The Moves That Matter Part 3: Chess is a Game for Hooligans

On page 1 of the Introduction to The Moves That Matter

it is written, “Chess is just a game…” There are those who are up in arms about that statement, ready to shout out, “Chess is more than a game!” Many proclaim the Royal game to be much more than a game, yet the statement above is the bottom line. The sentence continues, “…in the way that the heart is just a muscle.” The paragraph continues, “There is a muscle that pumps blood around the body, but it is the heart that sustains life, signifies love and situates courage. There is a game with sixty-four squares, thirty-two pieces and some rules, but it is chess that has become a metaphor for human battles big and small, an enchanting mirror for the psyche, and an icon for all that is deep and difficult.”

“Chess is not the meaning of life, but it does simulate conditions for a life of meaning. The game is sublimated warfare and chess players are compelled to kill, but unlike the gruesome horror of war, the martial conceit of chess allows us to experience aesthetic liberation. Every battle is a unique geometric story where two protagonists seek to destroy each other, but the underlying logic feels beautiful and true. The more intense the battle and the more sublime the ideas, the more we experience power and freedom.”

“No wonder chess has long served as the touchstone of choice for the competitive tension that defines business, sport and politics. The themes of planning ahead, knowing the opponent, anticipating responses and sacrificing for future gains are adaptable, and meaningful for anybody familiar with the symbolism of chess, even if they have never pushed a pawn.”

“However, the connection between chess and life is usually assumed to be almost exclusively about the application of strategic thinking. Too little has been written about how chess evokes and illustrates emotional and existential issues. There is more to be said, for instance, about the anguish of defeat, the craving for status, the joy of reaching beyond our grasp, and the sublime beauty of an unexpected winning idea.”

This book is a philosophical offering on chess as a metaphor for life as a whole.”

“I have learned that it is precisely because chess is both something that doesn’t really matter and something that matters enormously that the game is something else too: a gateway to the enigma of life. This book is about the challenge of living well in the context of that enigma.”

“The main bridge between those worlds is metaphor, and the metaphorical significance of chess has been the story of my life. In many ways I owe chess everything.”

What is Chess?

“…it’s the experience of concentration – the thing I miss most about no longer being an active player.”

“Chess is a test of the mind and will under social pressure. The game is like a drug and we play it to experience a change in consciousness.”

“…my chess experience tells me that concentration is more about summoning layers of oneself as source’s of strength, while simultaneously purging psychic debris.”

“Chess allows you to do and be things you cannot be in the real world.”

“Chess is not a waste of time, but time is scarce and there is more to life than chess.”

“Perhaps a love of chess is love for the mood of the game. If you enter a chess tournament hall and sit and watch what is happening, there is not usually much to report, but there is definitely a mood to be sensed and appreciated. I experience the mood as ambient incidence; the palpable intrigue that arises when, on every board, something is under way and about to happen. I have come to love this state of expectation in which there is a sense of being held tightly in perpetual motion. When I say the meaning of chess is implicit, I am referring to that experience of unfolding significance.
Implicit comes from the Latin root ‘entwined’. The point is not that life’s meaning is interwoven in chess positions, like pesto in pasta or honey in porridge. The implicit meaning in chess is – if you’ll permit me – more like the meaning that arises when two bodies become entwined in love-making. Meaning arises not because two things are together but because the experience of intercourse is like becoming a different form of life, and sometimes so intense that we feel altered, transformed and, all being well, transcendent. Although sex is considered explicit, the meaning of the act is implicit – entwined in the process itself. The act subsumes most of the meaning of talking about it, and f-ing the ineffable is rarely wise. I hesitate to say that chess is better than sex, but it is perhaps more reliable. Chess suspends us in a heightened state of luscious cogitation for hours at a time, like a diffuse, prolonged and strictly silent orgasm.”

“Chess can be seen as an as-if ritual. At some level we know the rewards of the game do not ultimately matter, and yet we play as if they do, and thereby evoke qualities of mind and character that might otherwise lie dormant. Chess does not matter until we make it matter and it matters all the more for that.”

“Chess is a study in truth and beauty, but it is also a violent contact sport; a geometric cage fight. What makes contact are two psyches obliged to try to destroy each other, and in that confrontation there is nowhere to hide. ll the violence is sublimated, but a sense of latent terror is always present. At moments, in the heat of the battle, Clockwork Orange

– style sadism can emerge. A dark excitement can arise from figuratively crushing our opponent, as if we were nonchalantly kicking them in the head while laughing. These are dark thoughts, I know, but they are not gratuitous. Grandmaster Boris Gulko

makes mild and peaceful impression in person, but he famously advised one (of) his students: ‘Understand, chess is a game for hooligans.’

“The tragedy of chess is that many use it to make themselves real and add depth and definition to their lives, but the game is not ultimately fit for this purpose. However culturally resonant it may be, it remains a game within the game of life, not the game of life itself.”