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Many times one can read in chess magazines the world "beautiful". Comments like "that move/combination/execution/problem/solution was beautiful" are our daily bread when we read game analysis. What are the characteristics a move, combination, execution, position or other have to have for it to be considered beautiful? How the concept of aesthetically pleasing can be understood in chess?

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Aesthetics is a philosophical question, and hence the answer you get will depend greatly on the philosophical views of the person. As a scientific realist, I believe that our sense of aesthetic beauty is defined by how our brain processes respond to a sensual stimulus (in this case a chess problem/combination/tactic), which in turn is driven by our evolutionary history.

So in this context, what properties make a chess problem "beautiful", and why those specific properties? Take all this with a massive heap of salt, since I'm not an evolutionary psychologist or philosopher of aesthetics:

  • Efficiency: We prefer solutions that do not involve unnecessary moves, or wastage of resources.
  • Intention: We prefer a solution that was intentionally planned to one that simply happened out of chance. This may be because we like to be in control of our actions.
  • Harmony: We like solutions where pieces work together to achieve a goal - this can be related to a desire to use resources effectively, which in turn is also about efficiency.
  • Perfect play: we prefer solutions where the opponent is not required to blunder in order to achieve our goal - this could be due to a desire to be clinical and leave nothing up to chance.
  • Simplification: A sequence of moves that transposes a complex scenario into a simple advantage may relate to our need to take control of a situation.
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Combinations involving sacrifices have been considered beautiful since they transcend the logical order of things and make one marvel at the human brain's ingenuity. Anderssen's "Immortal Game" is considered beautiful since he sacrificed so many pieces to bring about a forced checkmate. I much prefer to see chess as an art and play a game which has these characteristics and can be so classified rather than a mundane one which merely brings home the point.

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I think that chess is considered beautiful in the same way that certain theories in physics and maths can be considered "elegant", in that both celebrate the elimination of uncertainty and chance, often by means of an approach that runs counter to what seems like an obvious solution.

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