© 2023 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

On Chess: Memoirs of a chess square

Tom Hackney, Chess Painting No. 71, (Marcel Duchamp vs. E.H. Smith, Hyéres, 1928), 2016, Gesso on linen, oak frame 16 ½ x 16 ½ in.
Courtesy of Francis M. Naumann Fine Art, New York

At the beginning of many prestigious chess tournaments, players sign their name on particular light squares of commemorative chessboards, often with no intent beyond the thought, “On which square will my signature appear most elegant?” or, “Which square is left to sign?” And yet, specific squares hold so many memories of sacrifices both successful and failed as well as nightmares of a sacrifice or in-between move.

This makes the question, “What’s your favorite square?” far more pertinent than the query frequently asked by journalists who don’t play chess: “What’s your favorite piece?”

I first saw Tom Hackney’s chess paintings in the exhibit The Knight Turns Its Head and Laughs, at Greenwich University in London in 2011. The show included only a few chess paintings. Over traditional pub food by the Thames, Hackney told me that he uses the moves of a chess game to “generate form, whereby that form is encoded.”

Greenwich is known for being where Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) is calculated. Fitting with that fact, while time is a crucial element in the chess game itself, we record the game to make it timeless. You can fit the entirety of a chess game in a small space using algebraic or descriptive notation, but reading it without a chessboard takes years of practice. And thus Hackney condenses timeless battles in his paintings, where you can choose to take in the contours of a battle in a glance, or look deeply to understand it more fully.

One of Hackney’s works, Chess Painting No. 71 (Marcel Duchamp vs. E.H. Smith, Hyéres, 1928), 2016, is inspired by a game I know well.

In Naked Chess (2009), a video installation I created with Daniel Meirom, we reversed the iconic image of Marcel Duchamp playing against a nude woman, artist and author Eve Babitz, at the opening of Duchamp’s 1963 retrospective at the Pasadena Museum of Art. Using a chess set in which the pieces were carved nude figures, I played against a young naked man. This work was featured in the World Chess Hall of Fame’s show, Ladies’ Knight: A Female Perspective on Chess. We used the game Marcel Duchamp – E.H. Smith as a text for the piece, which Hackney also used for one of his chess paintings.

The most memorable squares in this game are d6 and e5. D6 is the location of lovely exchange sacrifice, in which Duchamp gives up a rook for a bishop.

In Hackney’s piece, one can see how the exchanges on d6 are reflected in the dual-colored square.

E5 is layered with multiple paths, including the dominating final position, in which the queen moves to the central square with devastating effect. Position after 19. ... g6 Final position.

Naked Chess by Jennifer Shahade references a 1963 photograph of artist/chess player Marcel Duchamp playing against a nude woman.
Credit Jennifer Shahade and Daniel Meirom
Naked Chess by Jennifer Shahade references a 1963 photograph of artist/chess player Marcel Duchamp playing against a nude woman.

In my video installation, we imagined the position beyond the actual finale, where Smith resigned. I presumed that my opponent would allow me to use my queen to deliver the final checkmate on the g7 square, which is blacked out in Hackney’s painting.

As for me, I remember playing my favorite move on the d5 square in a game that I have since misplaced, and so only the memory of a spectacular rook sac in the Dragon remains. My favorite chess position is Richard Réti’s simply geometric composition, in which the first move, Kg7, shows the beauty of chess and geometry in the most elegant way possible. I feel a twinge of envy when I start teaching a newcomer to chess, as they will get to see this position for the first time.

I edited two pieces for US Chess’s website called “64 Square Tour” (2007), written by Bart Gibbons and “64 Square Problem Tour” (2008), authored by Gary Kevin Ware. These articles showcased the most memorable moves on each square of the chessboard from a1 to h8. I return to these articles again and again, because in addition to providing 64 beautiful chess moves, they form a larger whole in marking the entire chessboard: many squares within one master square. They also point to the tension inherent in defining aesthetics in chess. Which are more important, moves that cause amateurs and/or professionals to feel thrills of surprise or moves that are objectively strong?

In formal properties, surface level beauty, and deeper historical references, Hackney’s paintings explore and expand the various ways that we can call chess art.

“All artists are not chessplayers, but all chessplayers are artists,” Marcel Duchamp famously said, and we can now add that all paintings are not chess games, but all chess games are paintings.

Tom Hackney: Corresponding Squares: Painting the Chess Games of Marcel Duchamp is on exhibit at the World Chess Hall of Fame through Sept. 11, 2016. For more information, visit www.worldchesshof.org

Jennifer Shahade is a chess champion, commentator and author. On Chess is provided by the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis.