September 30, 2011

Jan Timman and Jorge Luis Borges

To my shame, I must admit that my cultural knowledge is lacking Jorge Luis Borges' famous masterpieces. The Argentine writer and poet came to my consciousness today, thanks to Jan Timman and his book, Een sprong in de Noordzee. Amongst many interesting chess stories which you can enjoy reading his book, Timman is also talking about literature, art and different cultures he encountered through his chess tournaments.
In 1982, while Timman was playing in Buenos Aires, the Argentinian grandmaster Miguel Quinteros arranged a meeting between the Dutchman and Borges, a meeting that had a profound impact on Timman. 2nd of March 1982 is still vivid in his memory, the day when he could meet in person one of his favourite writers: Jose Luis Borges!

Why am I writing about this? First of all because Borges always liked chess and dedicated a poem to this game, second of all it shows us once again how nice and kind chess can be: you have the chance to meet the people you admire and respect!

Unfortunately we don't have any pictures from their encounter - the tapes of the TV crew which was present, never arrived to Holland. Timman assumes they were confiscated by the junta, especially if we speak about the difficult political times when this happened. The politics is also blamed for the fact that Borges never received a Nobel prize for literature, although he was worldwide known and rewarded with many other honorific distinctions.

But we do have a resume of their dialogue, which covered many aspects, from literature to languages, from history to politics and of course, their common and favourite subject: chess. Borges showed his love for the game in many of his writings and looked at chess like a symbol for high culture, apart that he didn't like the element of competition - he preferred the beauty. When Timman said that Bronstein felt the same, Borges took it as a compliment.

Underneath you can read the original Spanish version of the poem Ajedrez, as well as the English translation, poem which can be found in the book Dreamtigers.

Ajedrez, by Jorge Luis Borges


En su grave rincón, los jugadores
Rigen las lentas piezas. El tablero
Los demora hasta el alba en su severo
Ámbito en que se odian dos colores.

Adentro irradian mágicos rigores
Las formas: torre homérica, ligero 
Caballo, armada reina, rey postrero,
Oblicuo alfil y peones agresores. 

Cuando los jugadores se hayan ido, 
Cuando el tiempo los haya consumido,
Ciertamente no habrá cesado el rito.

En el Oriente se encendió esta guerra
Cuyo anfiteatro es hoy toda la tierra.
Como el otro, este juego es infinito.


Tenue rey, sesgo alfil, encarnizada 
Reina, torre directa y peón ladino
Sobre lo negro y blanco del camino 
Buscan y libran su batalla armada.

No saben que la mano señalada
Del jugador gobierna su destino,
No saben que un rigor adamantino
Sujeta su albedrío y su jornada.

También el jugador es prisionero
(La sentencia es de Omar) de otro tablero
De negras noches y de blancos días.

Dios mueve al jugador, y este, la pieza.
Qué dios detrás de Dios la trama empieza
De polvo y tiempo y sueño y agonías?

English translation by Frank Thomas Smith

Chess, by Jorge Luis Borges *


In their solemn corner, the players move
The slow pieces. The board detains them
Until the dawn in its severe world
In which two colors hate each other.

Within the forms irradiates magic
Strictness: Homeric rook, swift
Knight, armed queen, crucial king,
Oblique bishop and aggressive pawns.

Once the players have finally left,
Once time has devoured them,
Surely the ritual will not have ended.

In the orient like this very war flared up
Whose amphitheater today is the earth entire.
Like the other, the game is infinite.


Weakling king,  slanting bishop, relentless
Queen, direct rook and cunning pawn
Seek and wage their armed battle
Across the black and white of the field.

They know not that the player’s selected  
Hand governs their destiny,
They know not that a rigor adamantine
Subjects their will and rules their day.

The player also is a prisoner
(The saying  is Omar’s) of another board
Of black nights and of white days.

God moves the player, and he, the piece.
Which god behind God begets the plot
Of dust and time and dream and agonies?

In the original Spanish there is a rhyming scheme impossible to duplicate, says the translator.

How does Borges see chess, as a game?
"Chess is one of the means we have to save the culture, like Latin, the study of the humanities, reading the classics, the versification laws and ethics." (from an interview in Spanish language, taken by the Argentine magazine "Ajedrez", December 1981)


  1. Nice reminder of an old poem.

    PS It`s , naturally , best in Spanish =)

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