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Friday, April 12, 2024

A life on the board

When Bobby Fischer, arguably the greatest chess player ever, passed away this year, many lamented the end of an institution and of an era. But they should have rejoiced. Not at his death, but at how chess reminds us about the glorious forces that create and affect life. Because, indeed, the real surprise about chess is how closely it echoes life.

Often, people assume that chess is a war between minds, as players exercise control over the forking Knight and the menacing Pawn, their interaction producing immediate and latent threats. But it is not only about individual pieces and the manner in which players legislate them. Chess is also a meeting of science, art and sport.

On the one sense, chess is a science because it enforces certain inviolable rules and subscribes to an underlying construct. Despite the pieces’ individual dynamism, there is a logical coherence between moves, a deep-seated pattern of linear continuity. Science is not to be denied; denying them would be denying the laws of nature.

But chess is also an art because of its infinite permutations. Inherently abstract, chess provides a platform for, dependent upon the players’ skill and will, the execution of multiple possibilities. In his pursuit of painting his art, each different player couples his soul and heart to performing different plays. There are no wrongs, only unique rights.

Sometimes, winning in chess is a function of a preplanned ruse or a strategic ploy. But despite all the possible preparation before the game, triumph is often achieved in the midst of sporting unpredictability. The time pressure, the psychological intensity, the temperament, the sense of the occasion – all these coalesce to burden a player with a feeling of constraint. The true champion, unsurprisingly, masters over these constraints. He might even create new limits for others.

For all the promise of chess, at stake is individual choice, the expression of a free will against competing, discordant ideologies. On many occasions, the opening variations or level of aggression a player practices can be reflective of the philosophies he adopts in life. Chess, as a microcosm, becomes a players’ projection of his inner self. In this respect, he is not merely bestowed with the privilege of planning destiny – he controls his own destiny.

But chess is also a construct of collective endeavor. The very nature of chess demands a certain degree of clairvoyance, a peek into the future, whereby players act as voyeurs spying upon the secrets that have yet to unfold. Yet it is also a reaffirmation of the past. The energy and history of our predecessors coexist within the current, refined traditions, a wisdom players utilize in the modern context. Thus, when we look upon the grace that defines present theory, we are not just looking at layer upon layer of human imagination, but looking into the future through the eyes of the past.

Exclusive among all forms of sport, chess may be one where honesty is critical. On the board, all pretenses are abandoned, displaced by a truth to oneself. To win, a chess player substitutes external distractions with his inner instincts and intellect. He is honest to himself, analyzing his flaws and admitting his mistakes, then seeking to correct them. In listening to the voices within, he is engaged not only in a battle of minds versus his fellow humans, but involved in a larger quest to discover truth.

What do all these principles and characters ultimately mean? Well, everything. Because chess, like life, is about perception and perspective: one anticipates, predicts and envisions how the forces on the chessboard will conflict and complement, how the world will be when he is given the opportunity to change it. He could enthusiastically perform or stoically calibrate, but in making this choice, individualism is projected, reactions are personified, expectations are violated. In this framework, chess is an indictment of life.

Some once remarked that a part of chess died with Fischer. Perhaps. But among the many powers that Fischer brought, a rule of chess never changed. It embodied life, and continues despite his death.


ZACH HAN anticipates his receipt of a Queen, a Bishop and a Knight. Send them to zklhan@ucdavis.edu.


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