A review of Opposition und Schwesterfelder By Marcel Duchamp and Vitali Halberstadt

Reviewed by P.P.O. Kane

Opposition und Schwesterfelder
By Marcel Duchamp and Vitali Halberstadt
Tropen Verlag, 2001, ISBN: 9783608500356

This is an inexpensive edition of the German text only of Duchamp and Halberstadt’s cult classic.

There’s no French and English text, as in the original work.  Transparent inserts, as also came with the original edition, could once have been ordered from the publisher – they have a separate ISBN number – but my understanding is that they are no longer available.  Nonetheless, a sense of their effect, how the transparencies would look if they were to be deployed, can be gleaned from sections IV and V.

As mentioned in my review of Ernst Strouhal’s book, Opposition and Sister Squares Reconciled is concerned with those pawn endings where the distant opposition and the theory of coordinate squares plays a key role.  Some baseline concepts for pawn endings are set out in section I – chiefly opposition (including distant and diagonal opposition), triangulation and zugzwang.  There are also several pretty studies in this first section as well.

Though much fewer positions are presented in the next section – just the four, in fact: three studies and the ending of the game Lasker-Reichhelm (1901) – it is the meaty heart of the book.  For 114 pages or so the authors discuss and analyse this quartet, showing how one can derive coordinate squares for the two kings from a situation of simple opposition.  To follow their arguments, you hardly need a set and board, since there are usually two diagrams to a page, about 200 diagrams altogether.

We get four fine studies by Halberstadt in section III, a mere 10 pages by comparision with section II.

Sections IV and V are concerned with classifying the eight positions by making apparent certain intriguing patterns and mirror images.

In the end, there is an inconclusive conclusion, if not quite an admission of failure.  The author’s crucial difficulty (the problem as I understand it, at any rate) is that the pattern of coordinate squares is determined by the pawn structure: the kings can only move to the squares not occupied by their own pawns or controlled by the enemy’s.  And the pawn structure is particular to each position; in composed positions (e.g. studies) it can be incredibly contrived and idiosyncratic.  So there seems very little prospect of anyone establishing general rules for these kinds of pawn endings.  This is, in a sense, a triumph for Duchamp the artist, the discovery of a perfect ‘Pataphysical domain.

Opposition und Schwesterfelder is a fascinating book, about chess but not as we ordinarily know it.

The publisher’s description of the book can be read here: http://www.klett-cotta.de/buch/Tropen-Sachbuch/Opposition_und_Schwesterfelder/5733

About the reviewer: P.P.O. Kane lives and works in Manchester, England. He welcomes responses to his reviews and you can reach him at ludic@europe.com