Juan José Arreola: "Chess is impossible for man, it is beyond his reach"

by ChessBase
4/18/2020 – Mexican writer Juan José Arreola was a master of brief subgenres, such as the short story, the epigram, and the sketch. He was also a huge chess fan. In this interview by JAVIER VARGAS PEREIRA from 1997, Arreola, with his usual wittiness, talks about why he devoted so much time to the game, explaining that "poetry and chess are impossible for man, they are beyond his reach". | Photo: El Universal México

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An interview

Originally published in "Ajedrez de México" by Javier Vargas Pereira - October, 1997

He admits that he has dedicated to literature not even a thousandth of the amount of time that he has devoted to chess. He plays it every day. "Poetry and chess are impossible for man, they are beyond his reach", he says. Things that are possible have never appealed to him, rather things that he will never be able to accomplish. "Writers like Shakespeare or Dostoevsky", he adds, "have approached the impossible, but have only reached the threshold". He regrets that Mexico is a country for non-chess players. "Here", he says, "we prefer to play heads or tails, poker, lottery, all games of chance, instead of chess, a game with personal responsibility involved". He accepts that he fell into the illusion of literature, but never fell into the illusion of chess.

Juan José Arreola, from Zapotlán el Grande, Jalisco, "a town", he said, "that grew so much a hundred years ago when Ciudad Guzmán made us so big". "I was born in 1918, amid the ruins of the Spanish flu, the day of San Mateo Evangelista and Santa Ifigenia, surrounded by chickens, pigs, goats, turkeys, cows, donkeys and horses. I took my first steps while being chased by a black sheep that left the corral. Such are the precedents to the lasting anguish that gives colour to my life". His collection of stories Confabulario has been reprinted in several expanded editions and was translated into English as Confabulario and Other Inventions. He has taught Literature and worked as an editor, cultural promoter and chess player. 

One of the most celebrated Spanish-speaking writers, he declared: "I have not had time to work on my literature, but I have dedicated as many hours as I could loving it. I love language and venerate those who, through words, have manifested the spirit, from Isaiah to Franz Kafka" (Varia invención, 1985).

In this interview, given in October of 1997, "just because it's about chess", he accepts that his life's greatest passion has been the royal game. When speaking on the subject, he talks about a superior sense of life, a kind of spiritual majesty that, through words, becomes art.

How did you start playing chess?

Juan José ArreolaFirst I must tell you that I found chess late in my life. And I've said this before — I don't understand why my father, an exemplary man, did not teach us to play, nor me nor my brother, since he knew how to play. So, imagine what a strange thing: my brother and I played with chess pieces built by my father as if they were little tin soldiers.

Life began. I went through many experiences until 1941, when I returned from Mexico City from an adventure filled with successes and failures — I arrived in Zapotlán at the age of 22. They offered me to give some talks and readings of poems. Among them, naturally, I read Pablo Neruda, who was one of my favourites. There I met a friend of my father. I want to mention his name because he is someone I love very much: Luis Preciado, father of a girl, a young lady then, whom I was very attracted to, Judith Preciado. Luis Preciado invited me to play chess. I said, "I don't know how to play it". "I'll teach you", he answered. But someone who starts playing at age 22 is lost. I've played for over 50 years, and I can tell that what fails me is not to have played as a child.

I went to see the girl, but the father took over completely. He set the pieces and the board, and since then every night we played chess. And then came a very important experience, not only in my life, but in that of my compatriots and that of Mexico. A series of tremors, earthquakes.

My teacher and friend won every single game using the most basic mates. He got to use the Scholar's Mate and the Fool's Mate — it was wonderful when he got to show the Légal Trap. But then that earthquake came and we started to drift apart.


Because I started beating my girlfriend's father. And I also drifted apart from her, because she found, in Mexico City, another person who occupied an important place in her life. Since then I realized that in chess there was a very serious mystery. I intuitively discovered something that I still hold now and that has to do with your question — the mystery of chess and the reason why it provokes such passion.

I have not cared in my life about things I can do; I have cared about things I could never do. I am already close to my death and I realize that I was right. I fell into the illusion of literature, but never fell into the illusion of chess, even though I managed to play relatively well, and despite the fact that it has been the biggest hobby of my life — more than literature even. I have dedicated to literature not even a thousandth of the amount of time that I have devoted to chess. I soon realized two things: that literature and chess are impossible. When I say literature, I mean real and authentic literature, which is the same as saying poetry. Poetry is impossible for man, it is beyond his reach. Pablo Neruda, when I spent time with him, when I spent time with other poets, I came to a conclusion: that they couldn't cope with poetry, and that poets who try to control poetry or control a single poem are simply lost (smiles).

Then I suddenly grasped the idea that chess is the only game worth playing because it surpasses us, like Shakespeare's works, Dostoevsky's novels, or the greatest poets, who have approached the impossible — but everyone stays on the threshold. I realized that chess is impossible for man, it is beyond his reach. The amount of possible moves is truly a monstrosity.

