'The game of chess,"wrote the American statesman Benjamin Franklin in 1779, "is not merely an idle amusement.
Several very valuable qualities of the mind, useful in the course of human life, are to be acquired or strengthened by it." Along with Foresight, Circumspection and Caution, he mentions "the habit of hoping for a favourable change, and that of persevering in the search of resources". Players of friendly games are advised to "moderate your desire of victory over your adversary, and be pleased with one over yourself ".
Today, one can find similar advice in many self-help books. Franklin's claim that chess is character-building as well as good mental training has just been taken up by former World Champion Garry Kasparov in How Life Imitates Chess (Heinemann, [pound]20). This is a typically trenchant guide to business and life, full of sharp anecdotes, suggestions about knowing oneself and overcoming weaknesses, and some notably generous tributes to his great predecessors and rivals.
Kasparov is charismatic, worldly and optimistic - his latest plan is to use what he has learned from chess to bring genuine democracy to Putin's Russia - yet it was his defeat by IBM's supercomputer Deep Blue in 1997 that marked the sad end of the battle for chess supremacy between man and machine. This has a long history. Way back in the 1770s, an Austro-Hungarian baron, Wolfgang von Kempelen, toured Europe with a chess-playing automaton called the Mechanical Turk - although it actually contained a dwarf hidden within a secret compartment. The German novelist Robert Lohr has used the basic facts to create a wonderful bestselling romp, just translated as The Secrets of the Chess Machine (Fig Tree, [pound]16.99), full of intrigue, betrayal, violence, chases, sexual tensions and unexpected encounters. Lohr gives Kempelen a Jewish craftsman as his assistant, so the Turk becomes a unique phenomenon, "a Mohammedan with a Christian brain and a Jewish soul". Along with its exuberant plotting, the book captures well the fears, anxieties and theological doubts the Age of Enlightenment harboured about freaks, automata and the game of chess itself.
Despite its symbolic richness, at first sight chess seems to have little cinematic potential. Nothing important is at stake, few can understand the subtleties of grandmaster play, and it must be the world's dullest spectator sport. What could be less interesting than watching two dysfunctional guys staring at each other for hours? Games tend to take place in silent, cheerless surroundings, and lack both the tense gentility of bridge and the lawless frontier spirit of poker.
Yet despite chess's rarefied appeal, even the basic rules take one into a strange world. What kind of medieval matriarchy or infantile fantasy is evoked by a cast of nishops, knights and castles, where the queen is so much more powerful than the king? The knight returning from the Crusades in Ingmar Bergman's film The Seventh Seal (1957) gets challenged by Death to a game of chess. Despite the portentous, plague-ridden setting, he tries the old coffee-house trick of "accidentally" knocking over some of the pieces when he realises he's losing. All-seeing Death, of course, has no difficulty reconstructing the position and claiming the Knight's life.
Bergman exploited the obvious medievalism of chess, but the game has equally strong links with the central European cafe society destroyed by the Nazis, and with the Cold War. As James Bond was once warned: "These Russians are great chess players. When they want to execute a plot, they execute it brilliantly." What brought chess to real prominence, however, was Bobby Fischer's victory over Boris Spassky in the World Championship of 1972. (When the petulant Fischer tried to pull out, Kissinger stepped in to tell him to do his patriotic duty.) Yet the compelling image of the lone American pitted against the ruthlessly efficient "Soviet chess machine" was largely fantasy: Fischer was not a rugged individualist so much as a complete loony, while the "machine" was so bureaucratic that Spassky had great difficulty even with essential preparation like getting American chess magazines translated into Russian. …