© 2019 by Andrew Voller. All rights reserved.

  • Grey Facebook Icon
  • Grey Twitter Icon
  • Grey G+ Icon
  • Grey YouTube Icon
  • Grey Pinterest Icon
  • Grey Instagram Icon
 Above:   'The Courtyard of a House in Delft', Pieter de Hooch, (1658), oil on canvas. 

A Phenomenology of the French Defence

A. Voller

January 1999

Hull School of Art

Tutor: Dr. Allan Harkness


1        Introduction  


2        French Defence (Variations, Steinitz, …Nfd7, F6 and …Ne4)


3        Balance (we topple the king in defeat) 


4        Time (Beginning, end and first move?)


5        Fire


6        Spider-Men (the stranded pawn)


7        Notes


From the opening on an opening the reader soon awakens to the difficulty and caution in which one must tread and explore this deceptive, obstacle-ridden landscape: a miniature “city composed of paroxysmal places in monumental reliefs”, a “wave of verticals” (1) irrupting from a New York like grid network. Play is inundated with riddles and infestations of repressed anxieties.

     We shall try to probe these ‘riddles’ and ‘anxieties’ approaching from alternate angles in this phenomenological investigation and reverie on chess-play, with parts devoted to the magnetism or flow of the pieces, compromise in balance, piece-responsive rhythm, giving and taking, Being and beings and other space-time continuum principles encompassing a game ‘event’. Essentially, we have a sojourn in the vague temporal constructions of check.

French Defence

Variations (in brief)


Classical, 1 e4 e6 2 d4 d5 3 Nc3 Nf6 4 Bg5 Be7 5 e5 Nfd7 6 Bxe7 Qxe7; Alekhine-Chatard Attack, 6 h4, Black’s options are, 6 …Bxg5 or less confrontational, 6 …a6, 6 …f6, or 6 …c5; Burn’s, 4 …dxe4; Maccutcheon, 4 …Bb4; Steinitz (as below); Rubinstein, 3 …dxe4; Winawer, 1 e4 e6 2 d4 d5 3 Nc3 Bb4; Tarrasch, 3 Nd2 and the Guimard, with 3 …Nc6; Exchange, 3 exd5 exd5; and the Advance, 3 e5.

     Other moves include Chigorin’s 2 Qe2; the Two Knights’ Variation, 2 Nf3 d5 3 Nc3; the King’s Indian Attack via the French, 2 d3 d5 3 Nd2; and the Anderssen-Richter, Svenonius, Marshall and Alapin System.


To gift your opponent - that is, if the objective is to win - by instantly yielding  an equal dominance of central control of the board by playing e6, either displays an apathy for the game or, more likely, the desire to entice the enemy into advancing towards a seemingly back-pedalling and muddled, but intrinsically hazardous and cagey gathered heap of pieces: the French Defence.

     In short, the cavalier player may become dismembered by the subtle invitation (an illusion of weakness only) confronting them.




1     e4 e6


2     d4 d5


3     Nc3 Nf6


4.    e5 Nfd7…………………………………………………….................................Ne4


5     f4…………………………………………………………....Qg4                       Nxe4

       c5                                                                                   c5                          dxe4


6    Nf3                                                                                  Nf3                          Bc4

      Nc6                                                                                 cxd4                          a6


7    Be3                                                                                 Nxd4                          a4

      Qb6………………………cxd4                                         Nxe5                         b6


8    Na4                                 Nxd4                                        Qg3                        Nh3

      Qa5                                 Bc5………….Nxd4                  Nbc6                     Bb7 


9    c3                                    Qd2               Bxd4                  Bb5                         Nf4

      cxd4                                0-0                 Nb8                    a6                          Nc6


10  b4                                    0-0-0              Qd2                   Bxc6+                    Be3

      Nxb4                               Qe7                Nc6                    Nxc6                      Ne7


11  cxd4                                Bb5                0-0-0                  Be3                         0-0

      Bxb4+                             Nxd4              Nxd4                  Be7                          g6


12  Bd2                                 Bxd4              Qxd4                 Nxc6                       Qe2

      Bxd2+                             a6                  Bd7                    bxc6                        Nf5


13  Nxd2                               Bxd7              f5                       Qxg7                     Rfd1

      b6                                    Bxd7             Qg5+                  Bf6                         Bh6


14  Qxb3………Bd3              Ne2               Kb1                     Qh6                         a5

      Ba6             Ba6              b6                  Qxf5                    Rb8                        0-0


This particular quality of the French Defence is exemplified in the Steinitz variation; where Black’s knowledge is only largely relevant if White intends to exploit the concessionary e6 by playing 4. e5.

e4       e6

d4       d5

Nc3    Nf6



With this consequential attack on the f6 knight, the pupil of the French soon becomes aware that this piece on that square frequently (involving most cases of the ten main variations) bears the brunt of White’s immediate surges. Yet the instigative 4. e5 can be judged as premature - as the situation could obviously be made urgent with the bishop on g5 (the Classical, Alekhine-Chatard, Burn’s and

Maccutcheon variations adhere to this principle). By rotating the board and observing the knobbly landscape from White’s viewpoint, the visual attraction or lure, of owning two more spaces than one’s opponent, is apparent. White has an unearned king-side spatial advantage. The pawn advancement, in simple terms, agitates the recently developed knight by making it move twice whilst simultaneously probing more of the opposition’s territory than vica-versa.

     Theoretically 4. e5 provides Black with limited choice; …Ne4, disseminating the pawn formation; or …Nfd7, in which the subsequent sequences display the general matrix of the Steinitz ploy.




E6 has already closed the queen’s bishop diagonal (White’s thoughts, from the outset, are fixed on exploiting this, as many games focus on this single aspect), so …Nfd7, further inhibiting freedom of movement, can only add to Black’s anxieties. However, despite this and the concern of abandoning the normal king-side defensive position, the dual knight exertion of might on the e-pawn - the French’s core aim - coupled with the protection of c5 allowing a pawn and bishop exchange to occur, seems reasonably compensatory: “especially”, as Black opted for defensive play.

f4       c5

Nf3    Nc6



With 7…Qb6 Black’s coiled mechanism of a trap becomes apparent where, at this juncture, the obfuscatory intentions are simply unsubtle. On face value, the queen is defending the c-pawn (leaving the queen in a strong central position if a pawn and bishop exchange were to occur) and dictating a defensive manoeuvre of White’s b-pawn. But the chief objective is to, yet again, entice another of White’s pieces unduly forward, forcing 8. Na4: the only feasible choice, simultaneously protecting and dislodging both pawn and queen. However, the result of these enticements is a flurry of exchanges, leaving Black with three pawns for a knight. Theoretically sound, but coinciding with a doubled pawn and much of the game left to play, losing an active piece for the pawns is not worth it.

