Ayn Rand and Chess

Ayn Rand (1905-1982) was a Russian-American novelist (author of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged) and philosopher who had some interest and connections to chess.  She was born in Russia and later moved to the United States in 1926, then to Hollywood.  Her first literary success was a screenplay called Red Pawn, written in 1931 and earning her $1,500 when she sold it to Universal Pictures in 1932.  She mentioned chess in several of her works.

In 1947, she was a friendly witness who testified and cooperated before the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Un-American Activities.  She was called to testify because of her well-known hatred for Communism and she was a Russian exile.  In her testimony, she said a typical Soviet border guardhouse would have guards listening to Tchaikovsky music while playing chess.

She took chess lessons when she was in her 60s, but did not like the game.  She said she resented the game on principle as it involved too much wasted thinking.  She preferred Scrabble or solitaire.  Chess was an intellectual function and tried to use chess as a means to refute socialism.

One of her friends was economist Alan Greenspan, whom she met in 1952.  He once said, “…I prided myself on my reasoning ability, and thought I could beat anybody in an intellectual debate.  Talking to Ayn Rand was like starting a game of chess thinking I was good, and suddenly finding myself in checkmate.” (reference: Greenspan, The Age of Turbulence: Adventures in a New World, 2007, p. 41)

Forty years ago, Bobby Fischer defeated Boris Spassky in the world chess championship.  Ayn wrote an “open letter” to Boris Spassky on September 11, 1972.  The letter first appeared in Ayn Rand’s newsletter, The Ayn Rand Letter, Vol 1, No 25.  The subtitle of the open letter was: The Metaphyscial Lessons of Chess.  The letter was later published in Chapter 6, page 56, of her book, Philosophy: Who Needs It, published in 1982.  It is highly unlikely that Spassky saw this letter during the time, nor did he ever respond to it.

An Open Letter to Boris Spassky from Ayn Rand:

Dear Comrade Spassky:

I have been watching with great interest your world chess championship match
with Bobby Fischer. I am not a chess enthusiast or even a player, and know
only the rudiments of the game. I am a novelist-philosopher by profession.

But I watched some of your games, reproduced play by play on television, and
found them to be a fascinating demonstration of the enormous complexity of
thought and planning required of a chess player--a demonstration of how many
considerations he has to bear in mind, how many factors to integrate, how
many contingencies to be prepared for, how far ahead to see and plan. It was
obvious that you and your opponent had to have an unusual intellectual

Then I was struck by the realization that the game itself and the players'
exercise of mental virtuosity are made possible by the metaphysical
absolutism of the reality with which they deal. The game is ruled by the Law
of Identity and its corollary, the Law of Causality. Each piece is what it
is: a queen is a queen, a bishop is a bishop--and the actions each can
perform are determined by its nature: a queen can move any distance in any
open line, straight or diagonal, a bishop cannot; a rook can move from one
side of the board to the other, a pawn cannot; etc. Their identities and the
rules of their movements are immutable--and this enables the player's mind
to devise a complex, long-range strategy, so that the game depends on
nothing but the power of his (and his opponent's) ingenuity.

This led me to some questions that I should like to ask you.

