134

At the end of Orwell's 1984, Winston was a regular customer of the Chestnut Tree Café. He would go there every day, and the waiters would always bring him a chessboard and the current issue of the Times, which contained a new chess problem every day.

Now, chess requires deep thinking. Isn't this something that the Party would never want?
Yet, the game was allowed. Actually, considering that the newspaper published a new problem every day, it could be said that playing chess was not only allowed, but even encouraged. And the problems weren't trivial: on the day on which the last chapter is set, the problem was a "tricky" ending.

Doesn't it contradict the spirit of everything that the Party does?

Newspeak, for example, is meant to be really simple, in order to discourage complex thought. Syme explains that

In fact there will be no thought, as we understand it now. Orthodoxy means not thinking - not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness.
1984, Part 1, chapter V

Considering the length the Party goes to in order to make people incapable of thinking, why is the game of chess allowed?

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    Evidently the kind of "deep thinking" that goes into chess is no danger to the Party. The Soviet Communists did not prohibit chess, in fact they encouraged it. – user14111 Jun 20 '18 at 4:22
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    The question is based on some bizarre belief about the game of chess. In reality it's just a game. It's a great game, but it does not have the mystic powers you seem to think it has. Shaw defined chess (rather unfairly if you ask me) as "a foolish expedient for making idle people believe they are doing something very clever, when they are only wasting their time." I can't agree with Shaw, but he was closer to the truth than you are. – user14111 Jun 20 '18 at 8:44
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    Chess is a logical puzzle type game. The thinking may be deep, but it is logical and strategic. It's in no way the same type of, say, philosophical thought that is required for overthrowing a government or considering the unfair nature of your lot in life and the possibility of freedom. – colmde Jun 20 '18 at 13:42
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    ObSF: It's common knowledge that chessplayers think the same ways as normal people away from the chessboard. However, there is a fine SF story by Charles Harness, "The Chessplayers", based on the idea that chessplayers do think differently. You can read it at archive.org. Also, "The Fairy Chessmen" aka "Chessboard Planet" by "Lewis Padgett" (Kuttner & Moore) propounds the strange idea that people who play . . . – user14111 Jun 20 '18 at 22:33
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    Not in the book afaik, but the Party probably has their own version of "idle hands makes for the devil's work." Chess, sports, prostitutes, beer, endless war ... all distractions meant to keep people's mind off of the oppression. – fredsbend Jun 21 '18 at 22:21
40

The real reason is that, of course, 1984 is inspired by the USSR. Many other stylistic and aesthetic elements mirror the USSR, chess (very popular in USSR) is one of these.

Now, chess requires deep thinking. Isn't this something that the Party would never want?

No. The Party is concerned purely with dissent. So long as there is no dissent, it doesn't particularly bother them. Activities they interfere with are those conducive to inducing dissent, such as spending time alone (away from the pressure of one's peers).

The later passage does mention thinking, but context is key here. They mean unorthodox thinking. So long as the thinking can be channeled into a narrow technical area and isolated from political or social dissent, there is no problem. The Party's government employs numerous writers, engineers, doctors and other technical people, for instance. All of these jobs require thinking. However, these workers are taught to confine their thinking to harmless, apolitical subjects (which is considered possible in the book's universe). Chess is another such narrow, technical field.

One would wonder why the Party is not more hostile to chess when:

  • It has a history of being regarded as developing strategic thinking ability, which could help citizens feel confident about rebelling
  • It is played only with one other person, and requires substantial solitary effort (reading and practicing)

But in practice these are very minor factors, compared to more pressing sources of dissent, such as individuality. The Party is not tackling every threat at once indiscriminately, they are starting with the highest priority ones first. Eventually, they might consider modifying chess, but at the time of the novel's events there are more important issues.

