In chess, zugzwang is a position in which one side’s obligation to move guarantees defeat. It is a distinctly positional malaise in which the rules and temporality of the game occlude its endless possibilities. Frank B. Wilderson describes a similar constraint in the notion of “incapacity,” or the way in which Human possibility is framed in absolute contradistinction to Blackness, such that, if Blackness were afforded movement on the chessboard of the human subject, the resulting position would be “no longer chess but something else.”1 While the Black exists in some proximity to social life, the Black position remains ontologically tethered to social death. W.E.B. Du Bois, on the other hand, raised the question of social life when he addressed the various problems of the 20th century: “the problem of the color-line” and the interiority of the Black body racialized as Problem, or “how it feels to be a Problem.”2
The methodologies of Black studies, in assessing the dynamics and strictures of Black life, find many strong analogues in chess. Consider the game’s representation of embattled black and white pieces and the players’ subversive efforts to grasp “initiative”; that is, the ability to pose threats and gain time (tempi) in a position. Likewise, Black struggle is a struggle for time and space against unchanging modes of animus and encumbrance. Blackness is, on the one hand, a fundamentally irreconcilable and unplayable position. However, Blackness is also the Problem, the negative that proposes the end of what is, and the contours of “something else,” despite the vectors of unfreedom that overdetermine the status quo.
Popular interest in chess has grown thanks to The Queen’s Gambit (2020), a Netflix series in which a young white woman conquers the white and masculinist chess world, competing with fictional analogues of grandmasters like Mikhail Botvinnik, Boris Spassky, and Anatoly Karpov. When I watch, however, my thoughts turn back repeatedly to Theophilus Thompson, a Black man who published a book of Chess puzzles entitled Chess Problems: Either to Play or Mate (1873). Unfortunately, the story of this obscure chess publication in the Civil War era is severely under-researched, and few details are known. The book’s frontispiece features Thompson’s portrait and a short bio, identifying the obscure prodigy as “colored.”3
Theophilus Thompson was born in Frederick City, Maryland in 1855, lived briefly in Carroll County as a servant, and eventually returned to Frederick in 1870. He witnessed a match at a club in Frederick and became enamored with the game. His curiosity caught the attention of one player, John Haskew, who supplied a board and some books of chess puzzles. Showing virtuosic talent, Thompson progressed quickly through independent study, eventually composing his own chess problems, which are documented in the 1873 text.4
Chess Problems largely conforms to familiar genres of chess puzzles that endure today. For instance, many of the puzzles invite the reader to find checkmate in a certain number of moves, while others offer more esoteric challenges, such as the sui-mate (in which White forces a losing sequence). Outside of Chess Problems, one of the few records of Thompson’s play is a series of 1874 correspondence games with Charles H. Blood. These games showcase Thompson’s affinity for tactical chess, in which the conservation of one’s pieces gives way to the pursuit of initiative in the hunt for the enemy king.5
Chess Problems foregoes narrative and its vessel—the human—to instead compose, and proliferate, problems. These problems call for precise calculation and speculation: “Black to play and checkmate in three moves.” Here, the onus of the move demands a specific resolution, but Thompson’s literary practice negotiates the squares on the board and the endlessly manipulable coordination of its pieces. This collision of the deterministic and freeform is a crucial modality of Black life—life that is both violently oppressed and capaciously lived; life that is “solely negating” in the realm of the human, but suggestive of many different possibilities, or what chess players describe as “lines” (potential sequences of moves). What Thompson offers, through Chess Problems, is not simply a narrative of Black resilience or, more interestingly, a 19th century instance of Black game design. Rather, his work also imagines a Black aesthetic in the lexicon of problems, replacing the teleology of humanism with the dimensionality of his many puzzles.
Concerns about the limitations of the human that arise in Black studies have also haunted developments in chess computing and artificial intelligence, long after the publication of Thompson’s Chess Problems. During a 1997 match with IBM’s Deep Blue supercomputer, former chess champion Garry Kasparov accused the computer of playing a “human” move—an intuitive gambit, once thought to be beyond the scope of the computer’s “brute force” calculations. Thompson’s intervention, in the interstices of the false binary of Human and Computer, is his exploration of the speculative modality that is the Problem: the creative composition of the pieces, positional excerpts of play rendered as enigma. I imagine Thompson gazing at the pieces, consumed by what James McCune Smith described as the “whirl of permutation” that chess players sense when they analyze a position, exploring the peripheries of what can be done on the board.6 In those peripheries, and even beyond the strictures of the game, I perceive the contours of an impossible Blackness: a freedom-of-movement disencumbered of the zugzwang of ontological death.
- Frank B. Wilderson, The Red, White, and Black: Cinema and the Structure of U.S. Antagonisms. (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010).
- Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1903), 3.
- Theophilus Thompson, Chess Problems, Either to Play or Mate. (Dubuque, IA: 1873).
- The Chess Drum. “Theophilus Thompson: Master Emeritus” (The Chess Drum. Accessed 2/18/2021, https://www.thechessdrum.net/drummajors/T_Thompson.html). See also, Robert R. Radcliff, “Theophilus Thompson: Recognized Chess Player” (Negro History Bulletin 45.1, 1982).
- “Theophilus Thompson vs. Charles H. Blood: Scotch Game: Horowitz Attack (C45).” (Chessgames.com,https://www.chessgames.com/perl/chessgame?gid=1266495).
- James McCune Smith, “Chess” (via The Chess Drum. Accessed 2/18/2021, ). https://www.thechessdrum.net/blog/2006/03/05/historic-moments-james-mccune-smith-essay-on-chess/).