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"On Chess": An Essay by Dan Taylor (Keywords: Games; Free Will; Spinoza; George Eliot)

old chess

Sweet lord, you play me false. (Miranda, in Shakespeare’s The Tempest)

In the last year, chess has grown enormously in popularity following the Netflix series The Queen’s Gambit. As our lives have been suspended in lockdowns, ill-health and uncertainty about the future, the chessboard has become a kind of refuge. A space of intelligibility governed by certain simple, causal rules and spatial parameters – two sides, thirty-two pieces, sixty-four squares, and a mere 10^120 possible moves.

Chess speaks of the dream of reason to master fate. Developed in 6th century India and Persia, perfected in the Islamic Golden Age, and a staple of European intellectual life from the courtly love of medieval knights to the Parisian café-tables of Jean-Paul Sartre and Marcel Duchamp, chess differed from other games like dice or backgammon in its emphasis on free will. Unlike the gambler who chances all on the roll of the die, a somewhat fatalistic resignation to life’s chaos and unexpected bounty, the chess-player ventures using nous and