Monday, July 13, 2009

Or is there?

I, like many chess players, am somewhat prickly when it comes to the use of chess analogies, metaphors, similes, and more or less any phrase that mentions our game and is uttered by someone who doesn't play it. Indeed, even when the use of chess seems not only reasonable but even interesting, I still can't help but feel incredibly grumpy about it.

And I have to admit, I don't really know why. It's not as if in a packed pub, with empty pints all round, and ten minutes to closing time, I haven't been heard to describe the sweaty mess of competing bodies at the bar as a scrum - yet I assume rugby fans don't want to tackle me to the ground and splash my face with mud in punishment, or whatever it is rugby players do to one another when they're cross about slips of language. See, I've never played the game, nor in fact known anyone who has. And 'slips of language', incidentally, is a cricket metaphor that sometimes catches people out.

Back to chess, or rather 'chess'. Why does it get to me so much? Maybe it's just the mass of examples in the news. From this last week or two, for instance, I can guarantee you that
unless they, literally, enjoy friendly games over lunch together. And they haven't been.

No, like with dogs, a good chess simile should be for life, not just for Christmas - and there's no such thing as a good chess simile. Or metaphor, comparison, analogy, anything. Or so I had been telling myself until I read John Le Carré's The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. I know, I know, I know. "Aha!", you're thinking. "Chivers has been taken in by some Le Carré chess metaphor. Well, I'll show him in the comments what's what. Checkmate ahoy!"

But, no. The truth is much worse, much more distressing. Whilst reading this book, I kept on thinking to myself thoughts along these lines: this is just like a chess game. What will be the spy's next move across these sixty four squares of international espionage? Such strategy as to match a Grandmaster's! Bang bang bang bang: such thoughts would just shoot into my head, and nothing could be done about it.

WARNING: Plot spoilers ahead.
And note too that is not only regarded as the best spy novel ever written, not only regarded as one of the best novels ever written, but I personally recommend it. Yes, that's right. I do.

As I was saying: reading The Spy Who Came In From The Cold is, I confess, like watching a game of chess being played. A very good game in fact. There, I've said it. I admit it. How horrible.

But don't fear. I'm not going to try to convince you I'm right. For example, I'm not going to argue that Agent Leamas's well-calculated and cunningly-disguised journey from West Berlin to East Berlin resembles an elaborate knight's tour, just because it goes via HQ in London, a dingy local library, prison, and penultimately Holland, all seemingly to fool the enemy into thinking he's genuinely defecting rather than setting a trap. Likewise, I'm not going to argue that his British Communist girlfriend Liz Gold's straightforward route from the local library to East Berlin - taken one step at a time - the reader uncertain whether she is headed for some glorious coronation into the ranks of her Communist comrades - or whether she is merely to be sacrificed - having strayed too far from her British ranks - resembles that of an isolated pawn being pushed perilously toward promotion. That would be absurd.

Alec Leamas & Liz Gold in the film version of the book.

Just "pawns in the plot" says Leamas at the end, as he realises the truth. Not quite.

And anyway, we all know the key difference between chess pieces and people, the key difference that makes any comparison between the two pointless, right? In other words, simply that people have free-will, consciousness, and make their own decisions; chess pieces don't. Except, in this book, the calculations of the British spy boss Control take full account of the personhood of his operatives; their human feelings calculated out like a complex tactical sequence. Indeed Leamas is wholly lied to by Control, and as such behaves exactly as Control has calculated he will. Free-will counts for nothing: in each seemingly-novel situation each character faces, each decision each character believes they are making has already been factored in; their supposed decisions as inevitable as an only move.

Each decision, but one. In the final scene of the book, Leamas teeters on top of the Berlin wall. His superior officer George Smiley waits beneath him on the West side, calling him over to safety. On the East side, Liz's fresh corpse lies slumped beneath him, riddled with bullets. Surely he will jump to safety, then resume his career, or retire somewhere comfy. Surely he will choose the West. But, no. He chooses the East side, although he will die for it in the blink of an eye. He would rather dwell by Liz's body for a moment, than rejoin the rest for however long. And in choosing the temporary warmth of her crumpled figure, Leamas chooses to come in from the cold of the vicious game - even if it is for just one final fleeting moment, to be swiftly followed by his own mute slaughter.

And for the existential sake of our pieces, whom never complain about being bundled back into their boxes, adjusted this way and that, sacrificed and blundered left right and centre, we should be grateful there is no such equivalent of that in our little game.


Anonymous said...

Listeners to the TMS cricket coverage yesterday mid-morning might have noticed Henry Blofeld telling listeners that the passage of play involving Flintoff and Collingwood was "just like a game of chess", and a few minutes he wondered "where the bishop was going to land".

To which there was only one suitable answer: "alongside the pigeons near the buses in the Harleyford Road, my dear old thing"

Still, at least it was Henry Blofeld, rather than the black knight on the thrilling James Bond chessboard...


