Shelby Lyman on Chess: Who’s White, Who’s Black?
Sunday, August 2, 2015
(Published in print: Sunday, August 2, 2015)
The usual association of chess with war seems inevitable.
Generals and leaders, including Napoleon, Robert E. Lee and Peter the Great, have brought chess sets with them during their campaigns in the field.
Peter himself urged his nobility to play chess during their otherwise indolent Winter Assemblies in St. Petersburg, where they usually huddled down in the face of cold Russian winters.
Since Russian aristocrats had an important military function during the 17th and 18th centuries, Peter may have thought, as did the Leninist revolutionaries who followed two centuries later, that training in chess could bolster performance on the battlefield.
The pieces themselves: kings, queens, knight, castles, pawns (foot soldiers) and their various other incarnations obviously suggest warfare.
But Yoko Ono, a longtime peace activist, had another idea. Why not make a chess set that symbolizes peace instead?
Her “Play it by Trust” set — first exhibited in 1966 — features white pieces for both players By eliminating the differentiated identities of Black and White, her intention was to eliminate the conflict of opposites.
She explained the concept this way: “Play it for as long as you can remember who is your opponent and who is your own self”
Yoko Ono embraces Marcel Duchamp’s notion that chess is “the landscape of the soul.”
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