Chess and the Cosmos

Mastery in chess involves persistence, precision, beauty. Some call it an art disguised as a game

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Art & Music

The world of chess has a new champion, from China, and his name is Ding Liren. It’s easier to pronounce than that of his final round opponent, Russia’s Ian Nepomniachtchi. China sees the new champion as a hero, though chess was once dismissed as a frivolous pastime of the West and banned during the Cultural Revolution, the Great Leap Backwards of the 1960s.

Ding Liren knows better than the megalomaniac Mao. At the end of the match, seated by himself, he cried for joy! And why not? He had consummately blended persistence, precision, and beauty. Each is a requisite for mastery in chess, sometimes defined as an art disguised as a game.

Having played chess since middle school, with mixed results, I’ve increasingly come to appreciate chess as an art. So I was delighted that The Catholic University of American recently republished Ruy Lopez’s The Art and Game of Chess, originally written in 1561 by a Spanish priest. It’s a masterful analytic and historical treatise.

To be sure, chess has its detractors. Its afficionados are sometimes derided as “chessnuts.” Truth be told, some brilliant players have lost themselves in its labyrinthine paths. Such was the fate of America’s world champions, Paul Morphy and Bobby Fischer.

But rightly pursued, chess, like philosophy and mathematics, has the power to make us happy—as the onetime world champion Emmanuel Lasker put it. Somehow the combination of 16 pawns and 16 pieces on 64 squares enables us to create a mini-cosmos with a capacity to maximally engage the human mind. Computers, lifeless machines, have on our invitation joined us in this cosmos. Yet however accomplished they have become, they draw on a human legacy and the human capacity for the beautiful.

Chess can symbolize man’s own relation not just to the world of signs and symbols but to the cosmos itself. And what is our relation to the cosmos? The Thomist thinker Norris Clarke, SJ, writes of man as a microcosmos. “We can take up the whole material world into our human consciousness, and using both sense and intellect, bring it into the light of self-consciousness in us, and offer it back to the Source whence it came with acknowledgment [and] love for this gift.” In a time of confusion about who we are, it is good to remind ourselves that we are pivotal for the whole of Creation. We are capax Dei, that is, able to bring Creation with us into the presence of the Creator.

No doubt, gentle readers, a good many of you wonder if I have not, appealing to Clarke’s  reflection, left chess far behind. Not so, if chess is, as Ruy Lopez saw it, truly an art. Allow me, once more, to cite Norris Clarke: “Art, in all its forms, also shines forth in a new light.” Hence human beings alone “can make images…that symbolize not only ourselves, but the entire universe and its journey, together with us, back to the Source.”

But if chess is an art, then its grandmasters are artists. To return from the sublime to the mundane, a familiar human transition, are chess masters starving artists? Doubtless most are. But in winning the championship, Ding Liren won $1.1 million. And he won’t have to spend any of it on pricey equipment. That’s one reason why, pace the miserable tyrant Mao, chess is the most proletarian of enterprises and entertainments.

 

Jim Hanink is an independent scholar, albeit more independent than scholarly!

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