The Significance of Chess

What follows is essentially the ravings of a lunatic. I considered constructing a fictional crackpot persona to express these theories in a novel or other shell, but eventually decided to be the crackpot I wanted to see in the world, and present the ideas as my own. If the underlying historical argument seems farfetched to you, you can take it as the fictional premise of an interpretive fancy.

Chess cannot be said, really, to have been created by any singular person, or even by a singular human culture. It arose, at least a form of it, in India, and traveled into Persia and through the Islamic world to Europe, pieces and rules changing along the way and undergoing many more variations within Europe over centuries, before a definitive standard emerged. As such it would be absurd to claim that anyone had intentionally laden its rules, its pieces and their movements, with heavy meanings, moral, political, or spiritual; the supposed architect of these meanings would be impossible to define. Yet it is possible to view chess, and its particular beauty, as a poetic system of evocative movements, declaring nothing but resonating with—not everything, but a great deal. A treasure trove, in other words, of connotative and not denotative significance.

The idea of such a system of significance in chess does not require positing some kind of conspiracy to put it there, nor the tinkering of an intelligent designer in the game’s evolution. Rather, I believe it arose from the very nature of that evolution. In the game’s migrations and its centuries of further development in Europe, untold numbers of chess variants and chess-like games arose and fell out of favor. Subjection to the best attempts of thousands upon thousands of intelligent persons to master the game sheared away strategically less-deep versions, leading to a version of the game emerging as standard that has remained unsolved (and apparently unsolvable) to this day. But I believe these centuries of selective pressure pushed the game not only towards the strategically deepest form, but towards the form that resonated most with the worldviews of late-medieval Europeans, and with the lives and feelings and beliefs of its players. It has continued to resonate across centuries and across the world, because the pieces speak to more than a medieval European worldview, but to deeper truths beyond that.

QueenThe central relationship among all the pieces is that of the Queen and the King. Put gnomically: the Queen is the expression of the King. The King can move one square in any direction—he exists in all the dimensions the game-universe has to offer, but acts upon none of them with force. But the Queen acts upon all these dimensions with the full force of movement, a bodying-forth of glory into power. Like an earthly king to the heavenly one, she is his agent, his image, the mode and the medium of his action. The nature of this action, and the “dimensions” in which she operates, are best understood through looking at the pieces into which her light is refracted—the Bishop and the Rook, whose movements combine to form hers.

BishopThe Bishop began life as an elephant, which had, in the Indian versions of chess, a rather weaker version of the Bishop’s diagonal movement. It was passage through the Islamic world and its proscriptions on representational art that led to the abstract appearance of the Elephant, which reminded Christians of a Bishop’s miter and led to the piece’s new name. (It is this movement from the simply representational, through the abstract, to the obliquely representational that allows the whole shift in the game from a straightforward representation of a battle to an evocation of the whole cosmic and social order.) Under the evolutionary stress that made chess more strategically dynamic and (if we grant my premise) more meaning-laden, the Bishop came to have total power over the diagonal dimension of the game.

The Bishop is the Church, especially from the medieval perspective, but also all academics, scholars, intellectuals; whoever and whatever moves at an offset angle to the main secular and material thrust of life. By the nature of diagonal movement on a chessboard, the Bishop always remains on the same color, committed to intellectual principles that may seem effête or perverse to more pragmatic forces. To those of Rookish and Knightish dispositions, it’s often confusing why say, the Church has to take time to consider the theological implications of a change, or deliberate on the most sound wording, when to act quickly would immediately relieve suffering. The Supreme Court of the United States, similarly, is subjected to (and sometimes yields to) pressure to follow partisan interests or enact changes—but instead the more abstract principles of jurisprudence are (generally) the real concern of the justices. If the point is to move forward, why move diagonally? If the point is to attack or defend a white square, why adhere to a commitment to the black? If power can be achieved or suffering relieved by meddling in a less-developed alien civilization, why adhere to the Prime Directive? Those acting under the Bishop can have difficulty being understood not only by the Rooks and Knights of life, but also by the Bishops bound to a different color; watch a theologian try to talk to an economist, or even a theologian of a different sect, and attempt to communicate from contrasting fundamental premises.

RookThe Rook, too, bears the marks of chess’s multi-continental history, still carrying as it does its Persian name, rukh, meaning chariot. But after the alchemical shifts of the crossing into Europe, it is also known as the Castle, and appears as a crenellated tower. As with the Elephant-Bishop, the literal retreats or is transfigured; the idea of a chariot moving very quickly in a straight line becomes pure military might manifesting in castles and expressing itself over the orthogonal dimensions. The battlefield becomes the social order, becomes the world. It is fitting that Rook, unlike Queen, Bishop, Knight, and even ultimately King, does not denote a person. It is strength expressed as an impersonal force, too great and too implacable to greet and name in familiar English.