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    I don't think the Party is starting with the highest priorities, planning to deal with the rest later. On the contrary, I'd say they absolutely and immediately take care of whatever isn't perfectly orthodox. And at the time the book is set at, they are already strong enough to do it, so there's no need to postpone anything. Or at least this is how I feel it. But the first part of your answer, that is, that thinking is not a problem if it doesn't lead to dissent, and that there are many jobs anyway that require thinking, really hits the nail on the head! – Fabio Turati Jun 21 '18 at 23:47
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    @FabioTurati they are definitely slowly chipping away at things still, and the book tells that several times as it explains how the party is changing the language over time, – jwenting Jun 22 '18 at 4:39
  • “1984 is inspired by the USSR.” Is this true? As I always understood it, Animal Farm was intended as a parable of communism/totalitarianism as it played out in the USSR, while 1984 was modelled much more after Nazism/fascism. – PLL Jun 23 '18 at 13:25
  • @FabioTurati The Party's doctrine may be that all unorthodoxy must be removed immedately, the inner circle may even believe it. But in practice it is made clear such perfectionism is not put into practice, important sources of dissent are often prioritized over others. But I agree with you that this is a weaker argument. – Answashe Jun 23 '18 at 20:14
  • @PLL According to en.wikipedia.org/wiki/…, yes. More precisely we could say it's specifically Stalinist USSR, but applied to British society as he perceived it. There are of course many ideological elements of the book's world that are a fusion of USSR and uniquely British tendencies, but apolitical stuff like fashions seem very borrowed from USSR (perhaps unconsciously). – Answashe Jun 23 '18 at 20:23
174

The party allows those things that take up time (in the company of others) and fritter away energy. Their ultimate goal is for the individual to have no life outside their work or simply burning up spare physical and mental energy before returning to work.

He had walked several kilometres over pavements, and his varicose ulcer was throbbing. This was the second time in three weeks that he had missed an evening at the Community Centre: a rash act, since you could be certain that the number of your attendances at the Centre was carefully checked. In principle a Party member had no spare time, and was never alone except in bed. It was assumed that when he was not working, eating, or sleeping he would be taking part in some kind of communal recreation: to do anything that suggested a taste for solitude, even to go for a walk by yourself, was always slightly dangerous. There was a word for it in Newspeak: OWNLIFE, it was called, meaning individualism and eccentricity. But this evening as he came out of the Ministry the balminess of the April air had tempted him. The sky was a warmer blue than he had seen it that year, and suddenly the long, noisy evening at the Centre, the boring, exhausting games, the lectures, the creaking camaraderie oiled by gin, had seemed intolerable.

There's also the fact that chess (and the inevitable chess problems shown in the paper) offer a salutary warning to any would-be anarchists. White always wins.

He examined the chess problem and set out the pieces. It was a tricky ending, involving a couple of knights. 'White to play and mate in two moves.' Winston looked up at the portrait of Big Brother. White always mates, he thought with a sort of cloudy mysticism. Always, without exception, it is so arranged. In no chess problem since the beginning of the world has black ever won. Did it not symbolize the eternal, unvarying triumph of Good over Evil? The huge face gazed back at him, full of calm power. White always mates.

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    I like your answer, but let me nitpick: isn't solving a chess problem something that suggests a taste for solitude? Granted, he was in a crowded café, but he was alone. Quote from the book: "The chessboard was always waiting for him, his corner table was always reserved; even when the place was full he had it to himself, since nobody cared to be seen sitting too close to him." – Fabio Turati Jun 20 '18 at 11:37
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    @FabioTurati: Yes, he's doing it by himself, but he's doing what he has been instructed to do (he chose to solve the puzzle, but he's doing what is asked of him, optional or not). The point of avoiding solitude was to avoid independent thought. Avoiding solitude is only a means to the true goal. – Flater Jun 20 '18 at 13:22
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    Nice. I really thought the leaders could have overseen this in the question, but they didn't. White always mates. – Thorsten S. Jun 20 '18 at 16:55
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    @Hamsterrific: Obviously in actual real-world chess, black wins quite frequently, but the problems the Party publishes always have white win. That universal means that for the world of 1984, where people largely (entirely?) do chess problems, rather than play actual games, white always wins. Remember, the whole book is written from limited, in-universe perspective. You have to use your own knowledge to see how the mindset of Winston is so warped, because he can't always see it. – ShadowRanger Jun 21 '18 at 16:38
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    @ShadowRanger people largely (entirely?) do chess problems, rather than play actual games That's a crucial clue that I think some of the answers are missing. Winston and others aren't even playing an actual game of chess; they're simply figuring out how to arrive at a predefined conclusion. – Ti Strga Jun 21 '18 at 18:32
72

Here are some reflections:

  • It's a game about war, and "War is Peace"
  • All chess pieces have precise functions and privileges in the game. You follow the rules. You don't question them. A pawn is a pawn and has to move like the other pawns. A castle can do different things, but it's a castle and no pawns will ever act as a castle, or any other pieces
  • It's encouraging massive sacrifice for the protection of only one piece, the king

It's quite a good game for maintaining an Orwellian society.

