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The language of chess

There are many things that appeal to me about chess, and perhaps in some future post I’ll list them all, but one of the most important is the way that it creates a whole new sophisticated language, with inflection and shades of meaning, that doesn’t map to English (or whatever human language you care to choose) at all.

Music is the most obvious other abstract system like this. Music has a whole theory of meaning and communication, of what the composer is “saying” to the listener over the course of a piece, whether that is setting up expectations and fulfilling or dashing them, or getting a reaction out of a unexpectedly piquant chord or melodic leap or rhythmic displacement or what have you. There are a few obvious correlations to “actual” semantic meaning (major is happy! minor is sad! fast is exciting!) but largely music remains an abstract closed system. It mostly doesn’t refer to anything outside of itself (tone poems aside), and although it can be analyzed and frequently is, it has to be analyzed on its own terms, and not by “translating” it; it has some sort of “meaning” in the same way that English sentences have meaning, but there’s no mapping between the two spheres. (If you’re interested in this sort of thing, I highly recommend Leonard Meyer’s Emotion and Meaning in Music.)

Anyway, this post is supposedly about chess, not music. My point is that chess games and positions also carry some sort of untranslatable-to-language abstract semantic content, and that the richness of this content and the fact that it has no linguistic analog is one of the things that makes chess so aesthetically appealing to its devotees.

It’s so abstract it’s hard for me to put into words, but a chess enthusiast gets a certain feeling when he or she glances at a board and sees an open position as opposed to a closed or semi-closed one; or looks at possible pawn breaks; or notices that one player has sacked material for the initiative; or sees a fianchettoed bishop, or the possibility of a standard Bxh7+ sac, or a “bone-in-the-throat” pawn on e6, or Alekhine’s gun lined up, or a good vs bad bishop, or… I could name dozens of these, but the point is that they are supremely meaningful to me (in that they literally have meaning) and probably mean nothing to you. Not everything about chess always appeals to me — the competitive aspects, the need to calculate extremely accurately and to memorize openings and endgame techniques — but I will never tire of this aesthetic aspect of it.

(As I was writing this, I found an interesting attempt to make connections between two of these “languages”: Haskell Small’s “A Game of Go”, a musical accompaniment to a classic game of Go (about which I could say many of the same things). It’s a really cool idea, although it doesn’t get much past some basic correspondences (ko fights are tense! things wind down in the endgame!). I suppose that if it had been easier to make one-to-one correspondences between Go and music, my whole point that they are interesting and unique complex systems would have been undermined.)