IN THE SPIRIT OF CAISSA: THE ART OF CHESS
by Ed Hirsch, August 2001
Is chess an art or sport in and for itself, without need of further justification? Or is chess to be judged on its potentials for bettering humankind? Both of these convey a glimpse of the truth but miss the mark of what chess can really offer us. To isolate chess unto itself deprives it of its deeper link with humanitys development, while shackling it to some program for human improvement undermines its autonomy and freedom of expression as an art. Chess is an art, with its own justification, as well asbeing part of the weave of lifeis part of the fabric of humanitys development.
Whether chess is played for casual enjoyment or for high tournament stakes ("chess for fun" and "chess for blood"), it is seldom a passion for the development of the whole human being. Maybe this is of scant interest to most chess players, but this approach falls short of making full use of the opportunity that chess affords us. It simply does not live up to the full scope of the spirit of chess. Beyond both of the above extremes, the full art of chess opens into the art of living, and the spirit of chess opens into the spirit of living.
Aside from simply enjoying a game of chess, we can also desire to improve our game, to understand the game in greater depth, thereby enabling us to enrich our enjoyment. An impulse runs through all the levels of the game that we can call the search for chess perfection. Is this to be found through developing stronger chess computers, or through the next chess superstar? The development of chess is not simply an end in itself, but is a participation in the development of humanity. This is the great art, the royal art, and I feel that chess makes a unique contribution to this end. Chess is called the Game of Kings because historically it was associated with recreation for the nobility, and because essentially the King is the key piece on the board. But essentially, chess is the royal game because it has the power to evoke and enrich that which is most noble, or royal, within us. Thus it is truly the King of Games.
Chess can span the range from the quite casual, to the serious hobby or profession, to the obsessiveor it can simply have no part in your life at all. A person can lead a full life without ever having the slightest interest in chess (although I do feel that chess should be an integral part of education). It is easy to dismiss chess as only a game, something that is far from the essentials of life, the substance of real life. However, a game is part of the larger sense of play, and this serves a critical role in the development of physical, mental, and social skills. And its virtues are not confined to children. Higher levels of play are at work in a generals planning a military campaign, and a Wall Street investor playing the market. Creativity, ingenuity, and careful judgment might be at work here, with high level stakes. The ability to recognize patterns and to form sound judgments where the outcome is not totally predictable is part of the humans adaptability for survival. From an even higher or more transcendent view, everything can be considered a game, a play on the fundamentals of being.
Further, being "only a game" is perhaps not really a detriment but a secret advantage. Chess is one of the great inventions of the human mind, and its mass appeal through history is owing to its form as a game. Far fewer would study it in any depth if it were a purely philosophical or mathematical exerciseor even a religious ritual. But as a game, it cuts across all cultural and religious backgrounds; it appeals to the dabbler as well as to the totally dedicated player and student of chess. What begins as the simple fun of a game, the satisfaction of a win, matures into the "aha!" of discovery and the sophisticated enjoyment of a mating combination, and can flower into a highly refined and evolved appreciation of truth and beauty.
There is a wisdom and medium for self-knowledge and self-development in chess that is disguised, we might say, in the game. In this respect, perhaps it is similar to Tarot cards, which conceal wisdom in the form of a deck of playing cards or fortune telling cards. In both cases, origins are shrouded in mystery. Does chess have a higher origin and teaching? Or is it merely a war game? I do not intend to offer a definitive answer, but I hope to shed some light on how we can relate to chess as if it were a gift from the "goddess."
I began the following contemplations as reflections on what it is about chess that attracts me in the deepest way--in the playing of it, the studying of it, and in the teaching of it. I was interested in the beauty and art of chess in a larger senseart as harmony, balance, integration of opposites, as in the art of writing or speaking or living. I was interested in the art of chess, not simply as the art of better chess playing, but chess as an art, as a way, as a tao or a yoga. I intuited that there was more to chess than just a sport, or a pleasurable recreation, or an art for its own sake.
While I was introduced to chess in grade school, it is only recently in middle age that I became smitten with chess. My background, other than in teaching math, had been in psychology, philosophy, and spirituality. I have long been attracted to the play of the one and manyphilosophically, spiritually, psychologically, scientifically, aesthetically, etc. I have long been attracted to various systems that meaningfully presented this play in intricate variations of basic themes. Some of these have been philosophical, spiritual, and esoteric systemssuch as astrology, kabbalah, numerology, tarot, and alchemy. These were all various systematic attempts to present this basic play in ways that were part of profound world views (however much they may have been diluted in our popular culture). I have done many tarot readings, and was fascinated by the unfolding story that would emerge.
So when I rediscovered chess in the last few years, it was natural for me to enjoy the beauty, truth, and symbolismwhat I could call the wisdomof chess beyond the obvious game. It was natural for me to ponder what hidden wisdom and meaning might be implicit in chess that was veiled from the casual onlooker or even player. Similarly, the alchemists claimed to be able to read the "Book of Nature," which was mostly veiled from others. I enjoyed tarot readings to complement the formal study of tarot as a philosophical system, for they were highly individual patterns, arising in the present. There were always the basic themes arising in new patterns whose underlying meaning I would recognize. A story would emerge.
So too, one can study chess theory, and then there is the game as a unique story that unfolds between two people. Chess is more of a game, more oppositional, but here also basic themes and pieces (like the cards) take on different meaning according to their particular arrangement on the playing field. Unlike a tarot reading, chess is more under the control of the conscious mind and will, but in both cases I think there are deeper forces at work. A tarot spread does not seem to be random to one who can read it, as if there were a deeper intelligence at work through the arrangement of the cards. In chess, there are deeper patterns that are often not available to, or recognized by, the players. Further, while the moves might seem to be rational, there are also psychological, philosophical, and aesthetic principles that guide them of which the players are unaware.
I am not a tournament player, a gifted or even a strong player. I am not so much a chess player as a thinker or philosopher who plays chess. I love chess, but I love life and truth more. However, this does not mean that I only use chess as a backdrop for spouting philosophy. I appreciate the beauty of chess itself, the beauty of a winning combination, and the like. However, I feel that chess is a wonderful expression of life on so many levels, and it would be a limitation for this not to be valued. Chess is not a mere substitute gratification for people who cannot win in the struggle of real life, but an important means of studying the larger game of life. As part of education, playing chess is a way of learning about, and participating in, the larger game.
My focus has been on the basics of chess, rather than the more sophisticated and advanced theories and techniques. My background has taught me the value of basics, and it seems that in chess also, the basics are ever present. But I feel that the basics Im exploring here offer an approach that is largely missing in contemporary chess. These basics go all the way to the philosophic basics of life. These fundamentals, however, are not offered in the spirit of any fundamentalism. My hope is that this approach might contribute in some measure to the evolution of the chess spirit, and beyond that into the larger evolution of spirit.
Surely, the broad and colorful historical background of chess strongly contributes to chess culture. Surely, the thrill of the sport strongly contributes to the growing popularity of chess, especially among schoolchildren. But there is something about the beauty of chess that has made it endearing to me, and enduring for humanity. This something has the precision and clarity of math and the beauty and emotional power of music. This something seeks articulation and unfolding clarity. The beauty, the wisdom, and the power of chess draw us forth in quest of the "truth" of chess. Since chess is not a doctrine or dogma, but a game, I feel it is appropriate to speak of the art of chess.
To make the point more timely, we might well ask if the art of chess is some romantic notion of the past, when daring sacrifices and gambits were played for the sake of crowd pleasing and artistic flourish. This stands in contrast to the chess of today, which seems dominated more by the metaphor of sport than of art. With the time pressure of tournament play, the player is looking for the quickest win by any means, however brutish and unaesthetic. And perhaps the "unblinking silicon monster" serves to render chess more of a science. However, as the invention of photography was not the death of painting, but rather opened new doors of perception, so perhaps human creativity and ingenuity will be pushed to new frontiers in chess. (Already, the internet has tremendously increased chess accessibility and activity, and computer programs and electronic gadgets have made chess play and chess instruction widely available to players of all skill levels.)
In our postmodern era, with its encompassing variety of truly global proportions, there is no dominance of any one eras style of chess (classical or romantic, for example), but an alive accommodation of them all. Out of this, I see the emergence of new ground. Chess is deeply woven into human culture, and its infinite variety and adaptability reflects humanity. It is as unlikely that chess play will nostalgically return to a bygone era as that its future will end in dry technique. Art is inherent in the very spirit of the game. And what is inherent calls for expression, to reawaken the spirit of chess as art.
My writing on chess as art is offered as a work in progress, in the spirit of contribution, and for feedback for further exploration. Seven themes have emerged from my quest, and they serve as a convenient way of grouping ideas. Each point is imbued with a sense of balancing or integrating contrasts or opposites. This quality relates to the inner beauty and harmony of chess, and how chess can serve as a path of inner development.
My remarks might be more appreciated by older adults who are more sensitive to chess as art than by youth that is more gripped by the excitement of winning a game or tournament. However, the approach I offer has a bearing on how chess might be offered as part of a holistic education. Whether the holistic approach is naturally taught by the chess experience itself is questionablebut I do feel that holistic educators have a great deal to do with using chess as a holistic vehicle for the education of the whole human being.
Chess is a game of many opposites: black and white, the opposing players, winning and losing, attack and defense, initiative and response, combinational (tactical) and positional (strategic) play, logical/scientific and artistic/intuitive styles, calculated planning and intuitive unfolding, one-on-one play and simultaneous exhibitions, playing a person and playing a computer, ordinary chess and blindfold chess (without sight of the board), the contemplative mode of slow play and the excitement of rapid play, playing to win and playing to teach or learn, tournament play and casual play, competitive play and replaying games or solving chess problems or studies. The world of chess has room for all of this and more.
A holistic view of chess perhaps emphasizes the more hidden harmony behind the opposites, but it must include both the unity and the opposition. Each illuminates the other: for example, the underlying unity enhances your appreciation of the opposites, while a tacit appreciation of a given game is immeasurably enhanced by understanding the hidden conflict and threats in the game.
The first theme is: Chess is the art of balancing and integrating the contrast of part and whole. Chess has the ability to engender what we could call "whole mind," which is equally adept at seeing the whole and its interrelated parts. Whole mind has a strong sense of unity as well as the facility to differentiate that unity in many parts and in different ways. This is done without losing the parts in the unity, and without losing the whole in the parts.
This ability is developed in the context of the whole space of the board as well as all its parts. The board itself is a homogeneous space, a basic unity, that is differentiated into 64 squares. These squares in turn are all essentially alike, differentiated into light and dark, and further, into placement (e.g., central and peripheral). The board can be seen as a whole, as a series of ranks, files, or diagonals, as a series of borders around a center, as a division between Kingside and Queenside, or between the White and Black sides, and also as a whole that includes all of the above. The board represents a space of awareness in which the whole is known, as well as each square and the relations of the squares within that whole. Each chess unit (piece or pawn), standing on a square, creates a mandala (a circle circumscribed or inscribed by a square), which is symbolic of wholeness. The circle circumscribing the 64 squares is most often not given, but is for the player to furnish with his or her whole vision of the board.
When the units are on the board, we learn to pay attention to each one, but not as a merely isolated piece of wood or plastic. We learn to appreciate each within the context of the whole, as if each existed within a larger force field and sent out lines of force in patterns unique to its type. We learn to see beyond the isolated material to a world of energy, a field of forces. We thus more readily find open lines for movement. Further, we learn to understand any position on the board within a context of possibilities. In a game, we analyze the position in the context of candidate moves and different sequences of moves. In the study of chess, we learn a position and consider how it would be different if the arrangement were slightly altered. This teaches us to understand what is given within a context of possibilities: a simple example might be seeing a picture and imagining it bigger, smaller, in different colors, etc. Any given thing is then a part in a context of many possible wholes.
For the various positions of pieces and pawns on the board, you have to consider the whole situation, and yet also be able to consider each part within that situation. Just taking it all in, or just considering general principles, wont do. And just looking at the parts isnt sufficientyou develop the ability to assess the position from different viewpoints. Partly this involves general principles and your general strategy, and partly this involves assessing the particular situation at handboth integrated in a workable way. A simple example of seeing parts and wholes is looking at a position and seeing if its mate or not. Sometimes you can see this at a glance, all at once, and sometimes you need to assess several factors together to arrive at a conclusion (for example, an escape square is under attack, and a piece that might block the check cannot because it is pinned). Another simple example: have you ever made what you thought was a definitive move, such as Queen and Bishop checkmating the King in the corner, only to be shocked at the rude awakening of the Queen being taken by an unnoticed Rook in the other corner? What happened was that you were so focused on one corner, the local situation, that you didnt appreciate the larger context.
Chess is a training in understanding many parts within a whole context. The weaker player merely reacts to a move, whereas the stronger player asks questions, looks for options, and selects the best from among them. The wholeness here is appreciating and understanding a move within the context of alternative moves and sequencesand knowing why this is the best move.
The weaker player sees only in part, while the stronger player understands more of the larger story. The parable of "The Blind Men and the Elephant" is applicable here: each man experiences only one part of the whole (elephant) but imagines it to be the whole, or imagines that the whole is simply an extension of that part. (It is interesting to note that the parable is Indian, and India is widely considered to be the birthplace of chess.) Chess is training in opening our eyes and seeing the whole. Chess is training in "whole seeing," which is a direct perception of the significance of the position, while also amenable to logical analysis.
For example, when a beginners King is attacked, his or her first impulse might be to move the King away. A stronger player pauses and asks, in effect, "Can I move? Can I block? Can I capture?" and then selects the best option. Again, suppose a player advances a pawn and attacks a piece. The weaker player interprets whats happening on the board in terms of the isolated move or attack, or perhaps merely thinks, "This pawn moved." A stronger player sees the move in a larger context: for example, perhaps it opens a diagonal for a Bishop to attack your Queen, or perhaps it weakens the pawn structure.
You might notice a possible play, say an exchange of a Bishop for a Rook. But you might overlook a larger story of the possibility of mate. Or again, you might notice a move and then reject it because of the loss of material. However, if you had looked further, you might notice that this would set up a position in which you could win even greater material (say, a Knight fork of King and Queen). Such plays are called combinations, initiated by a sacrifice of material, forcing a response which then nets you a winning move. Seeing the partial views is like the situation of the blind men; seeing the whole view is like seeing the elephant itself.
In real life, you might know some fact, but you might not understand the significance of this fact. For example, you know someone said a word or made some simple gesture. But you might not understand the meaning of that word or gesture, because you dont know the story behind it, its context. Once you understand that story (of course, open to interpretations), the significance becomes clear (or more clear). On the chessboard, you might see that the pawn moved, but you dont yet appreciate its significance. Or perhaps you are shown a position on the board, and although you see the facts (nothing physically is hidden on the board), you dont yet understand the significance. Once you see or are shown the forcing moves (say, beginning with a piece sacrifice), once you see the threats in the position, then you appreciate the meaning of the position.
The stronger player sees more of the whole story. The ordinary player might just play move by move, having little awareness of the long-term consequences of his or her moves. There might be a sense of unfolding, but the stronger player has a sense of what sort of Middle Game and Endgame the Opening is likely to develop into. The present position on the board is appreciated more in terms of the larger picture, the fuller story.
Seeing the larger whole is not just a matter of seeing the "one true" way. In the international community of chess culture, there is a space for inquiry, for questioning, rather than for dogmatic approaches. In this sense, it promotes a democratic style in which the individual is encouraged to think for himself or herself, and in which anyone could contribute something new. Surely, sometimes there is the "one best move," or the unique "checkmate in one." However, chess is more than just critical thinking that leads to the one right answer (say, through process of elimination). Seeing the larger whole also involves being aware of the larger context of possibilities, and being willing to question the obvious. Isnt this what the blind men need to realize? Each is believing his own version of the story, because it seems to obvious to him.
The theme of whole and part applies to the pieces and pawns as a totality. Each chess unit plays its part in the whole. The weaker player does not develop the units in accordance with the team spirit or with a larger idea that unites them all. The stronger player develops all the pieces as a harmonious whole, and in this harmony is both beauty and power. There is greater power for attack, and a position in which the hidden relationship of the chess units can be revealed. Isolated, they have less strength, and their relationships are meager.
In dream interpretation, the person might take on the role of each character (or even object) in the dream. In understanding a whole story in depth, the reader might look out on the whole from the perspective of each of the characters. So too, in chess, place yourself into the roles of each of the pieces (your own and those of your opponent) in order to appreciate the whole story.
A good example of this harmony is the special move called castling. All the chess units involved are happy together: the center pawn is happy to make the first move into the center; the Knight and Bishop are happy to move out onto the battlefield; the King is happy and secure in his castle; the pawns in front of him are happy to stand guard as the Kings castle wall; and the Rook is happy to move out of his corner and also guard his King. The whole exhibits the beauty, simplicity, and economy of moves. Economy is also exhibited in the forms of double attack, where one move accomplishes more than one objective.
The whole involves not only the spatial entirety of the board and pieces, but also involves the temporal unfolding of the game. The example of determining a checkmate can be extended two or more moves ahead. This involves seeing into the position beyond what is simply given in the here-and-now. You can see the larger whole, the whole truth, as if all at once. Perhaps you previously had no clue that a mate was even possible, because it involved a move (perhaps a "quiet move" or a major sacrifice) that was beyond what you even considered relevant or possible. Another example is viewing an endgame position and seeing if it is a win or a draw. The "all at once" ability conveys the sense of art that unifies different parts and aspects. One is reminded of Mozarts ability to "see" his musical compositions as if all at once before his minds eye. In chess, the art of whole seeing is one that can translate itself step-by-step. This differentiation is part of the power of artistic expression, as the ability to carry it out in over-the-board play.
The weaker player plays move by move; the stronger player understands the meaning and possibilities of the position in the larger context of the gamewhat came before, and what is to come. Each board position is like an episode in the larger story or drama, a still frame from a whole film, or a position from a whole dance. When you reread a story of poem, or when you view a movie again, you have a different relation to the experience. You have a greater sense of the part in the context of the whole. When you replay a chess game, you have a greater realization of the whole unfolding story, and how each move participated in it. As you gain more experience in playing, you develop greater appreciation of each move within a larger whole (for example, in the Openings).