Plus, I think it'd be really easy to translate the rules into Newspeak. Also, everyone knows that Big Brother is the inventor of the plane, so he's probably the inventor of chess too.

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    "A pawn is a pawn and have to move like the other pawns." — Well, until it reaches the other end of the board, that is. – jwodder Jun 20 '18 at 1:06
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    @jwodder If the front-line of pawns represents the Outer Party, and the back line of non-pawns represents the Inner Party (with Big Brother as the King, of course) then the message is "Work hard, follow the rules, and maybe you too can be promoted" – Chronocidal Jun 20 '18 at 7:43
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    @jwodder part of how the society was set up explicitly included harvesting some of the more capable people from the lower classes into the party. (possibly so that the party wouldn't fall to nepotistic policy, inbreeding or incompetence) – Murphy Jun 20 '18 at 10:49
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    Pawn promotion aside, your overall point is right - The game does have a very strict set of rules that need to be followed without question and very little scope for considering the possibilities of life outside these rules. Now D&D, on the other hand, might not be so encouraged. – colmde Jun 20 '18 at 13:44
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    @jwodder a pawn that does exceptionally well can be become something better, but it can never be king. Also, there is no way a pawn will be promoted without significant help from the other pieces. – James Hollis Jun 20 '18 at 14:47
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Chess puzzles are not chess.

White to play and mate in two moves, means:

There are approximately 20 possible moves for white's first turn (depending on the chess puzzle). 19 of these are objectively wrong.

Black has no genuine choices, - all possible moves put white in a 'mate in 1' situation.

There are approximately 20 possible moves for white's second turn (depending on the chess puzzle). 19 of these are objectively wrong.

Chess puzzles are about working out which of 400 possible outcomes is acceptable to the author. There is no freedom, no choice. You can conform, or be wrong.

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    This is wrong. It is a very poor chess problem where Black has only one possible first move. – user14111 Jun 20 '18 at 4:25
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    I'll rephrase. Black may have multiple options, but they don't matter (assuming white got their prior moves right). Ultimately, if white gets their first move right and black now has 4 options, you just have 4 independent 'mate in 1' puzzles to do. If black has a genuine choice that matters, white messed up a prior turn. – Scott Jun 20 '18 at 4:39
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    Right. Although it would be interesting to bring in puzzles that can actually be solved with a mate in fewer moves than the author thought possible... – leftaroundabout Jun 20 '18 at 12:05
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    @leftaroundabout Such puzzles are not published in our newspapers. Our papers contain no errors. No-one has found any errors in our newspapers who still exists. Also, checking puzzles with an engine might be possible, Orwell was a bit vague on the available technology but I think they have some computers. It might seem extravagant to use 50s era tech for this, but it might be preferable to covering up errors. – James Hollis Jun 20 '18 at 15:20
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    A good chess puzzle starts with a "quiet" move. If we presume 20 possible moves on each side, you have 1 of 20 possible moves, 20 possible responses, and then 20 possible final moves. That's 8,000 combinations. Yes, the last move must involve check, and that usually reduces it down to about 4, but that just gets it down to 1,600 combinations, ALL IN YOUR HEAD (because at least one piece is no longer in the starting position). I'm no grandmaster (I'm an average tournament chess player), but I can't solve a good mate in 2 problem trivially. – Guy Schalnat Jun 22 '18 at 0:10
37

TL;DR 1984 is an allegory of Communist Russia and chess has always been popular in Russia.

From Wikipedia, quoting the author:

[Nineteen Eighty-Four] was based chiefly on communism, because that is the dominant form of totalitarianism, but I was trying chiefly to imagine what communism would be like if it were firmly rooted in the English speaking countries, and was no longer a mere extension of the Russian Foreign Office.