     It seems here as if there is some kind of twisted logic in playing …Nfd7, where a childish pride is taken from the boxed position, just in an attempt to breed an insecurity into White’s confident surges by steadily quashing them. The illusion is not sustainable, often leaving Black in a boringly honest and straightforward environment. The Steinitzs paradoxical nature, evoking devices such as the Tarrasch Trap, is one of the reasons why it is rarely used amongst championship level play. (2)




Before scrutinizing the other choice, 4…Ne4 (as a response to 4.e5; the attack on the king’s knight), there is value in briefly mentioning the importance of the f6 square.

     Purely on a practical level, by concentrating energy on f6 (usually with the e-pawn or the queen’s bishop) White successfully attempts to weaken the triangular strength of a castled position by removing the knight from its allotted square. The Winawer (Poisoned Pawn/Main Line) variation goes one step further, additionally eliminating two pawns in the defensive line using White’s queen with 7. Qg4 (3). But as play progresses beyond the regimental opening moves, it is worth noting that Black too often succumbs to the energy encompassing f6; choosing to disembowel their own safe castled configuration in shifting the f-pawn. Black’s pawn move to f6 enforces a logical conclusion of exchanges to release pent-up pressure amassing on their king and p-f5 instantly neutralizes the inward force, but it is temporary and more defensively destructive. Summing-up then, a typical game using e6, will rotate about f6 as if it were the fulcrum to the thirty-two piece machine.



Knight to e4 as an option for the Steinitz advocate provides a strange decision or pathway for Black to embark upon because - like an adverse wind - it blows away the eagerly anticipated intentions of the crew’s journey. The bait (knight) is pointlessly laid outside the trap (stratagem) - unlike …Nfd7 - totally deflating the retorting possibilities of the French’s aim. It (the knight) literally goes the wrong way. Once again, another paradox within the Steinitz as - apart from negating the whole point of creating an illusion of mishmashed alignment - e6 purposely concedes central control without the intention of impatiently seizing back an immediate claim directly.

     An amusing comparison can be drawn with the Exchange variation where ‘the exchange’ almost entirely eradicates Black’s knowledge of the French leaving an open and equal game for both sides. At least with the Exchange variation White is the instigator behind the honest outcome, but …Ne4 defeats Black’s own objectives.


The idea of swimming-against-the-tide matches this struggle of achieving fruitful, rhythmic pockets of play combinations. Essentially, each player (at any level of understanding) makes decisions on the basis of compromise, not on the sole isolation of one particularly strong facet. And perhaps the distinctions between players’ proficiencies hinges, not purely on their ability to systematically increase each individual, conceivable topic, but to successfully juggle the jumble of information confronting them; leaving a moderate ‘room for improvement’ on every scope of choice.

     In addition to the notion of compromising levels of intuition, mathematical/logical theory, imagination and strategy, it is important at this juncture to acknowledge occurances with no direct bearing on the obvious strategic interplay between players. The mechanics of the chessboard will undoubtedly dictate a small percentage of each movement made as (despite the player’s being willing participants of  White and Black’s obvious standoff) - no opposing impact too explosive, kind of attitude - some form of interrelation amongst the pieces and board as objects must occur. The players’ cognitive decisions are frequently impaired by an uncontrollable and very logical necessity to mingle two extremeties. Simply, the magnetism or flow of the pieces, if you like, will always have their own agenda.

     This ambiguity of movement in chess is often overlooked by players so concerned with the immediate or long term goals of their position: their judgements are based upon square control, material valuations in exchanges and a neurotic protection of their game plan, rather than excepting the inevitable rhythm of the space-time continuum amongst the pieces on the board. Considering this point in relation to good and bad play, maybe the successful decision maker rarely defeats their own objectives (referring to 4 …Ne4 in the Steinitz), deciding to acknowledge their opponents will or force instead of repelling it. Self-obsessive traits that cause nothing but reactionary pragmatical solutions to problems, deny the multi-dimensional character of chess. This suggests that expert players - in general - respect and appreciate their opponents as well as those unquantifiable states within the game more so than lesser skilled, club level participants. Maybe this accounts for the abnormally high levels of paranoia and superstitiousness amongst top players over the decades.

     Let us make it clear, however, that spiritual and mystical factors do not play a part in the idea of piece-responsive rhythm. The melody of play, existing on one plane, simply cannot be contradicted by virtually any other element. It is an integral segment of the game, where genetically there is no scope for alteration. To clarify, if on each movement of a game, the square was illuminated, then the sequential flashes of light played back should usually harmonize, more so with skilled players than with unskilled. Another premise is each piece having an equal weight, where movement tilts the centrally pivoted board so provoking or instigating a rhythm, to further maintain a state of equilibrium.


Whilst recognizing the close relationship between harmony and expert play, what is ironic and interesting to watch, are the fairly identical harmonious patterns often exercised by the novice. Fully aware of their inabilities and normally lacking pretension (similar to the professional who also has nothing to hide), the total novice usually bends over backwards to adhere to underlying rhythmic principles. This tuneful acquiescence manifests itself by mimicking an opponent’s moves or placing pieces in balanced positions - strictly avoiding embarrassing, assymetrical configurations - just so things ‘look right’ in order not to spoil the game for both participants. There is no parody here: innocence simply breeds a natural aesthetic urge to conform. An increasing knowledge of chess theory and set combinations steadily suppresses the aesthetics of object placement, consequently hindering loose and imaginative play (often displayed by Tal (1936-92), a Latvian player and former World Champion 1960-1). As the novice progresses, slowly learning a seemingly eternal amount of mathematical/logical situations - heavily bogged down by the enormity of the process - they unknowingly dissolve the importance of vision. Algebraic notation and linear considerations become the prerogative, transposing their original hands-on four dimensional approach into a flat, characterless one. The practicalities of communicating theory and translating ideas are largely responsible for this development.

