My Philosophy of Chess

15thcenturyThey say that all advice is nostalgia. It applies to everything. And seems especially true when you start thinking about how you teach chess.

I know that a common question I will get at the Q and A sessions on my upcoming book tour will sound like this, “Chess helps kids think. How can we get it into the schools?” Chess might truly help kids think. But I want to somehow explain to this person that for me chess is not a means to an end. I did not pursue chess to help me excel in the ‘real world.’

My early drafts of Lisa allowed her teacher, Igor Ivanov, to have the following experience that was essentially mine:

“The parents wanted to see virtues developed in chess: concentration, patience, planning, calculation, subtlety and even stamina. Igor was forced to rationalize chess, to sell chess, to those parents. He had to give each of them a personalized virtue mosaic, tirelessly rearranging dirty tiles. Math aspirants want the calculation and concentration tiles to cover the thinking world. Athletes need the stamina tile to occupy a position of architectural necessity. Politicians want their mosaics to reflect the planning they see themselves prudently exerting upon a world that needs their foresight. And the spiritual want to sink into the peaceful adumbrations of the patience tile. If Igor got desperate for money, he could even craft the sportsmanship tile for a battered parent.”

There are many ways to think about chess. How you do so reflects who you are. Yes, you can view the game as an educational means to a better life. You can think of it as a mortal struggle in which we prove our strength. Maybe chess is the ultimate sublimation of our sexual desire. Then there’s the whole Freudian thing.

Writing Lisa forced me to ask Bronstein’s question: What is chess? It did so because I wasn’t able to use all the common vocabulary and notions that I use when I talk with my chess friends. I was writing for a general audience, and felt compelled to try to distill what the experience of chess was. We chessplayers think we know what we are doing, but we haven’t thought about it all that much. So, here is my controversial view:

Chess is a meditation upon a more transparent world that we yearn for but can never actually have.

Let me explain. I don’t know who is reading this. Even if I did I would never really know what they thought of it, even if they told me in their most earnest voice. It’s questionable whether I know myself. I can’t know the most basic facts of the world around me. These are the reasons I can’t effectively control my future. Chess allows us the fantasy that everyone desires: to be able to see how everything works, and to use that knowledge to control who we are. And this spiritual activity is the reason we chessplayers will often feel enlightened and alive after playing or studying moves that felt deep.

So, when you ask me about teaching, or you ask me to be your teacher, all of my answers and all of my advice will revolve around this sublime spiritual activity that I, and many others, have experienced in the game. It’s not a means to an end. It’s who we are.


  1. Pingback: How to improve your Chess | Jesse Kraai
  2. Pingback: Why We Play Chess | Chess Book Reviews
  3. Johnd422

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  4. guest222

    A more transparent world, where we’re somewhat in control of our life and where there is some kind of justice.

    I agree.

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