Music and Chess

by admin on November 21, 2009

Yesterday I was driving around town when the song “I’ve Seen All Good People” by Yes came on the radio. This was the first time that I had ever really listened carefully to the song, even though it dates back to 1971. In fact, it was practically the soundtrack to my first year in prep school. All my friends were listening to FM radio and had “The Yes Album” playing on their record players. Not me, unfortunately. At this point I still only listened to AM, top-40 radio (and Yes was not on the top 40 — that would come later), and had never actually bought an album, only 45-rpm singles. In other words, I was pretty clueless.

It’s too bad I wasn’t ready for Yes yet, because at a later point in my life this is a song I would have really loved. I love the big old drum — maybe a bodhran? — that keeps the song grounded. I love the recorders, an instrument that I used to play and that rarely shows up in rock ‘n roll. “Stairway to Heaven” and “Fool on the Hill” are the only other songs that come to mind with a recorder part. I love the organ coming in at the end, although it is probably a synthesizer programmed to sound like an organ.

But most of all, I should have loved this song because there is so much chess imagery in it! We’re told to “Take a straight and stronger course/ To the corner of your life/ Make the white queen run so fast/ She hasn’t got time to make you a wife.” And, “Move me on to any black square …”, and while you’re at it, “Don’t surround yourself with yourself/ Move on back two squares …”

It’s hard to say what it all means, and it definitely won’t help  you play better chess, but it’s good fun and a really great song.

This reminded me of the one occasion when a song really had an influence on one of my chess games. Back in 1972, “Conquistador” by Procol Harum was a minor top-40 hit. That summer I went with some friends to my very first chess tournament, and in the first tournament game I ever played, I could not get this song out of my head. I won material early in the game and should have had an easy win, but the lines that kept going through my head were:

“And as the gloom begins to fall/ I see there is no, only all/ And though you came with sword held high/ You did not conquer, only die.”

Actually, I thought at the time that the word “gloom” was “doom.” (I thought that until five minutes ago when I looked the lyrics up online.) So you can imagine the effect it had on my chess to be thinking about the “doom beginning to fall” and “you did not conquer, only die.” I basically played the rest of the game expecting something to go wrong, and sure enough, it did.

This afternoon I played through the game again for the first time in 37 years and found it really fascinating. Though full of mistakes, it was a really hard-fought battle, and the mistakes were very instructive. That is, they would have been instructive if I had had a chess teacher to go over the game with me. But I didn’t, and so I am only learning the lessons from the game now, 37 years later! I think that I may actually record a ChessLecture about it, so I won’t analyze the game here, but if you are interested here is the PGN. My opponent, Judy Rippeth, was rated around 1600-something, and I believe she was one of the top 20 female players in the U.S. at the time.

Have you ever had a song running through your head during a chess game? Did it ever have any effect on the game, either positive or negative?

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Michael Goeller November 25, 2009 at 4:32 am

I hate to confess it, but I was both a chess-nerd and a Yes-nerd as a youngster, having caught that 1970s wave in the popularity of both. I think “Roundabout” was released around 1972 (coinciding with Fischer) — that was their biggest hit, and I still hear it on the radio from time to time. They had some amazing musicians — their best stuff is too long to play on the radio and is full of amazing solos. I haven’t listened to them in ages (since dumping all my vinyl records decades back), but your post has already made me check out what’s on YouTube. I had been thinking about the band a bit because they had a revival tour this past year (which I did not follow or attend but heard about) and I think I will revisit their stuff…. As for songs and chess, though, I do not think there is anything good besides ABBA’s musical (tunes from which were just not catchy enough to have playing in my head). I think I may occasionally hear “Ride of the Valkyries” during a fun attacking game, but that’s about it.


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