Waging Wooden War: The Power of Chess

Waging Wooden War: The Power of Chess
On the chessboard, no-one meets a friend.
                                                                                               John Healy

Chess is a game of strategy — it involves planning and directing operations and movements in a wooden war. Most people have dabbled, some people have been drawn in a little deeper. I am by no means a great chess player, or a ‘games’ person in general, but there is something about chess (in both the game itself and in the idea of the game) that sets it apart, and makes it fascinating to me. So here I am, rambling about it, as is my wont.

Chess — the ‘Game of Kings’! What’s that about?

Chess is a game, but it is a game that has always been taken seriously — revered even. It has been played by emperors, kings, tsars, and war-lords for well over 1000 years; for whom it was a game, but it was also considered a tool — strengthening logic, developing military tactics, improving concentration, and learning how to interpret the enemy. This game — an analogy to the battlefield — was thought to help understand threats in a given position, and to shape foresight.

From the outside, chess is slow-moving and tense, but in the minds of the two opponents, synapses are firing, leaping across a tiny junction to communicate a series of possible scenarios, furiously working to read the enemy’s next move.

It is a spirited and vicious battle, but not in an outward way. The adversary lies in wait like a King Cobra in the tall grasses of the Savannah, observing its target; interpreting its move, and rearing its head into attack posture. The Cobra freezes its victim temporarily with a spray of neurotoxic venom. Just like the Cobra, once the chess player has taken his move, he is rooted; no going back, at his contender’s mercy. Except there is never mercy here, as predators strike their stationary targets. Chess is quietly dramatic, violent, and ruthless. It is unsurprising that it was the warlord du jour’s top choice when it came to board games.

Sure. But c’mon — can a board game really increase mental agility and make us smarter?

Maybe a little. Chess has a way of teaching us to explore possibilities for ourselves and our opponent, turning them over logically in our mind, and moving only after consideration of a series of potential outcomes. In the consistent player’s mind, this enhances concentration, and strengthens the ability to recognize patterns — on the board, and maybe off.

Delving deeper, If we look at chess in an abstract way, maybe it can help us better analyse ourselves and others — a tangible demonstration that the course of life is not simply governed by chance, but by our actions and inactions, and can be steered somewhat by using correct judgement in a given situation.

Wow. So die-hard chess players must be really ‘together’ and emotionally intelligent.

Nah. Unfortunately, we will have to climb down from these lofty ideas — sorry about that. Chess is probably too abstract to be applied to the real world. Rather than helping with personal betterment, improving their ‘inner game’ as it were, those with an unnatural dedication to chess seem to be using it as an escape, rather than applying new chess-induced skills to their day-to-day activities (apart from chess). The competitive chess player may be using chess as a way to plunge into another absorbing world, as a retreat from the difficulties of life. It could be a kind of coping mechanism, where they can ‘learn’ how to control chaos in a life that has dealt them a rough hand. Sometimes, the obsessive chess player becomes so fixated on chess that all other aspects of life take a backseat.

So is chess just a dream world for control freaks?

Maybe, in a way. Chess is a ‘dream world’ in the sense that in our dream world we can exercise control in our lives move by move. A world where your actions have a direct impact; where each good move matters. It is a place of justice. The difference between chess and life is that in chess the conditions are fair, but the real world can’t be that way; there are forces out of our control, and a certain amount of chance can change our life course.

So chess is not quite world-reflecting. It is more like art?

Chess is probably closer to art than to real life. If we look at chess in the way the German philosopher Schopenhauer looks at art, it makes some sense in regards the psychology of our chess-crazy escape artist: In Schopenhauer’s aesthetic experience, art makes us vanish from our own consciousness briefly, as it raises us to a level of pure perception. The real world and all its misery disappears.

‘…aesthetic pleasure in the beautiful consists, to a large extent, in the fact that, when we enter the state of pure contemplation, we are raised for the moment above all willing, above all desires and cares; we are, so to speak, rid of ourselves.’ (The World as Will and Representation, Vol. I, § 68).

Maybe this explains why the chess player works furiously at creating this chess dream world, again and again, with a somewhat unnatural dedication. Chess could offer some salvation, and a player takes to it with an alarming zeal.

That Schopenhauer guy sounds pretty miserable. So, what makes you think you know anything about the psychology of a chess player, Naomi?

I don’t know much, but I am intrigued. I can mostly attribute my interest to a book called ‘The Grass Arena’, and my subsequent correspondence with author and tournament chess champion John Healy. In case you are unfamiliar with Healy’s story: Healy was born into a poor Irish immigrant family in Kentish town, North London. He suffered a brutal upbringing and became dependent on alcohol at an early age, resulting in him becoming a homeless alcoholic for 15 years. Remarkably, during a spell in prison, he discovered chess, and rapidly developed into a talented player, going on to become a successful tournament champion. Interestingly, he promptly gave up drinking as he discovered the game, his new intoxication. The horrors of his plight as a spiralling alcoholic vagrant turned chess champion and celebrated author are depicted in his gritty autobiography.

