Solitude & Chess : Developing New Perspectives

When I first received an email from Solitude regarding the Schlossghost yearbook, I was thrilled! Thrilled because I thoroughly loved my experience at Solitude, and was excited at the prospect of being a part of the yearbook. However my excitement was short-lived, as I soon came to the part on the »topic.« I felt it was something only the »artists« in the true sense of the word could contribute to, while I, being a professional chess player, would have absolutely nothing to offer in this regard. I mean, how is chess »political« in any way ? Isn’t it a sport? Men have even termed it a war, a psychological duel with your opponent, to the extent of describing the game as a means to crush the opponent’s ego. Even though I do not share such aggressive views regarding my beloved profession, I must confess that I have always seen chess primarily as a sport, to a large extent a matter of study, and lastly to some extent an art – in that order.

So, with great regret I informed Paula about how I would be »unable to contribute anything substantial this year« and »would look forward to contributing something in the future toward a more ›relatable‹ topic.« To my great surprise however, Paula asked me to rethink. Maybe I was only looking at it with a one-sided, closed perspective? So I started to think about these two questions more seriously.

Would you say that your (artistic) practice is political?

Every time I thought over the first question, the answer was always a no. How can chess be political? Chess is something like meditation to me. It brings me peace. When I work on chess, it leaves me enlightened. For as long as I can remember I have been fiercely competitive about chess. As I grew up, in addition to the competitive mindset, I started becoming a student of chess. I still am and will always remain one. Even though I want to achieve several heights in my chess career, I do not work on chess with the singleminded aim of achieving something. For me, the ability to work on chess on an everyday basis with determination and sincerity is an achievement in itself. The ability to simply be a professional chess player is an achievement in itself. Then how can I look at it from a »political« perspective? How is it even an »artistic practice?« Sure, chess also involves creating something and expressing oneself. But can something about winning and losing come under art? It was all too confusing.

So I decided to ponder the second question, and then come back to the first one.

If so, how would you describe its political dimension?

Giving some thought to it, I in fact realized chess has many political dimensions to it, in different ways. Chess has always been described as a game for kings and queens. Every time I attend the closing ceremony of a tournament, the guest of honor, usually a political leader or a state minister, never fails to point out the similarities between chess and politics! The game by itself is a representation of a war between two armies, the pieces being the king, queen, rook (elephant), bishop (camel), knight (horse) and pawns (soldiers) and the aim of the game being to corner or »checkmate« the opponent’s king.

Chess was first developed in India – known as Chaturanga back then. It then travelled to Persia. After the Arabic conquest of Persia, chess spread into the Muslim World. Via Persia, it also traveled to Spain, then Europe, Western Europe, Russia, and so on. So in fact political conquests and trade helped the game spread and evolve, just like everything else.

The spread of chess in ancient times, with local names for chess in each country.

One interesting aspect of this difference in culture of various countries can be seen in the playing styles of various chess players. Over the years I have observed that one’s personality is reflected in one’s playing style. Even if a player is able to handle all types of positions in chess, he will always have certain strengths – his kind of positions. In fact it is common knowledge that chess players from a particular region or country have similar playing styles. This is not surprising as the top players or coaches of a particular region have a huge influence on the next generation of players from that region. This, in addition to one’s personality, shapes your playing style. We all know that our personality is shaped by our learning, environment, and experiences. Therefore, it is natural that the political, economic, and social atmosphere in your region will have a certain influence on your thoughts, and hence on your chess too. For example, players from India are natural fighters. It reflects the street-smartness Indians exude in their everyday life, because here opportunities are few while contenders are many, compared to the more economically advanced nations. We are used to imbalances in everyday life, which is reflected in our chess through our natural ability to handle dynamics. On the other hand, players from the United States are never afraid to take risks and play some sharp chess, just like the way they are not afraid to quit college and start something on their own and become billionaires ☺.

Looking at the world through 64 squares: chess styles in the chess superpower regions.

(I apologize to the African and Australian continents for not marking any particular attributes to them. I believe they are still developing in terms of chess strength )

Thus we see that knowing where a person is from can give you a huge amount of information regarding his game. Of course, this is something I have noticed only after having played chess for many years, having traveled a bit, playing in international tournaments and having interacted with different kinds of people. To be able to understand something about a person from his game is a discovery that has startled me as a person.

This point is truly making me rethink the first question. After all, my chess style is indeed a result of a strong political and social influence. But then, isn’t that the case with everything ? So does this mean ALL our work is political in nature, whether we accept it or not ?

Coming to my third and most important perspective on chess, one which helped me draw some conclusions regarding the main topic:

At the moment I am in Prague, preparing for the most awaited tournament of the year, The Chess Olympiad 2016. It will be held in Baku in September. Chess being a professional sport, we have open as well as official tournaments in chess, and unlike boxing, and just like tennis, we can participate in both these type of events. Every year I participate in a lot of tournaments of both types. All are important, though some are more important than the others. The official events like the Asian or World Championships are in fact special, because you are directly representing your country. But the Olympiad – it is above everything else. It is a dream. It is the tournament I work for.

The Chess Olympiad is held every two years, and two years in advance I note the venue, my ranking, and my target ranking, in order to make it to the Olympiad team. It is the one tournament for which I keep working, telling myself to get fitter, stronger, and calmer. Visualizing myself on the podium with my team and winning a medal for my country at the Olympiad motivates me. It gives me goosebumps at the same time.

Because the weight of an Olympic medal can lift the value of an entire nation.

Imagine a world without any political influence. Without borders. Would I have still played chess the same way?

I definitely play chess for the love of it. But my motivation level goes much higher while representing my country in these official events. Definitely, I would have still played chess, but there is a high chance that my playing style and influences would have been completely different had I come from somewhere else. And definitely, had there been no political influences of one country over another, chess would not have flourished or spread as widely as it is today.

Thus, pondering the second question, I got clarity on the first.

Political conditions have definitely influenced my work and they will continue doing so. In a healthy and progressive manner. My work remains a meditation, a source of peace to me, like home-cooked lentils with rice. The political dimension adds an Indian flavor to it, giving it character.

Sources :


Soumya Swaminathan

Chess Woman Grandmaster


05/08/2016, Prague, Czech Republic.