Regarding the popularity of chess in Russia:

In the Soviet era, from 1920, chess was included in the courses for military pre-draft preparation. This stipulated the foundation of the Central Chess Club. And in autumn 1920, Moscow took the first All-Union Chess Olympiad, as the future world chess champion Aleksandr Alekhin won this tournament.

Source: visitrussia.org, How did chess become so popular in Russia?

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    Your point is valid, but I was looking for an in-universe answer. – Fabio Turati Jun 20 '18 at 11:38
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    @FabioTurati pity, because this is easily the best answer. – TheAsh Jun 21 '18 at 9:28
8

The Party's efforts to remake society aren't finished yet; that's why Newspeak is still under development, and (according to O'Brien) other projects, like eliminating the female orgasm so women won't be tempted to bond with men, are still on the drawing boards. So chess may be a holdover from the old days that is convenient to keep around for the time being, because in some ways it reinforces the new order (as other answers above cleverly suggest), but eventually it will be replaced with a Party-devised game or activity that is more perfectly designed to achieve the Party's purposes.

However, it is possible that Orwell just messed this one up. (It happens. Writing novels is hard.)

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    Providing sources would help improve your answer, also explaining why this had to be a mess up from Orwell, or a mistake as opposed to being intentional. – Edlothiad Jun 20 '18 at 8:24
  • Welcome to SFF! I've taken the liberty of removing the paragraph that is more of discussion than a part of the actual answer; remember this is a Q/A site, not a discussion forum, I invite you to take the tour. I've also re-ordered your answer as the main attempt at answering the question seems to be the other point with the speculative guess being just a side answer. You can always edit your answer and revert this if you feel it is appropriate. – TheLethalCarrot Jun 20 '18 at 8:27
  • OK, LethalCarrot, thanks. Edlothiad, I don't know that it was mistake on Orwell's part (or, more properly, a lack of imagination). That's always one possible answer for a seeming inconsistency in a long novel, but I agree that there are other good possibilities in this case. – JSmith125 Jun 20 '18 at 12:39
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    “but eventually it will be replaced with a Party-devised game” — No, they will just change the rules of the game so that it fits better, err, I mean, the game will always have been played to those other rules. Note that occasionally changing the rules might also help finding out who's failing double-think, through him not using the new rules that always have been that way. – celtschk Jun 20 '18 at 14:33
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    @celtschk 99% of the people that fail to keep track of the new rules will be genuinely less able to remember things. The Party wants more of these people really. – James Hollis Jun 20 '18 at 15:49
-4

Chess is not a game that requires abstract or 'deep' thought. It is pure pattern recognition. The best players have winning patterns memorized as well as the moves to force them. It actually furthers the Party ideology to get everyone playing chess from that perspective.

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    Is there anything in the text that you think backs this assertion up? – Valorum Jun 23 '18 at 19:14
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    Even neglecting the text, the assertion that chess doesn't require deep thought and that players win games purely through pattern recognition is wildly incorrect. Such skills are useful (and studied heavily, especially for openings and certain end-game scenarios), but the board states and manipulations for actual games of chess are unwieldy to the point that neither man nor machine are capable of doing what is suggested by this answer. Chess requires critical thought/heuristics on how to progress your board and capitalize on previously-unencountered board states. – Ironcache Jun 25 '18 at 19:35
-9

Beyond beginner/casual chess, chess is very much a game of following the strategy set out by better players.

This reinforces the Orwellian society as, people who think for themselves are just naive idiots who lose every match to players who know to respect the views of the elites.

Also either has an elite class that are permitted to break rules or make them, or these new rules are so frowned on that players are shunned socially for attempting them giving them no player to practice on ending the development of any new thinking in chess.

(disclaimer, I neither play chess or know the book in any more than passing knowledge)

  • Then go out and read it. Very easy to do, actually, easier than to learn to play chess. – Gábor Jun 22 '18 at 13:06
  • @Gabor most things are. – PStag Jun 23 '18 at 13:47
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    So you're passing a value judgement on a game you don't know in the context of a book you haven't read? – Shadur Jun 24 '18 at 20:26
  • @Shadur No, I have heard this said by serious chess players I am just repeating it, and the book is fairly well known in regard to what the party is. – PStag Jun 26 '18 at 7:47
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    @PStag That seems like a yes. – DonFusili Jun 26 '18 at 12:47

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