This is an extract from the Posthuman Dada Guide, about the infamous (and possible mythical) chess match between revolutionary and founder of the USSR Vladimir Lenin, and the Romanian-Jewish artist and one of the founders of Dada, Tristan Tzara, at the La Terrasse cafe in Zurich, in 1916 or so:
Tzara and Lenin play fast now, several games in a row, at a speed the La Terrasse riffraff isn’t quite accustomed to. Four hundred years of deliberate moves have seen only incremental changes in timing, but this appears to no longer be the case, and it confuses the kibbitzers. Chess, like society, is starting to move at the speed of machines, keeping time to the shouts of futurists and dadaists, cars, and airplanes. The advent of one-minute chess played with a digital clock late in the 20th century could already be glimpsed in the rapid moves of the two players. One-minute chess, simultaneous games, and blindfolded chess have already been played, but the future is full of them, like ticking bombs. Chess has its detractors already, even among its admirers, who suspect it of being addictive and leading to insanity.
Lenin is impatient: revolution is all about timing and the time is now. Lenin is one-quarter Mongol (Kalmyk) and one-quarter Jewish. Tristan Tzara is one hundred percent Ashkenazi Jewish, but there is a persistent question about the origin of the Ashkenazi Jews in Eastern Europe, about whether they are partly or wholly Khazar (a Mongolian people who converted to Judaism in the 10th century), or direct descendants of Abraham. In any case, it is Lenin who most clearly embodies warring Mongol impatience with Jewish thoughtfulness and reasoning. The revolution must be conducted like a Mongol attack, a swarming of the enemy, and so it is. The Bolshevik attack on the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg in October 1917 is the Mongolian chess opening: a handful of armed and angry Bolsheviks seizes power from the weak Duma and takes control of Russia. What happens afterwards is tactical, and Lenin has given it only a little thought, trusting that every situation that will arise after the revolution will be solved given the context and the situation, if one acts according to the principles of dialectics, which is History.
Tristan Tzara desires most earnestly to overthrow reality, not just art, and to this end he would rather play anarchist chess, moving pieces situated at random on a board occupying any number of dimensions. He is nonetheless fascinated with the limitations of the game because there are infnite possibilities within these limitations, a paradox much like the study of the Torah, the reading of one verse numerous times so that it loses its apparent meaning and becomes pure sound, referencing something primal and unknown. He waits like a junkie for the moment when the high hits and the apparently banal turns magical. At that moment, the mechanical movements of the head moved by reason become abstract. Abstraction is freedom and, amazingly, abstraction appears most accessible through the narrow gate of rules. Each square is a mouth opening into Chaos and each piece, once moved, changes the entire universe, like words rearranging the cosmos. This is way beyond Lenin’s play. Lenin wants to win and he stubbornly insists on the rational unfolding of the plan of History, a process that is as objective and solid as the wooden chess pieces on the board. The wooden knight in his hand is real, it exists beyond him, but it must move two and one squares because that is the Law. History has Laws that proceed from objective reality.
The Laws of Chess have on occasion accommodated politics. Benjamin Franklin is said to have lobbied for the taking, not just the surrender, of the King because he did not want to play a royalist game. A republican game, he thought, would make the King a citizen, as mortal as a pawn. Lenin decided something similar when he ordered the Tsar and his family killed. I doubt if Franklin would have gone so far: abdication and removal from the board would have satisfed him.
For both Tzara and Lenin, chess is fascinating beyond metaphor. Chess is the Bible of war. Jews were enabled by their portable religion, the Bible (the Book), to keep the faith. They idled the time between pogroms and expulsions by studying the Bible. Chess enabled nomad warriors to while away the time between battles by playing chess, a game of divine origin that was a transcendent mirror of war that validated their campaigns. Fundamentally different languages attend the players: Lenin is validated by the logic of the board, Tzara by its possibility of transcendent egress. Lenin has his hand on the knight when he realizes that his opponent is none other than the Tzar. Tzara. He pulls on the reins and the knight leaps forward.
Lenin is not, on principle, in favor of speed. He is methodical, deliberates every point to a maddening degree, and is slow to act, but timing is, of course, of the essence, and timing, more often than not, involves speed. In his haste to checkmate the Tzar, he makes an almost fatal blunder in the next move but stops just in time, and his hand retreats to stroke his bald pate. Patience. He is also one-quarter German and one-quarter Russian.
In the still middle of the game, there is a point of absolute silence, a dead zone or a meditation place when nothing can be done, none of the players move, meditation turns into tense sleep. The next move will determine the outcome of the game, but right now, right here, on Center Island, in neutral Switzerland, there are no Winners and Losers, only the Game. The Game has abandoned all its metaphors, it is naked and very much itself. Among the lost metaphors of the Game is chess itself, or rather its succeeding designs, as gods, saints, pawns, kings, queens, bishops, and knights fade into the past. The three-tiered rule of royalty, church, and the military is breaking down even as Tzara and Lenin play on, and the kibbitzers sense it because what they are waiting for, whether they know it or not, is the birth of Chess Theory. And class struggle. And the atom bomb. The idea of classes and masses advances from Lenin’s hand, just like the iconic statues of the Soviets will have it for the next six decades, but even they give way to speed already, as modern art is making the world look unrecognizable wherever there is no Lenin statue.