How To Do Chess with Words
Is chess better than art?
My older brother, the writer Luis Ignacio Helguera (1962-2003), was very fond of chess. His naturally analytical mind made him a strong player— at some point he got close to rank as a national Master— and I imagine he could have pursued chess professionally had he not embraced literature and music instead. An early recollection of mine is going with him to the Club de Ajedrez El Alfil Negro (The Black Bishop), a chess club in Mexico City where he took classes with Enrique Palos Báez — a shy, smiling and soft-spoken man whose, and his traditional black attire, along with the small cell-like place (did he live at the club?) where he would receive us made him look like a monk —or perhaps a black-clad friar, evoking the name of the club.
I would also frequently accompany Nacho on Saturdays to see him teach chess at Casa del Lago in Chapultepec Park and learned quite a bit about the game. I was never a great player, although I did once win a children’s tournament and, on another occasion, as an 11 or 12 year-old, I defeated my uncle the poet Eduardo Lizalde at a family party— he thought he was going to win easily and was distracted in conversation, listening to opera and drinking while I was laser-focused on the game. It was a small tortoise-and-hare moment for me.
I learned chess from Nacho in the same way that I learned from him about literature and music. We would organize imaginary chess tournaments with players that included top Grand Masters, contemporary and historical (Karpov, Korchnoi, Capablanca, Lasker, Spassky, Fischer) authors Nacho was fond of (Chejov) and even made-up terrible players (Tontocho Chávez) which was hilarious to see defeated. Most fun and important was that we did round-robin tournaments (where all participants play against each other) and Nacho had the incredible ability to modify his game playing style depending on the imaginary player— some kind of heteronym playing. These, in retrospect, were my first experiences with performance.
When I gravitated toward the visual arts I became keenly aware of the chess connections with 20th century art, particularly surrealism and most centrally, and logically, Duchamp. In fact, one of the first reproductions of a work by Duchamp that I happened to see as a teenager was his “Pocket Chess Set” from 1943. The serially made object, of which one example is at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, fascinated me because I thought it was a mysterious conceptual art project. In reality (unbeknownst to me at the time) this was an actual commercial product that Duchamp developed but did not manage to sell, even though he tried to promote it. “He ended up giving most of them away to friends”, Francis Naumann, the revered Duchamp expert, told me.
When chess is colloquially referenced in mainstream press, it is often done to describe complex situations in politics, diplomacy, and warfare, particularly using the phrase “three-dimensional chess” (the variation of three-dimensional chess, which consists in expanding the regular chess board into several in a multi-level game with much greater complexity, was developed in 1851 by Lionel Kieseritzky, a German grand master, also termed “Kubikschach” (cube chess). This was followed by Raumschach (space chess), developed again in Germany, this time by doctor Ferdinand Maack). A few artists have made works that turn the idea of chess as warfare on its head. Yoko Ono, for instance, created White Chess Set (1966) where all the pieces in the game are white, confusing the players but also making a larger point about the artificiality of national, ethnic and religious distinctions that generally produce confrontation and conflict.
In 2004, a year after Nacho tragically passed away, Luigi Amara — a Mexican writer and a mutual friend of ours— told me that he and his partner Vivian Abenshushan were starting an editorial imprint named Tumbona and wanted to know if I would write a small book about contemporary art. I thus wrote my first book, The Pablo Helguera Manual of Contemporary Art Style, which is a satirical social etiquette manual for the art world. I started the book by doing a little institutional critique metaphor, comparing the art world (AW) to a chess game, where queens are collectors or museum trustees (most powerful piece in the game), museum directors are kings (all-powerful but powerless when alone), bishops are critics (the moral authority in the game), knights are dealers (who travel far), rooks are curators (strong pillars of the system but lacking great flexibility) and of course the pawns were the artists. I was surprised on how the art world embraced this metaphor. Only recently I brought it back to present a chess-artworld telenovela in Buenos Aires, titled Metadrama.
In retrospect, and now that I recently have been thinking about chess again — not least because it is the 20th anniversary of Nacho’s passing— what I missed in running with this artworld/chess metaphor over the years, was that I literally bought into the mainstream —perhaps too cynical—notion that chess is only about cold strategy. While strategy is certainly central to chess, the truth is that chess culture is far richer and much more intertwined with thought and creativity than it is given credit for.
Duchamp is a prime example: chess not only figured in his art, but it was also inseparable from his life (he also shared the interest of chess with his brothers, Raymond Duchamp-Villon and Jacques Villon). As early as 1923 Duchamp had already refocused his attention from art and would spend most of his time playing chess— becoming in fact a very accomplished player, gaining the title of Master. He nonetheless retained relationships with artists and often played chess with them, such as Man Ray at the beginning and, many years, later, John Cage, with whom he played a game/concert in 1968 titled “Reunion” where the movement of the pieces triggered musical sounds (Cage was reportedly taught to play by Duchamp himself).
Duchamp once said: “I am still a victim of chess— it has all the beauty of art —and much more. It cannot be commercialized. Chess is much purer than art in its social position.” And when I asked Naumann about his favorite Duchamp/chess anecdote, he replied: “ It’s not really an anecdote, but what Duchamp said about chess in an address he delivered to the New York State Chess Association in August of 1952: ‘Objectively, a game of chess looks very much like a pen-and-ink drawing, with the difference, however, that the chess player paints with black-and-white forms already prepared instead of inventing forms as does the artist. . . From my close contact with artists and chess players, I have come to the personal conclusion that while all artists are not chess players, all chess players are artists.’”
What that made me think about, going back to Nacho and his relationship to chess, was that the game was not that interesting to him competitively; rather, he enjoyed it most as a platform for conversation. In a way, the process of playing chess was an opportunity to develop metaphors, crack jokes, and primarily bond with others. Like other forms of play, it offers a chance to create a temporary alternative, shared world; yet in chess the fact that two people are sitting in front of each other lends itself naturally to have the art of conversation become the primary medium to build and strengthen those bonds. One of Nacho’s texts titled Partida Hablada (Spoken Match), written in 1996, is an interview —while playing chess— with author Juan José Arreola, considered one of the best Mexican short story writers of the 20th century. Arreola changed Mexican literature with his 1952 book Confabulario and continued writing until about 1976. Then, in an interesting (yet very different) artistic parallel to Duchamp, he stopped publishing and turned his attention to chess. His art became, instead of writing, the performative spoken word. Arreola often appeared on television, and playing chess was an ideal platform to hold forth.
What I find striking about stories like these of artists “retiring” into chess (which are by no means the only examples) is that chess can be so gratifying that in some cases artists might not even feel the urge to go back to making art—or going even further: the poetic performativity of the game of chess is, as Duchamp suggests, already an artwork that can exist to be shared only between those playing. I don’t know if Duchamp truly felt the urge to go back to art making (although we do know that he still worked secretly on Étant donnés during his supposed retirement from art), but in a contemporary art world where the whole idea of an artist retiring seems almost unthinkable (and unworkable, if you think of the cases of Maurizio Cattelan and Paul Chan, both whom at times also declared that they were “retiring” from art but couldn’t, really), these cases are even the more notable, and the fulfillment offered by chess appears key. As we all know chess is not a typical sport in that one needs to flex physical muscle, but the mind— something that is closer to the craft of a conceptual artist and/or a writer.
But most importantly, and it beyond being a sport or an art, beyond being about cold strategy or not, chess is about conversation and engagement in one another. As I recent uploaded a chess app on my phone and have been playing occasionally while on the subway or other such moments, the basic chess openings, gambits, and other moves start coming back and before I know it I am immersed —and I feel that I am in conversation with Nacho again.