Jazz and Chess

I've started studying chess.

I've known the rules since I was a kid and have played it for fun over the years, but although always fascinated by it, have never really made any attempt to study it in a methodical way till now.

As with any subject worthy of study, once I began to delve into it, I soon realised just how much there was to learn, and that in order to make any headway at all I would need some sort of strategy to avoid being overwhelmed by the mass of information available. I also began to see parallels between chess and jazz, and thought perhaps I could apply some of the techniques I have found useful in learning jazz to learning chess.

There are many photos of jazz musicians playing chess. I guess it fits the media's portrayal of jazz as a cool, intellectual music, however I think there are other reasons why musicians are often interested in it.

Obviously, both chess and jazz involve mathematics to some extent, as well as logical thinking and the recognition of patterns and structures. It's not too much of a stretch to see a game of chess as a kind of improvisation where certain parameters (rules) are set, and the players then respond to each individual move (or moment), and make calculations based on their own knowledge and experience.

Ray Charles was a keen chess player, here is a photo of him playing with his manager:

In fact Ray Charles once played a game against grandmaster Larry Melvyn Evans in what is perhaps the only officially recorded chess match played by a jazz musician. By all accounts Larry went fairly easy on Ray and still won fairly comfortably, but the fact Ray put up any sort of opposition is still pretty impressive. For anyone interested this is the game:

Ray was White:

1.e4 e5 2.Nc3 Nc6 3.Nf3 Nf6 4.d4 exd4 5.Nxd4 Bc5 6.Nxc6 bxc6 7.Qe2 O-O 8.Be3 Bxe3 9.Qxe3 Re8 10.f3 d5 11.Qd3 a5 12.O-O-O Ba6 13.Qd2 Bxf1 14.Rhxf1 dxe4 15.Qxd8 Raxd8 16.Rxd8 Rxd8 17.Rd1 Rxd1+ 18.Kxd1 exf3 19.gxf3 Kf8 20.Kc1 Ke7 21.Kd2 Ke6 22.Ke3 Nd5+ 23.Kd4 Nxc3 24.Kxc3 Kd5 0-1

Perhaps the other best known chess playing jazz musician is saxophonist and composer Anthony Braxton.

Braxton is a serious chess player, and in the sixties and seventies when going through lean periods as a musician would make ends meet hustling chess in Washington Square in New York. Here is a short video of Braxton talking about the parallels between music, chess and maths.

One of the first things people who study chess usually do is learn some openings.

A chess opening is a tried and tested sequence of moves which takes the players from the initial board setup to a position which gives each player a fighting chance in the game. Over many years of trial and error, certain sequences of moves have been found to offer advantages over others, and by a process of elimination the best sequences or 'lines' have been formalised into 'openings'.

A player who has memorised some of these openings will have an advantage over a player who just improvises their moves because they know in each situation what the most effective move will be, and they are less likely to blunder or make a weak move which could cost them the game.

Obviously there are hundreds of these openings and many of them branch out into other openings, so how on earth should the beginner start to learn them?

It occurred to me that an 'opening' is a little like a lick. A lick is a sequence of notes which fits a particular harmonic framework. If an improviser has learnt some licks he is approaching the improvisation from a position of knowledge, because when he encounters a particular harmonic structure (say a II V I) he will have some appropriate language to play there which he knows will work and sound good. The more licks a player knows which cover a variety of different harmonic situations, the more choices he will have and the richer his improvisation will be.

In the same way, the more openings a chess player knows, along with the different variations that opening can lead to, the more choices they will have when faced with a particular move and the stronger their position will be.

I figured that maybe I could learn openings in the same way I learn licks?

When learning a new lick I tend to follow a fairly rigorous process:

The first stage is to decide which lick to learn. It makes sense to learn licks for harmonic progressions which occur frequently in standard jazz tunes. I will usually pick a phrase I like out of a solo and isolate and transcribe it.

