The Language of Chess

Expanding on my post last week, I should say a little bit more the analogy of learning a language and learning to play chess. Chess is like a language in that there are universal rules that need to be learned before you can have a game – or communicate – with someone else. Once you have learnt those rules, it is very difficult to forget them unless you don’t practise at all for years, like ceasing to communicate in a language altogether.

Learning to read words and how to string them together using grammar and sentences might be the equivalent of learning to how each chess piece moves and how to develop and play with your pieces in a harmonious way. Being able to read and comprehend text is perhaps like being able to see the whole chess board or what is sometimes called ‘board vision’. The common phrases used are like the familiar patterns of the chess pieces – scattered over the board they mean nothing to a non-player – but to a chess player they are instantly recognisable. Sometimes a sentence or paragraph written by a prize winning author can seem perfectly formed – and its equivalent in chess may be watching elite GMs produce crowd-pleasing combinations.

Mastery in chess, like mastery in writing or anything, requires, to some degree, a special talent. You can’t avoid this conclusion when watching a 10 year old schoolboy completely outplaying experienced and competent adult chess players. Perhaps part of this talent is an ability to learn quickly and having a great memory. Children can soak up languages effortlessly, and so it can be with chess. Perhaps picking up a dictionary and learning new words is like picking up an openings book and learning new lines. Perhaps reading a classic novel is like playing through a classic chess game from the past.

We can learn a huge amount from other players, in the same way that writers can learn a huge amount from other writers. Learning your ‘craft’ takes discipline and determination. Finding a ‘style’ in chess, like finding a ‘voice’ in writing, is what you need if you are to be original. Part of the attraction of chess is creating something on the board that is pleasing. Your creative output, your legacy, is the games you leave behind on ChessBase, like the books you leave behind as an author. Will anyone care to look at them in the future? That I guess depends on how good they were, how original, and how relevant they remain.

The basics may be easy to understand – making chess accessible – but the amateur game and the professional game are like different languages entirely. The subtlety of modern master play is seldom understood. Trying to understand what’s going on in an elite GM game is like deciphering a code for an average amateur.

Trying to improve in chess is a never ending journey that can never be finished, only abandoned. Didn’t someone say that about art!?

“Art is never finishedonly abandoned.” – Attributed to Leonardo da Vinci (et al)

Although thinking of chess as a language is interesting, it is only part of the story. Chess is not only an art-form if you will, but also a sport, and a pretty brutal one at that. Like in many sports, even if you perform well, if your opponent performs better, you come second. If your opponent plays as well as you, you only get a draw. I suppose in both cases you may want to screw up the scoresheet (I’ve actually seen a player do this to their opponent’s scoresheet!) and consign it to recycling container, but you can learn a lot from these games. More on that later.

 Angus James