The weaker player might be able to identify isolated patterns on the board, such as King exposure or pawn weakness, but be unable to galvanize them into an action plan. The stronger player might be able to dynamically consolidate these factors into a winning play. The weaker player might be able to identify a possible checkmate but be unable to weave the obstacle (say, a piece guarding a vital square) into their plan in a workable way. Also, a weaker player might scan the board and identify various possible moves, good and bad, while the stronger player intuitively goes for the relevant patterns and the strong moves.
In chess jargon, a move can be called "accurate" or "thematic," if it makes good sense within the storyline or plot of the story of the unfolding play. Of course, a story can go in many directions, but some make more sense, or have a better feeling to themthey ring true. There is not always one best move for every position, but in an opening theme, a move might be more true to the context, to the actual position on the board. If a move or several moves were moving in a certain direction, then the following move might be more accurate than another, because it fits in with the advantages the others were preparing. That next move might have been the point that the others were aiming for.
In a chess problem, it might be helpful to list all the relevant patterns and possibilities you can find in a given position, and then look at the master move thats given. Then work backwards and figure out why that move was made, and work through the thinking process that led up to it. Finally, be able to view the whole situation at once, with the correct sequence of moves, and with the understanding of why those moves were made. See it all at once, but be able to go through it step by step, as if walking someone else through it.
You might wish to explore the following sequence: First, play through a master game without annotations, getting a sense of the flow of the play. (You might even challenge yourself by playing through the first few opening moves and then, covering one column, make your own move before comparing it with the masters.) Second, play through the same game, this time writing down your own comments and questions, making as much sense of the game as you can. Third, play through the game again, this time following the notes of a master. Experience the difference from stage to stage, and how your enjoyment and understanding of the game increase as you comprehend more of the whole.
The chess game is an unfolding drama, a story. You get to know the story by first understanding the setting (to start with, how the chess units are arranged on the board), the characters (King, Queen, Rook, Bishop, Knight, pawns), and how they move (singly, and in combination). You understand the problem (two Kings and their kingdoms vie for absolute control), and the resolution (a win or a draw). The chess story has a beginning (the Opening), middle (Middlegame), and ending (Endgame), though sometimes the story gets cut short (by an early checkmate or resignation).
Chess has all the basic elements of a story: the characters, the plot, the surprise, the suspense, the conflict, the resolution. Of course, some games make better stories than others, in terms of the art of weaving together the various elements. But it still remains for the "reader" to appreciate the intricacies of what is involvedand this itself is an art of weaving together many elements and levels.
Over time, the chess player gains experience, gains familiarity with chess patterns, with chess history and tradition, and the whole "feel" of what chess is about. One becomes more aware of the various elements involved, including those involved in the "inner game of chess." And so the game becomes not a mere repetition of familiar themes, but an increasingly rich tapestry, with greater awareness behind each of the parts. It is not just a matter of becoming a stronger player, filling the domain of the chessboard with greater knowing and presence.
All in all, the chess player develops a multifaceted and flexible concentration or presence of many parts and levels contained in one whole awareness. This, of course, is not equivalent to playing while distracted by thoughts about dinner, personal concerns, general mind wandering, an inner critic, and so on. Sometimes, however, the player does have to face such practical matters as time pressure. Psychological pressure, and so on.
Chess serves in the development of a holistic thinking, which is network thinking, pattern thinking, relational thinking, contextual thinking. This is the development of a whole awareness beyond the push and pull of narrow lines of thinking and narrow points of view. (This is "whole elephant" thinking.) It is contextual, but not lost in generalities and abstractions, since it is grounded in the present focus of experience. It is not mindless application of pattern. Such thinking integrates both the "upward thinking" of generalizing, abstracting, induction, as well as "downward thinking" of particularizing, application, deduction. As we shall see later, if this is developed within a view of holistic education, it will not become limited solely to chess.
The second theme: The art of chess involves the ability of the mind to arrange figures into (meaningful and beautiful) patterns. This involves a sense of mastery over the pieces and board, a seeming case of "mind over matter." Consider the difference between the pieces randomly in the box or bag, and those same pieces arranged in their beginning positions on the board, ready for play. Consider the difference between the pieces placed randomly on the board, and those same pieces placed on the board according to the rules of play. And consider the difference between the pieces arrayed on the board in a poorly played game, and those same pieces arrayed in a well-played game.
Looking around at such human creations as books, buildings, and machines, we see matter arranged according to the ideas of a mind. The actions we take, even ordinary behaviors such as walking across the room or moving our hand, are the expressions of ideas. Even the powerful influence of moods, emotions, needs, and desires are deeply conditioned by ideas. On the chessboard, the world is scaled down and simplified, and we have a clearer experience of thinking the thought and putting it into action.
The solidity of the chess units and board represents a physical expression of an idea. The power of each unit, and the networks of their relationships, however, are not solid but are fully penetrable by the mind. All the chess units are simply forms of wood or plastic (for example), differing in shape, which itself expresses different powers attributed to them by the mind. When a chess unit is pinned, it is as though there were a force field that held it in place. This is not a physical force, but the power of the mind. All the rules of chess that hold the game together are held in place by the mind. Working within these, it is the mind that creates the unique art of each game.
In working a chess problem, when you first view the position on the board, it might seem a chaotic arrangement. Then you might come to understand the position, the threat it contains, and what is possible here. A basic principle or idea might emerge to the inquiring mind, and the whole falls into place. This is expressed in an "Aha!" which is followed by the move itself. Sometimes you study the position and you cannot figure it out; then you get a hint or look up the answer, and it is as if you are seeing through the eyes of the master. In either case, it is mind-expanding and satisfying, like getting the answer to a riddle. There is a sense of discovery, the sense of a dawn of understanding, the emergence of the idea from the material, which sometimes can feel revelatory. When a player discovers an idea that reveals itself, there is a sense of, "Ah!" When a player comprehends an idea that he or she couldnt see unaided, there is a sense of, "Oh!" These are complementary ways of connecting to the idea.
This power of arrangement, or mastery over the pieces on the board, can be developed to an extent that seems almost magical. Akin to the wonders of the stage magician pulling rabbits out of hats is the chess masters ability to pull a win out of a "lost game." Or again, the artistry on the board by which a checkmate is materialized out of the "thin air" of a seemingly equal and stable position is reminiscent of the mastery of the professional magician over a deck of cards. The familiar ring of, "Watch closely there is nothing up my sleeve," could be applied to this chess "magic," where nothing can kept out of sight. Everything is "above board," in "black and white," but while everything is seen, the hidden relationships and potentials are not. It seems magical when you cannot see the hidden patterns, but the strong player looks out for them and even creates them by forcing moves. And yet there is something magical about the really original move, for it is "logical" only in hindsight. Where it originally came from is still a mystery, the mystery of what we can call the Origin, the source of the creativity. This is never reduced to the logical machinery of a system.
Creativity has roots in both logic and a higher order intuition. Some people have tried to show the originality and genius of creativity, defending it against any attempt to reduce it to a "paint by number" technique that anyone could employ. This has its place, but it can go to the extreme of idealizing and idolizing creativity as something untouchable and unreachable by the masses. On the other hand, others have fought against this tendency by emphasizing its logical structure, and that the average person can be trained in creativity. One doesnt have to be blessed by the gods, so to speak; one can actively develop the germ of creativity within oneself, much as one can develop any skill. This, too, can be taken to the extreme, reducing something really original, uncontrollable, and unpredictable to formula. Yet if we take into account what it worthwhile in both camps, we can say that creativity is co-creativethat is, it has a receptivity towards a higher order of being, as well as an activity that has an individual initiative and responsibility. Within this holistic view, we can acknowledge both the mystery and transcendence in creativity, as well as that aspect that is teachable and trainable.
Chess involves the minds ability to arrange the same pieces in different combinations. For example, you can look at the same situation on the board with respect to material, or mobility, or pawn structure, or King safety, etc. Or again, you can look at the complexity of a position and focus on connecting different pieces, leading to the choice of different moves. You look for discovering the essential feature on the board, including what is as yet only potential and needs to be worked out. In some respects, this is a matter of style and the larger plan of the game.
Of course, the whole game is imbued with mind, for the pieces themselves have no intrinsic relationships or powers except as the mind gives to them. A person who knows nothing of chess could very well see the board and the pieces, know the material out of which they were made, see the shape of the pieces, and see the actual position on the board. But this person would have no appreciation or understanding of the game or of the position on the board. This is comparable to a printed page viewed by two people, one who cannot read and one who can. The stronger player sees more into the board position (is more "chess literate") than the weaker player. Much as a good reader sees words and phrases at a glance, rather than decodes each word, the stronger player can "read" the board position at a glance. The mind or understanding connects with the "idea" implicit in the position.
The weaker player can see all the pieces, and recognize some of the apparent threats, while the stronger player understands the fabric of the story of the game, what is actually unfolding on the board, and what could unfold. The weaker players attention gets focused on the material, rather than on the idea behind the material.
We can consider three levels of focus: 1) first is the outer, the focus on the material pieces, their shapes and positions; 2) second is the inner, the focus on the forces (lines of force) these represent, as the inner life of the pieces; 3) third is the higher, the focus on the ideas behind the forces, and the patterns that relate the forces, as the inner essence that animates the pieces. Just as the outer shape of the pieces (in the standard Staunton set) conform to their inner force or function, so the latter conform to the idea of the pieces. We can add a fourth level, that of spirit or chess presence, that pervades all the other levels and guides them all. This is the core source of chess insight, chess intuition, chess brilliance, chess genius. Following the ancient differentiation of wholes into four, we can represent these levels according to the Four Elements: 1) Earth: outer form 2) Water: inner force 3) Air: inner idea 4) Fire: guiding spirit. We will meet this spirit or presence of chess in our fourth theme and beyond. Here, we shall simply point out that these levels indicate an increasing degree of transparency of the material to the essential, allowing the inner idea and spirit to emerge.
The stronger player can orchestrate the material on the board in the way music contrasts to noise, or (in the extreme) the way intelligent order contrasts to random movements. The contrast is akin to the master artists ability to conjure up exquisite forms with pencil and paper, compared to the average persons productions. The ideas might be there, but there is a lack of ability to concretely express them with the given materials. The chess board and chess units are the artists materials for the expression of his or her ideas.
We get a sense of the possibilities of chessthe beauty and grace of chesswhen we experience the game of a master. We get a glimpse of what is possible, of what is potential in every game, where the game is elevated to a level of real art. It is like going to hear a master pianist, violist, or guitarist, for example, and experiencing what is possible in this form. More generally, it is the experience of beholding anything being done very wellso well that it becomes as if a translucent vehicle for the expression of art, of genius. And if the master explains the moves of the game, we can feel enthralled, as if by a master storyteller. (Of course, this does not apply to every master game, since the average player would not even appreciate some of the level of master play. It might be comparable to trying to appreciate genius-level mathematics, when you find it barely intelligible.)
The stronger player sees connections and relationships that the weaker player misses. The stronger player sees the ideas inherent in the position, whereas the weaker player misses them, because the material and the complexity of the position obscure the essential idea. From the endless possibilities of positions and sequences of moves, the mind finds those that are most meaningful and beautiful. And it is the stronger player who is more adept at using this resource of the mind. The computer also can do this, but the computer itself is an invention of the mind.
Further, the priority of the idea is strong in chess. In the study of chess, understanding takes priority over memorization, and the underlying principle over the specifics. The idea of the checkmate, for example, is an essential idea that can be illustrated by a board and pieces of any material, size, or shape. The essential idea shines through, whether it was played a hundred years ago or today, in Europe or in Asia, by young or old. Again, a strong move is one that sees connections (ideas) that are otherwise obscured. A strong move is one that gives the sense of cutting through the material world to the essential, to the "point." In actual play, this priority of the mind in chess is reinforced by the "touch move" rule, which states that if you touch a piece, you must move it (if it is a legal move). The point is, "Make the move in your mind first!"
A striking example of the power of the idea in chess is the beauty of the sacrifice (especially the Queens), where weaker material wins over the stronger due to the dominance of the mind over the material situation. We experience a sense of mind expansion, as we become aware of the power of limiting belief and untested assumptionnamely, that which does not allow us to even consider such a move in looking for possibilities. The situation involves "thinking outside the box" of narrow assumptions (as in the famous "Nine Dot Problem"). There are no miracles in chess, but what we call brilliancies are like the inner form, idea, light, or spirit shining through the material. They also shine through the crystallized patterns of mind, breaking down barriers to let new light in.
In chess, we seek to maximize options. On the material level, this involves the free mobility of the pieces. The stronger side has the greater mobility. Checkmate is the ultimate in no mobility (for the King), no options. On the mental level, this involves sufficient awareness to see possibilities. If we operate on limited assumptions, then we already limit our options, our freedom of choice. For example, if we make our play, assuming our opponent is going to make the moves that fit into our plan, then the next move might burst our bubble. Making limiting assumptions might also mean that we dont ask all the right or relevant questions.
Chess is essentially a game of ideas rather than moves. The moves are the expression of the ideas, although the ideas are not disembodied. Chess is not wholly abstractit involves concrete thinking involving the relations of the pieces on the board. You do have to assess the actual and specific position before you, and not simply rely upon generalities. You have to attend to the others responses and not get lost in your own ideas. While chess ideas seem essential and directly intuited, we must also recognize that basic principles are generalizations made from many years of master play. In this regard, chess is more like an inductive science of open-ended inquiry than a deductive system like mathematics. Each game is more like an experimental approach to basic "laws" (or paradigms) than a deductive application of basic principles. Each generations play extends the boundaries of the body of accepted chess knowledge, much as in scienceand sometimes the paradigms themselves are modified.
The idea and principle are tested in action, the general is tested in the forge of the specific, the beauty of the idea is tested in the results on the board. The idea, the inspiration, the imagination, must be grounded and will be challenged on the board. Beauty and efficiency are both valued in chess. It is true that some players will focus more on what works, while for others the brilliance or beauty of a game or move takes precedence over the win or loss. Nevertheless, both factors are important in the total view of chess.
The idea needs experience to test itself and unfold. Brilliance or genius needs to be complemented by skill and experience. Both study and practice are important in chess. It is not enough, for example, to study the ideasjust as you cannot really learn to play chess without actually playing. Conversely, play alone does not make you a better player if you do not understand the principles involved. You can play and enjoy chess once you know how the pieces move, but even here, you are not really playing chess if you dont understand the primacy of the King and what check and checkmate are about. From there, it is a matter of more experience and understanding to really get what the game involvesaside from even becoming a strong player.
The third theme: The artistry or wizardry of chess carries the power of magic, as if bringing the pieces to life. Here the emphasis is not on the mastery over matter but on the ability to liberate the inherent forces in the matter. It is like the master violinist who can pick up an old violin and make it "sing." In the hands of a chess master, the board and the pieces can come alive with magic and beauty. If we imagine the units having the powers given to them by the rules of chess, then the good player is able to create "magic" on the board. It is all there in potential, waiting for the good player to actualize. It is a beauty that is more than dry, logical analysis, yet it is a beauty that is very aware and can articulate its wisdom. There is a sort of "360 degree" knowing, a knowing space, within which the units move. These lifeless figures seem to come alive with grace and power, as the chess master adeptly moves them across the board with the grace of a dancer.
The player (of whatever strength) discovering patterns on the board is like a scientist discovering hidden laws of nature. Often it is like the artist working with the powers of nature, for often the chess player has to manipulate the situation in order to create the workable patterns. Discovery is a major part of the joy of learning the game. The artistry is not mere expression on a blank canvas, but more of a discovery of what is in the actual position on the board. It might look like magic, like the rabbit out of the hat, or the idea "out of the blue," but the artist is reading what is there and seeing deeply into the possibilities.
Whereas the weaker player might see only a forest of possibilities on the board, most of them going nowhere special, the stronger player discovers essential features in the position. The stronger player is already familiar with patterns and knows what to look for, but there is the intuitive seeing, the discovery, as the idea reveals itself through the particulars of the position. It can be like one of those three-dimensional puzzles that require you to unlock the parts: before the solution is seen, nothing looks workable, but once it is pointed out, then it becomes so obvious. The experience is not simply one of, "Oh, of course," but rather an experience of liberation from a totally cramped position. The same can be experienced with a chess puzzle (such as, "Mate in Three"), or a position that seems hopelessly lost. It can seem like magic, but one can learn some of the "secrets" of this magic.
The fourth theme: The art of chess is inspired by what we could call "the spirit of chess," which has been personified as "Caissa." The pronunciation of the word itself is suggestive of the balance between opposites: pronounced "KAH-EE-SAH," it stands between the hard "KAY-SAH" and the soft "KESSA." Though this personification is feminine (considered the goddess or muse of chess), it is the root of both whole intuition and logical analysis. Caissa is the offspring of Mars and Aphrodite, the god of war and the goddess of love and beauty, respectively. So too, chess is both a war game and a work of art.
Caissa can represent the presence and intensity you can experience in a chess game, chess tournament, or grandmaster simultaneous exhibition. It is highly alive, but also clearnot spaced out. Its wholeness can be indicated in three ways: First, it represents a presence that is not simply transcendent, impersonal and beyond space and time. It is not simply a high state of bliss, joy, or freedom, for it is also very concretely present in the situation on the board. Second, the direct seeing and knowing in chess is not some ineffable intuition or aesthetic perception. It is not even something, like a poem or flower, whose beauty is diminished upon reflection or analysis. Rather, these contribute to the fullness of the beauty. Third, it is not some "gift of the gods" that we can only receive passively, for it can be cultivated and strengthened as an inner power.
This "chess presence" is neither solely transcendent nor solely a product of scientific training and programming. It is a "sacred marriage" of the "left brain" logic and "right brain" intuition. This is a further development of what we call "whole mind." Beyond this, we can speak of "higher mind," which is receptive to inspiration whose source we can personify as Caissa.
When you play a game and win it, you of course want to feel that it is your win, that you earned it. After all, you planned it, you made the moves, and it is backed by all your study and training. Of course it is your game, your win, and it might even bear the stamp of your personal style. However, have you ever played with inspiration, "in spirit," where "who" was playing became almost as an opening or channel to a seeming higher power and intelligence? You might feel, at such times, "I play, and yet it is not I, but Caissathe spirit of chessplaying through me." Paradoxically, it can feel both like a higher source as well as an inner, core source.
