What is wrong with the painting above? Can you tell me?
If you can, skip to the end of this article. If you can’t, then read on and all will eventually become clear…
I was about 22 when I first got bitten by the chess bug after a dear friend introduced me to the game. What followed was an obsessive five years of late night games, studying books and challenging players in Washington Square Park and the old Chess Shop on Thompson Street in Greenwich Village, may it rest in peace. I became obsessed with the games of Richard Reti and the genius opening that bears his name and stamp. It became, in large part, my life.
While I am not, in the absolute sense, that good, I am not, in the absolute sense, that bad. Likely I can beat you. You are welcome to try.
I played (and lost, repeatedly) against masters in tournaments and had the privilege of watching Garry Kasparov and Viswanathan Anand’s historic 8th consecutive draw to open the 1995 World Chess Championship. Kasparov played a Scotch Opening and they drew in 22 moves. I picked up a book on the Scandanavian Opening, which I still have, still love and still play.
That match took place at the top of the World Trade Center in Manhattan, a memory I certainly cherish doubly now.
In 2000, during a simultaneous match where he was playing dozens of players over the course of three hours at the Poughkeepsie Galleria, I managed a draw with Grandmaster Arthur Bisguier. It was the only draw of the day and the highlight of my life as a chess player. I burst through the door at home, screaming my triumph to my wife, then my girlfriend, who was home sick with a fever. She looked at me like I was gibbering in a dead language and went back to sleep.
It was also, I realized later when I played back through it, a game I could have won if I had not been so excited to get the draw and looked two moves deeper. It was no wonder he took the draw so quickly when I offered it to him the second time. The first time he refused. He had a rook hung on the outside of the board and I just didn’t see it. I couldn’t believe my good fortune with a 1/2-pointm let alone even considering I could beat him.
Would that I could go back. I still have the board and pieces I won that day, which he signed on square a2.
I can tell you that Anand is the current champion and that this November he will play the amazing, charismatic young Dane, Magnus Carlson, for the 2013 World Chess Championship in what will likely be the most followed chess championship since Bobby Fischer played Boris Spassky in the 1972 battle that changed the world.
Carlsen will win, by the way, and I will faithfully follow and replay every single game.
If you are a player, you know what I mean and you also know that there really is no other game besides chess.
Take your backgammon and Parcheesi, your Risk and Cataan, your blipping XBoxes and Playstations. When Caissa, the Goddess of Chess, lets you taste of the nectar of the greatest game ever conceived… Well… You’ll know what I mean.
Everything else is worthless in the face of 64 squares and 32 pieces and the infinite possibility they represent.
My journey through 20 years of pushing the wood has seen an ebb and flow in the amount of time I am able to dedicate to it. Obviously, having a full time job and a family has cut into the considerable hours I used to dedicate to the study of the game, but I still love it, I still play it when I can, I still study Grandmaster games when I have the time and I still follow the players at the top of the professional world.
Occasionally in my job I get a chance to indulge this passion – and not just by crushing any would-be players who want to sit across the board from me – when chess and collecting come into each other’s orbit.
Today was such a day.
In perusing the online catalog for Heritage’s Oct. 5-7 Estate and Gentleman’s Collector Auction I came across this (pictured above), Franco Minei’s (Italian, b. 1922) 1967 absurd/realist Chess Game. It’s not a great painting, but it is intriguing in that it’s subject matter is the greatest game ever invented and that it shows a game in progress. Being naturally curious, I clicked to it, downloaded a hi-res image and quickly brought it up so I could study the board.
Take a close-up look yourself right now and tell me if you notice anything?
Chess is about balance and tactics, about using pieces in combination to attack, to control territory and put your opponent in zugzwang - a great name for a band, I always thought. Without the balance then the game is entropy, over, kaput. I cannot abide by a messy board, or a board that is frozen in an ending position. Nor can I stand a board with pieces set up, but not in motion. Either play, or do not play, otherwise put the pieces away.
Look closely. What is wrong?
Oh Fine Art, you cruel trickster…
The board has 56 squares; it is short a row and is turned the wrong way. In the lower right hand corner of the board you can see that the knight and what appears to be a bishop, are sharing a square. Just caddy-corner to that, two white pawns share another black square.
Likely you do not care, but I can tell you this: from a player’s perspective, this is maddening.
The position looks muddied and unclear, except to say that it appears to be White’s move, that his knight is en pris in the center of the board and that he better move it or lose it. Why black is attacking, I cannot say, as it seems that he has a very cramped position in his own corner of the board.
I can’t look at this painting anymore.
Either Minei never played the game and was just painting to paint, or he was ever the absurdist and painted it deceptively as a metaphor for life, or to see if any of his buddies that played the game would be as driven crazy by it as I am, 46 years after its creation.
I know Mr. Minei is still alive, and 92, so perhaps he will see this and maybe let me in on the secret.
Perhaps he will not and I will go to my grave wondering about the meaning of this somewhat obscure painting.
I will content myself in the meantime with some of the other chess lots that come through here, and I will ever be on the lookout for that true masterpiece, that depiction of the game that shows a real game in a real position. Now that is what I would call fine art.
In the meantime, I think I’m going to get my board out. For some reason I have an itch to play.