     Computer programmes, strangely enough, also echo the novice’s rhythmic compliance, if prompted. The comparison arises through a similarity in single-plane thought. A programme’s method of evaluation/scoring is linear - its thought instrument tos and fros like beads on an abacus - as it plays a game of numbers and the novice tries to just visually balance out the board.


Nh3        Nh6

Nc3         Nc6

Nf4         Nf5

e4            e5

exf5        exf4

Qe2+      Qe7

Nd5        Nd4

Nxe7      Nxe2

Bxe2      Bxf5

g4            g5

gxf5        gxf4

Rg1         Rg8


Two-dimensional, holistic judgements with humans in chess, as aforementioned, produce distorted beats. This shallowness in programmes - a consequence of chronological data arrangement - is the very thing that, in contradistinction, allows a tempo to be followed. But more interestingly, by imitating any programme’s movements (set at different levels, styles of play, etc) an important insight is gained into factors that alter spaciotemporal balance. Mirror image and spatially balanced movement appears to show - by conjecturable observations - that the vast majority of times that spatial synchronizaton between pieces is broken, a process of putting the king in check is used. Furthermore, copying in this manner (which is based upon an exaggeration of a beginner’s insecurities) also reveals a locational emphasis in opening decisions directly influencing the rhythmical length of play. With mirror image play central activity dictates the speediest resolution of sequence within the given format and as play recedes from the middle so, in general an increase in movement length is apparent. The only obvious exceptions are the extreme numerical differences occurring around the board’s peripheries. Both of these previous points are relevant and largely magnified when Black attempts to spatially balance-out White’s moves as well as mirroring them.


Acknowledging that this argument concerning ‘rhythm’ is partly founded on intuitive guess-work in relation to the spatially magnetic nature of the game, then identifying the process of check as a rhythm breaker becomes fundamentally important in explaining the king’s dichotomous functions: obvious, yet intricate. In simple terms, breaking a rhythm changes a beat between objects into a game of two opposing sides with a purpose. Playing chess would otherwise be like watching the repetitious journeys of bees from hive-to-flower and back again. However, the confrontational ‘anti-time’ factor in checking the king (similar to the hostile occurrences of merging pieces, more frequently centrally stimulated than border, as previously mentioned) holds more relevance to the motion of objects than just providing an objective or meaning.


     ‘It is easy to see why the question of free will brings into conflict two rival systems of nature, mechanism and dynamism. Dynamism starts from the idea of voluntary activity, given by consciousness, and comes to represent inertia by gradually emptying this idea: it has thus no difficulty in conceiving free force on the one hand and matter governed by laws on the other. Mechanism follows the opposite course. It assumes that the materials which it synthesizes are governed by necessary laws, and although it reaches richer and richer combinations, which are more and more difficult to foresee, and to all appearance more and more contingent, yet it never gets out of the narrow circle of necessity within which it first shut itself up.’ (4)


Henri Bergson


Time seems to stagnate when the king is in check, forcing the immediacy of a mini-game to contort the gestalt assumptions of the larger event. Check, in effect, enigmatizes perceptions of time - puncturing time consciousness - creating a multiplicity of zones across the board’s spectrum, zones all mixing together. In order to understand these time situations, it seems necessary at present to reduce the range of factors for consideration, by returning to the basics of check and the immediate options with which a checked player must contend. To interject, I use the term situations instead of layers (or any other word or phrase which indicates a chronological existence) because the placement in time with the cause and effect set of moves, evolving randomly rather than systematically about the board, does not parallel the sequential clarity in form of mirror image and balanced movement. Time’s distortion with check has a slightly chaotic structure, creating different temporal shapes or configurations on each occasion.


     There are three ways to relieve a checked king; interpose a chessman, move the king or capture the checking piece. The spaciotemporal consequences of blocking the ‘line of fire’ and moving the king are fairly rudimentary. A blockade simply prolongs the inevitable procedural flow of events, as the rhythmic paradigmatic template has - most likely - already been inscribed. And similarly, nothing remotely apocalyptic occurs by changing the king’s grid-reference to avoid check other than a geographic nuance causing the opponent to deliberatively re-configure the spatial relationship between king and pieces. The taking of a piece, however, as a means to absolve the checked king, predictably unearths a hotchpotch of mathematical and psychological considerations to reflect upon.

     To be able to effectively assimilate a temporal picture of the ‘check and capture routine’, it is vital first of all to view the entity check in isolation from other elements that allow the game to work, e.g. removing pieces from the board, limited direction of attack and movement and the king’s unappropriatable character. Briefly re-affirming; check is an essential and deliberate pause to the workings of the game as a caesura - in describing broken speech or images - may be to the poet. However, check is also a neutral being, similar in nature to zero in mathematics (equations chronologically fluctuate from minus to plus, where naught functions as a linear starting platform), yet - unlike zero’s singular rigid placement - its occurrence is sporadic. The potential complexity is obvious: the check event resembles zero’s popping gratuitously out of the sky at irregular intervals, interconnecting themselves amongst a network of logically organized variables, forcing the mathematician to numerically adjust the entirety of his or her equation in reaction to the additional set of beginning points. It is analogous to the catalytic patterns of creation which disclose stars and black-holes in relation to the gravitational pull of the planets, except the cosmos of the chessboard - with check - is comparatively less spherically orientated, causing the check situations to morph-over (figuratively speaking) or re-configure the run of play instead of just adding new matter or elements. To focus for a moment, the discussion is not an un-anchored subjective one (of course any competent chess player would not be left flummoxed by an unforeseen check, oblivious to an accumulation of force surrounding the king): it is about the vague temporal constructions of check.

     Check disrupts play - it demagnitizes, deadening then resuscitating the rhythmic flow of objects: the ‘happening’ discharge ionizes particles (pieces) within the field of the checking arc, in various guises, various intensities and spatial-temporal shapes. This can confuse and control any player’s mood: after the immediate rebuffing of the king attack, defensive worries are often overwhelming, leaving the ghost of check to dictate or to force judgements based upon past configurations and lingering anxieties, side stepping main-line, current issues. The capture of the checking piece then, is perhaps the best option - if possible - to relieve the checked king. It adds a kind of gravity to the game - making time and feelings relative - rebounding upon the opponent equivalent anxieties: the aggressor’s move is annuled and returned. In losing the bayonet (piece) to their rifle, the opponent loses an accumulation of separately constructed configurations designed to support the checkmate attempt.