You are not going into a trance; it feels more as if you are co-creating or participating in a creative process. And the more you know about chess, the more you feel inspired by its calling and spirit, the more fully and consciously you can participate in the process. You feel part of a rich heritage, as well as directly connected to the spirit of that tradition. You might feel deeply connected to yourself, to that core within you; you might feel deeply connected to that tradition and world chess culture all around you; and you might feel deeply connected to that Source above you. In this way, chess play can open into deeper dimensions of the personal, interpersonal, and the transpersonal.
In chess, you need both inspiration and logical thinking. When you look at the position on the board, you can go through a series of logical questions and answers, and there is also an intuitive seeing and knowing. It is not all logic, and it is also not all intuition. Intuition yields the candidate moves, but logic gives the choice among them (or at least supports the intuitive choice).
You might be attached to your first idea as if it were a gift from Caissa. However, there is a saying, "If you find a good move, look for an even better one." For example, instead of Knight takes Rook, Knight forks King and Queen, and better than this, go for checkmate. This is not greed, but prudence and patience. It is allowing enough space for the larger truth to be revealed. The real gift of Caissa is the alchemical marriage of differentiated logical mind and intuitive chess wisdom.
While we might meaningfully distinguish the art of chess from the science of chess, the beauty of chess combines both. For example, there is beauty in a "mate in two," even though it has logical precision and calculation every step of the way. There is a freshness and clarity to itnot something cold and calculatingeven after playing it over and over on the board. Conversely, original and artistic play can be subject to post-mortem analysis which, far from reducing the art to cold-blooded calculations, reveals the intricacies of its beauty. Art without science is like artistic passion without mastery of the materials of expression. And science without art is unalive.
Chess appeals both to the logician/scientist and the artist. On the one hand, there is plenty of room for decisive thinking, with clear-cut problems and solutions. For example, sometimes you can decisively demonstrate the single best move on the board in a given position. You either can or cannot make a certain move, and a given move either is or is not mate. So much is clear. On the other hand, there is also plenty of room for creativity, surprises, explorations, choices.
The unfolding story of a game, the drama unfolding on the board, is a work of art, weaving the logic of strategy and tactics with imagination and daring. It takes imagination to appreciate the game as a story, to see the high drama of battle in the moves of wooden or plastic pieces on a checkered board. It takes imagination to see them as live players caught in a web of forces on a battlefield. This is true whether the pieces are shaped into realistic figurines or the simplified standard style.
While the player can do with them as he or she chooses (within the rules), the dedicated player must come to know the team, with their concerns and desires. You have to take as real the Kings concern for his own welfare and the welfare of his kingdom. You enter into each chess unit, both as a living being and as a member of a team. This involves a sort of empathetic involvement with the units, as well as an objective viewing of the situation.
Pure geometry and logical precision play a crucial part, and imaginative involvement with the battle on the board needs to be balanced with logical objectivity. For example, you cannot afford to become so emotionally attached to your Queen that you couldnt bear the thought of sacrificing her to win the game. And you must keep your cool and not get emotionally swayed in either overconfidence or a sense of defeat. Further: the artist inspired by his or her muse is also vulnerable to various delusions. In chess, the objective basis of performance on the board serves to counter flights of fancy with a good dose of reality.
The game of chess has the power to evoke clarity of thought, much as a puzzle might. The game also has the power to evoke deep emotions and passions (both positive and negative). In play, you cannot afford to be driven by strong emotion or passion; the prospect of playing like a calculating machine, on the other hand, doesnt contribute to the enjoyment and adventure of the game.
The polarity of the masculine/Yang (scientific, logical, technical) and the feminine/Yin (intuitive, imaginative, creative) is evident in the history of the game, and this is also reflected in the individual player. The game itself affords a spectrum of play, from lengthy games, where there is sufficient time for thorough analysis, to speed chess (of ten minutes or even two minutes per game), where players must rely more on quick intuition.
Chess is a meeting ground of human passion and drama (Yin) with logic and mathematical structure (Yang). Each player must find his or her own balance in this regard, since both aspects are part of our nature. At its best, chess is a training and balancing of both. Imagination seeks inspiration, but it can be vague and incomplete. It can be subjective, falling in love with its own visions. Logic seeks clarity and precision, but alone it can be rigid and narrow.
Chess draws us both along the lines of the cerebral and the emotional, the cognitive and the affective. Chess demonstrates the priority of the idea, the form, the principle, the idea, but it is not simply a cerebral exercise. Chess evokes a love of beauty, and the higher pleasures, as the souls passion for the goddess. Chess evokes a sense of the power of pattern, and the value of method, discipline, organization, systematic study and analysisin contrast to merely vague intuition and unfocused awareness.
The spirit of Caissa not only has room for both, but opens us toward their integration. Such integration is not simply a blending of the two, but arises from a source of awareness that is beyond both and not limited by either. Such a source can rightly be called the spirit of chess or the chess spirit (personified by Caissa), and this is the source from where chess truly becomes art. We could also call this "objective imagination"an imagination that sees deeply into what is really there. It is objective, without being merely mechanical, and it is imaginative, without being merely subjective or fanciful.
This objective imagination can be said to be an integration of the subjective and the objective. It is subjective or inner-directed, in the sense that it follows an inner source of awareness and intuition, rather than merely following external authority of experts, chess heroes, or tradition. And it is objective or outer-directed, in the sense that it is open to what actually works and to the larger field of chess wisdom, rather than merely following its own inclinations. In chess, flights of fancy that strive toward beauty are grounded in the pragmatic value of "what works." A beautiful combination might be of more value to you than the final outcome of winning, but chess is best characterized by the optimal integration of beauty (the method or process), power (what works), and truth (the actual, whole, and essential nature of the position).
Chess cultivates a direct seeing that is simple, clear, and direct. But it is not as if you either see it or you dont. It is not as if you either have the inborn genius, or the gift of Caissa, or you dont. Chess ability can be cultivated, and this has great implications for education. A novice might gaze at a board, or at a chess puzzle, with a sense of "I dont know," as if with an openness that is waiting for some inspiration to come their way. The person might even think, "I cant see it, so I must be pretty stupid." And of course, this serves to shut down their mind and creativity. However, the person can be taught to ask a series of questions, which helps focus the mind and suggests answers. Sometimes a hint is helpful (even phrased as a leading question), by pointing in a fruitful direction of inquiry and possibility.
A stronger player is both more open in awareness (to new possibilities, to new opportunities, to seeing things in new ways, to trying things in new ways, to new vistas in inspiration), as well as more masterful, more focused, more calculating, more knowledgeable, more deliberate. When you are attuned to that essential presence which we are representing as "Caissa," then you are attuned to your greater resources, to your deeper creativity.
This brings a heightened sense of aliveness and a love of being, a love of the game, as well as a clarity that can highly differentiate itself. It is not an undifferentiated space of Oneness. So when we speak of "love of chess," perhaps it can mean more than just, "I love to play chess"; it can deepen into a love of the spirit of chess, personified by Caissa. The chess master or strong player is then one who embodies that spirit in a more fully developed way than others. You can participate in that spirit when you replay their games, or when you go over their brilliant combinations until they feel like your own play. While this is not the same as the brilliance of creating the moves on your own, you are becoming an educated spectator of a fine art. It gives you the pleasure of aesthetic satisfaction and enhances and refines your aesthetic sensitivity. Even more, you participate in the original creativity and see through the eyes of the master.
This might inspire you to become an enthusiasteven a devotee--of Caissa. You still put in the hard work of study and calculation, but it is carried on with a higher spirit than just the "daily grind." You can develop a positive sense of disciplinenot just a positive sense of work (such as chess study), but essentially discipline as the practice of the disciple of Caissa. This is also not mere blind devotion, subjective inspiration, or emotional enthusiasm, but something that moves you to undertake the discipline of chess study, work, play, and etiquette. In chess as in life, you need inspiration and enthusiasm, but you cant get very far on these alone. They will need to be supplemented by study, experience, and skill. Any true disciple of Caissa loves chess enough to study it and submit to chess as a discipline. You might deepen your capacity to "channel" and embody that spirit, but it is not some devotional and ecstatic state that surrenders to some external agency. It is very much your own intelligence, and yet beyond your usual state. This to me is the beauty of chessnot just as a sport, but as an art.
The beauty of chess is in the intuition, the direct perception. However, this is sharpened by logical analysis. In the larger view, the beauty of chess is in the harmony of these two aspects of the mind. In poetry, analysis can deepen your understanding and appreciation of the work of art, but it cannot replace it. There is still the intuitive and unitive apprehension of the poem, but now it is enriched. In chess, these two aspects come together even more closely.
Consider a game as a poem. You can play through it and appreciate it move by move, but when you go through the annotated game, you gain a deeper appreciation of what is going on behind the scenes. Then you can play through the game again with even greater appreciation, as if you have tapped into the spirit of Caissa behind the outer forms. It is like appreciating the annotated Shakespeare, while it is still the art as written by the author that moves us. We can more deeply appreciate a chess game in the context of the candidate moves that could have been played but were not. Part of the art of a poem is what is omitted, but we hardly ponder all the words the poet could have used but didnt. Because of the structure of chess, the annotated game gives us a much clearer sense of the artists approach than the annotated Shakespeare can convey of the authors mind.
To return to Caissa as chess goddess or muse. What if we took her as more than a poetic reference? Of course, the name can be traced to a minor nineteenth century poem, just as the game of chess can be traced back to a war game. But the former does not prove that the essence of Caissa is merely a poetic invention, as the latter does not prove that the essence of chess is reduced to war gaming. In ancient cultures, the great cultural supports, such as language, art, knowledge of Nature, and the like, were attributed to divine sources. What if we held a similar attitude towards chess, envisioning the game as a gift to humanity from a higher Source? What if we viewed chess as having a higher nature that appealed to our higher natures? I am not suggesting that chess become some sacred rite, as if it were vulgarized by making it a common sport. Rather, I view the essential nature of chess in a holistic way, and that it is especially this holistic nature of chess that serves humanity.
The fifth theme: The art of chess is the play of interpersonal polarities. The relating of parts to whole is not limited to chess units and board, and the intricacies of their patterns of interaction. The relating is also between two people, and the complex social and psychological patterns of their interaction. In addition to playing the position on the board (irrespective of the other player), there is also the complexity of playing the person, with all the psychology and gamesmanship that can go along with that. Beyond this is the larger social and cultural context of chess through the ages.
Two people come together through the medium of chess, through the interactions of the units and board. They might not know each other, or might never speak or even know the others language, but they can communicate across the board. Two people playing a game contrasts to a game played between two computers. All sorts of subtle relational elements can impact the game.
Two players can replay their recorded game and together explore its possibilities. Thereby, they experience the game in a relational context in a very different waythe first being more like sport and the second more like art. By replaying a master game, we get to participate in master play, perhaps now enriched by annotations by other commentators. All that being said, we could still maintain that the actual art of the game is the original play between two people (as a play, as theatre), which is unrepeatable. This emphasizes the unique circumstances (personal, interpersonal, historical) when the game was played for the first time between the live participants involved. When it is replayed, it lacks the original suspense, but it can be as powerful in its way as a fresh production of Hamlet.
It is noteworthy for the history of chess that the essential freshness of the game is repeatable, in contrast to a game of tennis, golf, wrestling, and so on. Although we can relive the freshness of these games by reviewing them on video, in the case of chess we can replay the games themselves. And while we can appreciate the beauty and ingenuity of a game of chess without any reference to the personalities of the players or the historical circumstances involvedthere is also the very human side of chess.
Aside from all the sport competition and the political ramifications, chess is a means of bringing people together from all ages, races, religions, nations, classes, sexes. All are communing or participating in the "spirit of chess," personified by Caissa. It is appropriate that the motto of the international chess organization (FIDE) is "Gens Una Sumus" ("We are one race").
The matter of chess etiquette is more than just formal rules of politeness (such as shaking hands before and after the game), but something molded out of a deeper sense of love, of the heart. While in one sense, each player competes with another, and each player is set on winning the game, there is a deeper sense that this is a dance that is enhanced by each player playing their best. Certainly any narrow selfishness or self-preoccupation that would be absorbed in a one-sided game would not be supported in the game of chess. You have to learn to play both sides, to get a feel for what the other person is up to. You cannot afford to get preoccupied with your own "work of art." You have to develop a sense of the larger whole, the larger story unfolding, to which each party is contributing. Complementary to the discipline of the heart, you have to learn objective thinking; both take you beyond your own egoic preoccupations.
Chess certainly has its competitive aspect that contrasts, for example, with the harmonious blending of the different parts of an orchestra or even with counterpoint. However, there is a higher sense of art, a dialectic whose unity is promoted through the conflict between the opposing players. Over time, you develop a playing style and repertoire that is honed through repeated challenges. It is through the process whereby each player tries to undermine the other that the two devotees of chess participate in the unfolding of chess history and the search for chess truth. In addition, each player grows through the process of winning and losingfor winning in chess only comes through the willingness to endure and grow from losses. Chess is very much an art of incorporating mistakes into your learning process, and this is both an intellectual and an emotional experience.
Every game of chess that is played is, in a sense, a participation in a rich unfolding tradition, a re-enactment of a ritual with a strong sense of presence. It is not just another item on your list of "things to do." You enter into a sacred space and time, where the chessboard becomes the whole world, and ordinary reality falls away. Not that every game is like this, but when such an opening happens, you feel that you are entering the real domain of chess, of Caissa. This is chess initiation. The complementary truth--so we dont get too other-worldly--is that your dedication finds the willingness to go through the fire of being beaten at the board again and again by stronger players. This, too, is chess initiation. In the larger sense, it involves submitting to chess or Caissa as Teacher, submitting to its/her disciplines, and the willingness to be present in the experiences it puts you through. We can say that the whole journey is initiatory, and that Caissa meets everyone where they are on their path of development.
Because chess exists on so many levels of opposites, it carries an archetypal quality of the challenge of the opposites. In this way, we can speak of chess as initiatorynot in the sense of training one to vanquish the opponent, but in the sense of guiding the neophyte along the path of self-development and self-knowledge. This is the "heros journey" (or "heroines journey"), and Caissa is the teacher/guide who weaves the thread throughout. And yet the main vehicle of this path is the playing of the game, the taking on of opponents, observing oneself in play, and of facing oneself on the battlefield. It is similar to the path of martial arts, in which the goal is an internal one, but the testing process is in the struggle with the opponent.
Each player is the others ritual adversary. Even when the other is doing well, you can honor the chess wisdom that they are embodying. You respect that the other person is also a devotee. You learn to admire the brilliance of a play, irrespective of who played it. Despite the fact that some of the greatest players of the game were not the best examples of humanity, that chess can become an obsession and one-sided development, and that chess can elicit powerful antagonistic passions--nevertheless, the spirit of chess can be cultivated to ennoble and balance the soul. The problem is not the game itself but how we approach the game.
Generally speaking, females might be less attracted to the competitive aspect of chess than males. The fighting spirit might be more of a male mode in contrast to a more relational sense of cooperation or "win-win" attitude. Nevertheless, the "fighting spirit" neednt be macho aggression, but can be a positive sense of assertiveness and resourcefulness in the face of challenging situations. We do not need to view life as a battle in order to appreciate that we are seldom offered a flower-strewn path to our dreams. We can also come to appreciate this situation as a means by which life-as-teacher works to strengthen and develop us. Chess can serve as a fine adjunct in this life program. In this way, chess can be an empowering education for females, teaching them strategizing, assertiveness, assessing their optionslessons that young females do not generally receive in our culture.
Yet what about an art-for-arts sake approach that isnt concerned with winning points or trophies? Is there room for this in the world of chess? Yes. In addition to the world of chess problems, two players can enjoy replaying a master game and together trying to guess what the next moves areor simply follow the moves and together try to understand the reasons behind them. A group can study a position from a master game, or from replaying one of their own games, and together consider possible moves. Two players can study an opening by exploring the weaknesses and consequences of different possible movesas a mutual study rather than as winning or losing. Two players can play rounds of Blitz chess (five minutes per side) as a training for developing their chess intuition.
Also, a game can be played in a "friendly" way in which both players try to create a work of art. In order to create the most interesting game for both sides, players can agree to let the other take back poor moves. Both players might discuss each move, seek out the best or most interesting moves, and play it through to see what happens. Also, after each person focuses more on White or Black, the board can at some point be turned around to switch sides. The players thus see more of the whole view and are less attached to either side. There is also competitive play that is not so one-on-one, such as team play of two against two, bughouse chess of four players on two boards.
Recently, I developed a fun variation of chess which I called "circuit chess." I could as well have called it "omni-simul chess." Instead of one stronger player playing simultaneously against several (or even more) players of lesser strength, everyone gets to play all the boards. Boards are arranged in a row with each player standing before a board. If there are an odd number of players, then I join in too. The boards are arranged so that they alternate Black and White, so that each player gets to shift play between the two. At the start of play, White moves and then Black moves. Then each player moves clockwise (or counterclockwise, as you arrange it) to the next board. Two players at the ends will move to the other side of the same board. I have no idea if this variation has been tried before (is there anything new under the sun?) It is fun, and it also challenges kids to quickly assess the board position and choose their best move. The spirit of the game is fast, so the players have to "think on their feet." The coordinator can call out for everyone to make a move (say after 15 seconds) and then to move to the next board. After each board is finished, kids can go on to play a regular game.
The overall point is that, while there are official rules, and players can learn from such disciplines as touch-move and living with the consequences of ones actions, there is no one "right" way to play chess in all situations. This is part of the richness of chessand again, the matter of choice that is so much a part of the spirit of chess.
The world of chess provides a context for community as the larger bearer of knowledge and experience, as well as for individuality. There is plenty of room for cooperative play and study, as well as individual initiative and exploration. Within the limits of the basic rules, the individual player is absolute authority over the chess units, and yet this is within the larger context of the chess community.
There is something to be said for both competitive chess and cooperative chess. The former develops a tough-mindedness, a fighting spirit that does not buckle and collapse, a zeal to learn and improve through both winning and losing. The latter develops a sense of cooperative spirit, the joy of learning and growing together. When Blitz chess is played casually, the weaker attachment to the game, and the spirit of fun and excitement, can help break down the heavy weight attached to winning and losing. Breaking through the self-image and judgment that form around this issue can serve as a lesson in lightening up in life. This doesnt mean that you dont give it your best, or that you are half-hearted about it, but rather that you play with a different spirit. (This is the "in but not of" principle, which we shall further consider in a later section.)
