(Introducing a new recurring segment, “every yes” – ideas, sketches, and materials for things I’ll never get around to writing, and should stop thinking about, and which I hope somebody else takes up. We have to say no so many times to say every yes.)
Two people, an afternoon, a room, and a machine: Norbert Wiener and Gonzalo Torres y Quevedo, early January 1951, a room in the Centre National de Documentation Pédagogique, 29 rue d’Ulm in Paris, and the machine El Ajedrecista – the first real chess-playing automaton, without a concealed human opponent. A photograph survives of the event. Wiener is wearing very much the same iconic uniform in which he appears on the cover of Cybernetics – the black-framed glasses above the white goatee, the abstracted look, the rumpled wool suit. His hands rest on the frame of the machine. (He had already been in Paris for several months, playing chess at the Bar Select and being chaperoned around town by the young Benoît Mandelbrot.) Standing across from him, his hand hovering above the black king, stands Gonzalez Torres y Quevedo, son of Leonardo, who built the first version of El Ajedrecista (and an airship, and a calculator called the “Endless Spindle,” and who likewise made a splash in Paris, in 1914). Between them is the board, and above the board a speaker which will play a phonograph recording announcing check and (with a warning light illuminated) mate. The machine plays the white king and rook, using an electromagnet to move the pieces into position. Given the constraints of the endgame, white will probably win in less than fifty moves against any defense. (A good player could postpone mate for a maximum of 61 moves, which technically allows they to claim a draw.) Losing is inevitable.
The Torres y Quevedo machine only worked due to the simplicities of the king-rook-king (KRK) endgame, which rarely receives more than a page in canonical chess manuals. El Ajedrecista was the physical expression of a straightforward heuristic repeated at every move, a simple instruction set for keeping the white rook and king out of reach while slowly, inexorably cutting off available avenues of escape. (If you’re curious, the physicist Henri Vigneron published a thorough account, including diagrams and the play heuristic, in La Nature in 1914, which David Levy translated for his history of chess machines: PDF).
It’s too bad that Marcel Duchamp did not pass through the rue d’Ulm that January; Duchamp, the great theorist of the futile chess endgame, would have enjoyed being harried by the algorithm of this persistent bachelormachine and its croaking phonograph disc. In 1932, he coauthored one of the strangest books in chess: l’Opposition et Cases Conjuguées sont réconciliées, or Opposition and Sister Squares are reconciled, with Vitaly Halberstadt, a noted problemist and player of blindfold chess. (Here’s a dreamy picture Man Ray took of the two of them.) The book concerns endgames in which only kings and pawns remain, particularly the exceedingly unlikely endgame known as the Lasker-Reichhelm position. Duchamp and Halberstadt demonstrated (with the aid of beautiful fold-in transparencies) that the best black can hope for is a draw, with elegant delays before the inevitable loss – a waiting game. “Even the chess champions don’t read the book,” he said in conversation with Pierre Cabanne, “since the problem it poses really only comes up once in a lifetime. They’re end game problems of possible games so rare as to be nearly Utopian.”
On his own, Duchamp went yet further: asked by Julien Levy to create the announcement for a 1943 group show (with Tanguy and Cornell), he included a cryptic endgame problem known as “White to Play and Win” – after the standard puzzle notation which challenges the reader, given the pieces and configuration, to start with white and find a winning strategy. He even provides a clue, with a painstakingly inked Cupid and his drawn bow (visible on the board if the paper is properly folded and held up to the light) pointing with its arrow in a way that suggests a pawn advance for white. Yet starting with that move will not result in a win; indeed, on further analysis you realize that any move by white will end, at best, in a draw. It is a problem without a solution – an exercise in the beautifully, intricately unwinnable.
Duchamp loved the “design” of a game on the chessboard, which has “no visual aesthetic value and is more like a score of music which can be played again and again.” He was looking for a way something could be known, quantified, in no way mysterious, and yet unpredictable, full of emergent liveliness: an event. He had always emphasized that the work of art is co-created between the artist and the spectator – indeed, mostly on the part of the spectator, with an open-ended trajectory down through the decades and centuries. Chess was a quiet, controlled laboratory to investigate latent possibilities through an ordinary, eight-by-eight grid and its little tokens. As he said to Calvin Tompkins, “The beautiful combinations that people invent in chess are only Cartesian after they are explained – in other words, you cannot see them coming at all. And yet when it’s explained there is no mystery.”
(Duchamp made a painting for his brother’s kitchen, Coffee Mill (1913), which is a picture not so much of the mill itself as of “the different facets of the coffee grinding operation” – the possible states in which the mill could be. “It’s not like a drawing,” he explained to Tompkins. “It’s not one moment; it’s all the possibilities of that grinding machine.”)
Twofer for your metal moods:
The incredibly bleak Canadian black-depressive metal trio Thantifaxath close out their new album with something truly beautiful, unsettling, and eerie – an ice-cold, seven-minute choral/synth track that sounds like the space between galaxies: Void Masquerading as Matter
From “lucio and Aitor bunker” in Paraná, Argentina comes the Sleep-meets-Sabbath riffs – heavy as tungsten, overwhelming as sunstroke – of Sahara’s Skinburner, off The Light. The endless desert welcomes you
Screenplay idea, inspired by a true story: the bulk of olive oil sold worldwide is fake, much of it adulterated in Europe; high-stakes, lucrative, dangerous business, often involving organized crime – profits are comparable to cocaine, with next to no risk. Coen Bros.-ish ensemble noir caper set in the Mediterranean: a tanker docked in Cyprus with a missing captain, carrying tens of thousands of gallons of hazelnut oil urgently needed to doctor a batch in Reggio. A crooked refiner, trigger-happy carabinieri in the middle of an olive oil sting operation, an EU food scientist, some ’Ndràngheta, some Cypriot gangsters, a local smuggling family in over their heads, and a group of Italian olive farmers bent on direct action all converge. Working title: Extra Virgin
The “Great Train Collision March” and the town of Crush, Texas
Love Hultèn’s gorgeous handcrafted fractal synthesizer
Smuggling by manipulating container ship loading software
Five years of diving amidst the half-revealed coffins in the sinking foundations of Winchester Cathedral: William Walker’s story
SeungBeom Cho sets the 4.59sec Rubik’s cube world record (stay for the crowd’s reactions as they realize what they’ve just seen)
Find someone who looks at you the way Keanu Reeves looks at Sonny Chiba (stay for them trying high kicks together from their armchairs)
(Thanks for reading, as ever.)
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