The Oepidus Complex, narcissism, a battle of masculinities – is all of this about chess?

Text: Oksana Rumyantseva

The clocks insist its August. The weather is no longer breaking Olympic records and an air conditioner has long since ceased to be your best friend and companion. Everything's returning to normal - even posts on Facebook have become regular again, and football's on the agenda. I've always been amazed at what forces people, regardless of rain, snow or a heat wave, to chase a leather ball around a restricted space? Perhaps it's pleasant company, maintaining your physical shape... or sublimation? I recently came across a remarkable article about football and its subtexts. Naturally, I took a lively interest in the comparison between football and chess:

“The ball, as a bundle of sexuality, and the head, as a bundle of intellectuality, give birth to interesting parallels. For instance, the parallel between football and chess. No two sports, it seems, could be more different. In football the body moves and the head is practically uninvolved. In chess the body’s motionless and the brain’s active. That doesn’t mean, of course, that you don’t need to think in football. But it’s simply that it’s not with your head. It’s the same with love, of course.

Chess is the favourite example of the structuralists (Saussure, Lacan, Shaumian, Revzin), while football is the intellectual pastime of the post-modernists. Why? For structuralism (in any case, the Soviet version) sexual topics played no role (in part, of course, because they were forbidden). In any case, Soviet structuralists rejected psychoanalysis openly and, it seems, sincerely”.

So we again return to considering the topic of “Why is there no sex in chess?” However, such a claim isn’t true. From the point of view of Freud’s representatives chess is one of the most sexual forms of activity. Chess is a sign of the Oedipus complex. As Alexander Herbstmann wrote in his book “The Psychoanalysis of Chess”, “the very structure of chess itself contains legends about Adam and Eve”… “The wonderful chessboard… is a symbol of a beautiful, alluring woman”… “The bishop moves along diagonals, the rooks parallel to the sides of the boards… they serve to increase the power of the queen, which corresponds to an unconscious desire for the glorification of the mother”… “The rook (“boat” in Russian), is associated with water which can serve as a symbol of birth and, in any case, is a female symbol…”… “Negative feelings towards your father are completely transferred to the enemy king, while the positive ones go to your own king, which is the main object to be defended…”

The book was thoroughly imbued with the revolutionary spirit of free love: “…Before the worldwide revolution breaks the shackles of family around the whole globe, and the consciousness of freedom and independence hasn’t been absorbed into the spirit and flesh of mankind’s future, our generation and a number of those coming after us will be doomed to cultivate the Oedipus complex in their minds. In the meantime, chess, most clearly reflecting in the depth of its structure the revolt against the yolk of our ancestors (fathers, kings), is widespread and will play no small role in the evolution of culture in proletarian society!” Proletarian society evolved, it got rid, it seems, of the Oedipus complex, and the sex was taken out of chess. In the words of the animated Soviet hero Cheburashka, we were building, building and finally built it! And it turns out you exist, but nobody needs you …

Comrade Freud said that sexual development begins from the first days of life. Our first impressions, always vivid and strong, continue to influence us when we grow up. And what vivid impressions do chess players have? Beautiful games, positions, pieces… (“figures” in Russian) By the way, Freud himself wrote: “The king is the central piece in the game but at the same time the most vulnerable. It can’t be captured or subject to the slightest danger. The defence of the king is the meaning of the existence of the whole family of chess pieces. The queen is the omnipotent mother … The pawn is a child. Here the analogy is obvious: the pawn only moves forward without the possibility of turning back. That’s the motion in which its development takes place. The pawn can turn into any piece, with the exception of the king (that’s a taboo… no-one encroaches on the head of the family – author’s note). The pawn turns into one piece or another depending on the demands of the position, as in a family a child begins to play this or that role depending on the circumstances and desires of the family”. As a result we get an incredible cocktail: on the one hand, chess undoubtedly influences the development of a child’s intellectual abilities, while on the other hand – it forms a specific sexual image which he’ll then project onto his relationships with the opposite sex.

For a child chess is at first a game, in the full meaning of that word. He learns about the world through pieces and their movement on the board. They’re interesting to him from the point of view of their design (and how about trying your teeth on them?). Chess pieces in the hands of a child become toys. He wounds his opponent’s knight then attacks his fortress and wins the king. That peculiar theatre of military operations gradually becomes interesting from the point of view of the game itself. And the child ends up in the chess labyrinth: at first, everything follows its own course and the pieces fulfil their functions, but the patterns gradually become more complex and you get far more variations. Your thoughts are occupied with chess positions demanding beautiful decisions. So we learn the endgame – all that’s left on the board are a couple of pawns, a bishop, a knight… and kings. Those same notorious pieces, both the most vulnerable and the most important. What does that mean? A battle of masculinities? Narcissism?

Not so long ago a female friend of mine asked me to teach her to play chess, although “to play” is, of course, an exaggeration. She wanted to know how to move the pieces. I asked her what the point was? She has good looks, long legs and an indisputable advantage – she’s not burdened, she’s got an ease, perhaps…

- It seems to me that you can play through all the situations in life on the board. Only in chess they’re in a reduced form, as if we’ve been given a chance to relive again and again certain moments of our life. That constant feeling of déjà vu attracts and intrigues you. Here accidents aren’t accidental – everything’s logical and measured. The rigor and clarity which are so lacking in my life appear on the 64 squares. After all, my life is very similar to chess: I make a few moves and then start again from the beginning. Everything repeats itself.

After that monologue I thought that if someone unconnected to chess lacks structure and clarity, then… Perhaps chess players lack that ease, that life-giving naivety which is sometimes so appealing. Players are constantly coming up against problems on the board. They constantly have to resolve complex problems, choose correct decisions and find winning variations. But chess is, essentially, a projection of life. Doesn’t it turn out that when encountering problems in real life a chess player succumbs to problems because chess patterns don’t work in our three dimensional space? For example, take a tournament in which leading players are taking part, kings of the chess world. They feel comfortable and cozy in that space, because it’s their world, their dimension. They’re celebrated, those who’ve won before rest on their laurels and girls actively strive to get the attention of the winner. But then someone suggests continuing the celebration in a different setting… And the chess group relocates and ends up in an entirely different world. A world which doesn’t know who they are; a world in which there are other laws, discouraging glances, open smiles, attractive outfits… and those same masters of thought, who had just been at the peak of their popularity, are overshadowed, unable to handle that arms race. And don’t say you’ve never encountered the problem… As a girl, for example, I myself want to talk not only about chess combinations and computer variations. Or, perhaps, I’m casting my fishing line in the wrong pond and I need to think in more wide-ranging terms – to set up a net and find a bigger pond. Undoubtedly every kind of activity leaves a trace on the character of an individual, but you can always find exceptions to general rules. The only problem is that in chess there’s some sort of catastrophic lack of exceptions. Why?