Metaphysically, the Rook is the material; spiritually, the secular or temporal; politically, the military; personally, the pragmatic. At its best, the Rookish outlook is straight-shooting, levelheadedness, the necessary shift in discussion from the abstract ends to the practicable means. At its worst, it is the disdain for any moral or intellectual ends that would place limits on the efficient means, and a contempt for the human frailty of the Pawn, the ineffectuality of the Bishop, the flightiness of the Knight—even for the even-handedness and multidimensional perspective of the Queen. The greatest actors-out of the Rook in history are probably consummate military men such as Patton; one of the clearest in literature is Coriolanus, from Shakespeare’s tragedy of the same name. The Roman general Coriolanus, after tremendous performance on the battlefield, is encouraged to become a Consul of Rome and step into the function of the Queen. But it soon comes to light that Coriolanus, a pure Rook, has only contempt for Pawns, and has no interest in the institutions of the City for which he claimed to fight. Soon, after being exiled for his conduct, he fights against Rome as easily as for it, showing he never had a commitment to any ideals or institutions, but only the exercise of power itself.

QueenSo we find in the Queen the union of the Bishop and Rook, more than the sum of her parts, at least in eminence. If we wish to make an analogy, let us say that the King is the Queen of England, exercising no direct power, even though nominally Head of State and of the Church, so all the authorities of the social order serve at her will; the (chess) Queen, then, is like a fusion of the Prime Minister and the Archbishop of Canterbury, the actual acting expressions of her Headship in both the temporal-orthogonal and spiritual-diagonal realms. The (chess) King’s authority further ramifies into the Bishops and Rooks, manifesting as clergy and scholars on the one hand, and the apparatus of military and commercial power on the other.

KnightWhat, then, is the Knight? It is unusual among pieces in that its movement is not a subset of the Queen’s, and it does not move orthogonally or diagonally, or at least not one without the other. Its ability to leap is radically unlike other pieces. All this is sufficiently mystifying. However, the Knight has one property, initially less obvious, perhaps, but familiar to those who’ve at least dabbled in chess personally, which may give us a starting point: the Knight, whenever it makes its odd L-shaped leap, always changes color, from a black square to a white or vice versa. This sets it in clear contrast (though not necessarily opposition) to the Bishop’s absolute constancy.

The Knight is the force in the social order that attempts to provide a corrective to the social order. Its movements are short but overleap obstacles, protecting the defenseless or attacking a danger, an advocate and intercessor, a kind of white blood cell in the social body. Leaping past other pieces, ignoring both obstacles and abstract commitments, the Knight disdains both bureaucratic red tape and (even legitimate) qualms regarding means; the Knight seeks to respond to the most urgent need. As far as medieval society goes, real knights in the sense of armored horsemen were principally features of the Rook, aspects of the king’s or lord’s military force; but the Knight’s protective nature and rather gallant and impetuous movement align him with the chivalric ideal, in contradistinction to that vulgar reality.

Many lawyers can act under the Knight whether they defend or prosecute, though in the abstract contemplation of the law they find themselves under the Bishop. Activists and teachers may similarly act in the Knight’s mode as they address urgent needs in society, yet have a Bishoply side that comes out when they discuss the principles that inform their vocation. The supreme Knight-Bishop vacillator in literature is Percy Shelley, whose poetry comes to show a clear division between his Knightly “exoteric” poems—urgent, radical, political verse written towards a mass audience—and his Bishoply “esoteric” meditations, more labyrinthine and lofty in style, that contemplate the deeper ideals of beauty and justice which enflesh themselves in his radical politics.

PawnA vacillation between two or more of the higher pieces is common in part because of the last fundamental truth of the chess pieces: we are all Pawns. This is shown in chess’s rules by the miracle of promotion, whereby a Pawn can transform into any of the other material pieces, even the Queen. It is shown obliquely in the resemblance of the Pawn’s movements with all other pieces, achieving as it does plodding Rook movements when it advances, tiny strokes of Bishophood when it captures, and thus both aspects of the Queen and King in miniature; it even can enact the Knight’s leap in pedestrian style, with one move and one capture. The mystery of the promotion reconciles aspects of the medieval worldview, mediating between Christianity’s insistence on the radical (spiritual) equality of human individuals with the belief in well-defined social roles such as priesthood and the divine right of kings (or rather, of the Queen.) We human beings are not Rooks, Bishops, and so on, but Pawns variably and inconstantly assuming those roles; even Richard the Lionheart or Barack Obama are not Queens, but Pawns elected to the role of supreme images.

The Pawn means different things seen through the gaze of each of other pieces. To the Rook, the Pawn is simply a terrible Rook, moving with a fraction of the force and striking only with perverse indirection, as the mere human individual can seem paltry to the larger forces of military and economic power, and the concerns of daily life can seem petty to those who assume by day a Rookish role, such as generals and some CEOs. To the Bishop, the Pawn is largely uninteresting in its daily movements and only seems relevant to the Bishop’s interests in its rare captures; as in periodic flashes of intellectual insight or spiritual depth, any ordinary person may trouble the knowledge of nations. The Knight sees in the Pawn someone worth defending, but whose more gradual movement shows a baffling lack of urgency; it sees the Pawn’s capture as a small Knight’s move: as acts of kindness, bursts of rebellion, and the like. But to the Queen, the Pawn is a Queen in potential and in vague actuality, a material and spiritual agent of limitless significance; and if the Pawn does not express massive powers in either sphere, well neither does the King. In the eyes of the Queen, each Pawn is an expression of the King no less perfect than the Queen herself.

Chess piece icons are by Wikimedia Commons user Colin M. L. Burnett, released under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License.