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Chess & Love

HESS PLAYERS, REJOICE. You would have been sexy in the Middle Ages, when skills on the chessboard was what separated the wheat from the chaff among singles looking for mates of distinction.

The chessboard came to qualify as a sexual space after the queen’s appearance drew more and more women and girls to the game, according to historian Marilyn Yalom in Birth of the Chess Queen. For the nobility in Europe, a highly ritualized and hierarchical game like chess, where each piece moves in its pre- scribed directions, served as the perfect excuse for lovebirds to spar their hearts out on a level playing field. Chess and romance are no longer bedfellows in our collec-

tive psyche. Online dating sites like, which markets itself as helping singles find their “perfect match,” elicit chuckles from chess players and non-players alike. The crudest and most literal image I have of chessboard as sex- ual space is from Brian Kaplan, a high-school classmate who told me that he “once saw two homeless people [embraced] on the chess tables in Washington Square Park back in the ’80s.” Far more telling of the contemporary divorce of chess from sex or romance is the fact that Kaplan prefaced this anecdote with: “Probably inappropriate for [Chess Life]”. For those who live and breathe chess, discussing the game

in relation to that other game describes a game unto itself. “In most games, I am thinking about girls for about 50-75 per-

cent of the time,” says Grandmaster and American champion Alexander Shabalov in Jennifer Shahade’s 2005 book Chess Bitch, “another 50 percent goes to time management, and with

The Medieval troubadour was in part responsible for landing

the queen on the chessboard and thus sexualizing the game, according to Yalom. It was the troubadour’s verses that put women on pedestals and at the center of romantic conquest. He sang of checkmate in the game of love, of suffering under the multi-squared wiles of his beloved, of woman as the object of conquest and as the font of a male bliss earned valiantly through knightly trial and tribulation—jousting, difficult jour- neys, pain, injury, and other acts of chivalry that further popularized the erotic nature of chess.

Circa 2003, Carl sits in my apartment in Brooklyn. We’re lis-

tening to Dead Prez, warily measuring the strange chemistry between us. Definitely not my type, this ‘round the way boy. Way too young.

Uniformed in baggy jeans, baseball caps, sneakers, and T- shirts. Line of work unclear. Built like a football player. Not much of a talker, either, save for the occasional disyllabic phrase: “whattup,” “don’t know,” “hey ma.” “You play?” he says, fiddling with the chessboard on my cof- fee table. “Why else would I have a set?” I say. “True, true.”

No sir, no way, no how, I’m thinking. He sets up the pieces. Queens on their colors, white square

to the right, all that jazz. He chooses black. When I offer a switch, he shrugs, says, “Nah. White makes the first mistake, ma.” And then we spar our hearts out, right beside the fica tree in the living room.

Love and War are the same thing, and stratagems and policy

are as allowable in the one as in the other. —Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes

what’s left over I am calculating.” “It’s actually a sexy game,” British international master

Jovanka Houska tells The Telegraph. “It’s the clash of wills, the intellectual battle, the power struggle between a man and a woman. That’s quite romantic.” Guardian writer Stephen Moss’ view is that the true nature

of chess is “a Darwinian struggle for power and sexual supremacy.” He echoes the common Freudian view that the desire to play chess in males is born out of a subconscious desire to kill the father, that the importance/impotence of the king is what attracts boys to the game, whose rules mirror those of sex. Shahade scoffs at these kinds of Oedipal models. The writer

and woman grandmaster prefers a more Jungian reading of the game “as a system of opposites ... knowing when it is time to attack and when to defend.”

White or black, yin or yang, Freud or Jung—whichever side

of the board one chooses, most talk of chess can be boiled down to coded definitions of courtship and sex.

Queen’s Gambit, Accepted or Declined It’s time for some mind sex, we ain’t got to take our clothes off

yet ... Relax, I got the good vibrations ... Before we make love let’s have a good conversation ... African princess, tell me yo’ inter- ests ... we can play a game of chess on the futon ... When you show me your mind, it make me wanna show you mines…Before the night’s through, we could get physical too ... Opposites attract that’s the basis ... Our sex is the wind that separates the yin from the yang

—“Mind Sex”, Dead Prez He plays like his build, steadily forging ahead and gaining ter-

ritory with his quarterbacks. Oh, how he works those little men. It’s sexy as all hell, the leaden simplicity and perseverance of his game. Touchdown, checkmate, whatever ...

Serbian Woman GM Maria Manakova had her own sweet sur-

render. Here’s how she describes to The Telegraph her first game against ex-husband Serbian grandmaster Miroslav Toši: “I made a move. I didn’t go with my king to the corner, I went

to the center, and my ex-husband thought, ‘Oh, she’s so brave.’ He fell in love with me immediately, because in this move was my character, my wish to be with him. Maybe I didn’t want to show it, but maybe I wanted him to win a little bit. I surren- dered myself to him. He liked that.” Then there’s the love story of Zhu Chen, which Shahade

writes about in her book. China’s second women’s world chess champion and the country’s 13th grandmaster first met her hus- band at a 1994 Asian youth tournament in Malaysia. Mohammad Al-Modiahki was Qatar’s first grandmaster and named player of the century within the Arab countries. Before Chen could improve her English, which Al-Modiahki speaks fluently, chess and love was their lingua franca. Their parents disapproved of the union, believing that there

were too many differences between them—a sentiment that Chen refers to as a “cold war.” But Chen and Al-Modiahki stayed together. “There are many combinations with the king and queen that are quite beautiful,” she says in an Asian Times inter- view. And in her own autobiography she writes, “Chess is a good way to bridge different cultures in a peaceful way, and my rela- tionship with Al Modiahaki is a great example of this.”

Chess Life — February 2012 27

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