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Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology & the Ancient World
Brown University
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Back to The Game of Chess...

Understandably, chess has most popularly been associated with war and mathematics. Or rather, the mathematics that you need to be a smart victor in war. Here I will focus on these indisputable metaphors as well as some of the less common ones.


Chess is as close as we get into the near-infinite. For this reason, chess is used to solve problems that confront all logicians. For example, Richard Feynman used chess in order to explain the scientific process. Here is one way: once you come across the right move, you infer that it is best amongst all choices. It is difficult to expect all possibilities, but as in chess, it is the one with the best guess who is right.

Furthering this point, many 20th century philosophers related chess to beauty in mathematics. The right move, once seen, becomes so beautiful and patently obvious as a great choice. Watching the masters consistently make good moves is the best part of being a spectator. Thus, Duchamp and others led a philosophy that in chess, while the moves are entirely logic, the result is beauty. (1)

The Fate of Man

The mathematical discourse leads to a further point on the world. With so few answers, philosophers have looked to chess as a model for life. Chess starts with an unassuming set of almost inconsequential moves. Many players just choose their first moves the same each time. Then comes the "Middlegame." This period is interesting, lasting for indeterminate length and with unpredictable results. Philosophers see today as simply a whirlwind of individual events that are difficult to analyze while they occur. However, at some point we capture "Endgame" - at that point, all bets are off. The Endgame rushes to conclusion as a series of events breaks down one of the player's games. Endgame mirrors the cataclysmic downfall prophesied by many world religions. While we run around in Middlegame, we must be cognizant that we could capture Endgame at any point and watch the worst befall us. (2)


When discussing Muslim culture and chess, I claimed a connection between the time's warrior ethos and chess. A caliph is Muslim society wished to boast of good chess players, and thus intimidate his opponents via suspected mental prowess. Indeed, many were employed for their chess skill alone. Chess and war are inextricably linked to the point where separating them is difficult. But I will try to show how exactly chess mirrors war.

Chess is a game of finite and distinct resources. A general too may have different forces at his disposal, and allocation is a difficult part of his job. The warrior's chess is a game of simultaneously alluding and baiting the enemy. A good chessplayer must keep his king out of the range of possible check by an opponent. At the same time, he must FOOL his opponent by provoking him to make moves that will later prove to be wholly unfounded. It also requires the creativity to operate within a rule framework and yet sneak up on the king, thus taking by surprise when the pieces are always visible.

Chess caught on, in my opinion, because it arose in cultures and in time when warrior-monarchs were popular (whether a caliph or king). The rise during medieval times is due to the emphasis on a head of control - chess was innovative in that you must only take the king to win. Thus, it emphasized the king's actions and made it "chic" for a king to master these skills (or delegate them out). (3)


Can chess be a model for love? Certainly it was a popular game during medieval times for courtly love.

Chess is a good model for love because of its intimate setting. Two players square off at one single table and share a common ground. However, as in love, intentions and moves can not be easily matched. Both parties can assume certain invariant rules as well as patterns that their companion may signal to them. However, chess has the element of deceit and forcing a player to make poor moves. The temptation is, in life and in chess, to mettle with the expected play to gain some sort of advantage.


What is this perverse garbled German? Chess has some odd properties that are hard to interpret: castling, pawns becoming queens, and worst of all, zugzwang. Zugzwang is having to make a move that will reduce the quality of your position.

This issue brings up some issues: do we all have Schadefreude and want to see our opponent suffer? If we are not playing a competitive match, should we just skip the turn? What does it mean when we want to change the rules of the game that we are given? Zugzwang violates the premise that many have of self-determination, thus reminding the players that you can work yourself into a situation that will punish you. Unfortunately, the proof is in the chess.

  1. Shenk, David. The immortal game. Loc. 2430.
  2. Shenk, David. The immortal game. Loc. 2500.
  3. Shenk, David. The immortal game. Loc. 1300.