Mystical Approaches to the Meaning of Chess

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What is the purpose of chess?

Mystical Approaches to the Meaning of Chess

What is the purpose of chess? Is chess more than just a game? These simple questions are actually quite difficult to answer and there is no consensus among chess historians, scholars, coaches or top players to its purpose. Global estimates are that one fifth of humanity plays chess, with small variations, being more or less popular in different regions. In the last 200 years tournament chess has standardized the rules, the movements, names and forms of the pieces. Competitive play focuses on determining and rewarding the best player. Pairing and rating systems were designed to pair up players against each other based on level of play with the goal of figuring out who is the ‘best’. But is the goal of chess simply to win? Is tournament play’s main purpose to determine and reward the top player? Casual chess players may prefer their own conception, with wide varieties of chess set styles found around the globe. Because the rules only focus on the way the pieces move and how the game ends, chess is symbolic, leaving one to conceptualize the meaning of chess pieces and goal of the game however one pleases. One is free to interpret the meaning as they wish as long as they follow the limited rule set of how the pieces move, and what causes the game to end in a victory or draw. In this essay I will examine the historical role of chess as a form of divination and representation of spiritual processes.

Chess as a Form of Divination
The origins of chess are disputed among scholars, with ancient precursor games and textual references all over the globe. It is beyond the scope of this essay to trace the history of chess, and I hope to return to a scholarly treatment of the history of chess in future essays. In this essay I will exclusively examine the meaning and purposes attributed to chess. Most early variants of chess appear to have been a method of divination, the practice of seeking knowledge of the future or the unknown by supernatural forces. One early method of divination was dice, usually made of bone, often the bones of one’s own ancestors. Dice, with multiple sides, could represent various choices a person can make, and the roll of the dice a method of contacting supernatural forces to guide us in our decisions. Many early dice games are connected with ancestor worship, rituals designed to commemorate and venerate the spirits of one’s deceased forbears. Besides for venerating our ancestors, one may seek the counsel of our ancestors through dice and games, especially games of chance, where the chance outcome is interpreted to be communication from ancestral spirits.

Using the bones of ancestors is an extreme form of divination, and it is unknown whether the first chess pieces were made of bones, or at least played with a dice made from bones. Whether or not the earliest forms of chess were a specific method of seeking counsel from our deceased ancestors, chess probably originally served as a form of divination. Games were not the only form of divination, as people use shrines, sacred objects, pilgrimage sites, shamans, priests and priestesses, oracles, seances, mantras, and countless other methods to try to get guidance from higher forces, or divine inspiration.

But how did the game of chess help people ascertain answers to their difficult questions, or communicate with deceased ancestors and higher forces for help? One of the earliest known divination games with clear explanatory texts is the Chinese I-Ching, using sticks and patterns from which higher meaning can be deciphered. There are no similar ancient texts like the I-Ching for chess, although we have many ancient artifacts and textual references to chess being used as a form of divination. In future essays I hope to return to the available historical references and evidence, but in this essay will focus on explaining how chess can be used as a form of divination.

The purpose of chess as a form of divination was to help people understand what was likely to happen in the future, and make the best available decisions to adapt. Chess was used as a method of divination through the symbolic interpretation of what the chess pieces and board represent. Most spiritual systems are dualistic in nature, with a material realm and a spiritual realm. Mind, soul and higher forces are elements of the spiritual realm, that interact, control and influence the material realm. Various traditions and schools have different explanations and understanding of what consists of the spiritual realm and how spirit interacts with the material. As a form of divination, chess can represent the interaction of spiritual and material forces. Any dualistic systems can be mapped onto the chess board and pieces, with various forces represented by the pieces and their positions on the board. Like the I-Ching meaning can be derived by the position and configurations of the pieces. One example is the Kabalistic division of the faculties of man into thought, speech and action. The King and Queen represent the faculty of action, the pieces the faculty of speech and the pawns the faculty of thought. In Kabalistic writings, thought, speech and action are referred to the garments of the soul, the method through which the spirit interfaces with the material. More complex Kabalistic interpretations of chess parallel the pieces and their position on the board to four worlds and ten emanations, which is beyond the scope of this essay, but hope to go more in depth in future essays. However, most historians agree chess originated in the East, and the Kabalistic understanding of the meaning of chess is an adaption of earlier Dharmic traditions.

Let’s start with the most common and simpler material version of chess as a method of divination. Dualistic systems with chess representing the interaction of spiritual and material realms can be significantly more complicated and difficult for people not used to understanding the mind in a separate spiritual realm. The most common symbolic depiction of chess is of opposing military forces, like in the Indian and Iranian precursor games Chaturanga or Shatranj. The pieces represented battalions and military leadership and their position on the board battlefield arrangements, the game representing war strategy. In earlier times, chess was not seen as a game of skill for people to demonstrate calculation ability, but a way to predict the future. The players represented opposing forces of group conflict, revealing what was likely to happen in future conflicts. As in the expression, we don’t play chess, chess plays us. The two sides, often priests making the moves, were considered agents of higher forces or the group they represented. What happened in the ‘game’ was viewed as a form of prophecy. In military forms of chess, the board and pieces could represent future battles, and the opposing players were oracles and fortune tellers that gave some special insight into the future.

