Aggression in Chess

Chess is a violent sport according to artist and chess player Marcel Duchamp. It’s a vicious game, says folk singer Nic Jones. Nigel Short is frequently quoted as saying that chess is ruthless: you’ve got to be prepared to kill people. Grandmaster Boris Gulko tells his (adult) pupils that chess is a game for hooligans.

Your favourite chess book dealer will offer you a killer opening repertoire, advocate street fighting chess, and even provide a chess terrorist’s handbook.

Aggression is natural in all species, particularly among males, and is, in itself, neither bad nor good but a natural instinct. One reason for promoting chess, along with other competitive activities, it seems to me, might be to provide a positive outlet for aggression. Those who favour physical competition might let their aggression loose on the football field, or, more directly, in the boxing ring, while those who favour mental competition might choose a chessboard instead.

This, though, raises a number of questions. Young boys, at the age most of them take up chess, are often interested in weapons and fighting, and by using appropriate metaphors we can make chess more attractive and exciting for them. But one big problem the chess world faces is the small number of female participants. This is something especially true here in the UK. If we promote chess as an ‘aggressive’, competitive activity, will this deter girls from taking part? Or perhaps we should encourage girls to be more competitive: something Alice has to learn in Chess for Kids.

Or we could promote chess in a non-competitive way, as a fluffy game equally suitable for boys and girls. Many schools would be in favour of this: primary schools are often run by ‘nice ladies’ who find it hard to understand and come to terms with the sort of mock aggressive play favoured by many boys (and some girls). But, if we do that, are we not removing something essential from chess? After all, chess started as a war game. Perhaps we’re also removing something essential from the lives of some of the boys who enjoy chess. To be honest, I really don’t know what the answer is myself. If you’re doing chess in the classroom I think you need to take a non-competitive approach, but within a chess club you need to encourage mental aggression over the board, while, of course, prohibiting any form of physical or verbal aggression away from the board and encouraging good sportsmanship at all times.

When you’re playing chess, aggressiveness over the board works in two ways. You can choose an aggressive style, favouring attacks, gambits and sacrifices, or a non-aggressive, ‘vegetarian’ style, playing quietly and trading pieces off to reach an ending. You can also choose a non-aggressive psychological approach, being eager to agree a draw in an unclear or even position, or if you’re feeling sorry for your opponent for some reason, or you can be aggressive in playing out every position to try to win, taking risks in complex positions or grinding away in equal endings as Carlsen, for example, does, waiting for your opponent to make a fatal mistake.

Genna Sosonko wrote about this in an essay entitled Killer Instinct, first published in New in Chess and later reprinted in one of his essay collections, Smart Chip from St. Petersburg (New in Chess 2006). Among his anecdotes was that concerning Boris Gulko, who was teaching an older adult player who would reach good positions but lacked the killer instinct to finish off his opponents. He told him that chess was a game for hooligans and advised him to show more aggression. This more aggressive approach to chess led to a sharp improvement in his results. The nicest person I ever met was a man called Gene Veglio, who was, for some years, a clubmate of mine at Richmond & Twickenham Chess Club. He was always willing to play, but equally willing to stand down if someone else wanted to play. Whenever he reached a good position, though, he’d offer his opponent a draw because he didn’t want to hurt their feelings by beating them.

Now, here’s my problem. Superficially, I come across as an extremely non-aggressive person. I play chess non-aggressively: I usually prefer fairly safe openings and am usually happy to agree a draw. For reasons which I won’t go into here I find it very hard to deal with losing a game, with making a mistake, with any form of confrontation. But when I play blitz on the Internet, where I’m not so bothered about the result, I play much more aggressively, using a totally different opening repertoire. So I’ve decided to make some changes to my opening repertoire this season, to play more aggressively. I’ll explain the reasons for this in more detail next time. Will I, like Gulko’s student, see an improvement in my results?

My next series of articles (with possible interruptions as and when the whim takes me) will let you see how I get on.

Richard James

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About Richard James

Richard James is a professional chess teacher and writer living in Twickenham, and working mostly with younger children and beginners. He was the co-founder of Richmond Junior Chess Club in 1975 and its director until 2005. He is the webmaster of chessKIDS academy (www.chesskids.org.uk or www.chesskids.me.uk) and, most recently, the author of Chess for Kids and The Right Way to Teach Chess to Kids, both published by Right Way Books. Richard is currently the Curriculum Consultant for Chess in Schools and Communities (www.chessinschools.co.uk) as well as teaching chess in local schools and doing private tuition. He has been a member of Richmond & Twickenham Chess Club since 1966 and currently has an ECF grade of 177.