Music and Chess – GM identity revealed!

by Frederic Friedel
12/22/2020 – Recently music brought a critic and a guest together in a conversation about Bach, Beethoven: she a journalist of the New York Times, he a relatively well-known chess grandmaster. Each participant suggested a single piece of music for the other to listen to ahead of the chat, where they vigorously discuss classical music. Your task was to guess, from snippets of the conversation, who the grandmaster was. | Photo: alto

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The chess grandmaster chose Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 (“Eroica”) – you can learn all about the background of this piece and hear it performed by Daniel Barenboim conducting the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra in this YouTube video.

The NYT host chose Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations, played by Glenn Gould. You can learn all about it in this YouTube video.

Each discussion partner had listened to the pieces suggested by the other, and started a fairly in-depth conversation, of which we bring you a few excerpts:

Grandmaster: The “Goldbergs” are not just one piece! It’s like an encyclopedia of music.

Host: I like that. There is that sense of trying out a problem according to different possibilities. I picked Bach for you, with all his fugues, because I think of chess as having similar qualities. The elegance of algorithms and the beauty that comes out of processes that actually obey very strict rules.

GM: For me it was a new experience. I don’t listen to much music before Mozart. It was quite a discovery to understand that Bach introduced many future themes. From the chess or computer world, I would use the term founding father. I am amazed by people who are ahead of their time.

Host: Listening to the “Goldbergs” I was struck by what I see as parallels with the way pieces move in chess. Even in the opening Aria, there is this very methodical movement in the left hand, while the right hand has much more freedom.

GM: I’m not sure. I see the Aria as something godly, heavenly — but then it goes back to earth. It’s this combination.

Host: What do you make of the fugues in strict counterpoint? These lines that interlock in a way that is both a beautiful mechanism and has this creative freedom to it.

GM: Well, it’s about variety. The first ten variations, Bach is basically demonstrating his power as a composer. But then he shifts to something that is more interesting. In many of the variations we can hear the herald of new music. I have one favorite: Variation 25 [watch it here]. It’s Chopin! It’s the first Ballade. And I love Chopin.

Host: What is it that attracts you to that? I hear a lot of melancholy in that variation.

GM: It’s not sadness. It’s a kind of realism. The world is as it is, and we have to accept it. It makes me feel comfortable. I also like Variation 13. It draws you into this water of music. And for energy and style I would pick number 16. In Variations 14 and 29, Bach is a virtuoso à la Liszt. Thank you for forcing me to listen to the “Goldberg” Variations. Now I have a greater appreciation of Bach. I was very surprised by how modern it feels.

It's a long and interesting conversation, where our GM reveals his family background and his personal involvement in classical music.

Your task, dear readers, is to guess who the grandmaster guest was. I will reveal the answer here in a couple of days, here in this article. Then you can read the whole NYT interview. Please do not post it in our feedback section below – I know it is fairly easy to use the accursed Google service to solve such riddles. Just think about it for a while – and listen to the music I have linked to above – before you start googling for the solution.

The solution

The "relatively well-known chess grandmaster" was Garry Kasparov, and the musical exchange and interview were featured on this page of the New York Times. Did you guess right? Read the full interview for the background of Garry's musical interests.

You can listen to the music pieces that Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim and Garry Kasparov exchanged in this Spotify channel. Start the first piece and all will be played in the background – a highly enjoyably experience.


Editor-in-Chief emeritus of the ChessBase News page. Studied Philosophy and Linguistics at the University of Hamburg and Oxford, graduating with a thesis on speech act theory and moral language. He started a university career but switched to science journalism, producing documentaries for German TV. In 1986 he co-founded ChessBase.
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MauvaisFou MauvaisFou 12/28/2020 07:53
Well said, Classique !

+ 1000
Classique Classique 12/24/2020 08:51
I thought it might be Kasparov. One tip-off was the quote "In the first ten variations, Bach is basically demonstrating his power as a composer. Then he switches to something that is more interesting. In many of the variations, we hear the herald of new music." Kasparov naturally thinks along lines of "demonstrating power" (unlike, e.g., Kramnik who thinks in terms of intellectual satisfaction, or Smyslov, who thinks in terms of good and evil). If you have Kasparov's lectures on Putin, much of the material hinges on this motivation (not that he is mistaken). Such an orientation sometimes shows in ridiculous ways--Kasparov's books have to be taller than other world champions'!
Applied to a work of art like the Goldbergs, however, his comment seems all but illiterate. It's as if he said, "in the left third of the Parthenon, Phidias is just showing off, but in right two-thirds, he creates a new kind of balanced structure."
And not having heard much music before Mozart, how would Kasparov know how much was progressive innovation (another perennial Kasparov lens)? In fact, Bach was at least as much a consolidator and perfecter as he was an innovator.
Still, it's fun watching someone discover Bach.
Frits Fritschy Frits Fritschy 12/24/2020 02:29
Yes, I knew, but attributing this kind of behaviour to our 13th world champion... although he had a rather blood-thirsty style.
Albert Silver Albert Silver 12/24/2020 02:18
@Frits - There is a famous scene in Silence of the Lambs where Hannibal escapes, but kills a guard while listening to the Goldberg Variations. :-) The music choice was designed to highlight his seemingly peaceful demeanor as he committed atrocities.
Frits Fritschy Frits Fritschy 12/23/2020 09:47
I never knew Garry was a cannibal.
Albert Silver Albert Silver 12/23/2020 06:38
"I ate his liver with fava beans and a nice Chianti."
Michael Jones Michael Jones 12/23/2020 01:31
Amazed to find my guess was actually right!
MauvaisFou MauvaisFou 12/22/2020 05:41
MauvaisFou MauvaisFou 12/22/2020 05:40
I by far prefer Dinu Lipats to Gould
Setne007 Setne007 12/22/2020 03:59
Gould later criticised his early interpretation (1955) of the 25th. because it sounded like Chopin :-) It sounds less like Chopin in his 1981 recording. Daniel Baremboim's 1989 live performance in Buenos Aires (released in 1991) is one of my favorites.
anthonyy anthonyy 12/22/2020 12:16
This pedantic tone is unmistakable ...
MauvaisFou MauvaisFou 12/22/2020 12:11
<< I don’t listen to much music before Mozart. It was quite a discovery to understand that Bach introduced many future themes. >>

It was high time ...
ChessTalk ChessTalk 12/22/2020 03:29
I recommend to the GM to listen to Handel.
IntensityInsanity IntensityInsanity 12/21/2020 11:11
“Recently music brought a critic and a guest together in a conversation about Bach..”

Minnesota Fats: Mark Taimanov died several years ago so it can’t be him...honestly, I have no idea who it could be...not enough info IMO.
Minnesota Fats Minnesota Fats 12/21/2020 10:26
Was Mark Taimanov not a great piano and chess player ? And an excellent womaniser?
Michael Jones Michael Jones 12/21/2020 01:25
I have a guess, but it's probably wildly wrong...