The relational aspect of the game also includes the teaching of chess. This is the transmission of chess through the generations. Whether or not it is through formal teaching, the teacher-student relationship is a special form of chess. The teaching function might be more or less casual, and more or less conscious, but it is still ultimately the transmission of Caissa. Whatever the relationship with another human is involved, Caissa is the Teacher in any case. The human teacher is, in a sense, serving in the role of embodiment of Caissahowever well or poorly. However great the teacher is, he or she is always within a relational contexthaving something to learn from students, from peers, and from Caissa. With proficiency comes responsibility, especially if one is in a teaching capacity. The more you become aware of the larger chess heritage and presence, the more you become aware of this responsibility.
Insofar as you are in a teaching role, there enters the spirit of chess presence as patience, guidance, and compassion. To take this to heart can be a challenge to go beyond the egoic need to win or to be seen as competent and brilliant. This does not imply that the teacher need not be dedicated to competence and mastery, for these can be in the service of Caissa. However, it does imply a dedication that lifts one beyond mere ego-gratification. The teacher might model brilliance and skill, but they will also serve as a model of "chess presence," especially for younger players. This encompasses both chess proficiency and human values that go beyond chess. The teacher is a role model of the chess player for the studentnot just in the manner of play, but in the manner of behaving and relating.
While the teacher might inspire students by modeling strong and conscious
play, the teacher primarily needs to model being an active learner and inquirer, rather than one who already knows everything. We are looking to model something alive and creative, rather than something invincible, already known, cut-and-dried. Students (as well as adults) can admire excellent performance, but primarily the teacher is there to foster the learning modeand not only for chess, but for life. While the teacher can model expertise, the teacher does not need to pretend to know it all. The teacher functions best when he or she lets go of the need to be right, to have the last word on every subject. This allows space for both teacher and student to explore, to inquire, to learn, to grow.
No doubt, the teacher might derive satisfaction from winning a game against the student, but a good teacher will use the aggressive energies and fighting spirit in the service of teaching, for the good of the student. Superior force or skill can be used to instruct, not just by theory but in the context of a live game. This can be a way of helping the student learn from mistakes, as well as from the teacher modeling sound play. Playing a game with a student is unlike playing with a peer, where you dont have to be too concerned with the other player in a personal way. In teaching, you cannot afford to become so focused on teaching chess that you forget that you are teaching a student.
There needs to be a real connection with the student, and some intention of inspiring him or her with the beauty of chess. Teaching chess adds another dimension of chess as a path of self-development and self-knowledge. Since this is inherently set within a relational context (of teaching and play), this self-development is partnered with social awareness and hopefully a broad historical awareness.
Chess teaching is a path that combines both head and heart. The teacher has the challenge of balancing the opposites of the fun and the seriousness of chess. The teacher needs to be both focused and flexible; too much focus can become intimidating or stifling, while too much flexibility or lightheartedness can be weakening. The teacher needs the focused precision and penetrating intensity of logic as well as of discipline, providing a wake-up call to students. And the teacher likewise needs patience and kindness. Again, a balance of head and heart, as well as a balanced head and balanced heart: focused mind and open, spacious awareness; and gentle, loving heart and the boldness of the courageous heart.
The teacher demonstrates and models someone who has the love and feel of chess. The teacher gives advice and imparts knowledge. Also, the teacher draws forth from the students by asking questions, so that they in turn come to formulate their own questions. This serves to draw forth from within them their own deeper resources. (This brings to mind that great Plutarch quote: "The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be ignited.") Sometimes intuitions spring forth just by looking at the board in a receptive manner, and sometimes students can facilitate this process by means of asking questions.
Dedicated teachers might need to work harder on themselves than they do on their chess. For a teacher to be clear and decisive, and yet also open, curious, and undogmatic is really a profound discipline of heart and mind. This is especially so, since chess almost invites aggressive and decisive action, which can lead to overconfidence and superficial judgment.
We can overview the range of the teacher as follows, corresponding to the Four Elements: 1)(Fire) inspiration, direct connection to the "muse" Caissa, the source of creativity and passion 2)(Air) chess knowledgeof strategy, tactics, history, rules, etiquette, etc. 3)(Water) teaching skills, relational skills, communication skills, the ability to relate to students and share with them, inspire themand to this we can add a measure of self-confidence, ease of being with oneself, so there is less pressure of needing to prove oneself, or other such agenda 4)(Earth) chess playing skill, the ability to put chess knowledge into action. Of course, a teacher might be stronger in one area than another, but best is some integrated balance of them all.
In teaching, the highest form of chess etiquette shows itself. It is easy to get frustrated with young or beginning players, but anything that makes the student feel intimidated is contrary to the spirit of the learning environment, let alone common decency, and certainly contrary to the spirit of Caissa. Being creative here involves making the beauty of chess accessible to the student. The thrill of winning, and the thrill of the sport, are the most obvious attractions to the young student, but these contain the spark of the deeper appreciation of the beauty of chess.
The larger task of the teacher is transmitting the spirit of Caissa, and this goes beyond the egoic sense of wanting to be a winner. Something of the larger spirit of humankind is passed on, and in this, chess is a wonderful vehicle for the transmission of culture. The sense of competition is a reality that children need to deal withbut I feel that, as with the martial arts, the inner discipline is paramount. Through chess, students can learn to channel their aggression, to focus their excitement, to discipline and harmonize their energies in creative ways.
The sixth theme: The art of chess involves the integration and harmony of levels: physical, energetic, emotional/social, mental, intuitive, spiritual. These levels convey a spectrum or differentiation of the universal presence of being, which are intrinsic to the human being. In chess they are found in three modes: in terms of the general tenor of the game, such as force and mind over material (which we have already considered in the second and third themes we have discussed); in terms of the chess units as symbolic of the levels of the human being; and in terms of the levels involved in actual chess play. We shall consider each of these in turn.
While we honor the material in chess (without which we could not play), there is a priority of force over material. The hierarchy of value of the chess units concerns their attacking power on the board (except for the King, whose value is of a different order). The hierarchy of exchange values of the chess units, based on their attacking power, is roughly as follows: pawn, one point; Knight, 3 points; Bishop, 3 points; Rook, 5 points; Queen, 9 points, and King, worth the whole game (because he cannot be exchanged, he technically has no exchange value).
A piece that has more mobility has more force on the board and thus increases in power and value. Although the theoretical or absolute exchange value of the unit remains the same throughout the game, a unit increases in value as it is developed from the original square, or placed on a central or well-placed square, or one that has more mobility over the board.
In the scale of values of the game, winning material is secondary to the essential, which is checkmate. Winning all the enemy chess units (other than the King) does not in itself amount to checkmate. Being overly materialistic (such as pawn grabbing, or focusing on pieces rather than a plan) can even lead to a loss. The side that has the initiative in the game (that is, who is "calling the shots" to which the other player has to respond) has the upper hand for the time being. Further, mind has priority over force, for it is the mind that deploys the pieces to greater or lesser effect on the board. And what we are calling spirit is a value greater than mind.
In a deep way, the team of chess units represents different aspects of the whole person, from physical to spiritual: the King represents the self or spirit (which can never be captured, but only bound), the Queen represents the mind (since she makes the most connections on the board), the Bishop represents the emotions (the diagonal being more indirect or subtle), the Knight represents the vitality (being able to jump over pieces), the Rook represents the body (the square symbolizing matter), and the pawns represent the senses (serving as the "feelers" reaching out into the board). (In this respect, the Queening of a pawn represents the senses elevated to the realm of mind.) You will note that the correspondence is not exact, most notably in the exchange value of the Rook, where the physical is worth more than the emotional or vital. This is a matter of geometry: the Rook, moving along the squares, controls more space than the Bishop, for example. Symbolically, this suggests the strong value of the physical on the chess board (the physical dimension).
Each piece is an individual and yet functions as part of the whole, coordinated to serve a higher purposein service to the King or Self. The lowly pawn has the potential to become a Queen, but essentially, the entire kingdom is an extension of the King. All partake of his royal nature, as all are different aspects of one Self.
Working with the Bishops does not amount to dealing with the emotions, working with the Rooks does not amount to physical culture, and so on. And yet working with all of the chess units in the whole context of the game can involve all of these. If you bring all of these aspects of yourself to chess, chess will serve all of these aspects in return.
The King is the tallest piece on the board, and so it might seem that his power is greater even than the Queens. However, considered purely as an attacking piece, the King only has a little more than the value of a minor piece (a Knight or Bishop). And yet because of what the King symbolizes, his value is of an order above force. The symbolism of the King is essential in understanding the meaning of chess. While politically, the status of king is a relic of a bygone era, the deeper symbolism remains. No longer a game for kings, chess nevertheless retains the qualities of a royal game. It is a game for the royalty within us. We might say that chess is designed to bring out the royalty within us; if it draws out less admirable qualities, then we must look to the player and how he or she is being educated.
While chess embraces the whole, the King reigns supreme. The King is not a tyrant, and not indifferent to the welfare of his kingdom (at least in good play). The other chess units are by nature loyal to the King, as the various aspects of the human being are subject to the Selfnot by any coercion, but by its very nature. Not even the Queen herself, the mind itself, amounts to the Self; the game simply does not revolve around her. We are reminded of the saying, "The mind is a great servant but a terrible master." Plato expressed the image of the chariot driver, where the horses (the vital principle) are controlled by the driver (self) through the reins of the mind. The mind is not the driver himself.
The mind has great creative powers, which we seldom recognize. Our experience of reality is our minds interpretation of reality, which we simply take for reality itself. The mind is an artist which works from its palette of colors of sensations to produce some sort of meaningful experience. Then, we experience through this filter and take it as reality. Unfortunately, this filter is often negative and skewed. By contrast, the Self (capitalized to distinguish it from the egoic self, itself a mental construction) is the true artist that is in tune with Source and creates from that truth. This is the real royal Self, and it is the center from which we become true artists of our lives.
The King, representing the immortal spirit, cannot die or be captured. (The exception is in Blitz chess, but even here, the King returns with his kingdom for the next game.) The Queen herself can be lost, but this is not in itself the loss of the game. Sometimes, the Queen even makes a brilliant sacrifice for the sake of a higher end (checkmate). Beginning players often suppose that they can win by capturing the King, and this error is quite understandable. Capturing the King seems to be the logical culmination of the attack on the enemy forces. Yet the rule that the King is not captured holds an important symbolism: the King is not like the other chess units that can be captured as so much "material."
Just as we distinguish between pawns and pieces, although all are chess units, so we can distinguish between the pieces and the King. It is true that the King is a piece, but he is not simply just another piece. The Kings value does not depend upon his force or attacking power; he cannot be exchanged for any piece, since his value is the whole game. Through pawn promotion, you can get an extra Knight, Bishop, Rook, or Queen, but there is always only one King per side. The King is unique.
The King in a sense is immaterial, of the spirit. And although he might lose a game, he gets to play again and again, along with his retinue (maybe even learning some lessons along the way!). Of course, we are not really talking about the inanimate chess piece, but the player. We project ourselves onto the King (and his kingdom), but this is only for the purposes of the game. We do not attach ourselves to one physical pieceinvariably, the player will play both Black and White sides of the game, and many people will project onto a given piece in the course of the use of the chess set. The King symbolizes the universal "I," reflected in each individual player.
At the same time, because chess is a game of spirit-in-form, the King is not just individualized spirit, but embodied spirit. One of the great polarities in chess is expressed in the nature of the King: he is the most important piece on the board, but he is also the most vulnerable piece on the board. This is what bonds us to the King, for this reflects our own nature: spiritually, we are the immortal, immaterial "I," and yet humanly, we are physical, vulnerable, mortal. This underlies the drama of the game, just as the prospect of death adds a certain dimension of meaning and drama to life.
In ancient times, the White and Black chess units symbolized the cosmic forces of Good and Evil, and the black-and-white board (although added in the Middle Ages) represented the checkered complexity of life and the world. The two Kings represented the true and false self, respectively. While White, making the first move, has the initiative, there is no inherent difference in power between the two (or, for that matter, between any Black and White pair of units). Therefore, the only difference is going to be in the players. Both players begin with the same units (just as humans have body, vitality, perceptions, emotions, mind, and self), and then it is up to us how we are going to play these, and how we are going to respond to how the other plays. The idea is similar to the metaphor of how we play the cards that life deals usexcept that in chess, we all get the same basic units.
So in chess symbolism, the King represents the pure "I," and yet this distinction is made between the White and Black Kings (and kingdoms). So we see here the play of opposites with an underlying Unity, for "I" can only by "I" by its very nature. In this unitive vision, there is no real opposition, no real "Other," but Unity differentiates itself into Othernesspresumably for the sake of the "Game." "Vive la difference" (that is, differentiated or polarized unities) seems to be the cosmic motto. It seems that God (or Being, or Cosmic Presence) got tired of playing with Itself, and so invented the game of Othering as a sort of Hide-and-Seek. This could only be accomplished by some sort of art of conjuring, illusion, or ignorance, in order to come to a higher truth. Otherwise, there is no game, no drama. If God wanted to rest in eternal perfection, eternal "I AM"ness, then none of this would have come into beingbut then, there would be no chess!
Although the King can be a fighting piece on his own (especially in the Endgame), his strength derives largely from the strength of his kingdom. The supremacy of the King is symbolic of the supremacy or sovereignty of the spirit or Self. The right order of values is where all units serve the King by understanding their place in the scheme of things. When King safety is overlooked in the heat of attack, the player might be in for quite a surprise! This is akin to getting lost in the affairs of the body, vitality, senses, emotions, or mind (and how easy this is!), even to the point of addiction, and losing touch with the inner spirit. Everything will sacrifice itself for the King, but what happens when the King himself is sacrificed? And what happens if we get obsessed with chess to the point of the detriment of our healthphysical, vital, emotional, mental, spiritual? But this is only if chess is used to serve the lesser ends of, say, emotions or mind (or the lower self), and we lose the higher perspective. Then the spirit is not lost, but it is bound, and we are truly checkmated.
Our third point is that the spectrum from the physical to the spiritual applies to the actual playing of chess. These levels are intrinsic to the human being, and all are at least essentially present in any activity insofar as it is a human activity. But chess has a particular way in which these levels are active. Chess has the power to evoke deep meaning and emotion in the players. Father and mother, male and female, conflict and harmony, chaos and order, good and evil, life and death, gain and loss, justice and injustice, Kings and Queens, and other contrasts, are all represented on the board, even if only subtly or unconsciously. Because the chess units are more differentiated than, say, checkers, psychologically they can involve us more fully, and on more levels. Any of these dimensions might come to the fore, either positively or negatively, in the course of play.
Chess surely has its physical and energetic aspectswhich are especially evident in lengthy tournament play. While the mental requirements are obvious, being in good physical shape and having stamina are also important. The emotional and will aspects are also obvious: for example, good play depends on not being overpowered emotionally, by either wins or losses. The interpersonal emotional aspect is obvious enough, as well. The spiritual aspect, while hardly as obvious, is really the most central aspect of the game. Indeed, the Game of Kings can be understood symbolically as a game of spirit, since the King represents the essential Self. What I am calling the spirit of Caissa, although it spans all of these levels, very much concerns the spiritual dimension.
Ideally, in the development of chess strength, all of these come to function together as aspects of one presence. There is a sense of poise, a self-aware space that falls prey neither to the paralysis of self-doubt nor to the impulsiveness of overweening pride and self-confidence. You are "in the zone," playing at your best, in balance and wholenessnot phasing out into any extreme or one-sidedness. It is like maintaining your violins strings for best play, neither too slack nor too tight.
When you feel the magic of alignment of your body, your energy, your emotions, your mind, your will, and your spirit, there is a sense of power that can feel attuned to Source or Caissa. We might simply speak of an alignment of head (mental), heart (emotional), and hara (energetic) (hara designating the deep belly energy center in the body). There is a sense of the vertical, as an "I am," aligning each of these levels. We can say that each of them, and all of them together, is aligned with, and open to, the spirit of Caissa. Of course, knowledge, experience, and skill are all helpful too, but such an alignment takes these to a higher level.
It might come with the making of a brilliant move, or with checkmate, but the feeling is even beyond personal concern in any narrow sense. You feel aligned with something greater. There is a great feeling of "Yes!" but this is more than the personal satisfaction of winning a game. There is an aesthetic satisfaction of clarity, of wholeness, of unity, of decisiveness, of beauty. It is a holistic sense of chess presence, a taste of the presence of the Goddess, if you will. Can you (the reader) open to this even when another wins?
This presence finds its fuller embodiment in the master or strong player, who has a strong presence at the boardbeyond any sense of intimidation, or even self-confidence. It goes beyond the "smaller self," concerns about self-image, and so on. It is an alive presence that touches on all these aspects of being human. This presence is alive on all these levels; it is alive as the whole, and yet can focus into any level. It is an intensively aware space, capable of reflecting inwardly on its own state and outwardly on the position. There is the whole, intuitive seeing, as well as the capacity to formulate questions, assess different options, etc.
This presence can be compromised by contraction at any levelsuch as physical tension, emotional reaction, narrow-mindedness, and so on. However, playing chess as a holistic practice can itself serve to harmonize and integrate the levels. Centering in spirit, which is prior to all of these and thus inherently free from getting stuck in any of them, provides a basis for such harmony, enriching them all immeasurably. In chess, this is symbolized by the King: he can exist independently of all other pieces, but none other can exist independently of him. For his sake, even the Queen can be sacrificed, but he makes use of his whole kingdom. (It is interesting to note that without others he cannot win, for two Kings alone on a board is an automatic draw).
It makes sense that a complete chess regimen would include mental and emotional training as much as physical conditioning. And as the spiritual is the kingpin that harmonizes all the levels involved, it makes sense that this also be included, and even made central. Further, even more essential than having all these levels in service to chess play and development is having chess serve the harmonious development of the human being. This is where chess makes its fullest contribution. This is also where spirituality makes its fullest contributionwhether in chess or any other game. Ultimately, it is the game of life, played on all levels.