Chris Morgan said...

I think people who don't play chess have this idea that chess is always a serene game of long term strategies, which of course it can be at times. Those of us who play the game however, are all to aware that the game is often decided on blunders or brutal short term tactics.
Hence a non-chess player's description of a boxing match in which the protagonists are cagily looking for openings without much punching might be 'a chess match', whereas some highly tactical chess games might be more akin to two boxers trying to bludgeon each other into submission. As Marcel Duchamp said, 'Chess is a sport, a violent sport.'

Morgan Daniels said...

David Pleat is still by far and away the worst for this sort of thing. *Every* game he commentates on is like chess. Often that means it's boring though. 'It started with blood and thunder and ended like a game of chess' was his verdict on some world cup game a few years ago, one which had had a few early goals then fizzled out.

rgh said...

morgan d - I assume you've come across this:
"Walter Benjamin compares the marching of history to an automaton playing chess."

ejh said...

That reminds me, it's not entirely unheard of to see duff football metaphors used in chess writing, something I might write about one day. (Not to mention embarassing sexual metaphors.)

I have to say I've read Le Carré's marvellous novel - and seen the superb movie - without ever thinking of chess in relation to either, something which I hope will not change in the future.

Did I ever mention I was taught Anglo-Saxon history at university by the chap on whom Le Carré based George Smiley?

Tom Chivers said...

No! How interesting. Smiley has only a fleeting presence in the book -the only Le Carré novel I've read- so Smiley's persona is still a bit of a mystery to me. Did your teacher look like the film character too? What was his name, out of curiousity?

ejh said...

He was the Reverend VHH Green. I think he taught Le Carré at Sherborne, and then tutored in History at the Oxford college Le Carré (and later I) attended.

He looked a fair bit like Alec Guinness as he played him on telly, but nothing at all like the chap in the film (who we see briefly by the Wall at the end).

Tinker Tailor is very good too, by the way: I didn't go so much on The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, which I think was found very impressive at the end for its meticulousnes but now feels like a period piece.

Mark Weeks said...

I've never known what to make of lines like 'X was playing chess, but Y was playing checkers'. If they were playing each other, didn't they notice at the beginning of the game that the board looked different? If they weren't playing each other, why mention it? Ned was playing bridge, but Fred was playing poker. Ted was having breakfast. - Mark

Tom Chivers said...

The film Smiley we meet earlier in his house too. He looks like a real oddball, but I picture him as far more suave ---- definitely more Alec Guinness.

For me the novel didn't feel dated - but on the other hand, I'm a newcomer to the genre. Tinker Tailor is definitely on my shopping list..

Morgan Daniels said...

rgh - Of course! That comes from the very beginning of his 'Theses on the Philosophy of History', the last thing he wrote before killing himself. Walty certainly wasn't using The Turk in some sort of 'historical materialism is just like a game of chess, Brian' way, though -- this was merely another example of his lifelong stressing of the importance of odd connections and parallels. For what was Benjamin but an allegorist?

Also, that brief description given on the Open Court page is, well, wrong. The 'marching of history' is not what was being compared to The Turk at all. Rather, what was important was the chap denoting method inside the automoton - 'historical materialism'.

ejh said...

Ah, I erred in my previous posting. The novel I found rather dated was The Looking-Glass War. Sorry about that.

Morgan Daniels said...

I personally don't believe in the idea of anything - books, television programmes, films, songs, games of chess, whatever - 'dating'. The idea that because something is the product of past society it has dated is a worrying one; does progress then not become defined simply by, or as, the mere passing of time?

Ryan said...

This bugs the hell out of me too. This was my take on the subject in a blog post some time ago...

ejh said...

No, but it's just that some things which are innovative and exciting at first become over-familiar over time, and sometimes this may suggest that to one degree or another it may have been the novelty rather than the substance that was the cause of the impression some artefact or other made on us

In the case of The Looking-Glass War I think the sheer amount of detail involved must have been impressive at the time, but it's possibly something we're much more used to now - not least thanks to Le Carré.

I think it's undeniable that some works last better than others, and it's hard to approach the question of why without some concept of things dating (and then, of course, asking what we mean by this).

Richard James said...

Geoffrey Boycott in the Torygraph today:

Test cricket is like chess. You have to search for an opening. If you just blitz all your pieces out there in the first few moves, you are going to lose far more often than you win.

ejh said...

Kevin Mitchell in the Guardian:

he made more moves in the field than Boris Spassky

rgh said...

This morning's BBC News gives us "the next move in the human chess game" about Iran.

ejh said...

It was like a chess puzzle that had never previously been done in under 12 moves

Tom Chivers said...

Unlike most bad chess analogies, that one manages to be awkward and odd too. Impressive!