Friday, Sept 08, 2000

Playing musical chess

By Quah Seng Sun

READERS in the northern region who receive The Star's North section may have noticed that my interests are not solely confined to chess. Indeed, music has played such a big role in my life that at times it is hard even for me to say whether chess or music holds a greater fascination.

Accordingly, as a chess player and music lover, I have always been on the lookout for music or songs which feature a chess theme. In the last 30 years however, I have not found many and in fact, I have come across only one instance where chess has had such a high musical profile.

This was in 1984 when the song One Night in Bangkok first hit the airwaves. At that time, who could forget Murray Head's famous lines like I get my kicks above the waistline or the queens we use would not excite you.

One Night in Bangkok came from the concept stage musical show called CHESS which was written and produced by ex-ABBA members Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus in collaboration with English lyricist Tim Rice of Jesus Christ Superstar fame.

The musical, which ran at London's Barbican Centre and later on Broadway, was based very loosely on the 1972 world championship match in Iceland between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky.

There was a lot of excitement when the music album was released locally. Besides Murray Head, the other notable singer in the cast was Elaine Paige (who was even more successful later on in the musical Cats).

Today, 17 years later, CHESS continues to be staged by various production companies in Europe, Australia and the United States. Apart from the CHESS musical album, I have come across only two other chess-related music on audio compact discs.

Several years ago while wandering through the music shops in an Ampang shopping mall, I chanced upon a New Age audio compact disc by Manuel Gottsching with the very enigmatic title E2-E4.

The whole CD was made up of only one track in which Gottsching used his electronic wizardry to produce one long piece of instrumental music measuring 59 minutes and 20 seconds.

But it was nearly an hour of marvellous music: a racey, sparkling and subtly changing rhythm over which was added a very fluid understated guitar line. The result was hypnotic, refreshing and ideal for relaxation.

However, there was one point which rather irked me. Either Gottsching was just an average chess player or he could not be bothered with the translations of the cover notes from German to English.

For instance, Gottsching roughly divided his hour-long piece into nine segments and had subtitled one of them in German as Damen Eleganza. This was translated as "queen a pawn''" although I felt that "elegant queen'' was closer to the mark.

While CHESS was about a chess story set to music and E2-E4 was music with various chess themes, I have my doubts whether their authors or song writers--Rice, Andersson, Ulvaeus or Gottsching--had ever played competitive chess in their lives.

In terms of real chess and musical talent, none of them can really hold a candle to the next performer who is my third feature.

When I first came across this classical music CD, the first thing that struck me was the signature on the CD cover. It looked familiar; I had seen it before and here it was again, staring me in the face!

If that was not enough, there was also a photograph of a man and a woman at their pianos. The lady was not recognisable but the man, though younger than in any other photographs I had seen of him, was familiar enough. Further, the CD's title confirmed everything.

The man in the photograph was none other than Mark Taimanov, previously one of Russia's top grandmasters and more recently, a senior citizen world chess champion. There are encyclopaedic entries about Taimanov's chess career but very little about his musical side.

In chess, he had suffered greatly after losing spectacularly to Fischer in 1971. The Soviet Chess Federation blamed him and punished him by taking away his chess stipend and preventing him for a very long time from leaving the Soviet Union to play in international chess events.

Luckily, Taimanov could find solace in his music. In the Soviet Union, he was already a very talented concert pianist. He practically grew up together with his future wife, Lyubov Bruk. As teenagers, they had studied music at the Leningrad Conservatory and were brought together to play as a piano duet.

It was a very successful combination. Their duet won wide acclaim and though they could not tour outside the Soviet Union in the early days, the scope for concert activity within their country itself remained extremely broad. Much later, they were permitted to travel together to the Iron Curtain countries such as East Germany, Czechoslavakia and Hungary.

However, their personal and professional relationships ended in the early 1970s, no doubt contributed in part by Taimanov's disastrous showing against Fischer. Taimanov turned to a solo concert career in which he was not altogether successful, while Bruk teamed up with their son Igor, and later their granddaughter Kira, to continue with the duet and trio combinations.

Bruk died in 1996 while until today, Taimanov remains active with his dual concert and chess careers.

The double CD on the Taimanov-Bruk duet is a compilation of their surviving works which were recorded in Leningrad. It is part of the Great Pianists of the 20th Century series under the Philips Classics label which appeared two years ago.

Among some of the music in this set are compositions by Sergei Rachmaninoff, Francis Poulenc, Darius Milhaud, Frederic Chopin and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. A truly commendable collection.


The Johor Baru District Chess Club and the Southern City Hyper Market will jointly organise the Southern City Open at the hypermarket's premises in Taman Suria, Johor Baru on Sept 17.

Entry fees are RM12 for the open section, RM7 for the under-16, and RM5 for the under-12. The winner of the open section will receive RM200, while the other seven prizes range from RM100 to RM15. Winners of the under-16 and under-12 sections will get RM100 and RM80 respectively. Both these sections offer seven other smaller cash prizes each.

Closing date is Sept 15 and only the first 300 entries will be accepted. For more details, contact Narayanan Krishnan ( 07-333 8215 / email: or Zarida Ran ( 07-331 9787 / 012-7222 709).

Quah Seng Sun's e-mail address is His previous chess articles are archived at Logo

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