I will then play that lick in all twelve keys in a methodical repetitive way (usually ascending in semitones) until I have learnt it thoroughly. I will then begin to try and incorporate the lick into my existing vocabulary of phrases. I will do this by playing through a tune which features the particular melodic progression the lick articulates, and purposely play the lick in that place. I will improvise freely around the lick, experimenting with different ways of getting into and out of the lick. I will also play around with the lick creatively, trying to find out what in particular makes that phrase work, and whether I can adapt it somehow, whilst still retaining the flavour of the phrase. Again I try and do this in all keys.

Although this sounds a fairly straightforward process it can take months to effectively introduce a lick into your existing vocabulary (sometimes it never happens!)

With regard to which openings to learn I decided to make some basic decisions about which opening moves I would play and proceed from there. Many chess teachers say that you should choose openings which suit your game, but as a beginner I wasn't sure what my 'game' was.

I fairly arbitrarily chose to open with e4 as white (King's Pawn Opening) and in response to white playing e4, as black, I would open with the French Defense (e6). As in jazz I figured that it wasn't too important which vocabulary you learn to begin with, it's the process of working with the vocabulary and what that teaches you that is important. Obviously once you've made your initial move there are then a number of possible counter moves your opponent can make, however again through trial and error certain popular 'lines' have evolved.

So for example after 1.e4 the most common response from black is e5 after which 2.Nf3 then Nc6. At this point there are a number of possible variations e.g 3.Bb5 (Ruy Lopez) 3.Bc4 (Italian Game) etc. I decided to avoid these to begin with as these openings come with a huge amount of 'theory'. Players over the years have studied every possible permutation of these openings and the amount of literature on just one of these openings is dauntingly vast. Instead I chose the Scotch Opening (3. d4) Although not considered as strong as the other two, it is less well known, so there is less 'theory' attached to it but it still offers white good chances.

So I'd chosen my first chess 'lick', now how was I going to practice it?

After a bit of research I discovered a piece of free software called Lucaschess. This program offers a training facility where you can program a sequence of moves into the computer and the computer will play that sequence of moves against you, telling you when you make a mistake.

For the Scotch Opening there are a number of possible responses black can make to the initial moves, so I programmed the most common variations into the program and then started playing through them trying to remember the sequence of moves.

To begin with I mainly relied on memory, however I found it became easier to remember the moves if I understood more about what each move was attempting to achieve within the wider position. Sometimes the logic behind a move was immediately obvious e.g. developing a piece or avoiding a threat, sometimes however it took a little more thought to understand why a particular move was the best in a given situation. In the same way, the more you understand a musical phrase and the way it works, e.g which degree of the scale it starts on, does it outline any particular melodic shape, the easier it is to remember it.

As I worked through my chosen repertoire of openings I found that there were certain patterns or sequences of moves that kept reoccurring. Often these were specific to a particular opening. Again, here I found it was useful to understand the wider concepts and tactics behind a particular opening rather than just the specific move sequence, so that even if my opponent deviated from 'the book' I still knew what my main positional goals were with the opening. Often when learning a lick you can take the 'concept' behind the lick and from that go on to develop and even improvise new phrases based on that concept.

After having practised a few opening "licks" I would try and use them in a real game situation. Lucaschess also has a facility where you can play against the computer and specify which particular opening you want to play. Playing the openings in a real game situation meant not only remembering the openings and variations, but also being able to respond creatively when the computer made an unexpected move. When you are trying to integrate a "musical lick" into your vocabulary it is also good to try it in a "real" situation, for example when improvising a solo with a band. Again you have to be prepared to adapt and respond creatively based on what is happening in the moment.

Another useful activity when trying to improve as a chess player is playing through and analysing grandmaster games. The obvious musical parallel here is looking at transcribed solos. In both cases you are looking at the choices made by a master when faced with a particular set of data, be it a chord sequence or the position of pieces on a chess board. Trying to 'get inside the head' of a master and beginning to understand their process of thought can lead to important insights and provide a model towards which the student can aspire.


The greatest chess players exhibit creativity, imagination and skill in much the same way the greatest jazz players do, and I feel an insight into one of these disciplines may offer clues into and parallels with the other - although at the moment I'm still just trying not to hang my queen so often!


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