Although the art of chess becomes a highly specialized activity, the holistic art of presence is basically the same on and off the board. While sitting before a chess board can function as a trigger to enhance presence, it would be too limiting to be present only at the board and not in life itself. Presence is something you bring to anything in life; your life practice enriches your art on the board, and vice-versa.
The following is a suggestive outline of such a practice of cultivating a holistic presence: sensing deeply in the body helps you stay grounded, while opening to an embodied and vital presence; deep and slow diaphragmatic breathing grounds you in the present moment, while keeping your mind clear; centering in the heart helps you stay present and balanced emotionally, without becoming subjective or merely emotional; witnessing from the center of the head helps maintain your alertness, while open to the spacious totality of awareness; and centering in the heart as the core "I" sense helps you maintain an essential center that can integrate all of the above. These are all aspects or levels of one essential Presence, by whatever name you might wish to call it.
The practice is to integrate these aspects or levels so that all of them function harmoniously in all that we do. Over the chess board, you can adapt the basics to suit your own personal needs and to personalize it in a way that works for you. Body posture, hand gesture, diaphragmatic breathing, visualization, affirmation, and so on can all serve as anchors to keep you in the right state so that you can be fully present to what is unfolding on the board. The larger practice is to transform our work in the world into a function of our essential and authentic presence, freed from the conditionings of our past. This is chess practice, and it is life practice.
This practice has two aspects, which we might characterize as receptive/Yin and active/Yang. The former is that of relaxing into deeper levels of being, of Presence; the latter is that of actively creating from that Presence. The deep ground of Presence into which we surrender or relax is not simply a blank space, emptiness, or transcendence; it is also the dynamic ground out of which all creativity arises. It is the Origin from which originality arises. While all levels are present simultaneously, we can meaningfully speak of this active and receptive polarity.
There is a co-creativity of both, as the individual actively and consciously participates in the presence we speak of as Caissa. We are not simply channeling some external intelligence, and neither are we simply thinking it all up ourselves. There is room for both the receptive-Yin aspect of opening to intuition, as well as for the active-Yang aspect of questioning, thinking, searching, analyzing. The two are woven together, back and forth, intimately, because they arise from the same source. We cannot fully analyze it. And however much we might scientifically train and strengthen chess ability, or creativity itself, there remains the mystery of the process at its depth.
The holistic nature of chess lends itself to be a wonderful tool for holistic education. If we open to it, chess is a holistic teacher and a holistic education. A holistic chess teacher is not simply teaching chess but is helping studentsthrough the medium of chesslearn how to learn. Just as chess itself is primarily a teacher of humanitychess serving humanity rather than humanity serving chessso too education is primarily an education for the whole human being and only secondarily an education in any particular subject matter. Of course, we need to learn our ABCs and so on, but when we lose the context of the whole, we are left with only pieces.
There is an ideal "chess mood" or "chess spirit" that arises out of the chess community, with its rich cultural history and tradition. Students can pick this up through their studies, chess books and periodicals, games, tournaments, and general contacts with the chess community. Students can learn to recognize this mood or spirit of chess as well as learn to access it within themselves. This is like learning to get into "the zone" before a tournament or a game. They can come to recognize the difference between fooling around on the playground and the mindset needed by the chess player.
They can come to appreciate the subtlety of the "chess mood," which can be characterized by a coincidence of opposites, such as "serious fun." It is not deadly serious, and it is not merely lighthearted and careless. The student can become aware of his or her own inner state, the degree to which it is positive, open, focused, motivated, resourceful, and the likeand can also become able to manage inner states, to be more "in the zone." This is strongly related to chess presence and chess maturityboth of which expand into presence and maturity in life. This is the work of holistic educationnot simply by holistic educators, but primarily by the student learning to become their own holistic educator.
In contrast to this expanded view, it is actually a narrow understanding that regards chess as merely fostering competition and intellectual intelligence. If we are willing to teach holistic education, then chess will be appreciated as fostering holistic intelligence (or what has been called "multiple intelligences"). While the form of a game heightens the sense of exploration of what works, chess within the context of holistic education goes beyond the focus of winning and losing. This goes along with a de-emphasis on getting the right answer on a test, and a shift to the process of problem solving, of learning. We are not saying that chess in itself is holistic education. Chess appreciated in a holistic context can serve holistic education. Otherwise, chess can readily seduce us into one-sidedness. But if we value holistic education for a holistic humanity, then chess will reward us in our endeavors.
I am suggesting that holistic education is the art of educating humanity. The human being is a whole of more than body and mindis a spectrum, a multidimensional being. Now we neednt get lost in metaphysical squabbling herewhat is important is not whether mind is different from body or not, or whether spirit exists or not, but that all of these are dimensions of the human experience. To neglect them is to neglect the wholeness of our education.
Let me be clear that by including the spiritual, I am by no means advocating anything like religious instruction. I speak of chess presence, and presence in life itself, in order to avoid both those who would promote specific religious views or practices, and those who would remove anything remotely resembling the religious from any public activity, perhaps especially education. By the spiritual, I refer to the essential value of our deepest nature, and the nature of Being itselfwithout defining it, but keeping its sense of mystery intact. I would prefer to entirely omit the word "spiritual" and only speak of the "human spirit" or simply "presence." In education, for example, we do not need quiet time for "prayer," but we could benefit from quiet time for centering, for connecting with ourselves in a deep way. And the same goes for preparing for playing chess. A holistic education would teach students not only about how to coordinate their bodies and minds, but also their essence or spirit (without even the use of these words).
We have already mentioned the Four Elements as indicating four levels of awareness in chess. In this regard, we can speak of four levels of chess play (not to be confused with strength levels as indicated by rating points): 1)(Earth) physical chess, which focuses primarily on the physical pieces (if this is too narrow a focus, we might call it "materialistic chess"); 2)(Water) vital chess, which focuses on the forces or functions behind the pieces; 3)(Air) mental chess, which focuses on the meaning or ideas behind the pieces and moves; 4)(Fire) essential chess, which focuses on the creative Ground from which chess play arises. Creative chess draws from this level especially, but is present on all the levels. Since this Ground is universal, the awareness extends beyond the confines of chess, even though chess is used as a vehicle for such awareness.
We can fruitfully distinguish three levels that can become part of chess play. We can call these the conscious, subconscious, and higher unconscious or superconscious. All of these are potentially present, but perhaps the great art of chess is when chess becomes a vehicle for all three to be actively engaged and integrated. This is what fuels all great art.
The conscious level involves the active thinking without which chess becomes random guesswork, impulsive action, and the like. The subconscious level involves the storehouse of patterns and principles one has gathered from study and experience playing, as well as various combinations that can be deduced from these. The subconscious is adept at holding a number of items together that would be overwhelming to the conscious minda good example is the maintenance of bodily functions. Eventually, the conscious mind (supported by the subconscious) expands itself to greater board vision and understanding, increasing its ability to handle many aspects at the same time. What I call the higher unconscious or superconscious is the realm of Caissa, the origin of inspirations or higher guidance, the source of what is original (not merely new, but inspired).
Chess can serve as a vehicle for the integration of these three. All three are needed for, and are actively involved in, the level of chess we could call art. The conscious mind alone cannot play good chess without the support from the subconscious, for its chess presence is limited. Yet the conscious mind, just as in ordinary life, is needed to sort through the possibilities and make the decisionsotherwise, we would be playing unconscious chess. Even supposing someone could "channel" some unconscious sources of chess (subconscious or superconscious), we would not consider this as real chess play. And however well we could get computers to play, the purpose of chess is as a human activity. Whether or not computerstotally sidestepping the conscious, subconscious, and superconscious functionscan reign supreme in chess play, is irrelevant to the purpose of chess as art, and the art of human development and integration.
The ordinary individual has a sense of the conscious mind functioning independently, as if an isolated reality. It goes along with our sense of being independent individuals. The shift we are talking about here is that of the reintegration of the conscious mind with its roots in the unconscious (subconscious and superconscious). It is not that we are trying to undermine independence, individuality, or the like, but rather to affirm each conscious individual as a unique creative agent. The myth of the isolated conscious mind only serves to undermine conscious relation with its very roots. Instead, the conscious mind can become a space for the blending of the roots "above" and "below," in its own unique and creative style. This blending of the three is what I really mean by chess presenceand beyond that, to presence in human life. Chess can serve as a unique cultural tool by which this presence can be cultivated.
The seventh theme integrates all of the preceding: The game of chess becomes training in the game of life; the art of chess is a microcosm of the art of living. Both are played on all levels. I dont mean that chess is merely a means for something else, for the art of life is right there in the art of chess. However, it has been said, "We eat to live, not live to eat"; so we can say, "We play chess to live, not live to play chess." What do I mean by this? Playing chess enhances our capacities and enjoyment of the art of living, and is an expression of our full aliveness. In one sense, the art of chess is something in itself, as "art for arts sake," in the sense that we are enjoying the art of living in the very experience of the art of chess. We dont merely play chess in order to enhance something else. However, the art of chess is subsumed in the greater art of living. We enjoy the brilliancy, the accuracy, the unfolding of a plan, the harmonious development of the pieces, and so onall of which are enjoyments of the capacities of the human being.
Chess is a microcosm and a mirror. If your basic sense of life is that of a struggle, then chess will be a battle. If you have a scheming mind, then chess will be training in how to be more manipulative in gaining what we want at all costs. If your basic attitude towards life is one of learning, then chess for you will be a teacherof struggle, or being streetwise, but also about a deeper wisdom. On the chessboard and on the streets of life, you quickly learn the law of cause and effect: if you do this, this will happen; if you do something else, something else will happen. We can respect cause and effect, but we dont have to live by the law of the jungle. Chess as a royal game has the noble potentials for training us in a higher way of living.
The eight-by-eight field and its occupants constitute a veritable microcosm of the range of human ideas and passions. Surely, when you are fully engaged in playing, everything else drops away. You learn to tap your best resources to mobilize the forces you have at your command. Chess has a clearly defined goal, and yet you can also appreciate the whole game as it unfolds. You might even try to create a work of art with what you have, just as you might with life.
We have considered chess as a storyand so it applies to the story of your life. The story of what is happening on the board is not the absolute reality in time and space, but the meaning or interpretation we give to it. Even within the story, we learn that there might be different interpretations of the situation. Every player has to learn that there is another side to the whole storynamely, the opponents story. How many times have you gotten so involved in your view of the situation that you entirely missed what the other player was up to? Possibly it was checkmate! Or, perhaps you made a move, counting on the other players move, only to be confronted with an entirely different move. The other player had a very different interpretation of the position on the board. Even on your own move, you learn not to believe your first impression, but to inquire and discover further. You learn to be flexible in your interpretations of what is there. And you learn to check your story objectively on the board. You might win, lose, or draw, but then there is the overlay of your own personal interpretation of that event, the significance you bring to it. All of these lessons apply to your life story.
Three basic themes have become central for me in presenting chess to children: respect, value, and happiness. Each of these concerns the chess units themselves, but also applies to relating to ones opponent/partner, as well as beyond chess into life. Each theme carries the sense of wholeness.
The first theme is respect. It involves respect for the game (with a sense of the international history, tradition, and culture of chess), respect for the equipment (the whole chess set), respect for the teacher, oneself and ones player. A respectful attitude can be a sense of participating in something greater than oneself, as well as a sense of respecting a worthy opponent, and meeting the challenges of life. The player learns not only respect for the game of chess in general, but also for each game he or she plays. The player learns to respect each position on the board, each move that the other plays, which means to give it the time, attention, and caring it deserves. This is part of chess presence.
The second theme is value. In teaching chess, we are primarily teaching not just a game, but valuesand this applies to life beyond the chessboard. Both sides in the game begin with the same material and position. Through our moves, we bring value to what we are given, we learn to actualize potential values, and hopefully we leave it better than we started with. We learn the value of the different chess units. We learn the value of checkmate over winning material. We learn that a piece is generally more valuable when placed in the center of the board. We learn the value of early developing and castling. We learn the value of making every move count. We learn to distinguish what is essential in a situation. We learn the value of discipline, study, concentration, centering, learning, truth and beauty. We learn the value of goals and plans, and hopefully we learn that winning isnt everythingthat we value the process, and how we grow and what we become in the process. We learn to value chess etiquette and good sportsmanship. We value chess, but we more deeply value the broader and deeper context of life of which chess is a part.
The third theme is happiness. It involves keeping your units happy. This involves teamwork and team spirit, the harmony of all the chess units working together toward a higher end. For example, you generally dont move one piece to a square that blocks another. Pieces like their mobility, but their individual happiness is linked with the happiness of the whole. Or again, their happiness and mobility can be understood in terms of freedombut it is not an isolated freedom to do whatever they please. You have to understand the needs and potentials of each chess unit in order to keep it happy. This involves an objective assessment, a caring for the whole teamnot merely moving them about according to your whim (or their isolated whim). Keep the King happy, above allthat is, safe, castled, until he is ready to come forth to lead his army. Remember that the King represents the Self, as the whole kingdom represents the whole constellation of the human being. In life, you need to understand the different aspects of your being to keep each happythat is, in a healthy and whole state of being, in harmony with all the others. This theme expands to a sense of enjoyment and fun as part of the chess spirit.
These three themesrespect, value, and happinessrelate to the decision-making process on the board. You learn to respect the situation before you, giving it the proper attention. You value basic principles and attitudes in your play. And you make your decision based on what feels best, on what is going to make the team happiest.
Four qualities that are important for living creatively and consciously in the world are leadership/initiative, integrity, flexibility/resourcefulness, and responsibility. Of course, talent and skill are important, but these are qualities that help one apply the skills in appropriate and viable ways. It is obvious how chess helps to shape each of these qualitiesagain, especially if the teacher helps students become aware of them and value them. In this way, qualities that help one in chess also apply to success in the worlda far more difficult game to master. Not everyone is going to be great in chess, but everyone can learn to develop such life skills through the art of chess.
Adapting insights of Eric Schiller to a Four Elements framework, we can cite the following four qualities that contribute to chess strength. Of course, these can become very specialized around chess, but they are also basic qualities that can be applied "across the board" of life.
The name of the game is awareness, for chess as for life. Beyond the basic rules of the game, there are general principles which serve as guidelines but not absolutes. You need to continually attend to the actual position on the board and not apply general principles without thought. And when various, and perhaps opposing, principles seem to apply, you have to assess which of them applies to the truth of the actual position. One-pointed determination must be balanced with flexible awareness; the best-laid plans must be ready for surprises. In the context of tournament play, further factors of awareness are introduced. A player might not have sufficient material to achieve checkmate, run out of time, make an illegal move, or even be checkmated and continue to play, but still the other player must notice this and call it if it is to count. Again, awareness counts.
Of course, chess (and life) can be played strictly on the level of, "I winyou lose," or "Im rightyoure wrong," but this seems to me to be a lower level of game playing. On one level, chess is a "zero sum game," where there is only one winner (unless there is a draw). But on a higher level, chess is a game where everyone wins potentially, for everyone participating in the game. The win is a gain of experience, insight, knowledge, learning, and so on. This does not mean that one shouldnt try to win, but that there is a higher aim when two people play their best.
Chess develops the observing self, the witness. Instead of simply acting impulsively, such as rashly capturing pieces or randomly making moves to no purpose, you learn to ask questions and take action based on the answers. For example, you ask, "What is the best move here? What are the threats? What are the possibilities?" You enter into the situation, rather than merely observing superficially, but nevertheless, you are not trapped in the position as you develop the free observer. The same discipline applies beyond your own board to observing but not interfering with anothers. Need we add that it likewise extends beyond the sixty-four squares to the checkered adventure of life?
Part of the discipline of chess is setting aside your own self-preoccupations and fantasies and objectively looking at the board. But the inner game of chess is more than this: chess is a mirror for becoming objective about yourself, for facing yourself, for seeing both your strengths and your weaknesses. You can get to observe yourself under a wide variety of conditions. For example, you might notice which situations positively or negatively affect your state of mind for playing. You might notice the conditions under which you get intimidated or lose heart and not play your best.
Chess teaches you to be aware of your inner stateboth your thought processes and your emotional states. As you slow down your chess play, you slow down inside enough to become more aware of what you are actually seeing, your interpretations, assumptions, and so on. Rather than passively looking at the board, it is helpful to articulate the situation to yourself, to ask questions, to generate an inner dialogue or commentary. You might even develop a relationship with an inner coach or muse. Check in with yourselfnot only about the state on the board, but your inner state, just as a coach might. In the larger game of life, you can develop a relationship with what we can call the Inner Guide.
You become aware of how your inner state affects your game: for example, if you get lost in self-blame or worry, you lose your composure, and you are no longer present, in touch with your creative resources. What is called for is present attention, creativity, self-confidence, the ability to focus your best resources whether you are winning or losing, to play your best and not get emotionally sidetracked by feeling superior or inferior.
People can get very excited in a game, but getting overexcited and overemotional throw you off center. On the other extreme, people can be very impassive, and this can dull the game. Bring out that excitement, that fighting spirit, but channel them, harness them, so that you are very focused and clear, and are neither thrown by the emotions of winning or losing.
In playing chess with self-awareness, you find that you have to deal with yourself. You can discover much about yourself by simply observing yourself at play. Chess draws out your character to be viewedfor example, aggressive or timid, overconfident or submissive, impulsive or restrained, and so on. Dedicated players know the value of reviewing their games (especially their losses) in an objective manner. In the same way, it is wise to review your inner states. In chess, if youve ever been hot on the trail of the King, only to wake up to the shock of stalematea drawyou pondered, "How could this happen?" You review your moves, as well as your inner state: perhaps your overconfidence, or your "fighting spirit" obscured your caution and objectivity.
Your obvious character might not be directly reflected in the game, but chess will reveal much about your character if you pay attention. Traits that are revealed likely have long histories and deep personal roots, but in the midst of practical play, you have to deal with them objectively and practically, here and now. You cannot afford to indulge in self-talk of the sort, "This is the story of my life," so that the whole weight of your life seems to fall on a move or a game. It is simply not skillful inner working. You might come to see much about yourself reflected in a single move or game, but it makes all the difference whether this becomes a form of self-condemnation or whether it opens into deeper self-understanding.
