Chess, Literature, and Film

Edward Winter



Quite a list could be compiled of unkempt chess books by that odd but common type of writer, the would-be tutor with a well-camouflaged university education who, anxious to show that he is one of the lads even though chess is a bitter, fearsome pill, invigorates his lessons with rough colloquialisms, illiteracy, exclamation marks and other trappings of poverty. The opposite extreme is rarer in chess literature, for there are mercifully few books which are pretentious and pseudo-intellectual. Where chess does sustain such treatment it is liable to be at the hands of an outsider, such as V. Ulea, who, in 2002, somehow contrived to have the Southern Illinois University Press publish her 196-page book A Concept of Dramatic Genre and the Comedy of a New Type: Chess, Literature, and Film. The first words of the Preface (page xi) give fair warning of what is in store:

‘This book is an attempt to approach dramatic genre from the point of view of the degree of richness and strength of a character’s potential. My main goal is to establish a methodology for analyzing the potential from a multidimensional perspective, using systems thinking. The whole concept is an alternative to the Aristotelian plot-based (externally motivated) approach, and it is applied to an analysis of western and eastern European authors and also to contemporary American film.’

We nonetheless soldiered on, even after being informed on page 8:

‘To approach the problem of evaluation of the whole from the point of view of the general systems phenomenon, one must distinguish between the evaluation of an aggregate and that of a system when approaching a unity.’

At that early stage, still wishing to be a good sport, we were prepared to distinguish between anything V. Ulea wanted, provided that discussion of chess was imminent. Our reward came on page 14:

‘Now that the general concept of dramatic genre has been presented, let us discuss in detail the ways of measuring protagonists’ potential, using a multidimensional approach and a chess model.’

However, it was not until page 17 that her key point about ‘positional and combinational styles in chess and literature’ started to be chewed over:

‘The question of a character’s use of certain styles and methods in his or her decision making requires a special discussion, for it becomes crucial in understanding a character’s psychology and the degree of his or her limitations. Applying Katsenelinboigen’s terminology, which is borrowed from the game of chess, one may say that, in general, characters are divided into the two following types of players: positional and combinational.’

After a windy quote from Katsenelinboigen himself, V. Ulea resumed her elucidation:

‘In the combinational style, the player is not concerned with the creation of a predisposition for his future development since he is completely seized with the goal, which is a material objective. In the process, everything not linked to the capturing of the material objective is not considered by this type of player, and the question of what kind of predisposition will be created after the goal has been achieved is not of his concern. Unlike the combinational player, the positional player is occupied, first and foremost, with the elaboration of the position that will allow him to develop in the unknown future. In playing the positional style, the player must evaluate relational and material parameters as independent variables.’

Overleaf a further pounding awaited us:

‘According to Katsenelinboigen, the positional and combinational styles in chess signify two different approaches to overcoming obscurity. One approach represents the system from its end and is based on the creation of a program that links the initial step with the final goal. In so doing, the combinational player makes unconditional valuations of material parameters when it concerns the result, but he does not take into account positional parameters as independent variables. For instance, when the combinational chess player compares his sacrifices with the winning material, he applies unconditional values; at the same time, he does not pay attention to the position, for he is completely concerned with obtaining a concrete material. The combinational style can be interpreted as a degenerated case of the positional style, for in actuality the combination is only a part of the position, whether or not it is acknowledged by the player.’

Pausing only to wonder whether any writer would use the term ‘in actuality’ with a straight face, we pressed ahead, hoping for enlightenment in that chapter’s concluding ‘Summary’. Instead, page 26 offered this:

‘The creative process is distinguished by different stages; each stage consists of particular styles (positional and combinational), methods (reflexive and selective), and ways of connectivity (programming, predispositioning and randomness). In the process of creation, the artist combines all of these.

The combinational style is concerned with the creation of combinations that would allow one to obtain a material through setting a concrete goal and elaborating a program. The positional style is focused on the creation of a predisposition for future development, with combination as its stage.’

With that off her chest, V. Ulea accorded the game a well-earned rest in the wings, but it resumed centre-stage on page 85:

‘In the game of chess, relational (positional) parameters are not explicitly set, appearing during the game as a result of rules of interactions. The chess player creates relational parameters within a certain position and gives them valuations.’

Nobly resisting any temptation to turn such pages unread and thereby miss a nugget, on we plodded until finding that pages 144-145 discussed the relative value of the chess pieces in incomparable fashion:

‘The semiunconditional values of the pieces (such as queen 9, rook 5, bishop 3, knight 3, and pawn 1) appear as a result of the rules of interaction of a piece with the opponent’s king. All other conditions, such as starting conditions, final goal, and a program that links the initial condition to the final state, are not taken into account. The degree of conditionality is increased by applying preconditions, and the presence of all four preconditions fully forms conditional values.

Katsenelinboigen outlines two extreme cases of the spectrum of values – fully conditional and fully unconditional – and says that, in actuality, they are ineffectual in evaluating the material and so are sometimes replaced by semiconditional or semiunconditional valuations, which are distinguished by their differing degrees of conditionality. He defines fully conditional values as those based on complete and consistent linkages among all four preconditions. Accordingly, fully unconditional values are free of the preconditions; the introduction of the first preconditions, which is linked to the formation of the scale of positivity/negativity, results in the appearance of unconditional values. Semiconditional values are those based on some conditions, while semiunconditional values are formed by complete and consistent linkages between the rules of interactions, taking no other conditions into consideration.’

That second ‘in actuality’ somehow made our perseverance feel worthwhile, and a passage on the next page showed that the author, if no-one else, was unflagging:

‘The conditional evaluation of a character is based on his or her function in particular episodes. In chess, this analysis is described as “equivalently situation-specific valuations [that] incorporate all the constituent elements of a given position relative to the set goal” (Katsenelinboigen, Concept of Interdeterminism, 24).’

By now V. Ulea was running short of chessic insights, although there was, of course, no let-up in the verbiage. We nonetheless kept with her to the bitter end, valiantly casting aside worries about the conditionality and increasingly heavy positional parameters of our eyelids, as well as, in actuality, another equivalently situation-specific valuation of a semi-unconditional physical nature: our brain hurt.


Note: V. Ulea is the pen-name of Vera Zubarev.

Latest update: 27 June 2021.

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