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A love of chess

M.C. Escher loved playing chess. The strategic board game was a pleasant form of entertainment for him. Not only was he a member of several chess clubs during his life, but he also found chess a nice way to pass the time on his many boat trips.

His love for this black and white board game is also reflected in his art. The best-known example can be found in his Metamorphoses. In these prints he connects the Italian town of Atrani with a tower in the sea, which in turn becomes part of a chess position. Incidentally, here he shows a position from which the so-called ‘smothered mate’ can be reached. Escher had borrowed the position many years earlier from a book by Dutch chess legend Max Euwe, but he was not entirely sure if it was correct.* He wrote in a letter to son George:

‘I just hope it does not contain any chess errors, because otherwise I might get in trouble with the official chess world, if that image is hanging life-size in the post office in The Hague. But so far, in all these years, it has never drawn any criticism. Philips too has an enlarged version on the wall of the Evoluon in Eindhoven now. Every now and then I hear favourable comments from visitors, but never criticism on that chess position’.

A lesser-known example is the poster for the chess club in Château-d’Oex, the Swiss town where he lived for a year. He was not especially pleased with the move to Switzerland, which he had done mainly because of the rise of fascism in Italy and for the health of his sons. He found the snow boring, so chess was a welcome distraction for him. He became a member of the club and produced a poster for them. It specified where and when the members met: in the Hotel de la Gare every Monday evening at 8.30 p.m. The tower played a key role here too.

Two pages from Eschers travel journal from 1936, across the Mediterranean Sea and to several towns in Italy and Spain. He spent many days at sea and he had plenty of time to play chess with his co-travellers.

[*] Wim Hazeu, M.C. Escher, Een biografie, Meulenhoff, 1998, page 475

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