This blog tells how, in two very different circumstances, ditching convention helped. The first instance is contemporary and relates to my playing chess; the second occurred in the early twentieth century when the artist Véra Pagava changed her style. 

Once a week I play chess and it is a challenge I treasure. Just recently,  with the adoption a novel variant of the game which favours my particular approach, the sessions have become an even greater pleasure. Now, play is not only exciting but also liberating and the delights of this new freedom can last for days.

I was introduced to the chess variant – Chess960 – by Paul who, like me, is a lifelong chess player. Last autumn, during one of our regular chess chats, Paul told me how Chess960 had been developed by the former world chess champion Bobby Fischer who wanted to make chess more exciting. At the start of traditional chess games the pieces are lined up in fixed positions that date back to the fifteenth century. With such a venerated history, the moves in many games have become predictable with players often feeling that they have ‘been there before’. Indeed, during the first ten minutes or so of traditional games it is as though the moves were predetermined.

Fischer calculated that if competitors, when they sat down to start a game, were confronted by pieces arranged in a random and unseen order, the dynamics of the game would be totally changed with impromptu and unrehearsed moves the norm. Interestingly, he did not suggest that all of the piece’s positions would be randomised. The front row of pawns would remain as before, while the back row (King, Queen, bishops etc) would be subject to randomisation but with two constraints: there must be a rook somewhere on either side of the king and each bishop must have its own colour.

It was inevitable that Fischer’s changes, which were ingenious, would affect the whole game. In traditional matches there are three phases with ‘openings’, ‘middlegames’ and ‘endgames’. Each phase demands different strategies and builds on what has happened previously, starting with the all-important original layout. With the new variant the phases would be less marked and, certainly there could be no standardopenings, just moves created spontaneously in response primarily to the initial placement of the pieces. Players would now be forced to think and puzzle from the start. Certainly, with no rote-learned openings there is no chance that players would be burdened by tradition.

Paul’s parting words were “You should try it’, a suggestion I took seriously. At my chess meeting the following week, my chess partner and I sat opposite one another across a board with our pieces arranged as mirror images of one another and set out according to one of Fischer’s 960 random alignments (hence the name). At the start we were apprehensive and moved our pieces gingerly. By the end we realised that something special had happened and decided that we would play Chess960 exclusively from then on. Indeed, Fischer was right, the game was full of new challenges that demanded novel solutions and, in my case it also gave a feeling of liberation – perfect!

My hour of freedom from convention when playing chess, while important to me, is nothing compared to the liberty of others in different circumstances. Soon after I started Chess960 I found myself thinking about an art exhibition I saw in Brittany last year. On display were the works of six, early twentieth-century women artists who came from abroad to work in France. There were sculptures, paintings and architectural models, but of everything I saw, it was a quote from the Russian-born Véra Pagava that affected me most. Next to a set of her abstract paintings was a panel describing her and how she worked. It told how, at one point in her career, she had to stop figurative (representational) painting because she found that having to keep within the conventions that such painting demanded was hampering her development. The effect of her new freedom was clear – her abstract works were amongst the best paintings on display.

Conventions have an important place in society, but being freed from those that are essentially arbitrary and that stifle progress is liberating. From time to time it is well worth reviewing the conventions by which we live to check whether they are serving a purpose. If there is a whiff that a convention is hampering ones style, it needs to be changed.

The illustration is a photo of ‘Family Chess’, the birthday card painted and sent to me this year by my sister Sarah Campbell. 

For help with writing this blog I would like to thank Paul, Jeni, Rohan and Vivien.

6 thoughts on “Questions of Convention

  1. Dear Joe,

    I don’t play chess but enjoyed your blog. It seems important that we begin with conventions in order to work out how to proceed, but then once we have worked out how to go forward we can begin to invent new ways of playing, not just games but how to make political rules work. It seems that what once worked in the U.S. is now foundering and new ways of making democracy work need to be found!

    Perhaps that’s so in lots of systems!




    1. Dear Robin, Many thanks for your comment. One problem is that we don’t always know what is convention and what is ‘normal’ or ‘reasonable.’ We adopt all sorts of approaches based on what we learned without question as children. Sorting that out is probably rather difficult. Love, Joe


  2. Hello Joe, I enjoyed reading your blog and wondered if you could ‘appear’ to randomly place your back row pieces, but do so in a way that you had worked out the opening moves etc., to gain advantage? Of course it goes against fair play, but just wondering… and Sarah’s illustration is (as always) beautiful!


    1. Dear Carolyn, What a naughty idea! But, there is something I might not have made clear – the arrangement of the pieces is identical in mirror-image fashion, for both players. So any advantage for me my opponent could also have.
      Also, I am glad you like Sarah’s birthday card. From the comments received, it appears that it was as popular as my text!


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