In sum, we could say that the board game is a pretext for the real game of self-knowledge, for which it is a vehicle. That is the real game thats going on. Those who teach chess, or are in a teaching role, discover the added mirror of seeing themselves in the teaching relationship. In the process of teaching or learning chess, the content (of moves, openings, tactics, and so on) serves as a vehicle for the soul study of such inner qualities as courage, perseverance, resilience in the face of adversity, patience, initiative, creativity, decision making, self-confidence, coping with frustration, and more.
Self-knowledge is a process of self-unfoldment and development. Chess offers its practitioner a clear sense of development that can be experienced in actual play. Over time, you come to appreciate more of the world and tradition of chess; you come to appreciate that there are deeper layers or levels of understanding a position; you come to experience a greater presence and awareness at the board. All of this can objectively translate into increased rating points, or simply in terms of winning more games. But the translation also has broader applications on the horizon of life.
I have been suggesting chess as a great vehicle for enhancing presence, as a primary life skill. In chess, each move changes the situation on the board, and one has to be present to respond to it creatively and consciously. One cannot afford to go on automatic pilotyou might come to a rude awakening! Each position is fresh. Yes, it is couched in the context of what has come before and what will come after, but the present situation is at hand. Whatever came before, the present position calls to be engaged as it is. Aside from having to know whether the King or Rook has previously moved, the present position does not rely for its meaning on what has gone before. Surely, there might be meaningful contexts such as how important it is to win this game (say, in the context of a tournament), but otherwise, everything is right there before you.
Visualization is another aspect of the inner game of chess. Being able to visualize the chessboard, as well as the pieces moving upon it, deepens the mental capacity for chess. You learn to make the moves in your minds eye before moving them on the board. Even the outer board becomes extraneous, the outer expression of the inner idea or vision. This ability to visualize is surely a transferable skill to other areas of life.
Playing chess can be relaxing, or it can be quite tense. At its best, I suggest chess can be a sort of meditation, a state of relaxed alertness, or alert relaxation, a space of unified awareness that is also dynamic and highly differentiated and self-aware. I am not suggesting that the chess player abides unruffled, serving Caissa in some Platonic heaven. I am not suggesting that human egoic passions do not get aroused in chess, because they do. By "meditation" I do not mean to imply transcending human emotions, but the capacity to observe them and make use of them, to channel them in ways that support the game. Keeping your space clear, open yet focused, seems a good idea. You can get stressed, anxious, fearful, angry, and so on, and yet learn to be present enough not to be overwhelmed by these energies but to use them optimally.
I also do not mean to suggest that the player simply goes into a meditative state, clearing the mind, and the ideas for the right moves simply arise. Nothere is a co-creative process of intuitive receptivity and active thinking. Both thinking and intuiting arise from this space or ground of the clear mind or awareness. True, we can meaningfully contrast a contemplative mood and a fighting or aggressive moodagain, the Yin and the Yang. Chess can serve as a field for developing equal access to both, integrating both within your own style.
A deep dimension of meditation is characterized by an awakening to the primacy of consciousness, that all experience is content of consciousness itself. The practice of chess according to the four levels we have indicated points to chess as a meditative practice opening us beyond the material level to awareness of the universal dimension of energy, feeling, mind, and spirit. We learn to open to the forces behind the outer forms, the ideas behind the forces, and the presence, essence, or spirit behind the ideas. This is a chess practice that certainly has universal applications for life awareness. Play chess from the deepest level, from your gut, your feeling, your passion, your brilliance, your beingjust as you make it a commitment to life your life, and encounter each experience, from the deepest level.
Blitz chess provides an exciting arena for a sort of martial arts meditationlike cultivating a still center in the midst of heightened activity. Surely it is not the slow, contemplative pace of ordinary chess, but is rather more like a meditation in action. One needs to cultivate a poise that is not thrown into a panic of reactivity, but is capable of conscious action in the midst of heightened excitement. It is not life-and-death struggle, and it is not merely light-hearted entertainment. It is "serious fun."
This meditative space can be for the players as well as the shared space of people watching the gameand of course for people reviewing a game or contemplating a chess problem. Many people are attracted to chess because it provides a natural mindfulness, engaging the mind beyond the ordinary preoccupations of life and the mental chatter that goes along with this. There are the occasional peak experiences, when everything aligns in a moment of triumph, of "Yes!," from a positional advantage to checkmate. But the meditative state is more of a valley or ground that is relatively continuous, in which the peaks arise.
Chess promotes more than just concentration; it can promote a mindfulness, a resourceful state that is "in the zone" for best play. This state is not only free from the distractions of scattered thoughts, but also from useless judgments. You dont get caught up in critical and fear thoughts such as, "Im no good at this," or "Who do I think I am?" You learn to simply witness thoughts and relax and breathe, instead of getting taken over by them. This allows space for getting on with good play. It is a matter of being present with your mind, as well as with your body, energies, and emotions. You become aware of their interactions, of how thoughts influence energies, and vice-versa.
Sometimes chess is dismissed as "only a game," but the idea really harbors a deeper truth that applies to the entire field of life. From a transcendent perspective, everything is "only a game," mere appearance, an insubstantial play upon an abiding space, time, mind, or presence beyond the comings and goings of the world. Anything is "only" just what it is, empty of all that we project onto it or associate to it. And from an immanent perspective, everything is also the precise appearing of that ground in the here and now.
The sense of a game, basically, is a set of ideas, rules, distinctions, that creates a world of interactions. It is like a philosophy that conveys the nature of the reality of the universe in which we move. Or it is like a story that weaves a world in which characters and actions have meaning. The game tells us the nature of the field in which moves are made, the players, the actions, the meaning of the actions, how it begins and how it ends. The game is a way of creating or carving a world of interactions within space and time, by creating distinctions within the oneness of Being.
A game is "make-believe," like a story, or any art form. You can turn aside from it back to "real life." You do not confuse the game with reality. But we all play games in life, just as we tell ourselves and each other stories that create meaning. And yet we do not generally acknowledge these games and stories as make-believe; we take them for real. If we go deeply into chess, or any other game, we can get insight into the nature of games. The very distinctions of beginning and ending, self and other, winning and losing, are all part of the game, but they are ideas that we construct out of basic Being. They are indeed useful, and they have their relative reality, but we take them as absolutely real. Putting aside a game and returning to "reality" has its counterpart in waking up from a dream or story that we took as real. From that basic Presence, we can creatively and consciously move into games. And then we can consider life as a gamethat is, not to trivialize it, but to be conscious of the rules and distinctions we make, how we use the energies in our interactions. And we can move beyond the win-lose game to a larger win-win game. The win-lose game as a metaphor for life itself is far too limiting.
We can make a distinction between higher and lower game playing. The higher mode is creative, where we shape a world through a story, through rules and distinctions, knowing this is one way of manifesting or expressing reality, but not the only way. We can play it and enjoy it, without taking it to be ultimately real. It does not become our identity; it does not become a religion. The lower mode of game playing can be characterized by self-imposed limitations, such as neurotic game playing that is not authenticthat is, does not come from our genuine nature. Such games are enslaving to the playerswhether they play top-dog or bottom-dog roles.
In contrast to conscious game playing, we can consider two extremes. In one scenario, one is totally lost in the game, enmeshed in it, taking it to be reality, and losing all perspective. In this case, one takes on the rules as if they were reality, and one cannot disengage from them, question them, gain insight into them, and so on. The other extreme is the scenario of taking the game too loosely, not taking it seriously enough, blowing it off as "just a game," as if it didnt matter. In this case, one isnt willing to enter into the game, to "play ball," to engage in it. It is fine not to enter a given game, but this can also be a form of denial of ones own caring, needs, feelings. Again, the wise way is being "in but not of," engaging in it flexibly and consciously. In this way, one can play life as a game in a way that is authentic, creative, conscious, and one can play it in a way that is too obsessive, or too dissociated. The art is like the violin string that must not be too taut or too slack. We are talking about the way the Self plays or relates to its several life vehiclesand this internal mode will correspond to the external mode of the way one relates to others and things in the world. In a way, this is a matter of lifestyle, the way we play the game of life. There is no one right way to play.
Life can be considered a game, a dance, a play. Even while understanding that it is all the warp and weave of the dance, we can still distinguish between living (or playing) well and playing poorly. While chess does have a decisive way of determining a win and a loss, we can also appreciate the play itself. To play life as a game means that we are free of taking it seriously in an ultimate sense, and that we are free to fully play it as an expression of ultimate significance. It doesnt mean that we are nihilistic or frivolous about life. Instead, we are fully present to life and play the game as fully, consciously, and gracefully as we can. Likewise with chess, we neither make chess into something ultimate, nor dismiss it as "only a game." In chess and in life, we learn the twin truths of: "Every move counts," and "It is only game." It takes some maturity to embrace both in a balance of immanent and transcendent wisdom.
Chess is life, and it is "only a game." The way to play is to be "in but not of" it. You must be in it, fully present with it, giving it your full attention of intellect and intuitionand yet if you get too wrapped up in it to where you get depressed or sour if you lose, then you are losing perspective. Learn to take it very seriously, and yet also be lighthearted or detached enough to maintain a sense of humor about it. So too in life: when you get too wrapped up in the drama of the highs and lows, you miss the deeper resources, the deeper meaning. This is a deep theme in the art of living: the capacity to be "free from" attachment to, and identification with, the drama, as well as to be "free for" deep engagement with life. (Of course, there is always the downside of transcendence or detachment: one can trivialize the problems of life by too readily taking it all to be just a game.)
So chess is a game, but it is not thereby frivolous. For life itself is a game. We might call it the Cosmic Game. It is the game of giving spirit (or that which is not reducible to form) form. Ultimately, it is spirit playing the game with itself. As spirits own game, it is the play of giving itself form. Being is continually emptying itself into formin Becoming, in Relating, in Doing. It is like saying that the Quintessence (the "Fifth Element" beyond the Four) continually empties itself into the Four Elements. Transcendent Being, or Being as such, empties itself, as an act of creation, into 1)(Fire) Being (as relative being in the modes of space, time, mind, and self), 2)(Water) Becoming, 3)(Air) Relating, and 4)(Earth) Doing. This Cosmic Game is played in miniature, in microcosm, in each game of chess. But usually, the chess game, as an individual life, is played as if it were its own independent world, rather than a particularization of the Cosmic. Just as life itself, we rapidly get caught up in the content, the drama, and everything else drops away. We easily get lost in the dimensions of the game, so that it seems even more important than life itself.
This is part of the power of art, the illusion of art. It is the "suspension of disbelief" that allows us to enter fully into a story, or to watch a movie as something much more than just two-dimensional images on a screen. It might be an illusion, but by entering into itby willingly playing the gamewe open ourselves to a great richness that can express deep truths about life.
It is easy to fall to one or another extreme, being over-engaged or under-engaged. Both miss the point and spirit of chess presence. When your ego is wrapped up in a game, you actually limit yourself. When you are detached enough to be able to be present with the game in a higher way, then you can access your deeper/higher resources. You can see the whole field, and you can enjoy the whole game as it unfolds. When you are detached in a way that keeps life at a distance, and doesnt take it too seriously, it is a way of defensively protecting yourself from life. It is like playing chess and "not taking it too seriously," so as to defend against the hurt of possible loss. But this strategy prevents you from really getting into the spirit of the game.
When you realize that life is a game of spirit in form, then you can play it freely from its perspective. This is the sense of "in but not of." Spirit is not out to win at all costs over another, and it is also not detached in the sense of being defensively withdrawn from the adventure. Spirit is 100% transcending the game, and also 100% into the game. Playing the game with false humility, or false confidence, both ring false. Playing the game with the sense of, "Id rather be (you fill in the blank)" is a way of not being present to the game. It is the illusion that the game is not right here and now, that "if only" things were different, then youd be happy. This doesnt mean that you cant legitimately take action to change things, or to take a dynamic role in your life; it doesnt mean for you to be passively accepting everything because "this is the way it is." You are beyond the game and the roles and circumstances of the game, and yet you are also "It" that is playing the game.
As chess is a microcosm of the game of life, you can observe your mind in action as you play. Everyone shares the same rules of play in chess, but the "inner game" is not the same for all players. So too, in the game of life, everyone basically has the same givens, but the "inner game" is not the same for all. Most people dont design a gameplan for their lives, and even less intelligently design their own inner game in terms of their inner rules, values, beliefs.
Many people unconsciously stack up their own rules in the game of life against themselves. The game of life might be set up so you can only lose, or so that winning is made very difficult. Or if you win, you cant allow yourself to feel like a winner. An example of a neurotic pattern can be so that whether you win or lose, you lose. Either alternative in a situation gets a negative association. If you lose, oh thats unforgivable, but if you win, well thats no big deal! Theres always some perspective that can view it in a negative or demeaning way, and this becomes the focus. Or again, perhaps the rule that allows you to win sets the standard so high that you can never win, never feel good enough. Youd have to be a genius and a saint, for example, to feel OK in the game of life. You cant be happy with anything less.
Another and very common approach is to set happiness, contentment, or fulfillment always in the future: "When I get a good job," "When I get married," "When I have kids," "When I retire," and so on. Winning comes only at the very end (if at all), rather than making every day a winning day. Once this future-win becomes the pattern, then when any goal is reached, the standard is always set ahead. In this way, there is no room for present happiness. It is always, "Not now." And yet life is always "now."
We can consider three senses of the game of life: 1) as outcome, goal: at the end of the life, youve either made it and are successful, or youve failed or lost; 2) as process, as the way in which you live your daily lifein a way that is positive, enjoyable, or negative, stressful, neurotic, etc.; 3) in the state of Being, the always Now from which the game always unfolds. Each of these has its sense, but the last is the most essential. From this view, who you truly are is not even a player in the game, and your essential identity is not dependent on the game or its outcome. This doesnt mean that the play doesnt matter or count, that one is merely indifferent. Rather the point is that the game only has the real sense of play if your identity is not wrapped around your status in the game. Then you are really free to play.
In the game of chess, if your happiness and wellbeing depend upon your winning, then you have already lost touch with your inherent and present happiness. So in the game of life, you dont win in the future, but in the everpresent Now. It is from this center that you enter into all games. This center is the origin or source of all games, for it is the origin of all that arises in Being. But it is also beyond all games, and beyond winning and losing. When you are fully present in Being, the Now, there is no sense of winning or losing. In another sense, you are already a winner, just by being an expression of Being.
Since ultimately, every game is a variation of the Great Game of Being in Becoming, or Spirit in Form, and Being is the only Player in the Game, then Being plays at being both winner and loser. Or we could say that, for Being, there is really no losing. When we recognize this identity in interactions, we can be open to win-win games. Even where there is a winner and a loser (as in chess), both can win by being participants in a good game. In general interactions, if there is a winner and a loser, then both lose. But both can be winners in learning from the experience. Of course, we enjoy win-lose games, because it helps keep the game exciting, as a striving for excellence. But when we get identified with being a winner or a loser, then we lose the sense of the real play.
Chess is "serious fun." It combines the freedom of play, the structure and competition of game and sport, and the discipline of art and science. It is not only for enjoyment in a superficial way. Hardly anyone would pursue chess in any depth solely for fun. There are surely easier ways to have a good time. On the other hand, it would be a mistake to make of chess something too serious. Not that it lacks the substance that would make serious investment worthwhile, but that such seriousness constricts the joy, the creativity, and the spirit of chess. Such seriousness might make you a stronger player, but it constricts your own development. Too strong an ego investment in the game, and in the outcome of the games, is like gaining the world at the expense of your soul. By contrast, true discipline and seriousness of purpose can be outcomes of inspiration by the spirit of chess. The balance between the extremes applies to the art of living as well. The "serious fun" of life avoids both the frivolous and the overly serious.
Surely, chess can become an obsession, an avoidance of the possibilities and challenges of living. Caissa can be an ennobling guide, or a time-wasting and soul-destroying seductress, depending upon the person relating to her. That you can get absorbed in a game and for the time being, lose all concern for the situation of the world or your personal circumstances and problems, is actually a testament to the richness of chess as a microcosm of life. The desire to learn more, to improve your play, can be quite compellingand for some people, too seductive. Chess can become a refuge, an escape from life and the world, and one might compulsively return to the board rather than face the challenges that life presents to us.
So much depends upon your state of mind, the consciousness you bring to the game. The character of Caissa, or of chess as teacher, will reflect the sort of disciple or student you are. With chess as with life, the fool will learn folly and the wise person will learn wisdom. The addictive quality can be found in chess, as it can be in alcohol, love, gambling, and life itselfbut in the end, that quality is to be located within the person. The microcosm opens in the other direction as well: rather than an escape from life, it can serve as a wonderful tool for learning life lessons. And chess is a mighty teacher, on and off the board. Caissa as muse is not only a source of inspiration for good chess moves, but a sort of inner guide and teacher in the game of life. And sometimes through our folly, with a little guidance, we find wisdom.
Some have decried chess as a waste of time, and worse. For Benjamin Franklin, chess was a soul-ennobling activity, teaching valuable life lessons. It seems fair to say that Franklin had already adopted that purpose in his life, and chess was incorporated within that framework. He was well aware of the power of chess for good or ill, and so the positive view he cultivated and recommended was a sort of remedy, a wise approach to something of that power. So chess is something of a mirror for us, as life itself is. If we dont like what we see in the mirror, we can work on the mirror orprobably more fruitfully, we can look closer to home. As with life, the more deeply we go with chess, the more of its inner nature is revealed. So perhaps it is not simply that chess is whatever we want it to be; although Caissa meets us along whatever road we travel, she only reveals herself to those who will truly open to her. And what is revealed reveals more of our own inner nature.
The point about intention is basic. I am not saying that there is any automatic transfer of chess skills into daily life. (For that matter, what automatic transfer is there in math, science, or any other academic subject?) In fact, just because chess is so focused and specialized, and because for many it is seen as a game, it is easy to consider that chess is a world unto itself and quite apart from anything else. But because it is a game in real time, involving people emotionally and motivating them to play better, chess offers a wonderful opportunity for holistic education to capitalize on.
The life transfer is not automaticthis is job of the educator. If the link with life wisdom is made clear in the teaching of chess, or if there is a natural holistic tendency by which different areas of life are cross-pollinated, then chess can pay rich dividends as a teacher in the realm of living. So it is a matter of individual intention, as well as a cultural intention, value, and orientation we have with education. Do we have what it takes to make use of the opportunity that chess affords us?
