If you're any kind of chess fan, you know the moves, strategies and gambits have a beauty all their own. And clinching your first tournament win? What a beautiful feeling!

Beauty is generally a quality associated with art in all its forms. Can chess - a beautiful game, be associated with art, too? Indeed, that's another winning combination! From the intricately inlaid chessboards to the delicately carved, ornate pieces... sometimes, chess sets are works of art.

And chess in the arts?

Superprof presents three artistic endeavours that revolve around chess.

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The Queen's Gambit

Whether you've watched the Netflix series or have only seen/heard the hype, you surely know this show is a big deal. One could hardly escape the hype; it is that streaming service's top-rated and most talked-about show of 2020.

As Beth Harmon, the story's lead character, Anya Taylor-Joy delivers a performance that belies her lack of formal actor training while still channelling the mystique of starlets past. In fact, her show business start came about in much the same way as Hollywood starlets of yore.

Lana Turner, a glamourous beauty of Hollywood's Golden Age, was 'discovered' at a soda fountain when she was 16 years old. Ms Taylor-Joy, 17 years old at the time of her 'discovery', was scouted outside of Harrod's Department store by none other than the founder of Storm Modelling Agency.

Breaking away from Hollywood, now...

The production team made ample use of Germany's magnificent architecture
European architecture, such as this manorial mansion in Berlin, was better suited to the production team's Gambit goals. Source: Wikipedia Credit: Clemsfranz

Isn't it odd that, for a story that takes place in mid-20th Century America, so little of the series was filmed in the US?

Filming took place mainly in Berlin, Germany, because that's city's buildings better evoke the grandeur of the settings described throughout the show. Scenes that, according to the script, took place in Paris or Mexico - even the US city of Las Vegas were all shot in Berlin.

If those buildings' interiors were suited to the purpose, the exteriors did just as well. For instance, the manorial home Schloss Schulzendorf, in Berlin's Dahlem district, served as the Methuen Home for Girls. Even Beth's adopted home wasn't in the US; those scenes and a few others were filmed in Canada - the series' other principal location.

And another oddity about this American production of an American story: very few cast members are American.

  • Anya Taylor-Joy enjoys triple citizenship: British, Argentinian and American - but only because she was born in the US. She didn't grow up there and neither of her parents is American.
  • Thomas Brodie Sangster (Benny Watts): English
  • Harry Melling (Harry Beltik): English
  • Rebecca Root (Methuen choir director): English
  • Chloe Pirrie (Beth's birth mother): Scottish
  • Jacob Fortune-Lloyd (D.L. Townes): English
  • Patrick Kennedy (Beth's adoptive father): English
  • Akemnji Ndifornyen (Methuen orderly): English

We could go on. The list of non-American actors is much longer, but you get the idea. This inquisitive mind would like to know why so many English and German actors (yes, there were German actors and even a Polish megastar) got to exercise their American accent.

Not to say that they did a bad job; in fact, everyone was brilliant - at the accent and embodying the American ethos. Still, wouldn't it have been easier to set the story in England? After all, there are lovely buildings in the UK, too.

For more Gambit oddities and to get a thorough breakdown of the entire series, you need a more in-depth read...

These Cold War chess grandmasters served as inspiration for many chess-oriented art projects
Anatoly Karpov, seen here with Garry Kasparov and Jan Timman in 1987, is said to be the inspiration for some parts of Chess. Source: Wikipedia Credit: Bart Molendijk

Chess, the Musical

Anyone who has danced or sung along to Mamma Mia! - the live show or the film, surely knows the genius of ABBA. You might go so far as to say that those music industry giants must be clever, indeed, to weave their greatest hits into a well-balanced, entertaining, cohesive story.

However, you might not be aware that Mamma was not ABBA's first foray into musical theatre.

The Anderssen-Ulvaeus songwriting and recording team had been active in music for more than 20 years, playing every role from band frontmen to record producers. At the height of their popularity, in the late 70s/early 80s, the pair was casting about for a musical theatre project that needed their unique touch.

As it turns out, Tim Rice was in a quandary. He and his frequent collaborator, Andrew Lloyd-Webber knew that a chess-themed musical could be as big a hit as any of the other shows they'd worked on together, particularly because chess fever had gripped the world and didn't seem like it would let up anytime soon. They just couldn't agree on how the story should go.

