Chess in the universe of Borges

by Sergio Ernesto Negri
8/24/2018 – Born at the very end of the 19th century, 119 years ago today, Jorge Luis Borges is a key figure in twentieth-century literature. The Argentine, known for his preciseness and rigour, thought very highly of chess. One of the most respected authors never to have received the Nobel Prize even wrote a poem dedicated to the royal game. SERGIO ERNESTO NEGRI recaps the links between chess and literature found in the renowned author's oeuvre.

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The relationship between chess and literature is rather vigorous in the universal experience. As far as Argentina is concerned, Domingo Faustino Sarmiento published letters from women who mentioned the royal game in a trans-Andean newspaper and, when describing Montevideo, he mentioned that some forces had put others 'in check'. Leopoldo Lugones included it in his poetry and his short stories; Roberto Payró brought it to theatre; and Roberto Arlt used it in his novels. These are some of the writers that showcased chess in their respective literary genres, as an obvious proof of its social and cultural relevance. Numerous men and women of letters will follow these footprints.

In an inevitably short list, we should mention Ezequiel Martínez Estrada in the first place, who portrayed the local chess climate prevailing during the Tournament of Nations in 1939 like nobody had done before, and who posthumously bequeathed the fruits of his research in Filosofía del Ajedrez ('Chess Philosophy'). Abelardo Castillo incorporated chess into his book La cuestión de la dama en el Max Lange, and, in another work, explored the various hypotheses about its origin. Rodolfo Walsh was a good chess player, but left the game, opting for militancy, when he took his eyes off the board and found out about an uprising against one of the many illegitimate governments that afflicted Argentina throughout the 20th century and the shooting of General Aristóbulo Valle — Walsh returned to chess in his later written work.

Borges and Argentine writer Ernesto Sabato

So many thinkers have referred to chess... Bartolomé Mitre and Juan Bautista Alberdi, when the faltering nation was just being born; Juana Gorriti in that same 19th century (being the first woman to do so); Victoria and Silvina Ocampo, Leopoldo Marechal, Raúl González Tuñón, Ernesto Sábato, Manuel Mujica Láinez, Adolfo Bioy Casares, Julio Cortázar, Olga Orozco, Juan Gelman, Alejandra Pizarnik, Osvaldo Soriano. And, of course, the greatest exponent of Argentine letters, Jorge Luis Borges, who caught sight of the universe that lives within chess and, by doing so, built a literary world around it. He also conceived the most beautiful verses dedicated to the millenary game, those sonnets that are precisely named Ajedrez ('Chess').

Borges was introduced into this magical world by his father (his grandfather Francisco played it too) — with the help of a chessboard, his father initiated a young Borges in paradoxes like Zeno's illusion of motion (Achilles' inability to surpass a tortoise in a race and the arrow that never arrives to its destiny). Another influence is also relevant: his father had translated the Rubaiyat, by Omar Khayyam, into Spanish (FitzGerald's version) — this work was alluded in Borges' sonnet, when he mentions that "The player too is captive of caprice / (the words are Omar's) on another ground / where black nights alternate with whiter days"(1), as the Persian had anticipated.

Estela Canto recounted that Borges, at the time of seduction and in perfect English, gave her this compliment: "[Yours is] a Mona Lisa smile and yours the movements of a chess knight". He dedicated the following verses to the writer Alicia Jurado: "Time plays without chessmen / here. The crackling twig / bites night. The plain outside / dust and dreams by the league spill. / Shades both, copyists / of shades: Heraclitus and Gautama"(2).

In The Secret Miracle, the protagonist dreams of a game disputed by two illustrious families. In Guayaquil, he takes up a Welsh legend in which "...two kings play chess on the summit of a hill, while below them their warriors fight. One of the kings wins the game; a rider comes to him with the news that the army of the enemies has been beaten. The battle of the men was a mirror of the battle of the chessboard". In A Weary Man's Utopia, he wrote:  "When the individual has reached a hundred years of age, he is able to do without love and friendship. Illness and inadvertent death are not things to be feared. He practices one of the arts, or philosophy or mathematics, or plays a game of one-handed chess". In The Garden of Forking Paths, he poses a riddle: "In a guessing game to which the answer is chess, which word is the only one prohibited?" The reply is blunt: "The word is chess". The enigma is a parable of time, a concept that is also prohibited, as it contains the powerful force of the unnameable.