     However, to play good chess, surprisingly, does not require the existence or adoption of a cold personality. Immediately ignoring the previous loss of a piece/situation draws extensively upon character and frame of mind; to concentrate on ‘now’ and upon possible future gains is only part of the task. If anything, a good player magnifies a loss well out of proportion, wallowing in the chessboard’s quagmire of grief, anger, jealousy, frustration and anxiety - the player is maternally upset as each piece has, firstly, been developed then nurtured into position.

     Having begun in ‘wholeness’, loss is a real force. A close affinity is moulded between hand and chessman: ‘Look at these pieces, smooth and light. No hard edges. Beautifully carved. The best set for playing with that I’ve ever seen. Here feel this knight!’ (Bobby Fischer) (5). The solidity of stable wooden pieces - firm on their level foundation - coupled with reassuring, muffled thuds from pieces landing, perfectly counters the ‘unreality’ of intense, repetitious, floating thoughts that can sometimes cause a kind of existential nausea, like the ‘purple hazes’ often experienced by Roquentin in Sartre’s Nausea.


One imagines that the cerebellum (one of the major divisions of the brain, whose function is coordination of voluntary movements and maintenance of bodily equilibrium) partially disconnects itself from the nervous system, in such moments. 

     Objects become mental constructions, power investments in a field of embodied consciousness, remaining an extension of yourself and drives; a capture is tantamount to the theft and destruction of someone’s idea. The piece leaves the board, but not the table, remaining visible to all, but especially so to its previous player - niggling at their conscience like Banquo’s ghost. This directly influences a game’s proceedings, even whilst casually ‘being’ outside its limit or boundary. Your piece is taken smugly by your opponent under the guise of chess law, held for emotional ransom (as a pawn promotion can rescue your chessman) without a stipulated price. In addition, as the board sheds its pieces, amidst cycles of creation (convolutions of prophylaxis - skillfully exemplified by Petrosyan (6) - twists and veils of intuition, momentary building - from - nothing, or play - without beginning), one realises that all this precedes destruction. The remaining elements branch out. Shadows and reflections, though fragile, coagulate, superficially concealing rhythms’ vacancies, possibly in a futile attempt to maintain the previous pulse rate of the game, by mending its disintegrating compound-pendulum. Pawn promotion is only a semblance of new life with sustaining growth; a game grows cautiously, then flourishes in a frenzy - burning itself out. The scattered ashes mark the rejuvenation of ideas in games to come and the temporal frost of checkmate resembles the quiet grey of a Winter’s beginning, before the chessmen are packed into their box, hibernating in a huddle.


The spacio-temporal consequences of a piece’s departure are fairly drastic, as with the removal of any part from any mechanism. But, whereas comparisons with machines (a compilation of inanimate objects - interconnected components - assembled to perform a task) are very applicable when introducing mirror image, balanced play (i.e. straightforward spatial relationships without distortions), they stop when a piece exits the board. Machines either work inadequately or, usually, stop to function completely if a component is missing, having a limited ability to adapt to new situations because of the reliance - in both its assembly and operation - on fixed pre-set sequences. This rigidity makes them capable of change only within their own means. A single chess piece is equally as essential or vital as any integral constituent of a machine, yet the game continues to operate with the removal of just one or all of its pieces (except, of course, the king who cannot be captured).

     The former observations are a little laboured in order to properly distinguish the workings of a chess game. These are often imperceptible, or obscured by the different labyrinthine, opaque facades of rhythm; the magnetic flow - giving and taking of pieces - exists as a kind of membrane, covering the extremes between chess’s logical/sequentially rhythmic mechanics and its anomalous character, perfectly capable of modifying to the chaos of randomly injected, unquantifiable variables, i.e. unpredictable changes in magnetic force, balance and time patterns, from its theoretical ‘beginning’ to ‘end’.

     Expressed figuratively as, say, a genetic code, a chess game or cell is a synergy of two bases. One base is arranged in an invariable group, the other, forming a synthesis of randomly structured codons, causes the chromosome (space, time and magnetic-number) to waver: there is a simultaneous occurrence of ‘accretive insistently recurrent events’ (John Latham) and a non-linear/cyclic, unquantifiable rhythm where events happen as a result of subtraction. To simplify, up until the point where a piece is captured, events on a chessboard remain logical and basic, similar to a machine repetitiously going through its motions, when everything connects or relates together on one plane. The whole sum of its parts is instrumental in any movement. Check is the only malformation, yet it is easy to differentiate between its ‘neutral’ existence and the mode of operation during a game. However, the game becomes more natural when a capture or exchange takes place - a sort of amputation - displaying its versatility in continuing to function after ‘bits’ of it have been lost. Balance, time and magnetic flux accelerate about the mutated formation: the remaining pieces rapidly heal, compensate spatially for the sudden loss and lack of balance in movement as though they were white blood cells (leucocyte) attacking the bacterial infection of foreign space.          


Beginning, end and first move?


The ‘check and capture’ sequence reveals by helping to divide time from its space-time confines: this is a some/times inseparable and paradoxical relationship, “especially so” on the chessboard. Some evokes  an image/amount of something, a specific type or shape, a spatial concern; and times indicates an invisible reference point/passageway for past, present and future events to draw from. In Time and Free Will, Henri Bergson states: ‘To put duration in space is really to contradict oneself and place succession within simultaneity.’ (7)

     With this dissection, one understands that time constructions are more complex (elaborate), indiscernable, imbalanced and varied than spatial configurations.

     These enthralling and diverse time-shapes/’happenings’ make theoretical notions of a beginning, end and first move seem overtly simple and absurd. Incidentally, the very nature of White moving first is a huge space-time imbalance - a professional player, with White, is expected to win - as the game is beginning to play ‘itself’ out of existence.