For years, the idea knocked around Sir Rice's creative mind until, finally, he found his hook: the Cold War, as seen through a chess rivalry. Now keen to get his project started, he was dashed again: Lloyd-Webber was, at that time, embroiled in Cats. Sir Rice had to go elsewhere for musical input; he finally landed on Anderssen-Ulvaeus.

It didn't take long for the team to realise the project. Long in theatre terms, that is.

It took only two years to put the concept album together; in itself, that was no mean feat. Sir Rice would describe the mood he wanted this song or that one to have; the Swedish team would write the music and record it, often including dummy lyrics to show how the vocals could further paint the scenes. And all of this while living in their respective countries!

That's the story of how Chess came about.

You might wonder, though: is Chess really about chess - the strategies and gambits, the middlegame and endgame; the pressure of tournaments and the joy of victory?

With the question thus-phrased, it's clear to see that Chess is all about chess; those very elements drive the story. There are strategies and gambits in full view, but they're personal and political rather than chess-related. The joy of victory is not shown as triumphing in a chess match but, rather, as overcoming life's cruelties.

And the musical's score includes a song titled Endgame.

As any chess aficionado would tell you, life often imitates chess. We all manoeuvre in our contained spheres like pieces on a chessboard, brush against and sometimes obliterate other pieces along the way and the goal is to always protect the king... ourselves.

With that bit of philosophy laid out, you should direct yourself to our full-length article on Chess to see just how closely life parallels chess... or did we mean Chess?

The chess player on the left looks like he's certain to win
In this van Leyden work, it appears that the female player is playing for her life. Source: Wikipedia Credit: Lucas van Leyden

Chess in Famous Paintings

The series of paintings by Kash Koolidge, collectively titled Dogs Playing Poker, is renowned as a symbol of classic American kitsch. That impression is further enhanced by the artist alliterating his name, from the imperial-sounding Cassius Marcellus Coolidge to what might arguably be called a forerunner of the Kardashian phenomenon, down to the letter 'K'.

There are a few paintings of dogs playing chess but they are nowhere near as famous as the poker-playing dogs tableaux are. That might be because poker is a 19th Century American invention while chess is millennia-old and known as the Game of Kings.

It would hardly be suitable for mere mutts to play such a game, would it?

So, Tik-Tok montages aside, the world is yet to be treated to any chess-playing animals of any kind. But there are plenty of paintings depicting chess as the noble activity it is. In sorting through the vast catalogue of chess-themed paintings, two, in particular, caught this writer's eye.

Dutch painter Lucas van Leyden painted his oil-on-oak The Game of Chess in 1508. It depicts a man and a woman engaged in a chess match; the man is on the left side of the frame and the woman on the right. Their game plays out in front of an audience, mostly male save for one female, wearing a white wimple, who towers over the female chess player.

In 1552, German painter Hans Muelich depicted Duke Albrecht of Bavaria and his wife engaged in a game of chess. The Duke is shown on the left side of the painting and Anna of Austria, his wife and opponent in the match graces the right side of the frame. The couple plays in front of an all-male audience, save for the dark-clad female who stands by Anna's side.

It's hard to miss the similarities between these works. Both are fairly dark in tone, though the Muelich work is lighter. Also, the 1552 painting conveys the impression of wealthy people engaged in leisurely pursuit. They are well-dressed and each has a little dog on standby for a quick comfort pet, should the game become too strenuous.

By contrast, van Leyden's work gives the idea that the woman is literally playing the game of her life. Should she lose, she would also lose the family's landholdings and anything else of value. Note her intense focus and the spectators seeming to guide her move, while her opponent sits reclined and turned away, appearing to accept that his win is a foregone conclusion.

Similarities aside, the women make these paintings so remarkable.

Still today, female chess grandmasters decry the overt sexism in competitive chess. In the 16th Century, when these works were painted, women playing chess was virtually unheard of. That's mainly because women were not typically credited with the skills needed to play chess.

However, between the time van Leyden completed his painting and Muelich began his, the game of chess evolved. The Queen became the most valuable chess piece, a change that was celebrated by one famous Italian painter.

To find out who she was - and to get the best picture of chess in famous paintings, you have to have a lot more information...

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