The Tirolean Spa Had the Chess Boys In It

Edward Lasker said that “An intriguing phenomenon which links mathematics, music, and chess is the fact that child prodigies have been known in only these three fields.”

This wonderful aphorism recently set me to thinking about the intricate connections between the two latter fields and those who dwell within them.

One might naively presume any connection between chess and music to be surprising since one resides in the seemingly visual domain of boards and pieces while the other lives in the auditory realm of melodies and harmonies.  Chess is a duel between antagonists while music is either a solitary or a collaborative expression.

So if these domains are so different, then why are there individuals who excel not only as world-class chess players but also first-rate musicians and composers?  Why is there an annual chess tournament at the Moscow Conservatory Why is there a Hip Hop Chess Federation?

I have recently written about François-André Danican Philidor, who was not only the dominant chess player of the 18th century, but also a superb composer of classical music.  In 1753, he wrote of himself in the third person saying that “the art of music has been at all times his constant study and application, and chess only his diversion.”    When I wrote my Philidor blog, I had never actually heard his music, but like a patzer taking back a bad move, I have rectified that blunder and actually purchased some of his delicious compositions.  

 You may want to listen to some of his beautiful operatic creations as you continue reading the rest of this blog either here for his Carmen Saeculare 


or here for his Ernelinde Princesse de Norvège. 

When you are finished reading, I would suggest taking a few minutes to read about a celebration of chess and music at the Château de Villandry south of Paris.  The audio narration is by Grandmaster Alexandra Kosteniuk and includes selections of Philidor’s music played by pianist Natasha Kudritskaya.

But Philidor is not an isolated example.  Indeed, Russian Grandmaster Mark Taimanov, who was one of the world’s ten best chess players in the 1950’s, displayed a noticeable talent for both chess and music by the time he was eight years old.  Taimanov became a Candidate in 1953 and again in 1970, vying for the opportunity to play for the world chess championship until he was devastated by Bobby Fischer a year later, losing all six of their games.  When commenting on this crushing defeat, Taimanov remarked that “At least I have my music.”

And indeed he did have his music for Taimanov studied music at the Leningrad Conservatory and toured the world with his former wife, both famous concert pianists.  You may listen to their work on various YouTube videos, e.g. playing Rachmaninoff here  or this lovely concerto by Poulenc.

 Vasily Smyslov  is known not only as the world champion in chess from 1957 to 1958, but also as an accomplished baritone, nearly being selected to join the Bolshoi Opera in 1950.  He has often performed by singing to the attendees at chess tournaments during breaks, sometimes being accompanied by Taimanov.  If you go to the British Pathé, you can watch a video in Russian of Smyslov singing and playing the piano.  (The piano playing is not in Russian, so monolingual English speakers might still understand that part of the video.)

I asked above why there is such a connection between chess and music when the two fields of endeavor seem to be so different. Others may have more profound answers than myself, but I do have a hypothesis.  It is the concept of pattern that dominates both chess and music; and not just the concept of pattern, but temporal pattern.  This is very important.

The beauty to be found in a chess masterpiece depends critically upon the temporal relationships of the moves, no less so than the temporal relationships of the notes in a musical masterpiece.  Thus, it seems natural to me that a great mind would be drawn to both chess and music for exactly this reason.

I have suggested to my friend K. P. Unnikrishnan, the best scientist I personally know and one of the founders of the field of temporal data mining, that applying his algorithms to large chess databases might yield some insights of value to chess masters.  And I would also suggest now that similar insights for music theoreticians might be gained by similarly analyzing large databases of musical scores.

Yes, there is much to be said about chess cum music, and I believe that I shall have to return to this topic in a future blog.  In the meantime, and by way of coming to the final movement of this blog, I should explain the origin of the blog’s title for those of you who may not recognize it.  These enticing words were taken from the lyrics of the greatest song about chess in the genre of popular music – One Night in Bangkok by Murray Head.



  • 7 years ago


    It's the same phenomenon manifesting itself in different ways, probably based on which the child is exposed to.

    Mathematics, music, and chess all fundamentally involve the analysis or manipulation of patterns of relations, typically in an iterative manner (although iteration isn't as intimately involved in mathematics generally as it is in music and chess). Indeed, the sets of patterns involved in music and chess are limited and discrete. It's no wonder, then, that we have more child prodigies in mathematics, generally, than music and chess.

  • 7 years ago


    ha, again nice article. unfortunelly I never heard Philidor composition. I am an avid classical music listener.... so much coincidence with the writer of this blog who also write about orchid.

    i challenge you to write something about CHESS and WINE , now that I would love to read. :)

  • 7 years ago


    As you might already know, I'm a musician, currently attending the music high school in Niš, Serbia, and as far as I can tell, chess can really tie your mind down. There was a case of a student who, just like me, intensively played chess alongside violin, and as a result had severe memory blockades while playing the violin. When I started experiencing what could evolve to the aforementioned symptoms, I abandoned intensive correspondence chess in favor of the violin. Yes, I was even dreaming of very unclear chess positions, and that just had to perish from my mind. Fortunately, it did, but I still like to play a game or two nowadays.

  • 7 years ago


    'chess and music are insatiable due to their infinite nature. and math as well for that matter.'

    I couldn't agree more with that statement. Well said FM charlesgalofre

  • 7 years ago


    By the way, if you like classical music, for under $3 on iTunes you can buy Philidor's Symphony No. 27.  I actually prefer that over the 2 Philidor videos that I posted.  I would have given a video of that symphony, but I couldn't find it on YouTube.

  • 7 years ago


    Monolingual is a proper word, at least in American English:

  • 7 years ago


    I love all three, interesting. Thanks for the article. 

  • 7 years ago

    FM BecomeanIM

    and math as well for that matter.

  • 7 years ago

    FM BecomeanIM

    chess and music are insatiable due to their infinite nature.

  • 7 years ago


    Thanks for an interesting blog piece. I would like to add and recommend the whole work from which "One Night in Bangkok" is derived. It is the musical CHESS, unfortunately a little abandoned. Music composed by Andersson and Ulvaeus (formerly ABBA guys!), lyrics by famous Tim Rice. You can see it from time to time on stage and unforgettable hits are parts of it. Except from One Night also "I Know Him So Well", "Pity the Child" and others. The game of chess is a vital issue of the plot. So see it, guys. My warm recommendation is recently released DVD from the concert staged in Royal Albert Hall.

  • 7 years ago


    On the flipside, this is great news for me! I should reach 2000 in no time! ;)

  • 7 years ago


    Loved the music ... especially Philidor's. I knew he was a composer, of course, but had never thought to search for anything he'd written.

    You've also touched a personal level with the correlationship between chess and music.  I've realised why I don't play better chess...

    I'm tone deaf Frown

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