 1.. Would you be able to play if, at a crucial moment--when, after hours
of brain-wrenching effort, you had succeeded in cornering your opponent--an
unknown, arbitrary power suddenly changed the rules of the game in his
favor, allowing, say, his bishops to move like queens? You would not be able
to continue? Yet out in the living world, this is the law of your
country--and this is the condition in which your countrymen are expected,
not to play, but to live.
 2.. Would you be able to play if the rules of chess were updated to
conform to a dialectic reality, in which opposites merge--so that, at a
crucial moment, your queen turned suddenly from White to Black, becoming the
queen of your opponent; and then turned Gray, belonging to both of you? You
would not be able to continue? Yet in the living world, this is the view of
reality your countrymen are taught to accept, to absorb, and to live by.
 3.. Would you be able to play if you had to play by teamwork--i.e., if you
were forbidden to think or act alone and had to play not with a group of
advisers, but with a team that determined your every move by vote? Since, as
champion, you would be the best mind among them, how much time and effort
would you have to spend persuading the team that your strategy is the best?
Would you be likely to succeed? And what would you do if some pragmatist,
range-of-the-moment mentalities voted to grab an opponent's knight at the
price of a checkmate to you three moves later? You would not be able to
continue? Yet in the living world, this is the theoretical ideal of your
country, and this is the method by which it proposes to deal (someday) with
scientific research, industrial production, and every other kind of activity
required for man's survival.
 4.. Would you be able to play if the cumbersome mechanism of teamwork were
streamlined, and your moves were dictated simply by a man standing behind
you, with a gun pressed to your back--a man who would not explain or argue,
his gun being his only argument and sole qualification? You would not be
able to start, let alone continue, playing? Yet in the living world, this is
the practical policy under which men live--and die--in your country.
 5.. Would you be able to play--or to enjoy the professional understanding,
interest, and acclaim of an international Chess Federation--if the rules of
the game were splintered, and you played by "proletarian" rules while your
opponent played by "bourgeois" rules? Would you say that such "polyrulism"
is more preposterous than polylogism? Yet in the living world, your country
professes to seek global harmony and understanding, while proclaiming that
she follows "proletarian" logic and that others follow "bourgeois" logic, or
"Aryan" logic, or "third-world" logic, etc.
 6.. Would you be able to play if the rules of the game remained as they
are at present, with one exception: that the pawns were declared to be the
most valuable and non-expendable pieces (since they may symbolize the
masses) which had to be protected at the price of sacrificing the more
efficacious pieces (the individuals)? You might claim a draw on the answer
to this one--since it is not only your country, but the whole living world
that accept this sort of rule in morality.
 7.. Would you care to play, if the rules of the game remained unchanged,
but the distribution of rewards were altered in accordance with egalitarian
principles: if the prizes, the honors, the fame were given not to the
winner, but to the loser--if wining were regarded as a symptom of
selfishness, and the winner were penalized for the crime of possessing a
superior intelligence, the penalty consisting in suspension for a year, in
order to give others a chance? Would you and your opponent try playing not
to win, but to lose? What would this do to your mind?
You do not have to answer me, Comrade. You are not free to speak or even to
think of such questions--and I know the answers. No, you would not be able
to play under any of the conditions listed above. It is to escape this
category of phenomena that you fled into the world of chess.

Oh yes, Comrade, chess is an escape--an escape from reality. It is an "out,"
a kind of "make-work" for a man of higher than average intelligence who was
afraid to live, but could not leave his mind unemployed and devoted it to a
placebo--thus surrendering to others the living world he had rejected as too
hard to understand.

Please do not take this to mean that I object to games as such: games are an
important part of man's life, they provide a necessary rest, and chess may
do so for men who live under the constant pressure of purposeful work.
Besides, some games--such as sports contests, for instance--offer us an
opportunity to see certain human skills developed to a level of perfection.
But what would you think of a world champion runner who, in real life, moved
about in a wheelchair? Or of a champion high jumper who crawled about on all
fours? You, the chess professionals, are taken as exponents of the most
precious of human skills: intellectual power--yet that power deserts you
beyond the confines of the sixty-four squares of a chessboard, leaving you
confused, anxious, and helplessly unfocused. Because, you see, the
chessboard is not a training ground, but a substitute for reality.

A gifted, precocious youth often finds himself bewildered by the world: it
is people that he cannot understand, it is their inexplicable,
contradictory, messy behavior that frightens him. The enemy he rightly
senses, but does not choose to fight, is human irrationality. He withdraws,
gives up, and runs, looking for some sanctuary where his mind would be
appreciated--and he falls into the booby trap of chess.

You, the chess professionals, live in a special world--a safe, protected,
orderly world, in which all the great, fundamental principles of existence
are so firmly established and obeyed that you do not even have to be aware
of them. (They are the principles involved in my seven questions.) You do
not know that these principles are the preconditions of your game--and you
do not have to recognize them when you encounter them, or their breach, in
reality. In your world, you do not have to be concerned with them: all you
have to do is think.

The process of thinking is man's basic means of survival. The pleasure of
performing this process successfully--of experiencing the efficacy of one's
own mind--is the most profound pleasure possible to men, and it is their
deepest need, on any level of intelligence, great or small. So one can
understand what attracts you to chess: you believe that you have found a
world in which all irrelevant obstacles have been eliminated, and nothing
matters, but the pure, triumphant exercise of your mind's powers. But have
you, Comrade?

