually superior and socially useful
game, particularly since rule changes five centuries ago. Yet the chess-player is
an understudied figure whose many faces have frequently been obscured
Championship 2014’ includes a clip of the current champion Magnus Carlsen
falling asleep at the board during a victory largely ignored by the mainstream
media.4 One BBC article even asked ‘Does anybody still care about chess?’,
A culturalhistory of chess-players
asserting that ‘rumours of its death are greatly exaggerated’.5 Yet even if the
game is still played, the figure of the cultural chess-player has faded from view.
Bobby Fischer’s death in 2008 only seemed to confirm this passing.6 The deindividuation of the chess-player, suggested by Deep
Three lives of the chess-player in medieval and early-modern literature
tolerance and recommendation in other aspects
of cultural and social activity, official Church policy tended towards disapproval
of gaming.16 This underlying point recurs throughout the culturalhistory of the
chess-player – the game and those who played it were at once both welcome
and unwelcome. The production of a discrete identity surrounding the gamester
as gamer and the chess-player solely as player was not maintained. Escaping
binary expression, play was neither straightforwardly sinful nor spiritual. Chessplay appeared somewhere between the two, a practice which
Locating monstrosity in representations of the Automaton Chess-Player
and the beautiful, the dead and the living’ as well as
‘the seduction of the primitive and wild …; the insignificance of human beings
against nature; the existence of geniuses; the importance of individual experience; and … the emphasis on suffering, death, and redemption’.87 Taken as a
historical object and an object of the imagination, the chess-playing automaton
resides between classifications, between clear boundaries and hierarchies. As the
object of a culturalhistory which attempts to describe and explain how society
or individuals orientated themselves in
.), Comic Books and
American CulturalHistory: An Anthology (London: Continuum, 2012), pp. 1–2.
5 M. Thomas Inge, Comics as Culture (Jackson, MI: University Press of Mississippi, 1990),
6 See J. Binder, ‘Checkmate’, Mary Marvel, 25 (June 1948), p. 1, for a rare example of a
non-superhero, female comic-book chess-player.
7 A. S. Mittman, ‘Introduction: The Impact of Monsters and Monster Studies’, in
A. S. Mittman (ed.) with P. Dendle, The Ashgate Research Companion to Monsters and the
Monstrous (Farnham: Ashgate, 2012), p. 6.
8 E. W. Said, Orientalism (New
The idea of chess as urban, respectable, and rational had become a possible image of the game by the late Victorian period, signalled by the attention given to the 1851 inaugural International Chess Tournament in London. This chapter offers a sense of the chess-player as a figure woven around themes of presence, absence, and excess. George Walker was uniquely well placed to reveal the everyday experience of the chess-player within the context of the game's growth as a literary topic and as a physical feature of the Victorian city. By acknowledging the exterior Café de la Régence (the physical building) as a practised space, somewhere where one goes as someone, one acknowledges the physical experience of interior chess-play. Moving inwards to the café's interior, disreputable behaviour is expressed through a number of behavioural and associational modes.
This chapter considers the chess-player from a different perspective, embracing fictive and imagined properties, namely in terms of a relationship between the chess-player and the literary private detective. As Paul Metzner notes, the chess-player and the detective emerged in literature during, and as a reaction to, 'a period in which outlaws triumphed over established society, that is, during an age of revolution'. Both the cultural chess-player and the literary detective are commonly expressed as physically abnormal. Both produce an emotive impact, whether that is terror, mystery, admiration, or fascination. The marginalising of the chess-player's talents in intellectual terms is most clearly expressed in Jacques Futrelle's stories involving Professor Van Dusen, where the detective takes on a world champion chess-player in a battle of intellect. Despite his varied monstrous aspects, the detective also represents positive qualities, fulfilling a social function.
IBM’s Deep Blue and the Automaton Chess-Player, 1997–1769
This chapter considers the context of chess-playing machines, mainly the eighteenth-century Automaton Chess-Player and IBM's Deep Blue and their related forms. It explores how these machines were viewed as behaviourally monstrous, how specific sites of performance and initial impressions determined identity formation, and how resistance to these non-human intelligences highlighted or deprecated specific cognitive processes and mental faculties. The terms of automaton, statue, and magical object coalesce to suggest the resistance of the chess-playing machine to reductionism or essentialism, to constituent parts. The earliest contexts of display regarding the Automaton Chess-Player demonstrate the tensions held by the machine in existing within multiple spaces and between states of being. While the Automaton Chess-Player and Deep Blue fulfilled the definition of virtuosic machines, their contexts of display and masking combined technical achievement, theatrical presentation, and self-promotion. An image such as this represented just one aspect of their cultural representations.
The physical location of Deep Blue's 1997 victory over Garry Kasparov can be seen as a site of twentieth-century uncanny, a scientific experiment gone wrong. This chapter presents Vikram Jayanti's documentary Game Over: Kasparov and the Machine which revisits the contest and demonstrates how the ghost of Baron von Kempelen's machine could infect and destabilise narratives of scientific progress, rational thought, and modernity. Jayanti's documentary centres on the idea of a hero chess-player defeating the invading presence of mechanised thought. The incursions which Anthony Vidler highlights are shown by Jayanti in the form of surveillance cameras, windows stretching from floor to ceiling, harshly lit corridors, and access-controlled doors. This is the technology of the modern Gothic haunted house. The chess-player is a Gothic figure. Its human and machine forms became conjoined in Kasparov's encounter with Deep Blue in the haunted houses of late- twentieth-century New York.