Chess was not understood as today a game testing mental abilities and preparation with the goal of determining who is smarter or the superior player, but a form of divination about future events. The witnesses or sponsors of the event could base future decisions off the outcome. This understanding of chess applies even today. Many people who follow chess view players representative of groups, usually the Nation they play for. The scale can vary from individual to global group conflict. The chess game has meaning to spectators and participants for the predictions of what might happen should the parties enter conflict. The players may represent themselves, their larger groups, or just mercenaries for which they receive a small fee for their prophetic abilities. The conflict model of chess is the most common and straight forward interpretation of the meaning of chess. In a less violent take, the goal of chess is to help predict who will rise and fall from prominence. This historical analysis explains the tendency among chess fans and the wider public to understand chess players as representative of groups, and the outcome of the game as an indication and insight into the rise and fall of leaders and likely outcome of future group conflict. Even though most chess players no longer believe the outcome is being guided by external spiritual forces, the tendency to interpret the outcome to larger issues can be understood as a modern form of divination.

Chess as an Inner Spiritual Struggle
On a deeper level, chess represents the struggle between the forces of good and evil, light over darkness, internal conflict, not group conflict. Metaphysically the faculties available to us can be used for good or evil, and chess is representative in the internal battle for our hearts and minds. In Dharmic traditions, the chess pieces can represent the powers of the soul, faculties of mind, perception and more, in the battle for control over a person’s decisions. Will a person act according to dharma, or give into the false ego? Can the conditions of the material realm and trappings of the mind be overcome? Chess is played as a game between two people, but representative of our internal struggles. The game is to be taught to kids as a method to teach them the laws of karma, how to approach decision in life, and to purify our thought processes. Self-improvement works best in groups because we all face similar internal struggles. Know thyself by playing chess! Chess helps in the self-improvement process by being a window into our deepest desires and motivations that are revealed in play and can then be purified, and prevent us from making future poor decisions.

In various systems the pieces can represent spiritual forces and the board physical locations and actions, or the board and pieces can be a combination of spiritual and physical representations. One example is the Jain system of eight types of Karma and the ahimsa principle mentioned in my previous essay that can be mapped onto the eight-by-eight board and pieces. Chess represents our internal struggle against our own bad karma, the goal to overcome the false ego and limit suffering (ahimsa) and achieve eventual liberation (moksha). As the expression, the eyes see, the heart desires, the mind plots and the limbs carry out. Chess represents the process of perception leading to desire to act, of which the mind develops a plan for the limbs to carry out. The purpose of chess is to represent karma, action-reaction, of the various ways we can react to our perceptions, desires, motivations, actions and their consequences, with goals such as limiting harm, ahimsa and fulfilling our dharma, duty. Today, chess is still most popularly used to teach children to think about the consequences of their actions, to think before they act. Most of the Dharmic traditions had a form of chess representing group conflict, helping plot out likely outcomes. But, also a deeper understanding of chess representing the self-realization process, karma, and a way to purify our minds.

Chess Reinterpreted in the West
Chess historians agree that chess started in the East and migrated West through the Islamic Golden Age, to the current form canonized in Europe. See George Dean’s Chess Masterpieces: One Thousand Years of Extraordinary Chess Sets for a pictorial historical overview of how chess morphed into the form familiar today. Western mythology hypothesized the origins to King Solomon, a game of Kings of a Biblical nature. Most players were unaware of the Eastern spiritual origins of chess. Chess became less a game of spirituality and internal transformation, focusing on the aspects of interpersonal or group struggle. The military nature switched more to a diplomatic nature, to help predict the rise and fall of personalities, Kings and Queens, even business interests. The pieces gradually shifted to be representative of the feudal system of Catholic Christian monarchs that dominated Europe.

As the game of chess became more popular among the masses, the status of chess deteriorated into a simple gambling game. Early Islamic, Rabbinic and Christian authorities in various locations and times forbade the game of chess for degenerating moral values and gambling. The Talmud debates whether people should be allowed to play chess, allowing it only as better than being idle, because it can sharpen the mind. Rabbi Maimonides ruled professional chess players unworthy of serving in law courts, likely due to connection to gambling and fortune telling, and a sign that top chess players of the time were degenerates. Islamic authorities worried that playing chess would lead to sin, and increased people’s tendency to engage in forbidden activities such as substance abuse, telling lies, cheating, false oaths and gambling. As chess traveled West, the original meaning was lost and started to develop a bad reputation.