Theoretically, the single first move made by White, in modern chess, begins the game and checkmate ends it, with no subsequent event (e.g. a player’s failure to stop the clock) altering the result. Try telling the simultaneous chess player this, who, in practice, will theoretically almost end some games whilst just-off the point of starting others.

     Practically, the beginning could be comprehended in several moments: as the setting out of the pieces to their respective squares; starting the clock; the time before any piece has been moved or the moment just after White’s move; when both sides have moved; a development of the active pieces; an interruption of set theory; the movement of every piece; the first administered check or attack; a king’s initial move; castling; the loss or capture of a piece or pieces; the start and/or break of mirror image or balanced play or any rhythmic discordance/synchronizaton; even the moment of an amassed energy field rotating around a significant point/square (like the previously mentioned f6); stalemate and checkmate one might even comprehend as the beginning.

     Thinking broadly, there is surely no beginning for the truly involved expert players, as inevitably, they will continuously encounter the same group of top names circling the chess arena - so diluting the dramatic potential of the beginning - making the game, for them (not the spectator who revels in hype), just another monologue in the on going saga. Advocating checkmate as the start seems accurate  especially considering the grieving, checkmated recipient, eager to avenge the defeat. Checkmate as a beginning makes sense, because the king, obliged to move under check, but with no free squares surrounding, is left suspended in time and space - subsequently existing in a transcendental stasis, paralysed by the tumultuous hounding of the opponent’s chessmen and yet concurrently alleviated by the consequential, absolute absence of space and time movement options. In effect, the king is having a nervous breakdown: in a split-second play achieves, first, that pinnacle of evasiveness, ambiguity (one of atmospheric rhythm and its object/character meaning) as well as concealment. Also in rapid succession, checkmate willingly reveals, plays out a type of frozen total honesty (reminiscent of the novice’s innocence in mimicry). The revulsionary point at which a lie cannot be held in anymore, where the individual bares their soul to all, a complete and utter admission of the situation - this too is enacted as the beginning, as checkmate. Game begins at the realisation of match trial.

     Any break-down triggers the growth of new life and symbolises a beginning. With this in mind, the paradoxical and erroneous ‘commonsense’ notion of a theoretical beginning actually ‘being’ the beginning, seems significantly more obvious. There is no ‘theoretical beginning’: the game has theoretically begun even before White’s first move. The “first move” has already been made by the board and the initial array of pieces arranged on it:


i.      sixty four alternately coloured squares exist in eight rows of eight. In Chinese and Korean chess,  the pieces are placed on intersections of a 10x9 board, and Shogi (Japanese chess - the ‘Generals Game’ -  believed to be derived from two forms of chess received from China and Korea, one AD c.800 and the other between about 1000 and 1200) (8) utilizes a 9x9 board. Over time, the chessboard spatially updates, changes and improves its design across continents - a Rubik cube reshuffling - as if in each landmass sector the individual squares have played themselves into the chessboards configuration, imitating the feeling of the land. The ‘squares’ are currently amidst a game of their own, so in playing a game on a chessboard, the participants are simply joining-in; players beginning and ending nothing but, most probably, an outlet for the symbolic play of repressed emotions, or the drives of struggle and competitiveness.

           In reality, both the object-board and two dimensional depictions have a border surrounding the squares. This is for practical considerations and the aesthetics of framing, neatly, the squares of deliberation and serious pondering. Such a border highlights them, allowing us to meditate upon  their symbolism. Reflecting the human’s habitual tendency to categorize objects of beauty by enclosing, usually in a linear fashion - ‘…Je suis tout droit les moulures qui suivent tout droit le plafond’ (I follow the line of the mouldings which follow that of the ceiling) (9) - in order to expose or to display. The edge also acts as a metaphorical gateway for entering and exiting chessmen, symbolising the occurrence of past and future events by marking its spatial territory.

              Coinciding with this peripheral order that the fringe provides, the onlooker will also subconsciously superimpose an imaginary grid over the chessboard - juxtaposing the lines with the smaller squares’ perceived edges - attempting to simplify visually the semi-illusion. Illusionary, because on a theoretical basis, no lines are present (analogous to a circle’s equiangular properties: right angles do not transpire, regardless of however infinitesimally detailed the exploration) on a chessboard, the square is seen as a whole - a stepping stone - rather than four equal length lines joining at their ends, creating four right angles. Looking at a chessboard, for a while, is like experiencing the reverse optical procedure and effect of a magic-eye composition. It ‘appears’ at one of the most basic levels of visual deception and intrigue.

                 The chequered board is a European invention (dating from at least the 11th century) (10), expanding the game’s variety with the evolution of new pieces (Q and B) that utilize the longrange diagonals: beforehand the set-up was linear.


ii.    thirty two squares become occupied (this is a move in itself).


iii.    the four rooks placed on the corner squares castle all of the pieces, acting as turrets or flags which mark the boundary - signalling a game in occurrence.


iv.    the king, automatically, becomes unconventionally castled; cornered by his queen and bishop.


v.    each piece directly faces its equivalent, instigating mirror image rhythm from a standstill.


vi. every back ranked piece - except the rooks - is defended by its adjoining neighbour: the kings and queens being the only pieces to both defend and be defended (eight active pieces defend and the remaining eight are protected).


vii.   every pawn is defended, i.e. protected by a superior valued piece on the back rank (the a, b, c, f, g and h-pawns once, and d and e four times).


viii. eight unoccupied squares - in front of the pawns - are controlled by each side (files b, d, e and g  covered twice by pawns; a and h by both knight and pawn; c and f  by two pawns each and once by the knights; eighteen claims on eight squares). These controlled, unoccupied squares (rows 3 and 6), therefore, are more active than the passive ones in rows 4 and 5.


ix.     thirty two squares are free: to be free implies a previous occupation. “Free squares” are not at all timeless as the theoretical first move would have us believe. The last games activities will directly influence the present, destroying the theoretical ideal that a “new game” implies virginal space - as if the two poles (Black and White) have never before attempted to converge, hellishly branding firey imprints into the hide of the chessboard, indefinitely scorching the idea of future pureness.

              Heinous amounts of set theory also obliterate the notion of a fresh, new start: scores of mathematical calculations unravel into the lap of the pieces, existing above and beyond and regardless of a player’s comprehension. History has made White’s first move. The chessboard is as much a palimpsest as any canvas-bound painting.


