Chess—What Kind of Game Is It?
THE world championship chess tournament in Iceland last summer suddenly created widespread interest in chess. Millions began either talking about the game or playing it.
“Business is fantastic,” reported an American chess-set manufacturer. A salesman at a leading New York city bookstore said: “Our chess books just sat on the shelves before the Fischer-Spassky tournament. Then everything took off. They went from the slowest to the fastest-moving items in the store.”
In some countries great interest already existed in chess. Its popularity in Russia, for example, rivals that of football or basketball in the United States. Also in China, hsiang chi, the Chinese version of chess, is one of the country’s favorite games. Reportedly, more books have been written about chess—nearly 20,000—than all other games combined!
Why is there such interest in chess? What makes the game so intriguing to so many persons?
A Complex Game of Skill
A major appeal of chess is its complexity, which can be fascinating. Chess and checkers are played on the same kind of board—one that is divided into sixty-four squares, with eight rows of eight squares each. But in chess there are so many more possible moves. For example, there are reportedly 169,518,829,100,544,000,000,000,000,000,000 ways of making the first ten moves! ‘But how are so many different moves possible on a board of only sixty-four squares?’ one might ask. This is due to the different kinds of pieces used in chess and the variety of moves each can make.
In chess there are two opposing players, each having a set of sixteen pieces, or men. These include eight pawns, two knights, two bishops, two rooks (sometimes called castles) and a king and a queen. These six different kinds of pieces each have different values or strengths, reflected by the variety of moves each can make.
The pawns, for example, can ordinarily move only straight forward, one step or square at a time. Rooks can move any distance forward, backward or sideways in a straight line, as far as their path is clear. Bishops, similarly, can move any distance in a straight line, but only diagonally. Knights, unlike other pieces, can only make an L-shaped movement. The queen, the strongest piece on the board, can move any distance forward, backward, sideways or diagonally, as far as her path is clear.
The purpose of this array of pieces is to defend their king and to attack the opposing king. The game is won when one of the kings is “checkmated” and can no longer be successfully defended. The player with the checkmated king is thus forced to surrender, ending the game.
So, then, it is the difference in mobility of the various pieces that makes possible such a tremendous variety of moves. Some say that the game’s complexity and dependence on player skill make chess appealing to those whose secular work does not come up to their intellectual capabilities. “In chess there is no chance element,” explains Burt Hochenberg, editor of Chess Life & Review. “You can’t say the ball took a bad bounce.”
Highly Competitive Game
However, pitting one mind against another, with the element of chance eliminated entirely, tends to stir up a competitive spirit in chess players. In fact, chess is frequently characterized as an ‘intellectualized fight.’ For example, dethroned world chess champion Boris Spassky noted: “By nature I do not have a combative urge. . . . But in chess you have to be a fighter, and of necessity I became one.”
This helps to explain why there are no topflight women chess players—the more than eighty chess grand masters in the world are all men. Actress Sylvia Miles observed regarding this: “To be a professional chess player, you have to be a killer. If the spirit of competition in American women ever does become that strong, then I think we’ll get some major female players.”
The spirit of competition in chess may be stirred to fever pitch, which is reflected in chess players’ attitudes and language. “There’s no comparison in any other sport in the attempt to destroy your opponent’s psyche,” explains chess player Stuart Marguiles. “I never have heard anybody say that he beat his opponent. It’s always that he smashed, squished, murdered or killed him.”
True, players with which one may be acquainted may not use such language. But, nevertheless, the spirit of competition between players can lead to unpleasant consequences, as the New York Times last summer reported: “Most families manage to keep the inevitable conflicts that arise in games to the chessboard. But in some homes, tensions linger long past checkmate.”
Of course, chess is not, in this respect, much different from other competitive games. Participants who desire to please God, regardless of the game they are playing, need to be careful that they do not violate the Bible principle: “Let us not become egotistical, stirring up competition with one another, envying one another.”—Gal. 5:26.
However, there is something else regarding chess that deserves consideration.
Relation to War
This is the game’s military connotations, which are obvious. The opposing forces are called “the enemy.” These are “attacked” and “captured”; the purpose being to make the opposing king “surrender.” Thus Horowitz and Rothenberg say in their book The Complete Book of Chess under the subheading “Chess Is War”: “The functions assigned to [the chess pieces], the terms used in describing these functions, the ultimate aim, the justified brutality in gaining the objective all—add up to war, no less.”
It is generally accepted that chess can be traced to a game played in India around 600 C.E. called chaturanga, or the army game. The four elements of the Indian army—chariots, elephants, cavalry and infantry—were represented by the pieces that developed through the centuries into rooks, bishops, knights and pawns. Thus the New York Times, August 31, 1972, observed:
“Chess has been a game of war ever since it was originated 1,400 years ago. The chessboard has been an arena for battles between royal courts, between armies, between all sorts of conflicting ideologies. The most familiar opposition has been the one created in the Middle Age with one set of king, queen, knights, bishops, rooks and pawns against another.
“Other conflicts depicted have been between Christians against barbarians, Americans against British, cowboys against Indians and capitalists against Communists. . . . It is reported that one American designer is now creating a set illustrating the war in Vietnam.”
Probably most modern chess players do not think of themselves as maneuvering an army in battle. Yet are not the game’s connections with war obvious? The word for pawn is derived from a Medieval Latin word meaning “foot soldier.” A knight was a mounted man-at-arms of the European feudal period. Bishops took an active part in supporting their side’s military efforts. And rooks, or castles, places of protection, were important in medieval warfare.
Thus Reuben Fine, a chess player of international stature, wrote in his book The Psychology of the Chess Player: “Quite obviously, chess is a play-substitute for the art of war.” And Time magazine reported: “Chess originated as a war game. It is an adult, intellectualized equivalent of the maneuvers enacted by little boys with toy soldiers.”
While some chess players may object to making such a comparison, others will readily acknowledge the similarity. In fact, in an article about one expert chess player, the New York Times noted: “When Mr. Lyman looks at a chessboard, its squared outlines dissolve at times into the hills and valleys and secret paths of a woodland chase, or the scarred ground of an English battlefield.”
When one considers the complex movements, as opposing chessboard armies vie with each other for position, one may wonder whether chess has been a factor in the development of military strategy. According to V. R. Ramachandra Dikshitar, it has. In his book War in Ancient India he examined this matter at length, and concluded: “The principles of chess supplied ideas to the progressive development of the modes and constituents of the army.”
The Need for Caution
Some chess players have recognized the harm that can result from playing the game. According to The Encyclopædia Britannica, the religious reformer “John Huss, . . . when in prison, deplored his having played at chess, whereby he had lost time and run the risk of being subject to violent passions.”
The extreme fascination of chess can result in its consuming large amounts of one’s time and attention to the exclusion of more important matters, apparently a reason Huss regretted having played the game. Also, in playing it there is the danger of “stirring up competition with one another,” even developing hostility toward another, something the Bible warns Christians to avoid doing.
Then, too, grown-ups may not consider it proper for children to play with war toys, or at games of a military nature. Is it consistent, then, that they play a game noted to be, in the opinion of some, an “intellectualized equivalent of the maneuvers enacted by little boys with toy soldiers”? What effect does playing chess really have upon one? Is it a wholesome effect?
Surely chess is a fascinating game. But there are questions regarding it that are good for each one who plays chess to consider.