Jewish Interpretations of Chess
Jews served as a conduit from East to West, and chess is a popular subject of early Rabbinic poetry. Rabbis often used the game as a parable for deeper spiritual lessons, including the warnings of the dangers of sinful activity affiliated with the game. The Kuzari of Rabbi Yehuda Halevi talks about chess as a game of Kings, and a metaphor for free will and decision making. These writings on chess and free will are an early precursor to Kotov’s candidate moves and analysis trees, and similar to early Dharmic conceptions. The focus of chess as an allegory to free will helped rehabilitate the game’s deeper meaning of understanding karmic processes, and each individual’s personal struggle with life’s choices. Later rabbinic writings started recommending teaching chess to kids to sharpen their thinking skills, and learn to contemplate the consequences of their actions.

Chess became so popular among Jews in Europe it was codified into the High Holiday New Year’s prayer service with the legend of Simeon Bar Isaac and his estranged son Elchonon who becomes Pope. When coming to make a request from the Pope, they played a game of chess and the Pope wins using a technique that the Rabbi had taught his son. From the unique chess combination, the Rabbi recognized that the Pope is in fact his long-lost son. In future essays I hope to go much more into detail of Jewish history and chess, and Kabalistic conceptions. In many ways chess served as an interfaith communication among Jews, Muslims and Christians. Among the elite chess was a game of diplomacy serving the original divination purpose, but to the masses chess often deteriorated to just another gambling game. However, even in the degenerate form of chess as a gambling game, the divination of future events and rise and fall of personalities can still be seen as the purpose.

Another topic beyond the scope of this essay to return to in future essays is reincarnation and chess. In both Dharmic and Kabalistic conceptions one of the spiritual forces that can be deciphered from chess is the transmigration of souls. Common was the belief that great chess players were reincarnations of previous great personalities attempting to further their mission and struggles not yet completed from previous generations. Chess can be used to help people figure out our mission in life. In Kabalistic terms, our tikkun haolom, repair the world, the reason we are here, our greater mission that takes many lifetimes to accomplish.

Rise of Tournament and Competitive Chess
In 1851 Howard Staunton organized the first major international chess competition at the London Great Exhibition, the first World’s Fair. This led to the creation of tournament chess, and a canonization of the rules, movement, names and form of the pieces and notation system. Competitive chess became a sport, where the purpose became to bring the top players together to determine and reward the best, eventually leading to a world’s championship. The pieces were standardized into the Western Christian feudal system we are familiar with today. Tournament chess operates without greater meaning other than competition. Competitors play to win purely based on the geometric patterns of the pieces, preparation, strategy and mental skills. However, modern chess still retains the European system of Christian monarchs, consisting of a king with a cross, queen, bishops, knights, rooks and pawns, adapted to Christian Europe from the Eastern precursor forms of Chaturanga and Shatranj.

Although some of the earliest chess works focused on strategy, till the advent of tournament chess, divination was the main role. Early authors focused on the life lessons that can be learned from chess, using chess analogies to help explain spiritual lessons. Strategic ideas were generalized to a deeper understanding of the consequences of our actions and making better decision in life, than purely as a method to achieve victory over the board. After the rise of professional chess, less focus was put on the meaning of chess, but on winning strategy. Today chess theory is almost exclusively dedicated to the best path to victory. These strategies are neutral in meaning, and a surprising majority of top players today insist chess has no meaning and is just a game, or sport. Anyone talking about the deeper meaning of chess is unlikely a competitive player, and laughed out of most serious chess clubs, ironically often relegated to coaching youth. Regardless, the symbolic nature remains, one can understand the meaning of the pieces and the purpose of the game as one pleases.

The rise of cognitive science has switched the role of teaching chess to children more to general thinking skills than the historical role of karma, morals and ethics, to help children understand the consequence of their actions. Chess in school programs focuses more on mathematical reasoning than moral reasoning. However, the majority of casual chess players and youth coaches still focus on the historical constant meaning of chess, as a way to teach children basic thinking skills and to help understand the consequences of our actions. The deeper meaning of chess remains open to all.

Many spiritual leaders such as the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson of blessed memory, frequently used chess metaphors to express spiritual concepts, words of inspiration and examples of the self-improvement process. In upcoming essays, I will go more in depth of the role of chess in Judaism, and the historical role chess played in diplomacy and interfaith between Jews and Christians and Messianic theology. I will also further explore the Kabalistic and Dharmic systems of how chess can represent the interaction between the material and spiritual worlds, and help us in our self-improvement processes to purify our hearts and minds and make optimal life decisions, minimizing harm in dealings with others. From there I will delve into current research on chess, expertise, intelligence and decision making from cognitive science and consciousness studies related to the predictive mind, and how this all relates to my Multiple Truth Hypothesis.