Beginning, end, first move… forgive and forget the insignificance, pretence and confused elucidations of social order - mere superficial obstacles - intruding upon chess’s intricate matrix. These darken an absolute true image of itself, its ‘being’ - in absorbing the happening flow, whilst neglecting the object or its tangible matter. We must surpass the linear explications of the absurd identity of a beginning.

     Chess’s entrails are amorphous entities, too vague to discern anything beyond a rough and basic spatial-temporal picture. Indistinctable due to an influx of ‘unquantifiable states’ flicking phenomena from one scene to the next. Play is always shifting - a flowing landscape - as perceptions undulate. Wisps of wasted ideas melt with constructed/destroyed configurations. Time’s ‘being’ is hard to pin-point or gain a fix on. That is to say, it is as if its substance becomes segmented, dangling freely from the dimensions of existence’s mobile. Ideas and images are not without form; the shapes themselves are shapeless as one embarks on a phantasmal merry-go-round - a medley of cacophonous colours blot subjectivity’s link with perception. A player becomes a kind of Gulliver on his travels (a good player is continuously improvising). Feelings of the present ebb as causal chasms and contractions warp time consciousness: As Emmanuel Levinas elucidates:


         Nothing could annul the inscription in existence which commits the present. The cup of existence is drunk to the dregs, is drained, nothing is left over for the morrow. All the acuteness of the present is due to its engagement in being, without reserve and as it were disconsolate. There is nothing more to accomplish, there is no more distance to cross; the instant will vanish… (conclusion); We do not have a present; it slips between our fingers. Yet it is in the present that we are and can have a past and a future. This paradox of the present - all and nothing - is an old human thought. (11)


A game may read logically, in hindsight, but being in it, immersed and tangled amongst the jungle of text, the pages eject from their binding - levitating - curl and crimple to rays of thought. Games sink and sponge unwanted powers and rhythms. Players spiral in tune - spellbound by the opponent’s spaciotemporal current. Play sprays and gushes into the veil of air through (the unavoidable ‘rhythm of the space-time continuum’), an irrevocable opening or blowhole - like a whale expelling water to breathe. The molecules settle cohesively on the surface. Fingers break the film of ink like periscopic tentacles looking for danger, a blunder, something unforeseen - the future. This is the condition of play, of reading, of sense-making.

     Things are murky in the memory. Gaseous bubbles of ambiguity burst everywhere, vacillatingly, transmuting to solid, then to liquid states as each square or room’s thoughts fluctuates in pressure. The ‘pieces’ of furniture ignite and burn-off the oxygen of imagination at altering rates. They create a concoction or cauldron of toxic emissions, a soup smouldering of wood, plastic, synthetic fibres. We are enacting and representing an allegorical ‘hide-and-seek’, with ‘fatal’ consequences. Doors are on the ceiling hanging off loose hinges, crumbling walls oscillate and skeletal constructions bare witness to the erosive (make then break) cycles - palimpsests - encompassing the play of the chessboard, charred by destruction for its own sake, as we play out the end.

     There is a form of imaginary perpetual motion, a game burns ‘like the mines of sulphur’ (12). It is an enacted composition of fire’s varied melodies - flames erupt and fizzle-out, objects - power symbols - spontaneously combust, a move’s embers sizzle. Abrasive heat is contained within a unit (a cube of monitored mayhem). Play is an orchestral pit or furnace of ritual abuse (the fruition of one’s imagination in the knowledge of its forthcoming demolishment), a playground for arsonists.

     The pulling apart of one’s creations does not depress and disappoint the child or the chess player. The entire game has been spent building then changing or dropping fragilely connected blocks of thought - smashing to smithereens - or having one’s opponent crush them for you. Drawing, painting or re-sculpting these object efforts to take pride, remember and expand on the achievement, does not tally or go hand-in-hand within the realms of the chess mind. The child has ‘lived’ - played-out - and been the moment and that is enough to satisfy. Such architecture, a direct, literal documentation of something previously thought-up - already engineered in one way - seems an unnecessary, elevating next step to the chess player. After-all, there is always tomorrow. Maybe Duchamp simply got fed-up with making actual objects - preferring to craft objects of imagination.  

     Why (thinks/believes the chess player) place obstacles in the way - “put a spanner in the works” - of a clear path, unless the intention is to question the workings of the machine?


…whereas in many intellectual processes the mind is assisted by conceptual methods i.e. by abstract ideas - in the mental activity which is Chess such assistance is at a minimum. Consequently in Chess the mind comes as near as possible to pure vision, to that spontaneous act of intuition which apprehends and controls processes and relationships without being forced to do so. (13)


     Also, chess is more level-headed than other ‘intellectual processes’. It stays on the ground pushing aside or declining the offer of interplay with external stimulants - foreign bodies or approaches - concentrating on what it is: happy being itself as that which burns freely. A player’s contentment lies within the self-satisfaction of discovering this system or school for containing haywire imaginations, a haven welcoming existential drifting thoughts.


Chess patterns, constructions and reflective emotions are just like fire; they all burn or live in a similar fashion. Play encapsulates the mind identically to fire fascinating the eyes. The pieces dance into free space filling the gaps, like the craving surges of flames into new bags or sacs of air at the very first given opportunity. Both sensitively respond and adapt to the type of fuel or thoughts laid upon them: the emitting colour mirrors genuinely the input properties.

     Fire is visually entertaining; the eyes lightly digest its splendour. They effortlessly engage, lock-into its mesmeric qualities; the flickers, discordant crackles, flames fluttering and swaying. Chess play identifies with this display or exhibition. Its ‘flow’ acts as though it were equally subservient and dependent upon (a kind of courtship) external fields of energy - pieces being pushed-around as if the board is orbiting a planetary system of variant moving charges.



The ashtapada board (an ancient Indian race game played with dice on an 8x8 board) was taken into use when proto-chess originated, and its Sanskrit name, meaning ‘having eight legs’ (14), is used for a spider, as well as for the board.

     This is the reason that sixty four squares are there. It is not to accommodate conveniently the movement requirements of the chessmen. Pieces - in play - do not groove thoughts into the board, they are inside and move within the maze.