Chess was one of his favourite objects, almost as cherished as his mirrors and labyrinths: is it that in all three cases a singular person (and perhaps humanity as a whole) can get lost? He incorporated it in his classic enumeration of situations and precious things, Another Poem of the Gifts — next to "the labyrinth of causes and effects", "the diversity of beings", "love, which lets us see others /as God sees them" and "sleep and death / those two hidden treasures", there is room for "[the] gallant, noble, geometric chess"(3). When selecting things to be included in The Righteous, where "...people, unaware of each other, are saving the world", he mentions "He who prefers the others to be right" and "Two workers in a Southern café, enjoying a silent game of chess".

Certainly a respected figure

In conceiving Tlön, a world created by humans, he emphasizes that "…humanity forgets over and again that it is a rigor of chess masters, not of angels". For Borges, chess is essential in detective stories, as his partner Maria Kodama assured — each crime can be solved with the same analytical skill that is used to find the best move. Edgar Allan Poe, the creator of the genre, was not very proud of a game which he considered to be an "elaborate frivolity". Borges, who admired the American, disagrees: "Chess is one of the means we have to save culture, such as Latin, the study of the humanities, the reading of classics, the laws of versification, ethics". He immediately adds, with his intellectual acuteness: "Chess is now replaced by football, boxing or tennis, which are games of fools, not of intellectuals".

When referring to Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll, he talks about the Englishman's 'oneiric chess' — in a clear reversal of roles so dear to the Argentine, Carroll had proposed that the girl might have dreamed the game…but she might also had been dreamed by one of it pieces. The greatest writer in Spanish language — along with Cervantes — in his Metaphors of The 1001 Nights alluded to the iconic Eastern text and to chess when he describes: "...the ape who proved he was a man / by winning at chess"(4), a clear reference to the thirteenth of Scheherazade's journeys, who entertained his gentleman that night by talking about a prince that had been transformed into a monkey.

Borges, providentially, saves from the dust of oblivion the best pages that Martínez Estrada had written about chess, which were in a manuscript that the author intended to burn. Fernando Arrabal was intrigued by a letter from Pierre Menard (a character invented by Borges), who authored "A technical article on the possibility of enriching the game of chess by eliminating one of the rook's pawns" — Arrabal, a Spanish-French author, even analysed the feasibility of this suggestion.

In a hotel, 1969

In Borges, beyond all, a metaphysical search was perennially present. The final question he poses in Chess is as suggestive as it is touching: "God moves the player and he, the piece. / What god behind God originates the scheme / Of dust and time and dream and agony?"(1) These lines contain the ultimate mystery, perhaps the only one — to know whether there is a Creator who directs the threads of the game, as chess players move the pieces over the board. Not content with that proposition, Borges explores another hypothesis — that there is a successive chain of divinities ad infinitum, in a continuum where we will inevitable lose ourselves, as in one of his labyrinths, as in one of his mirrors, as in chess.

The labyrinthine and mysterious chess is an inevitable mirror of life. Chess was present in Borges since the days his father showed him the game; it captivated his attention as a social practice, and he explored its wide scope (and the scope of its esoteric relative, the panajedrez created by his friend Xul Solar). Chess was an important part of his literary work. Chess was essential even in the novel that was unjustifiably attributed to him.

He is surely enjoying chess now, as a faithful companion of poetry (his favourite art), wherever he inhabits, in the land of immortality — a subject he wrote so much about, perhaps with fear.

Conceivably — and we would prefer to think that it is so — chess and poetry have come together in Borges, inhabiting a common and definitive space. The writer said it himself, in the prologue to El otro, el mismo: "Poetry, a mysterious chess game, with a board and pieces that change like if on a dream, and where I will rest after my death".

We can almost hear Borges recite these lines, as well as those included in his immortal Chess sonnets. We can almost hear Borges recite them, right now, with a clear yet tremulous voice.

Translation from Spanish: Sergio Negri and Carlos Colodro

(1) Translated by Alastair Reid
(2) Translated by Christopher Mulrooney
(3) Translated by Alan Dugan
(4) Translated by Jack Ross


Sergio was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina. He is Master FIDE, who developed studies on the relationship of chess with culture and history.


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