So can chess be a kind of salvation for lost souls?

Whoa. I dunno. I do know that Healy’s overcoming of his checkered past is nothing short of astounding, and it seems that chess helped pull him out of that downward spiral. It made me wonder if chess, replacing alcohol, was his new coping mechanism in a world of adversity.

Healy was kind enough to send me a piece of writing called Blood Sport, which I trawled for more glimpses into the personalities of chess tournament players. It further pushed me towards the idea that chess can be an intoxication — an addiction like any other. Rather than applying the game to the context of his own life, the avid chess player is striving to play out his life on the board, in ‘fierce, cerebral battles, [which] give [him] the illusion of living’.

Author John Healy

Author John Healy

‘Some men may believe it to be more hobby than habit, but the truth of the matter is we’re all trying to prove something, and our striving has become an addiction.’ (Blood Sport, p6)

Is compulsive chess-playing a desperate struggle for a straightforward path to a sense of adequacy? A momentary power over an uncontrollable world? Healy pointed out that the chess world can be equally uncontrollably cruel — defeat is not always readily accepted, and analysis and criticism, are rife (‘losers noisy in their humiliation’). It would appear chess captured and catapulted Healy into a newly-challenging arena.

Go on…

Healy’s story reminded me of ‘Chess’, a novella by my favourite author Stefan Zweig, where the protagonist overcomes his world of fear and torment by becoming absorbed in the game of chess, and 'mentally saved' by it, only to become consumed by it. It is a disturbing tale of isolation in Nazi internment headquarters, where our protagonist - Dr B - has been subjected to the worst torture of all:  ‘complete nothingness’.

Dr B is almost driven mad by isolation, when he happens to find his salvation in the form of a stolen chess manual of past masters’ chess games, which he studies endlessly. In his confined solitude he plays the game constantly in his mind, navigating every single variation. Chess eventually overwhelms his brain, and he suffers a mental breakdown. Years later, recovered and free, Dr B is on a cruise ship from New York to Buenos Aires, where he encounters the chess champion Czentovic, a kind of idiot savant with a baffling talent for the game, and is pressured into a challenge by the chess enthusiasts on board. He has removed himself from chess following his breakdown, but he reluctantly goes ahead with the game. This sees him driven dangerously close to the brink of insanity again, as his mind rediscovers that frenzy that only chess can induce in him.

Stefan Zweig (1881-1942)

Stefan Zweig (1881-1942)

‘Chess’ is a fascinating glimpse into how the mind has the ability to create its own reality when it is forced into a situation of ‘nothingness’, devoid of mental stimuli. Zweig’s trademark move of delving into the psychological is typically both brilliant and disturbing, and feels very real. The extremely unsettling allegory of Nazi Germany, where people were nothing more than pawns to be moved about strategically (and sacrificed where necessary) is a horrifying undercurrent, and feels uncomfortably near to Zweig’s own tragic story; a Jew in Nazi times, condemned to be a wandering exile — a celebrated, generous genius who saw no way out but to take his own life in Brazil, just days after submitting the manuscript of this novella to his publisher.

In typical Zweig fashion, the language flows despite it dragging a heavy sickening undercurrent, and the disturbing and vivid tale is condensed into 80 pages. He demonstrates the resilience of the mind; the power we have to overcome our limitations, but it is also foreboding and cautionary: our mental fragility is just as easily induced.

'..[chess only functions] through use of the imagination, confined in geometrically fixed space and at the same released from confinement by its permutations; continuously evolving yet sterile; thought that leads nowhere, mathematics that add up to nothing, art without an end product.’

That sounds like an excellent book — I must read it at once. I didn’t know that chess could be so exciting.

Indeed. Chess is at the very least an inspiration in literature; firing great minds like Zweig’s, who evokes the power of the game and its ability to stretch the mind; opening up and exploring an imaginary space where we can retreat, and move forward where we judge fit. It also seems powerful enough a game as to offer a real retreat from the difficulties of the world, if we think about Mr B, and then about the very real plight of John Healy. I think it is a uniquely powerful game in that sense; holding a special kind of cerebral magic. It probably won’t teach us any life lessons applicable to the real world, but we can at least draw some pretty parallels: chess teaching us the connection between actions and consequences, deepening prudence, looking at both sides of a given situation, the importance of patience, and the perils of passivity, etc...

But we probably won’t look at life like a chess game, right?

Yeah.. probably not.

So we don’t become smarter by playing chess?

I didn’t say that. Though the game might not teach you to become a better person, through regular chess play we can increase our pattern recognition abilities, build stamina, and quickly generate ideas by consistently looking at problems, possibilities, and solutions. You might improve your critical reasoning, by striving to create effective cooperation between pieces in your choreography across the board.

It’s also a fun game.

Yeah! That’s the main thing.