This I Believe: The Reality of Chess
I was a middle-aged college professor when I took up the game of chess again. I had learned it as a boy, but quit playing when I grew up. A few years ago a student challenged me to a match. To my delighted surprise, I won. This initial success gave me a pleasant feeling of effortless mastery, as though I had discovered a gift I had unconscionably allowed to languish undisplayed. I joined a club, and started playing regularly, in the happy expectation that it would only be a matter of time before I dominated it.
My first defeat came not long after. It was a game in which I had given my all, and I was forced to recognize that my all was simply not good enough.
Playing chess is about leaning to manage defeat unaided by the consoling search for blame beyond one’s self. There are no dice in chess, no team-mates, no referees. If one loses, it is only because the other guy was better. And one will lose: chess is surely among the most difficult intellectual contests yet devised by the mind of man. No one can claim to have mastered its infinite intricacies.
When one loses a game, one feels anger and humiliation, but for me it also evokes a kind of gratitude that an objective standard exists against which I can test myself – even as I am found wanting. The fault, indeed, lies not in the stars but in me. My ego cannot freely expand to fill all space. There are sharply defined limits, and they are limits I cannot ignore, for in the very act of playing the game I have agreed to be bound by them.
When I win, the joy is purest because most exclusive. No one helped me but myself. All the exercises I solved, all the openings I worked out, all the endgame knowledge I acquired, all the teachers, and coaches, and friends – all these are merely the ground upon which the battle is fought, not the battle itself.
Every chess player’s opponent is ultimately chess itself. The human being across the board is just a manifestation of some small part of the great reality represented in 32 pieces peculiarly arrayed upon 64 squares. I believe that the sorrows of chess, and its joys, are among the deepest and highest, because they show a mind what it truly is, unlit by hope, unshadowed by fate.
In the academy of today, in which I work, and in the larger world it transforms, in which I live, reality has become a problematic concept. It is said to be constructed – by the individual, by society, by culture. So one always confronts a permeable, shifting, murky sea, where everything is permitted and nothing is known. In such a reality, one cannot help but lose oneself. I believe that reflected in the hard, bright, crystalline structure of chess we cannot help but find ourselves.
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