Unlike algebra, chess does not represent the abstraction--the basic
pattern--of mental effort; it represents the opposite: it focuses mental
effort on a set of concretes, and demands such complex calculations that a
mind has no room for anything else. By creating an illusion of action and
struggle, chess reduces the professional player's mind to an uncritical,
unvaluing passivity toward life. Chess removes the motor of intellectual
effort--the question "What for?"--and leaves a somewhat frightening
phenomenon: intellectual effort devoid of purpose.

If--for any number of reasons, psychological or existential--a man comes to
believe that the living world is closed to him, that he has nothing to seek
or to achieve, that no action is possible, then chess becomes his antidote,
the means of drugging his own rebellious mind that refuses fully to believe
it and to stand still. This, Comrade, is the reason why chess has always
been so popular in your country, before and since it's present regime--and
why there have not been many American masters. You see, in this country, men
are still free to act.

Because the rulers of your country have proclaimed this championship match
to be an ideological issue, a contest between Russia and America, I am
rooting for Bobby to win--and so are all of my friends. The reason why this
match has aroused an unprecedented interest in our country is the
longstanding frustration and indignation of the American people at your
country's policy of attacks, provocations, and hooligan insolence--and at
our own government's overtolerant, overcourteous patience. There is a
widespread desire in our country to see Soviet Russia beaten in any way,
shape or form, and--since we are all sick and tired of the global clashes
among the faceless, anonymous masses of collective--the almost medieval
drama of two individual knights fighting the battle of good against evil,
appeals to us symbolically. (But this, of course, is only a symbol; you are
not necessarily the voluntary defender of evil--for all we know, you might
be as much its victim as the rest of the world.)

Bobby Fischer's behavior, however, mars the symbolism--but it is a clear
example of the clash between a chess expert's mind, and reality. This
confident, disciplined, and obviously brilliant player falls to pieces when
he has to deal with the real world. He throws tantrums like a child, breaks
agreements, makes arbitrary demands, and indulges in the kind of whim
worship one touch of which in the playing of chess would disqualify him for
a high-school tournament. Thus he brings to the real world the very evil
that made him escape it: irrationality. A man who is afraid to sign a
letter, who fears any firm commitment, who seeks the guidance of the
arbitrary edicts of a mystic sect in order to learn how to live his life--is
not a great, confident mind, but a tragically helpless victim, torn by acute
anxiety and, perhaps, by a sense of treason to what might have been a great

But, you may wish to say, the principles of reason are not applicable beyond
the limit of a chessboard, they are merely a human invention, they are
impotent against the chaos outside, they have no chance in the real world.
If this were true, none of us would have survived nor even been born,
because the human species would have perished long ago. If, under irrational
rules, like the ones I listed above, men could not even play a game, how
could they live? It is not reason, but irrationality that is a human
invention--or, rather, a default.

Nature (reality) is just as absolutist as chess, and her rules (laws) are
just as immutable (more so)--but her rules and their applications are much,
much more complex, and have to be discovered by man. And just as a man may
memorize the rules of chess, but has to use his own mind in order to apply
them, i.e., in order to play well--so each man has to use his own mind in
order to apply the rules of nature, i.e., in order to live successfully. A
long time ago, the grandmaster of all grandmasters gave us the basic
principles of the method by which one discovers the rules of nature and
life. His name was Aristotle.

Would you have wanted to escape into chess, if you lived in a society based
on Aristotelian principles? It would be a country where the rules were
objective, firm and clear, where you could use the power of your mind to its
fullest extent, on any scale you wished, where you would gain rewards for
your achievements, and men who chose to be irrational would not have the
power to stop you nor to harm anyone but themselves. Such a social system
could not be devised, you say? But it was devised, and it came close to full
existence--only, the mentalities whose level was playing jacks or craps, the
men with the guns and their witch doctors, did not want mankind to know it.
It was called Capitalism.

But on this issue, Comrade, you may claim a draw: your country does not know
the meaning of that word--and, today, most people in our country do not know
it either.


Ayn Rand