One very common example will suffice for now: It is a common experience to compartmentalize areas of life, and then forget that they are related. In hindsight, we recognize the logically obvious connection or application we overlooked because of emotional and/or mental watertight compartments. For example, if you have two errands that deal with different aspects of your life, it might not occur to you that you can take care of them both on one tripuntil later. Chess helps you look at wholes and carry on different things at once, but of course it is easy to compartmentalize chess itself and not apply it in daily living. But with a holistic intention, you will find many parallels and an enrichment of life.
In the art of problem solving and the theory of games, we see another way in which life and chess relate. We can point to three key points: goal, strategy, tactics. First, there is a goal that constitutes a win. In terms of a problem or challenge that we face, the goal constitutes the touchdown, the checkmate, the win, the solution to the problem. Get clear about what the question iswhat are we actually looking for? It is important to understand the nature of the game youre playing, and what would constitute a win in that game. Without this clarity, you might be climbing up the wrong tree, or climbing the ladder of success only to discover it is leaning against the wrong wall. You have to first know there is a problem (or challenge) or you will not look for a solution. And you have to first know the nature of the problem before you can find a good solution. The goal or problem might be given in the situation, but there is also a matter of the goal you set yourself. That is, there is a matter of intention: what do you set as your intention, your goal, your value? What do you take as "the name of the game" that you are playing? Decide on your desired outcome in a situation, and in your life,
Second, we size up the problem, we assess the situation. We take the time to form some understanding (or working hypothesis) of the situation, instead of simply plunging in. We form a basic outline strategy (or possibly several) that gives us a sense of how we would approach the problem, how we would represent it. This might be a way of chunking it down, or presenting it in a way that seems more manageable. It gives us a way of relating to the problem, of being dynamic and creative, rather than being overwhelmed by it or simply resting in "dont know." Third, tactics are our practical way of implementing our strategy, the tools in our toolbox. This is the follow-through.
Lets take an example of how this works in action on the chessboard. Suppose your short-range goal is to move a piece to a certain square. Observing the position on the board, you think, "If I could place by Bishop on this square, I would win the Queen." By getting clear on your goal, you also get clear on the obstacle. "Hmm, the enemy Knight prevents me from placing the Bishop there, for it controls that square." Now you know what to focus on: "So Ill just capture the Knight (or attack it with a pawn)." The goal was winning the Queen, the strategy was to pin the Queen with the Bishop. The tactic was to remove the protecting Knight. All of this can be considered a differentiation of tactics: you made a goal of winning the Queen because you noticed a way of winning it, and then you worked out the means of accomplishing that.
In life, beginning with the end in mind is a powerful problem-solving approach. It gets our priorities clear, and this in turn clarifies what we need to do or engage with. Of course, the short-term goal might be imposed upon us by life circumstances. However, we need to keep in mind our larger goals, those we set ourselves. These keep us on track with our life purpose or intention, rather than keep us on a treadmill where we are lost in doing something for the sake of something else, for the sake of something else, interminably. Then life feels like a meaningless bureaucracy. We can ask, "What is the end goal? What is it all for?" We do everything to win the game (in chess, this would be checkmate), but is that our ultimate purpose? Do we just focus on winning the game because we have no idea what else to do? Does a goal give us a direction, because otherwise we would feel lost?
The essential point is this: the fundamental goal is not in the future, not something that has to be accomplished in order for us to feel happy, content, etc. Rather, it is always present, here and now. The goal is this Presence, and within that, we have the freedom to be creative in our game of life. The highest goal is beyond time, is always already present. This is Being, the foundation for becoming, creating, playing the game of life. All the goals, strategies, and tactics unfold out of this, but we have a different relationship to it all than when we are unfree and stuck in the mire of goals, winning and losing.
Chess teaches you to discern the nature of the problem and to deal with it creatively and objectively. Chess teaches the art of problem solving and learningfor example, the art of assessing the problem, of asking questions, the joy of discovery, the love of learning. Critical thinking, concentration, observation, memory, judgment, planning, logical analysis, thinking under pressure, and more are all involved in the discipline of chess. The study of chess history and theory, the study of your own games, and the challenge of the play itself all communicate a positive sense of discipline.
All of this is transmitted through the guise of a game, surely easier to take in than a lecture, sermon, or set of math problems. The format of a game shows that learning can be fun and challenging. And a game evokes the motivation to improve, to win, akin to a puzzle evoking our curiosity to want to solve itbut more so than a math problem really motivates us to want to solve it. Curiosity involves three factors here: independent thinking, finding out for yourself; essential thinking, asking what in the position suggests or hints at this move; whole thinking, understanding the winning move in the context of alternate possibilities (for example, why this and why not that).
To the uninitiatedthat is, viewed from the outsidechess might seem to be dry, boring, unexciting, or frivolous. But to the initiated, chess reveals itself as a vast richness, a field of beauty and limitless potentials. In life, anything can be dismissed, diminished, disregarded, and also anything can become an opening into the vast richness and limitless potentials of life itself. But granting this universality, chess stands out as an extraordinary vehicle that naturally appeals to a great cross-section of humanity.
So here the mastery of chess transfers to the mastery of lifeto whatever degree chess or life can be said to be mastered. By using the word "mastery," I do not mean to associate it with hierarchical dominance as in the sense of the master-slave relationship. Instead, I mean aligning with the higher forces of life, of the situation. I also mean embracing the wholeness of life that is symbolized by logic and intuition, or the "masculine" and the "feminine" polarity (or Yang and Yin, if you prefer). In chess, as in life, we need both the capacity for questioning, analyzing, planning, and the like, as well as the capacity for direct knowing. Can you have your "head in the stars," open to higher inspiration, as well as have your "feet on the ground," oriented to the practical and present situation? Can you be focused in the details without losing the larger scope, and without becoming obsessive, harsh, impatient? Can you be expansive and open to a larger perspective, without losing attention to the details? Can you be tough-minded, not passively giving in to the situation when there is a chance of a win or a draw--while also being compassionate?
Chess has plenty of ways in which it can serve a process of personal development. It can challenge your objectivity, your creativity, your perseverance. For some, the challenge can be concentration, or being gracious in winning and losing, or thinking things through before making a move, or being decisive under time pressure. For some, just being silent while watching a game is a serious challengethat can become a practice that opens doors to greater awareness. Even if your focus is on winning, rather than on personal development, this still will challenge you in those areas in which you need developmentphysical, emotional, mental, even spiritual.
If it were pointed out that mastery in chess does not transfer over to mastery in life, I would add, "not necessarily." But what if we approach the game beyond chess for fun or chess for sport, with the spirit of chess as a metaphor for life? What if we learned about "making the right move" and applied it to life as "mastery of the situation?"This would expand the range of how chess can serve us as teacher. Chess, and all that is learned from it, can be expanded beyond competition and war games to the higher art of living. This is chess at its best, chess in its essential form. Again, it is a matter of setting our intention, and being open to the teaching chess has to offer us.
Certainly not everyone who plays chess even desires to achieve mastery. But in the gap between the idea and your actual play, you might feel a longing for chess perfection. There is a longing to improve, a longing for some sense of mastery, to close that gap. When we replay a master game, or a master sequence of moves, we might have a sense of participation in that mastery. Although there might be egoic motivations, the soul longing here is to integrate the ideal and the real (or actual). It is the sense of presence of the ideal in the midst of actual circumstance. This is the sense of mastery that people want in their lives, and which can be reflected on the chessboard. (I am speaking here of a longing to participate in the perfection of spirit alive on all levels, rather than any delusional grandiosity of facile dominance over all comers.)
In chess, as in life, we have the basic elements to deal with: space, time, material, force, position, the mind, and the self (in chess, this is the King or the player). With the basic stuff we are given, we try to make a harmony of beauty and strength. Creativity and freedom come not by flaunting the rules but by using them wisely. It is by honoring the form that we attain freedom through discipline, rather than the momentary freedom of impulse, or freedom that is simply transcendence of form. Chess, like life, is a of spirit in form, and chess strength is the presence of spirit in the field of form. We could say that the weak move is an incomplete presence on the board, and akin to a half-lived life. The fully lived life is present, with conscious movements, not mechanical, not impulsive, not ineffectual.
We get a sense of what it takes, and what its like, to play a good game. This goes beyond just the matter of winning or losing. This can be expanded to life, the great game. You might reflect on the nature of that game, what really amounts to winning (is it, for example, just dying with the most toys?), what games you are playing in life, what games you play with yourself (those that interfere with real living and those that enhance living), and what games in life are really worth playing. In chess, can you allow yourself to enjoy the playing? How about in life? What games do you play in your head ("self-talk") that might interfere with enjoyment, or even playing well? Are you driven by the need to win, or by fear of failure? And so on.
Chess teaches us to see through the apparent chaos to the essential. This can be the practical tasks at hand (for example, it is essential that you get your King out of check!), and it can also be the essence of what is possible in the situation. So it is a matter of intuiting what is most important, and then doing it.
Chess has its priorities. For example, checkmating the King is more essential than capturing the Queen, and so would be the preferred move. So too, in the game of life, we have priorities. Essentially, the game of life is prior to the game of chess. In this way, it makes no sense to become master of chess and neglect mastery of life. It is a question of priorities and perspective, of values. However, it is not a matter of either-or, but of both-and. Chess can serve as a vehicle for great learning; "chess wisdom" can serve as a vehicle for wisdomif we are open to it.
Chess is often played under time pressure, and so is life. The truth of your life is above time, but we all live in time. We have things to do, and we have only so much time. We can replay a game of chess over and over that was originally played under time pressure in a tournament, and in this sense a game is timeless. While there are actual time and psychological pressures, we can say that the truth of a game, or of any given position of the game, is not in time. We can say that the game is about playing eternal truths in the midst of the limitations of space and time. Otherwise, it would not be a game. And the same is true of life itself.
When chess is played as a training tool, it gives us the chance to consider various moves, and to evaluate them according to their consequences. This gives us the chance to ponder our possible actions. When chess is played competitively, then chess teaches us about the irrevocable quality of action, and of time. Even though some things can be taken back, every action counts and leaves its effect. In a game of chess, one move (even an apparently minor one) can make all the difference.
Chess is not something exclusively for the elite. It is well known that chess can be enjoyed at all levels of the game. And so it is with art and with life. Art is for all, just as the art of living is for all. At the same time, there are those who excel at any of these arts, and they show the rest of us what is possible. So we can say it is all art, and we can also say that, within this, some players of the game of life elevate it into a real art, to the masterpiece. And so with the game of chess. If you like, you can say that it is all, collectively, art; and you can say that some of the games are played in a way that elevate the game to an art.
The master artists (of art, of life, of chess) teach us and inspire us to a greater vision, and to glimpse that life (and chess) can be an art. The master pianist, or violinist, or dancer, for example, has developed and integrated their skill to the point where it flowers as life itself, with a gracefulness of "second nature." They make it look easy. But you know the joke of the old maestro being asked how to get to Carnegie Hall: "Practice, practice, practice!"
The chess game as a work of art is not confined to, but includes, the pieces, the board, or the way in which the pieces are physically moved on the board. So too, the art of the poem is not simply in the words, but includes them. The totality of the game would at least include the story unfolding on the board, the inner process of the players, their personal stories and historical context. We could appreciate a game in many ways. Superficially, a reporter might appreciate a game simply in terms of the human drama, without even knowing anything about the game itself.
However, a game of chess is not readily appreciated the way music or painting can be appreciated. Its beauty is more concealed from the senses. You do not need to know anything about musical theory to deeply appreciate Mozart, but chess requires more of an understanding on the part of the audience. Knowing a modest amount of chess theory allows you to derive great satisfaction from the beauty of a well-played game. Deepening your understanding of the logic behind the art significantly augments the whole experienceand this applies to all of the arts.
One difference between the actual live work of art that is a chess game and the other arts is that chess is played in "real time." A novel, poem, or concert is written and rewritten before you ever get to read or hear it. Even the performing arts, such as theatre, concert, or dance, although performed live, are the outcome of many rehearsals. While the players might assiduously prepare for the game, the actual work of art is a unique happening. Although it might be replayed hundreds of times by others, the original work of art is never repeated. So we can say that the work of art of chess is the composition itself, as if by two composers. The composers are the performers. In this respect, chess is more of a contest like sport: it can be prepared for and replayed, but the action is all here and now.
It might be objected that, insofar as chess is a sport or war game, it fosters competition rather than any sense of "win-win" or compassion. It could be argued that the game of chess is based in the logic of the "I win, you lose" mentality of medieval warfare, and so it is outmoded as any model for contemporary civilization. Todays minds need to be nurtured in a "win-win" mentality, teamwork, synergy, and so on, rather than the old competitive model. (So what are we to make of the current popularity of scholastic chess? Is this a good thing?)
So, this argument might continue, however holistic chess may be, it is far from anything really wholesome. It has been said that there is no mercy in chess, and surely it has elements of violence. Chess can elicit the emotions associated with rendering helpless, capturing, killing, raping; hunting down the King can be a symbolic form of regicide or patricide. (And of course, you can experience the emotions on either the side of the violence.) And this can be accomplished with cold and brutal calculation, scheming, trickerywithout an ounce of heart.
All of this can be argued at length, but even insofar as chess is considered a sport, it is still an art, and hardly a violent one at that. "Killing" the King is in some sense more brutal than, say, scoring a touchdown or homerun, but the violence is only symbolic and is sublimated into art. Like the martial arts, action puts you on the line, but it is held within a discipline and spirit that elevates it to an art. Practically speaking, competitive chess offers anyone sufficient opposition to teach them lessons of a more subtle and sophisticated sort than summarily vanquishing the opponent.
The forcing move is highly valued in chess. Its aesthetic value is not about the feeling of vanquishing the opponent, but that of the beauty and the inexorable logic of the move. The sacrifice, especially the Queen sacrifice, is perhaps the strongest example of such a forcing move. Perhaps in the course of the actual game, it is an expression of one players expression of ego dominance over the other. However, to posterity, it is valued for its aesthetic finesse.
Even beyond all of these considerations, I suggest that it is the consciousness we bring to the chessboard that determines our experience of chess. Surely, it can be a contest of egos (primitive or sophisticated), but there is a higher art, the sense of life as a higher game than winning and losing. Checkmating can have associations with sexual mating associated with violenceor, by contrast, the whole game can be a play of the higher masculine and feminine polarities of Yang and Yin. Chess can be aggressively goal-oriented and materialistic, but it also teaches values higher than winning material and even winning and losing. You dont set your heart on the outcome simply, for then you lose your sense of perspective. The goal gives purpose to the moves, as you play with a whole view that keeps the end in mind. It is the unfolding whole that is worthwhile, that is the work of art.
Chess is a tool that is both simple enough and complex enough to serve as a powerful training. However, I am not suggesting that chess is meant to be the whole of our teaching. Chess does favor attack and strong initiative, and is not quite a teaching of love and compassion. I can appreciate that the attacking mode of chess might not serve as the best guide for living with kindness. But at least that aggressiveness or assertiveness is tempered by developing a mindfulness and holistic view.
It is even likely that chess had more distant roots than a game of war, namely roots in cosmology and divination. An ancient legend holds that chess was invented by a Buddhist monk as a way of engaging in bloodless warfare. (So too, legend has it that it was a monk who developed the Asian martial arts.) Whatever its historical accuracy, it is certainly true that chess is a way of transforming and ennobling aggression, the "fighting instinct," into a form of art. Chess here finds parallels with the martial arts, where the art or way goes beyond the fighting art to a holistic and spiritual discipline of character and way of life.
Further, playing a game in the mode of teaching, where the purpose is not to win but to instruct, takes us beyond the win-lose concerns. The same applies to a game where the two players help each other find the best moves. Even in a competitive game, there can be a higher sense of creating the best possible game, beyond concerns of winning and losing. Each persons intention to win actually contributes to this cause, for it takes two players to create an exceptional game.
Let us hear from that most trained warrior of the chessboard, the Knight. Why is his figure often used to symbolize the game itself? Is it because he is the strongest piece on the board? No, but he is a symbol of the unpredictable, the nimble, the creative. Historically, the knight was not just a highly trained soldier, but a fighter of a higher sort, a noble warrior. He carried a nobility of character, pursuing a worthy ideal. He was a brave fighter, ever ready for the next adventure, but helpful and compassionate to the weak. Further, his training included a reverence for the feminine, which is well represented by Caissa--a goddess, you may recall. We have no war god of chess. The noble Knight stands as a fine ideal for the chess player, especially for the young chess player, as well as for the chess educator.
It is interesting to note that in the twelfth century, chess was included in the formal upbringing of noble youths. It was even one of the seven knightly accomplishments (along with riding, swimming, archery, boxing, hawking, and verse writing). Chess was also part of the rich tradition of the minstrels and troubadours, who would carry sets in their wanderings from castle to castle.
At its highest, the noble ideal of knighthood was exemplified by the Knights of the Round Table in their pursuit of the Holy Grail. This ideal was not one of mystical transcendence but one of spiritual embodiment. This was a path that acknowledged hierarchy, but was also highly individualized, outside the bounds of organized religion and politics.
We have spoken mostly of truth and beauty in chess, but we have not neglected power in speaking of the strong player, or strong moves. This is a topic worth considering in depth. Surely, in chess it is possible to play sadistically and become obsessed with power. In this way, the chess board becomes an ersatz power to compensate for personal weakness in the world. But especially in the world today, one can always find stiff competition to bring a sense of humility. More essentially, power in chess is integrated with truth and beauty, especially in the holistic approach I am suggesting.
Imagine an evil genius, expertly schooled in the art of chess as a war game, ruthlessly applying his craft in the game of life. While masterminding a brilliantly conceived but heartless crime, to him it is an art, a game with its own set of rules, to be evaluated strictly in its own terms. We are moved to ask: "Did this person really master chess wisdom? Did this person really learn what chess has to offer?" Consider a very strong player who is well-schooled in chess tactics and strategy, and whose single aim is winning. Imagine also that he is a poor loser, lacks sportsmanship and etiquette, and is an imbalanced human being. Shall we say that this person embodies the spirit of chess? Hardly!
While it is illuminating to consider the moves of real life as a game, where winning counts for everything, its context and rules ultimately must be considered in terms of reality itself. In real life, values of truth, beauty, goodness, and power stand against the background of the mystery of reality, beyond the confines of limited games. The King of Games ultimately servesand is subject tolife, the Game of Games. This is more of an enlightened sense of gamesmanship, where winning has the sense of contributing to, or evolving, the greater process.