That is what computers are showing right now. The fact that one of them has already beaten Kasparov [referring to the 1996 match against Deep Blue] means one thing and one thing only. Kasparov, in addition to being an entrepreneur, has been part of programming teams. Then we go back to the same thing. The machine gives you everything you have put into it. Man rules out immense amounts of possibilities, but wastes his time trying to calculate all possibilities. Instead the machine does that in a second: millions of moves calculated per second. Kasparov, as a human being, makes a mistake, despite being a very remarkable player.

Juan José Arreola

Does intuition favour human beings in this case?

Here you said the word! Let me shake your hand. I still play chess every day. As you see, here is the chessboard. In fact, the one that has always mattered the most to me is the man of intuition, the man of imagination, the man who suddenly sees a position and synthesizes and finds the key move, the one that undoes the entire structure of the adversary.

And suddenly a draw emerges in these complex games, and the idea of a draw has generated in me a whole series of thoughts. The only purpose of a chess game is to make a draw — for both opponents to play so well that the game has to end hopelessly in a draw.

The perfect game?

The perfect game. From this idea I've remembered something I wanted to say. An apothegm, let's say, a maxim: "If you don't want to lose, never try to win; if you want to win, resign yourself to lose". And Tigran Petrosian is the great example. A man who...only he and Capablanca have managed to play several years in tournaments without losing a single game.

Is this related to the idea of Tao and Eastern philosophy?

There is some of that, yes. What matters is reaching harmony, and the perfect harmony is reached by giving a perpetual check, or by reaching a point in the game in which nothing can be done by either player, in which neither of them can attack the other. It is the moment of perfection, and that is why you did well in mentioning Eastern philosophy. Tao is the way — the road begins and ends in yourself.

You have to play to finally reach a draw. Theologically as well. In the Catholic-Christian world, our life must be a draw. We must draw God, we must draw our neighbour, we must make a draw at the end of our lives.

And what happens to those who try to win?

(Laughs) So many things happen to them, it is very curious. They can earn a lot of money or power or this or that, but they don't earn anything that has to do with who they are, except for the great artists who can die with the idea that, "At least I realized where this whole thing is heading". And realizing where this whole story is going is important.

But those who write novels and short stories...Now we see everywhere those who handle their novel, develop it, start it, do all sort of things, and conclude it as planned. Well, they are absolutely useless. On the other hand, Dostoevsky did not know where he was going to end up. He created his characters, and suddenly they decided to behave differently. Like chess, which dictates the laws that spring from the reality of each game — and you cannot carry out a plan, and there are many games that end up surpassing the chess player. There are games in which it is almost impossible to determine which move created the imbalance.

How important is inspiration?

This word is indispensable. Great players are those capable of being inspired, of falling into the trance of inspiration. Suddenly they see a series of possibilities seized by that trance of inspiration that is completely similar to artistic creation. That is why it is said that there are games that are as perfect as Beethoven's quartets, as trios, as duets — the wonder of harmonizing one move after another. But those who are dominated by that superior force called inspiration...It is incredible — we find it in art, and when we find it in chess it happens in an almost intelligible way, because we can analyse the game afterwards: while with a poem you need to be an exceptional critic to be able to analyse it, in a game you sometimes notice the moment when you enter a winning position.

And here comes something I like to remember, what is called the accumulation of small advantages. A small advantage in space, position, time — how difficult it is to understand what a tempo means in chess. There are times when you can lose tempi — they must be lost — and there are times when the gain of a tempo is key. That also happens in a work of art, in a poem. As soon as the poet, without noticing, supremely realizes that the poem is taking certain direction, and that it is going to end like this, and that the words have to be arranged, the phrases, the stanzas, as in a game of chess that leans towards balance and harmony. Everything follows a certain order in a masterful game.

How do you feel when you win a game?

Well, it's very curious. I play chess and sometimes I abuse it, because instead of one or two games I play six or seven, and when I was younger I played more. The first thing I can tell you is that I don't feel tired even if I have played a lot, but if I lose, I am annihilated, exhausted. So the feeling of winning in chess is one of the best affirmations of one's personality.

Something akin to euphoria?

Yes, because you feel the happiness of prevailing. You even get — although the term is ugly — a feeling of superiority. This is disastrous because it resembles a Nietzschean or a Nazi thought: to prevail, to succeed in life, to succeed in the game. But it is irreparable, and this allows us to see that men choose to be creatures that want to win, that want to empower themselves at the expense of others.

And when you lose?

When I lose I feel that the world is no longer stable. These rooms that seem solid lose their solidity and wobble, or at least lose their horizontal axes and go out of frame. There is a bewilderment, and that bewilderment originates from the fact that our internal core has been shaken, it has been altered.

So there are a lot of people that, when asked if they play chess, respond, "No, I don't play, that requires a lot of intelligence, and I don't have the time". And then...Mexico is a country for non-chess players — here we prefer to play heads or tails, poker, lottery, all games of chance, instead of chess, a game with personal responsibility involved. Because, independent of you playing black or white, there is no chance in chess, because my opponent does not make a mistake by chance, as it is not by chance that I make one myself. So everything depends on being right or wrong, and that depends on us. The commitment of being is part of the game of chess.

Translation from Spanish: Carlos Colodro


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