     A chessboard’s format, therefore, has nothing to do with the will of the pieces, it actually represents the movement and vision of a jumping spider (Saticidae spiders - paramount amongst the active hunter - have four pairs of the largest eyes in the family, that is sixty four corneal lens in the eight compound eyes (the board).

     Figured thus, people in general, when looking at a game, do not know ‘what it is’ they are seeing. Maybe this is why the appeal and praxis in chess play is often misunderstood by both outsiders and the chess players themselves.

     The illusionary and apparent lack of visual stimulus turns most people off, as there is no obvious incentive to explore. But the ‘illusion (because it is an illusion) of passivity and calm as the normal state of the Chess player’s mind… is as superficial as the calmness on the surface of a waterfall’ (15). Consequently, the unknowing onlooker boringly and all too frequently misconstrues, then labels the game as purely intellectual, therefore exclusive - not to be touched unless clever - because its language or mode of expression seems archaic or outmoded and elitist. This is similar to most people’s false assumptions of Shakespearean plays; at the time, everyone was invited to laugh or cry, as with today’s cinemas.

     Chess has subsequently been driven towards the recesses of existential and logical thought. It has been made into an almost underground, schismatic religious activity - a “them and us” scenario - as though its interiority is a form of disability, instead of a mass alternative, silent means to communicate feelings: ‘…It is a sad means of expression though - somewhat like religious art - it is not very gay. If anything, it is a struggle.’ (Marcel Duchamp).

     And the chess player, too, equally misunderstands the ‘struggle’. Play is often seen as happening about an axis between conjectures of the present plateau (prophylaxis) and the future plateau (avoidance or overcoming of vanishing obstacles: puissance (16). Or, play is seen as an accumulative unbroken line or sequence which slackens with check’s time distortions and tightens, wraps-around and suffocates stranded obstacles. But this feeling of the pieces weaving an incessant string of time - an imaginary cat’s cradle with some knots and loose sections - is a deceptive one, as deceptive as a knight can be, en passant to a beginner. The time-string is frayed, entwined, cut and re-joined spasmodically by the playing process, i.e. it is about the search for, and impact of, an instant (the moments of re-configuration). For example, this is the event of a particular command amongst a string of variables - like a for/next loop - rather than a machine like series of instructions, from the opening gesture to the perceived penultimate-point (checkmate).

     A player’s mistaken view of things - the dualist reality of confrontational aspects of play - is logical and readily done. The mingling of ‘two extremities’, ‘the two poles’ is seen as the struggle. But it is just a facade that shelters the happening ‘struggle’ of univocal chessmen’s conjugation (both B and W) with the board’s spider-like, kaleidoscopic space. The homogeneity of these two main ambivalences of occurrence - which, obviously operate simultaneously - confuses the chess player, so they assume the game is powered by pieces mixing, not the reaction between the pieces and board. They fail to recognize the board and pieces as one ambivalent object, a polyvalent field of force, rhythm and flow.

     The mistake is easily made: one identifies and relates to the unique qualities of each piece. Their idiosyncracies or quirks can be ‘nurtured’ in play to resemble one’s own character, and the movement about its complex framework is taken for granted. Pieces act as a medium - a player believes, then becomes, ‘is’ part of the piece walking across the board and perceives the ground too literally, only seeing the surface as separate, ‘as a whole’, a flat, plain space. Consequently, the significance of a loss or gain is felt out of proportion to the importance of breaks in rhythm and balance. Subjectivity, in the particular form of personal ambition, overrides and fogs (obnubilates) visions of the exchange and alteration  procedure between pieces and board. And again, the ‘struggle’ of the player’s two opposed and different philosophies - separate intentions/languages - is muddled with the contrasting languages of both object (pieces) and the space/shapes in which they manoeuvre.


     Chessmen are the slaves of the chessboard, having a simple and honest language (even the knight, the exception, leaping, shifting, deceiving (forking), cannot stray from the course) that of being put in check and dependence upon the other pieces. Essentially, they fulfil a role, they “are coded; they have an internal nature and intrinsic properties, from which their movements, situations and confrontations derive. They have qualities; a knight remains a knight, a pawn a pawn, a bishop a bishop. Each is like a subject of the statement endowed with a relative power, and these relative powers combine in a subject of enunciation…” (17).

     In contrast, the chequered board has an entirely different language. Although it has become hackneyed, the adage, “never judge a book by its cover” is extremely applicable. Its honest and straightforward appearance masks or conceals a cryptic and deceptive nature, hiding the diverse (multilingual) time shapes it creates. Think of the chessboard as an extremely low resolution face of only sixty four pixels, preventing a detailed character description taking place. A simple alignment of squares seems the most sensible and logical, well-worked-out format, but it is a trick of speech. On closer examination, it means very little, i.e. its perceived job, to neutralize the complex piece interplay, has hardly anything to do with its origin. Such visual assumptions, plain sailing over the board, only skim the surface of its origin and meaning, which is as deep and unknown as the sea bed itself. The board’s first sight, well-turned significance is false, and mirrors the deliberately deceptive remarks on questionable being and nothingness from Iago, in Shakespeare’s Othello; ‘Were I the Moor, I would not be Iago’ (I. i. 57); ‘Men should be what they seem, Or those that be not, would they might seem none’ (III. iii. 130); and ‘He’s that he is; I may not breathe my censure, What he might be, if, as he might, he is not, I would to Heaven he were!’ (IV. i. 267).


To summarize, the tale of the board and pieces is that of Being and beings. In delving beyond the squares’ ‘wholeness’ play seems less fluid and palpable. Movement does not resemble an incredibly intricate dot-to-dot composition. On the contrary, imagined images of checks vague time puzzles (the chess rhizome which feeds the process of play) appear far more organic than the structure which houses

the pieces. This contrast breaks the magnetic ‘agenda’ or natural ‘flow of the pieces’ in intervening upon those frequent moments of piece linkage. Check ‘situations’, its motion, consequently exposes timeless corridors during play, isolating stagnant pieces making them vulnerable to being plucked from the board. The abandoned and stranded pawn, a symbol of rejection, is always slaughtered. Play often centres around the avoidance of these ‘anti-time’ pockets or recesses.