What is the real value of winning the game, winning the trophy or the tournament? Why become a stronger player or chess master? Is it the good feeling of being a winner? Is it the satisfaction of knowing something in depth and being able to apply that knowledge? In the long run, what really matters is not what you have achieved and performed but what you have become, in the process. This is your unique work of art, your unique adventure with the spirit of Caissa. In contrast, if you, say, become chess champion of the world, and in doing so you "lose your soul," then you have paid too high a price, you have missed the real point of both chess and life.
The art of chess transfers over to the art of living as the art of making the right moves, strong moves, economical moves, harmonious moves. As we have seen, this involves a blend of intuition and logic. You express your unique style, your unique expression of the basic principles, and the basics that are there for everyone. In life as well, we are given the basics that we all have, and you learn to make the best moves, to make our lives into works of art. We have the free choice, and it is not always clear what would be "the right move" in any situation. It is an art to be the right person in the right place at the right time, and in the right way. We consider the context, the consequences; we make each move consciously, make each move count, and make it all work together.
In life, you learn to be resourceful. You have a plan, an intention, an orientation, a goal, and you try to incorporate whatever happens in life into that. So too, in chess, you develop a plan, a strategy, and you try to incorporate whatever the other player does into it. Each player is trying to turn the opponents play into their own advantage, to incorporate into their version of the story. This drama maintains the suspense. There are elements of planning, strategy, and calculation, but the story unfolds in a way that can have its share of surprises and turnarounds, like the cliffhanger suspense story. While chess is not a game of luck like dice and card games, it does have its share of surprises and unforeseen elements. It is not all logic and plan; as in life, you make use of intuition and inner guidance.
In life, you do not necessarily have someone trying to counter your every move (though it might sometimes feel like that!), but life has its way of throwing obstacles onto your path. In real life, it is not so simple as generating an idea and then implementing it. In chess, dynamic tension and a play of opposites are built into the very structure of the game--and even allows the game to turn on a simple move.
Simple examples will illustrate the point: the very castling that protected the King becomes his own prison, a King hunt with overwhelming material advantage suddenly turns into a stalemate, a piece brought in to block a check is attacked as a pinned piece, the economy of one piece serving two functions becomes a vulnerable overworked piece, a piece that had been used for another function (say, pinning) suddenly becomes an accessory in checkmate. The lowly pawn can turn into a Queen, the strongest piece of all. In the initial position of every game, the King is not at home, and the pieces are cramped. In the very initial positioning of the pieces, the White Bishop (to c4), Queen (to h5), Knight (in two jumps to g5), and even the Rook (through Kingside castling to f1) all converge to Blacks "square of death" (f7), the weakest square protected only by the King. (Of course, the same holds in reverse for Black against White.)
This is all part of the game; this is what maintains the tension level that keeps the story interesting. In the game, we begin with a static balance of opposites of White and Black. With the first move, White takes the initiative and creates an imbalance on the board. And so Black is trying to gain the initiative. Each side tries to create imbalances and then exploit those imbalances. The tension ends with the checkmate or draw at the end of the game. The balance we begin with is not static, for from the start there is a problem on the boardnamely, the two opposing armies. The King doesnt yet have a home, and the pieces are all cramped.
In the history of chess, we find a dynamic balance to maintain the tension. For example, the introduction of the special move of castling (to protect the King) was to balance the increased power of the Queen and Bishop (to long-range pieces). Again, we find this in the introduction of the special move of en passant to balance the increased power of the pawn to begin its move with two squares. Sometimes, a stronger player will begin the game without the Queen Knight or Rook, or even the Queen herself, just to make the game more of an even match, to make the story more interesting.
With this emphasis on balance, wholeness, integration, and the blend of chess and life, there is less of a chance of obsession with chess as something apart from life. The same can be said about art and life. Then chess becomes neither life itself nor "only a game" (that is, all or nothing). Then chess training and chess playing, like art, can become one of the great vehicles humankind has developed for wholeness.
A psychoanalytical interpretation sees the story unfolding on the chessboard as the dramatization of the Oedipal Complex (that is, the symbolic killing of the father). This can be illuminating (for example, in terms of the male dominance in the chess world), but I feel it is limited by being pathologizing and reductionistic. It is illuminating to regard the chess units as symbolic of the family, but we have seen how the pieces can also be symbolic of the various aspects of yourself. Rather than showing that chess pathology is the dark side of something very ennobling, chess is reduced to "nothing more" than that. It is unfair to take some of the outstanding players of the game to show that chess has a deleterious effect on people. Chess is seen as a fantasy life of omnipotence and symbolic power, as a sterile substitute for life. And of course, the same can be said for art. And we need to make a distinction between the chess passion that is the sign of the masters of the art and chess obsession that is fueled by ulterior (and often unconscious) motives. This is a useful distinction, although they can be deeply interwoven in any individual.
The holistic spirit of chess does not serve such reductionistic views. Rather it supports holistic, multidimensional views and encourages new ways of looking and understanding. Chess serves holistic education and learning, to the end that we become whole human beings. Any explanation whose answer itself reduces that wholeness is itself wanting. The more whole we are, the more we have the capacity to learn and grow holisticallynot just intellectually, but physically, vitally, emotionally, morally, socially, mentally, aesthetically, intuitively, and spiritually.
Chess is the royal game, once reserved for nobility. Now that we embrace more democratic values, chess is an international happening that spans all human divisions. My hope is that chess will come to serve the noble, and truly royal, purpose of integration, one that includes all levels in harmony. We have seen that chess supports the values of intuition tempered by critical thinking, individual initiative tempered by objectivity, passion tempered by logic, fun tempered by seriousness, free creativity tempered by objective rules and consequences, the priority of the idea tempered by testing in experience, resourcefulness without wishful thinking, and more.
If we esteem the higher and holistic values that have been espoused in this essay, then chess as the royal game can become the royal art, bringing out what is noble within us. Chess is surely a fine vehicle for this, having the form of a game, being readily accessible. This term "royal art" traditionally was applied to alchemy, that noble art of integrating opposites. The opposites are the fragments ("lead") which are integrated into a higher order of being ("gold").
Chess has the power to draw forth the whole range of human emotions. It also has the power to serve as a path of personal development, refining those passions into great beautynot only of great chess, but what is more, of the human soul and spirit. Then why is the history of chess studded with so many eccentrics and unbalanced humans? At least in part it is because of the intense pressure to be at the topyou devote yourself to perfected chess, rather than to perfected humanness. More than this, we can point to the culture that doesnt support genius and its integration. Chess has the power to take hold of a person to the point of obsession, as it can also be a specialized activity with little connection to the rest of life. And chess also has the power to ennoble the human spirit. This is the true art of chess. Lets re-introduce the higher truths of chess back into the game.
The deep attraction that chess evokes is perhaps part of the lure of the goddess Caissa. The active attraction especially on the part of children is a phenomenon not to be overlooked. If I may be permitted to speak for the goddess, chess (Caissa) is not concerned primarily with developing better chess players, as the pursuit of chess perfection. Chess (Caissa) is primarily concerned with human development through the vehicle of chess. Humans now play a pivotal role in the evolution of the planet and all species. The times in which we live are too momentous in both crisis and opportunity to overlook positive sources for education and growth on a large scale.
How we will make use of chess depends upon our vision and values. If because of shortsightedness, we treat chess merely as a sport, with winning as its sole aim, then perhaps a purely scientific system will train tomorrows champions. But if we recognize the larger situation before us, and the critical nature of that situation, then we will respect a higher vision for chess. This doesnt mean that winning is not important, but it is set within a larger context of what is valued as important.
It is not just that childrenthat is, the future generationsare falling behind in math and reading, and that chess can help boost their test scores. Something far greater is at stake, and an opportunity is at hand that needs to be realized and acted upon. The times call for holistic education, ecological awareness in the broadest sense of that word, and critical thinking skills, if we are ever to build a world that is whole and not disintegrated by warring or unintegrated factions and ideologies. We need to expand our thinking beyond the push-pull of logic into holistic thinking. This in turn is part of holistic experience, holistic awareness; we cannot build a holistic world without holistic individuals. Everything that can be useful towards this end must be made use ofand perhaps holistic education above all.
We need creative, original, independent thinking, and these need to be encouraged. So much education is striving to meet the criteria of standardized testing, and so the masses are corralled into mainline thinking. Is this what we want to encourage? We want more than formulaic thinking. In chess, there are many principles of good play, but these are principles only and not rules. Chess thinking is not about simply knowing the principles and applying themit is about knowing when to apply them, and when not to. So chess thinking engages with the position on the board as it is, and engages with it, rather than simply avoiding thinking by invoking some rule. This involves a combination of analysis and intuition. So too, in life, we are challenged by circumstances where we have to engage with them intelligently, and not merely by invoking some formula. A wise saying is fine, but wisdom is to know which saying to apply in which situation!
In chess, as in life, we must be willing to unlearn and relearn, even again and again. We must be willing to rethink and see things in new ways. It is common to see chess novices think they know "all about chess." Of course there is the excitement of knowledge and showing others what you know. But with more learning, you discover deeper levels that you hadnt even glimpsed. Just as in a game of chess, the truth of the situation (in terms of winning and losing) can turn in a moment, so too meanings can shift into their opposites. So it is best not to cling to anything dogmatically and to be able to generate new distinctions to make room for more views. It is fine to learn basic approaches and principles, but if we cling to them too rigidly, we will bar ourselves from whole realms of knowledge.
Chess is one of the shining stars in the realm of holistic educational tools. As a recreation that is fun and vivifies and sharpens the body, emotions, mind, and spirit; as a sport and training that requires physical, emotional, and mental stamina; as a game that calls forth both logic and intuition; as a study of a rich cultural heritage and history of ideas; as a path of inner development involving all levels; as an art that weaves the variety of human resources into a higher order; all of this and more makes chess a great vehicle for holistic education and development.
Childhood is an ideal time to be introduced to chess. Most children get attracted to its challenge, its possibilities; their imaginations, their intellects, their spirits are stirred. Though chess skill can serve a person for a lifetime, most peoples avid adventure with chess dwindles beyond youth. So we can ask, "What shall youth gather from their chess experience that will serve them the rest of their lives?" Surely, it must be something more than, "I learned that I wasnt really good enough for chess"! Chess has something for everyone that will contribute to their growth, not just life lessons but life skills. For I see chess as not just a training for the elite, but a training for the whole human, a way of strengthening and integrating body, mind, emotions, and spirit. And this is especially so if the teachers of the young are themselves alive to this.
The fact that chess is a game, and the fact that it makes use of the aggressive impulse, are actually twin feathers in its crown to attract and develop children into an evolving humankind. The key is: not merely a limited "art for arts sake view of chess," and not merely a narrow moralistic program for chess, but the powerful use of the art of chess in the service of human unfolding on all levels.
Whatever art might be, and whatever creativity might be, these involve the ability to actively engage in the interaction of the One and the Many: complexifying (or differentiating) the simple, and simplifying the complex or manifold. This is the very basis of meaning, and of holistic thinking, learning, and living. We learn to find a pattern underlying the multitude of phenomena, and we learn to apply a theme in manifold ways. Perhaps all of life is a weaving of the One and the Many, and all of the arts and sciences are particular modes in which these themes are played. Chess is one of delights in these weavings on many levels.
The game of chess can serve as a lens through which inquiry can be engaged on many levels. Lets consider some examples, corresponding to the Four Elements:
Such inquiry in chess does not have to begin and end with chess. For it is part of a much larger art of inquiry, and cannot truly be separated out of itjust as chess cannot truly be separated out of the conditions of human living and being. I hope to have shown how chess can be used to foster open inquiry and investigation (for example, rather than reacting impulsively, emotionally, or with superficial judgment or analysis). There is no need for this process to be limited to the game of chess. It is really a great and challenging art in life.
When we sit down to play a game of chess, whatever the context might be (such as friendly game or tournament), we are participating in the larger "Cosmic Game." This game is Presence or Being playing a game with Itself, requiring a self-differentiation into self and other. This is the basis of the game, of the story, without which there would be only IS. "Who am I?" and "Who am I playing?" "Who is really playing here?" This is the mystery of Being in which each game is set. Metaphysically, beyond the fact that in this game there is only one winner, there is only one Player, differentiating into opposite sides for the purpose of the Game.
"Do we need to go through all the complexities of studying chess just to learn about the Who and the What of the Game?" Of course not. The Game is played everywhere, by everyone. However, the game of chess surely is one of the wonderful instances of the Game, and it simply attracts those who are attracted to it. There is no proselytizing; no one is being forced to play the game. Of course, people are attracted to chess for all sorts of reasons. In a sense, all of these reasons are part of the Game, and in another sense, they fall short of the Game. We might say that pure delight in chess is closest to the sense of the Game, to the spirit of Caissa. Wanting to win and become good at chess, or wanting to develop yourself or othersthese again are those agendas of "chess in itself" and "chess for a higher purpose." These fall short of the essential sense or spirit of the Game, and yet in their own way they express aspects of it.
Chess has something to challenge everyone. It is not simply a game that challenges our skill but a spur to our evolution. Its fitting response is not the supercomputer fashioned by human beings, but the whole human being fashioned in response to chess. (I am not suggesting an exclusive diet of chess.) From novice to grandmaster, chess has something to teach us all. Caissa stands as an ideal that draws us onwardan ideal of perfection and of wholeness. As Goethe found to be a fitting completion to Faust, we can say of Caissa, "The Eternal Feminine ever draws us upward."
We have covered an array of ideas in this essay, which has been a play on the theme of One and Many, through the lens of chess. I have endeavored to differentiate and unify themes in a way that might indicate a sense of the holistic. I have endeavored to present the basis for a holistic approach to chess, within the larger context of a holistic approach to art, to education, and to life. Hopefully, I have indicated a sense of the holistic in which core, unifying themes do not fade out in the thick of the multitude of details and differentiationsand in which core principles do not present a stranglehold on creative explorations and variety.
My aim in writing this essay was not simply to write about chess, but to write about larger themes of life through the medium of chess. However, I am not merely using chess as a sounding board for ulterior motives; I am not intending to use chess as a pulpit from which to give a sermon about something else. Why do I choose chess? I cannot answer that clearly, except that I am drawn to chess. I could have chosen other vehicles, but chess is what draws my interest. Themes I have developed over many years in philosophy, psychology, and spirituality have become ways I would write about anything. And yet chess draws them forth in its unique way.
To more fully appreciate the holistic sense presented in this essay, the reader is encouraged to consider each core idea as a central pivot or lens through which all of the rest is to be understood. Then each of these core ideas, rather than vying with one another for center stage, contributes to the whole which is greater than the sum of the parts.
I am indebted to Manly Palmer Hall for the idea of the correspondence of the chess units to various aspects of the human being. Beyond that, I have derived ideas from a general exposure to chess literature. As I have said, I am a relative newcomer to chess study, and so my ideas have not deeply permeated the vehicle of chess. Certainly I do not have the transparency to the chessboard that a strong player might have. As my chess knowledge increases, I will be able to develop my ideas more deeply into the game and world of chess.
In the meantime, I would like to see these ideas explored in four broad areas: history of ideas, game theory, holistic education, and holistic development. All four are rooted in the metaphysics of Being, out of which all of them (and more) arise.
Although my writing is pretty much ahistorical, I am very interested in the history of chess as a reflection of the history of ideas and consciousness. This can be traced as well in the history of art, science, mathematics, and so on. I am especially interested in the ways in which the dialectics of the Yin and Yang (such as the romantic and classical, or the creative and technical) play themselves out. If we consider a process of natural selection in evolution, it seems that either side alone might have the power of consistency, but that in the long run, their integration must win out as the most powerful. It is this movement into a holistic future (of consciousness, not only of chess) in which I am most interested, and in which I feel is most valuable. It might well be critical in the success of homo sapiens on this planet, since the fragmented mind is out of sorts with the world and with itself as well. Since the time to learn this is when the mind is young, I feel that chess can be a positive contribution towards this end.
This brings in the theme of education. I would like to see these ideas developed in specific ways that can benefit students of all ages, but especially the young.
By game theory, I do not mean only highly abstract mathematical models of interactions, but the larger sense of the game of life. I feel that the idea of life as a game can be developed in very helpful ways. One avenue of exploration might be something akin to transactional analysis, with the distinction between lower games that are based on rigid roles that do not deliver what humans really want, and higher games that are characterized by free transactions (according to authentic rules of the game of life). This sense of freedom is about "spirit in form," that is, that which is unlimited and indefinable present in the midst of the laws and limitations of life. The sense of literacy (as in math literacy, chess literacy, emotional literacy) involves developing a deep sense of the game. This incorporates both an intuitive, felt sense of the game, as well as an analytical articulation of the game. Literacy is the ability to freely move around in both worlds.
For the chess teacher especially, and for the chess player potentially, chess as a path of growth and integration is promising. Chess players might be focused on improving their rating, chess coaches might be focused on improving their teams rating, and chess teachers might be focused on content. However, chess is broader than a childrens game or study, and its potential as a lifelong teacher is vast. There is a great deal more to be explored in this regard. I surely invite those of greater understanding in any of these areas to contribute their ideas.
In the popular mind, such vehicles as the martial arts and yoga have been accepted as vehicles for personal growthand in fact, this is how they were originally developed. We have had "The Inner Game of Tennis" and "Golf in the Kingdom," but nothing comparable has been done for chess. Oh yes, chess has its popularity and following, but the real inner power of chess has not been brought forth. The idea of public acceptance of chess in the same way has not yet caught onnot even within the chess world itself, it seems! And whether this orientation had anything to do with the original intention of chess remains unknown.
I hope you have enjoyed and benefited from this essay. My hope is that it might serve as a catalyst for your further explorations and considerations, differentiations and unificationsboth theoretical and practical. I am interested in sharing these ideas with members of the chess community and beyond. Since I feel this is a work in progress, I expect it to expand over time. Obviously, it is not in final form, and all its parts are not integrated. I welcome comments, questions, suggestions. You can reach me by e-mail at email@example.com or by regular mail at 961 Kains Avenue, Albany CA 94706.
Return to Index