Thinking for Two

Chess is a creative collaboration

a line of black and white chess pieces

Walter led by a hair’s breadth in the junior chess championship. He was seventeen-years-old, ahead in the tournament by just half a point, and his final opponent was an older man and a stronger player.

“I was beating him,” Walter said. He had been feeling tremendous joy, like he was three feet above everybody.  

And in the waning minutes of the game, Walter threw away a rook, and lost. Despondent, he pushed away the table and walked out.

“I don’t think I have ever quite recovered from that,” he said. “It hurt me emotionally… I was never again committed to organized chess as a serious thing.”

We tend to think of chess from the myopia of our own psychology. After each move, we witness our opponent’s intense concentration. We see their furrowed brow. We see their shoulders slump as they sigh in defeat.

But chess, sociologist Gary Alan Fine points out, is a game played in twos. And a game played in twos is not a solo affair.

Dr. Fine, a lifelong chess player, wanted to uncover a hidden side of chess, one that is beyond the lengthy profiles of grand masters and the breathless descriptions of the chess tournaments of yore. To discover this hidden side, he read books and websites about chess. He talked to professional chess players and hung out at chess tournaments and in chess chat rooms.


In Plain Sight

Chess players do not see moves ahead; rather, they see multiple lines of possibilities like fractures spreading across a thin sheet of ice. The players reassess their plans based on a constantly shifting landscape. Success rests on a moving target.

Chess is a surprisingly intense physical game that relies on not moving the body. “During the last world championship, which for me lasted 3 weeks from the start to winning the final,” said Alexandra Kosteniuk, a former Women’s World Chess Champion, “I lost over 5 kilos, only playing chess, not running or doing any other kinds of physical sports.”

Players will jitter and twitch, grimace and cough, or even stand up and pace. Many avoid moving at all just to hide their anxiety. “If the breathing is deep or shallow, fast or slow,” said one grand master, “that reveals a lot about the degree of his agitation.”

To hide from the audience – and their competitors – the players try to retreat into their own body; their slight moves of pawns and queens are the main, and acceptable, outward indicator of a turbulent inner life.




“I lean forward and I get too crazy,” a player said. “My stomach starts going ‘Mwooh.’”

At the chessboard, the body and the mind, intimately connected, perform a public dance.  The dance can last for hours, or for a preset 90 minutes. It is a dance of the two who sit across the board – and if the match is particularly interesting, with the audience around them.

The dance can be for joy: “I feel as if I couldn’t do a wrong move. . . . I feel smarter, clever. Sadistic as it is, I can’t stop a grin from breaking out on my face.”

Or they dance in agony. When Gary Kasparov is losing, “he’d start swearing and muttering to himself in Russian.”

They are told that emotion is a bad strategy. “You have to play without emotion,” a chess coach said. “You can go outside and scream afterward, but you want to scream because you won.”

Yet humans are emotive animals who cannot fully deny joy and agony. In chess, the emotive dance is caused by others while being seen by others.


Get It Off Your Chess

To prepare for a match, players will download videos of their opponent’s games. They study the moves. They consult with friends and coaches. They strategize.

During the match, they put that plan into motion. But even the best plans change. As the players move pieces expectedly and unexpectedly, the match morphs into a unique pattern.

A pattern fashioned by two.

This is Dr. Fine’s hidden side of chess: What we interpret as a series of individual moves is, in reality, a creative collaboration. Chess is not merely psychological.

Chess is social.

“In chess you are left to your own resources, and at the same time you are strictly dependent on someone else,” said a grand master.

“Live chess, the game, is always ‘thinking for two.’”



This was written by Josh Dubrow based on Gary Alan Fine’s “Strategy and Sociability: The Mind, the Body, and the Soul of Chess.” American Journal of Play 6, no. 3 (2014): 321-344.

“I was beating him…” p. 338. Dr. Fine does not report the interviewee’s name or pseudonym, so I named that young chess player Walter, after Walter Tevis, author of The Queen’s Gambit.

“During the last world championship…” p. 331.

“If the breathing is deep or shallow…” p. 332.

“‘Mwooh,’” p. 337.

 “I feel as if I couldn’t do a wrong move…” p. 337.

“He’d start swearing…” p. 339.

 “You have to play without emotion…” p. 340.

“‘thinking for two,’” p. 324.

Copyright Occam’s Press 2022: Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs CC BY-NC-ND

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