The essence of Chess is thinking about what Chess is. — David Bronstein
What is the essence of Chess? Beyond idle speculations about its elements of game, art, science, or sport: why are children, adults, old people, men and women of all ages and cultural backgrounds so fascinated with a checkered board and a set of archetypal pieces?
For a child, the sheer aspect of the board and pieces is enough to trigger the imagination. And pretty much the same occurs for an expert player, or a true chess lover. A deep interest is spurred by all the possibilities at interplay between board and pieces.
The goal in a game of chess is to win. But that is not the goal of Chess. The single, definitive purpose of the game is to create something out of the struggle of complementary and opposite forces: light and dark squares, white and black pieces, King and King, bishops and knights, player and player.
And, without exception, when two complementary and opposite forces meet they create the same thing. This applies to any and all fractal levels of the world, where the end result, the precious by-product of the clash and cooperation of opposites is –simply and plainly– awareness.
We are aware beings. We are made of, and creators of, awareness. We are pulled towards it by an irresistible force that goes far beyond even our deepest and legitimate concerns. From the most trivial of everyday issues to the age-old questions about life and death, the factor of awareness remains as the foundation of everything that determines our comings and goings.
The Universe is made of stories, not of atoms. — Muriel Rukeyser
Awareness is expressed through stories. We are, deep in our bones, story-tellers and story-listeners. We wake up and go to sleep with an insatiable thirst for stories, we drink them up as if there’s no tomorrow. All day long, all throughout our lives, we think, we speak, we watch, we read, we listen.
Books, music, cinema, TV, radio, newspapers, the World Wide Web, family gatherings, friendship, schools, romance, marriage, cities and towns and villages. These are all media through which we tell and hear stories to and from each other. Ultimately, however, we are not telling them to each other. We are in fact telling them to something else, something outside of us, something infinite. The very best stories are those told by infinity itself, where the focus is not on any given individual human voice –impersonal stories in the sense that they are not tied to our personal history–.
Chess is a story and it is also the language in which the story is told.
There is a fundamental difference between the concepts of history and story. Our personal histories are too much alike to be interesting. They are direct products of the socialized self. Our impersonal stories, however, speak to each and everyone of us in the most exciting and interesting ways. We can relate to them without feeling sorry for ourselves, superior or inferior to anyone or anything else. They stir our ancestral knowledge about our nature as perceptors and our role as aware, interconnected beings in the short span of our lives on Earth. They erase the spurious dividing lines that we have arbitrarily drawn between us, taking us to a place where we can understand that we are basically the same.
History is stale, rigid, finite; stories are boundless, ever-changing, open-ended. They are magical in that they reveal us as beings with endless possibilities for becoming more aware, for love, for true scientific understanding, for amazing artistic creations. Art is science and science is art.
While a chess game is a conversation, Chess itself is an impersonal account of life, a microcosm of our adventure as human beings. If a bishop saves the day someone is miraculously healed. If a pawn promotes we become what we were meant to be. If a Queen is sacrificed to checkmate we find redemption. The struggle of the pieces, the journey on the board, are our own struggles and our own hero’s journey, the arc of the character that we call “I”.
Chess allows you to become the playwright, the star, the director, the extras and the audience or your own play, where all you need to do is take a piece in your hand and place it on a square. It reminds you that you can actually do the same with your life if you only dare to accept it as an impersonal challenge and turn it from a trite, generic personal history into an open-ended story; from a curse or blessing into an adventure of knowledge.
The number of possible chess positions is larger than the number of atoms in the observable universe.
Don’t even try to wrap your mind around this. It is unfathomable, beyond our grasp. And each of those possible chess games is an impersonal story that we tell to infinity, as well as one that we hear from infinity.
Chess is us, thousands of years ago, sitting around a campfire and sharing accounts of the fears of the night and the thrill of the hunt, of our newborns and our wise elders, our sadness and our delight. It is a woman giving birth or ruling a nation, a child struggling to survive in a third-world country, a scientist in awe of a breakthrough in mathematics, physics or astronomy, a heroic peasant defending his land. The King falls in tales of horror, and escapes by the skin of his teeth in tales of wonder. He cheats death itself by stalemate, while a Knight jumps in great style over walls of pawn structures and a Bishop lurks in a fianchetto, aiming its arrows at unsuspecting pieces on the opposite end of the board.
Those who say they understand Chess, understand nothing. — Robert Hubner
On many levels, each human being contains a full set of archetypes, and a social persona is defined by the transient dominance of one or the other. Just like chess pieces. There are no “good” or “bad” archetypes, since they are cyclic and ontological. Jung, for instance, understood this in his analysis and interpretation of the I Ching.
In certain cultures the archetype of the village idiot is sacred. As any other archetype, this one inhabits us too. Everyone knows that “we are only pawns in the game of life“. None of us really knows what Chess is. We can describe it, but not explain it. Since long before Socrates, the more we think we know, the more we allow ignorance and stupidity to rule us. The village idiot transcends stupidity only when he rejects being a prisoner of his social preconceptions, because he doesn’t allow his identity to be fixed by them. He becomes wise when he does not care anymore about being an idiot, to the extent that he is able to roar with laughter at his own stupidity.
Death –our best advisor– is the chess clock, demanding that we make our move and push the button, whatever the result may be. Chess demands us to be responsible for our actions, and it does not take kindly on hypocrisy, lies or self-importance. The game is a ruthless parable of life and death, where our set of socialized beliefs about ourselves and the world around us mean nothing. There are no multiple solutions to a chess problem. There is only one main variation.
Chess is so objective, cold and pragmatic that it evolves into a subjective, warm and abstract art form if you only respect its nature –insofar as you listen to Chess, to the story being whispered in your ear by the board and pieces–. That is why Tolstoy and many others feel a little sorry for people who never learned to play chess.
Chess could be you at the movies, when for a couple of hours you are able to forget your insignificant worries and just listen, eyes wide open, to the characters who tell you the story of your life. It could also be me reading a great book next to a window, listening to the gentle tapping of raindrops on the glass. And, since stories are built with decisions, it doesn’t even need to be only human. In this sense, chess is all around us.
What I am trying to say is that you don’t even have to learn chess to play it. You have been playing it all your life. Learning the game is more like remembering a beautiful story about yourself –one that, like a fading photograph, you had forgotten inside a trunk in the attic of your spirit–.
Chess is winning and losing, yes. But, in the end, it is just your story. Tell it with love, with thankfulness, with energy and passion! Play chess as best you can and then laugh at the result, because it’s always the same. We lose when we die, and then we win because we told our story, no matter who we are or where we stand. We win because we read a book, and watched a movie, and felt pain and roared laughing in delight. We win because we played chess; and, for one endless instant, we forgot our history to remember our story.