     In addition, the pieces countering resilience or magnetic resistance against their removal from the equation of play leaves perceptions of a games progressive sequence in doubt. In fact, the pieces link together so efficiently, attempting to prevent a loss of identity, that movement itself, on a chessboard, is in question. It is a kind of visual pun (i.e. accepting the verb move as meaning, to go or take from one place to another; change in location or position) because - when playing - some pieces are in the future, others the present and the one’s in the past begin to die (the loss of three tempi is equivalent to the loss of a pawn). Spaces are never free: every piece, essentially, remains static. (18)

1      M. de Certeau, The Practice Of Everyday Life (Berkeley/Los Angeles/London: University of California Press), trans. S. F. Rendall, p. 91.


2      Steinitz Defence, 1 e4 e5 2 Nf3 Nc6 3 Bb5 d6 4 d4 Bd7 5 Nc3 Nf6, in the Spanish Opening, practised by Steinitz in the 1890s. His idea was to disturb Black’s pawn formation as little as possible and to maintain the pawn at e5. The latter objective is seldom achieved: for example, to avoid the Tarrasch Trap (6 c3 d6 7 Re1 0-0; Black’s castling is an error which loses at least a pawn) Black must play 7 …exd4, still, however, with a playable game. Masters usually arrive at the

        Steinitz by transposition, e.g. 3 …Nf6 4 0-0 d6, avoiding the continuation 3 …d6 4 d4 Bd7 5 Nc3 Nf6 6 Bxc6 Bxc6 7 Qd3 when White threatens to gain advantage by castling on the queen’s-side.

             The defence, which stems from the Ruy Lopez, has never been popular, for Black gets a passive position with few chances of counter-play.

3      ‘ This aggressive queen sortie introduces what may be the quintessential Winawer line. White tries to show that Black has abandoned his kingside by ceding the king’s bishop, whereas the second player counts on his structural advantage and development to provide him counterchances. In the late forties and early fifties, 7. Qg4 was considered a complete answer to 5 …Bxc3+ and 6 …Ne7. As time went on, Black discovered resources which had the effect of making this (instead of e.g. 5 …Ba5) the main line. In the early sixties, and once more in the mid-seventies, theory again seemed to favour the White pieces, but there always seemed to be another way for Black to arrange his forces to advantage. Today the essential validity of 5 …Bxc3+ has been established… In subdued form, debate continues over the ultimate merits of White’s attack. But for now, 7. Qg4 has become relatively rare on the international scene.’


e4      e6

d4      d5

Nc3   Bb4

e5      c5

a3      Bxc3+

bxc3  Ne7

Qg4   Qc7

Qxg7 Rg

Qxh7 cxd4

        An extract from; J. L. Watson, Play the French (London/New York: Cadogan Books, 1994), p. 148.

4      H. Bergson, Time and Free Will (London: Redwood Press, 1910), trans. F. L. Pogson (London: George Allen and Unwin,1971) p. 140.


5      S. Gligoric, Fischer v Spassky / The Chess Match of the Century (Manchester: Fontana Books, 1972) p. 8.


6      prophylaxis, in chess, is a word used by Nimzowitsch to describe a strategic idea first exemplified by Phildor: the anticipation, prevention or determent of the opponent’s threats. The term is often limited to preventive moves, and Petrosyan (Tigran Vartanovich (1929-84), Soviet player, International Grandmaster (1952) and World Champion (1963-9)) was especially skilled at the manoeuvring behind the lines, preparing to parry any breakthrough contemplated by the opponent.


7      Bergson, Time and Free Will, p. 227.


8     D. Hooper and K. Whyld, The Oxford Companion to Chess (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 1996) p. 369.


9      G. Bachelard, La Poetique de l’espace (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1958), trans. M. Jolas (Boston, Mass.: Beacon Press, 1969) p. 144.


10    Hooper and Whyld, The Oxford Companion to Chess, p. 47-8.


11    E. Levinas, existence and existents (Netherlands: Matinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1978), trans. A. Lingis (Dordrecht/Boston/London: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1995), p. 77.


12    W. Shakespeare, Othello, The Moor of Venice (1604-5), III. iii. 334; The Works of William Shakespeare (Great Britain: Odhams Press, 1944) p. 838.


13    G. Abrahams, The Chess Mind (London: The English Universities Press, 1951) p. 15.


14    Hooper and Whyld, The Oxford Companion to Chess, p. 20.


15    Abrahams, The Chess Mind, p. 15.


16    puissance: inner strength, resolution/survival in overcoming or hurdling obstacles.


17    G. Deleuze and F. Guattari, Mille Plateaux, volume 2 of Capitalisme et Schizophrenie (Paris: Les Editions de Minuit,1980), trans. B. Massumi (London: The Athlone Press, 1988) p. 352.


18    Blindfold chess supports this notion because - during play - internal vision, in practice, exposes the relative insignificance of a pieces actual placement: to remember, a player recounts their digressive imaginings (subjective, almost fairy-tale responses) far more than the real proceedings. And each quasi-mini-story within a game, relates or positions itself from the ‘static’, perceived beginning array of pieces.

             The still beginning can be viewed as the only ‘real’ placement of the objects; chess problems start and end there, on the spot, and as play really takes-off, there is instantly ‘no solution because there is no problem’ (Duchamp).

             Samuel ‘Beckett envisaged a fascinating chess variant: not to move the pieces at all, but leave them in their initial positions. It was a strategy designed to avoid the final, fatal phase of the endgame, for pawns inevitably advance towards their doom. Do nothing, was his motto. Take the beginning and end of Waiting for Godot. The first sentence is “Nothing to be done”. And just before the curtain falls Vladimir says: “Well? Shall we go?” and Estragon: “Yes, let’s go” (They do not move)  (S. Beckett, Waiting for Godot in The Complete Dramatic Works (London/Boston: Faber and Faber, 1990) pp. 11, 88)’.

             Extract/Essay from B. Nauman catalogue (Hayward Gallery, 1998); Gijs van Tuyl, Human Condition/Human Body (Manchester: Conerhouse Publications, 1998) p. 61.             


(front cover illustration: painting by Pieter de Hooch, ‘The Courtyard of a House in Delft’ (1658), Oil on canvas, 73.5x60cm, The National Gallery, London).