IN THE SPIRIT OF CAISSA: THE ART OF CHESS
by Ed Hirsch, August 2001
Is chess an art or sport in and for itself, without need of further justification? Or is chess to be judged on its potentials for bettering humankind? Both of these convey a glimpse of the truth but miss the mark of what chess can really offer us. To isolate chess unto itself deprives it of its deeper link with humanity’s development, while shackling it to some program for human improvement undermines its autonomy and freedom of expression as an art. Chess is an art, with its own justification, as well as—being part of the weave of life—is part of the fabric of humanity’s development.
Whether chess is played for casual enjoyment or for high tournament stakes ("chess for fun" and "chess for blood"), it is seldom a passion for the development of the whole human being. Maybe this is of scant interest to most chess players, but this approach falls short of making full use of the opportunity that chess affords us. It simply does not live up to the full scope of the spirit of chess. Beyond both of the above extremes, the full art of chess opens into the art of living, and the spirit of chess opens into the spirit of living.
Aside from simply enjoying a game of chess, we can also desire to improve our game, to understand the game in greater depth, thereby enabling us to enrich our enjoyment. An impulse runs through all the levels of the game that we can call the search for chess perfection. Is this to be found through developing stronger chess computers, or through the next chess superstar? The development of chess is not simply an end in itself, but is a participation in the development of humanity. This is the great art, the royal art, and I feel that chess makes a unique contribution to this end. Chess is called the Game of Kings because historically it was associated with recreation for the nobility, and because essentially the King is the key piece on the board. But essentially, chess is the royal game because it has the power to evoke and enrich that which is most noble, or royal, within us. Thus it is truly the King of Games.
Chess can span the range from the quite casual, to the serious hobby or profession, to the obsessive—or it can simply have no part in your life at all. A person can lead a full life without ever having the slightest interest in chess (although I do feel that chess should be an integral part of education). It is easy to dismiss chess as only a game, something that is far from the essentials of life, the substance of real life. However, a game is part of the larger sense of play, and this serves a critical role in the development of physical, mental, and social skills. And its virtues are not confined to children. Higher levels of play are at work in a general’s planning a military campaign, and a Wall Street investor playing the market. Creativity, ingenuity, and careful judgment might be at work here, with high level stakes. The ability to recognize patterns and to form sound judgments where the outcome is not totally predictable is part of the human’s adaptability for survival. From an even higher or more transcendent view, everything can be considered a game, a play on the fundamentals of being.
Further, being "only a game" is perhaps not really a detriment but a secret advantage. Chess is one of the great inventions of the human mind, and its mass appeal through history is owing to its form as a game. Far fewer would study it in any depth if it were a purely philosophical or mathematical exercise—or even a religious ritual. But as a game, it cuts across all cultural and religious backgrounds; it appeals to the dabbler as well as to the totally dedicated player and student of chess. What begins as the simple fun of a game, the satisfaction of a win, matures into the "aha!" of discovery and the sophisticated enjoyment of a mating combination, and can flower into a highly refined and evolved appreciation of truth and beauty.
There is a wisdom and medium for self-knowledge and self-development in chess that is disguised, we might say, in the game. In this respect, perhaps it is similar to Tarot cards, which conceal wisdom in the form of a deck of playing cards or fortune telling cards. In both cases, origins are shrouded in mystery. Does chess have a higher origin and teaching? Or is it merely a war game? I do not intend to offer a definitive answer, but I hope to shed some light on how we can relate to chess as if it were a gift from the "goddess."
I began the following contemplations as reflections on what it is about chess that attracts me in the deepest way--in the playing of it, the studying of it, and in the teaching of it. I was interested in the beauty and art of chess in a larger sense—art as harmony, balance, integration of opposites, as in the art of writing or speaking or living. I was interested in the art of chess, not simply as the art of better chess playing, but chess as an art, as a way, as a tao or a yoga. I intuited that there was more to chess than just a sport, or a pleasurable recreation, or an art for its own sake.
While I was introduced to chess in grade school, it is only recently in middle age that I became smitten with chess. My background, other than in teaching math, had been in psychology, philosophy, and spirituality. I have long been attracted to the play of the one and many—philosophically, spiritually, psychologically, scientifically, aesthetically, etc. I have long been attracted to various systems that meaningfully presented this play in intricate variations of basic themes. Some of these have been philosophical, spiritual, and esoteric systems—such as astrology, kabbalah, numerology, tarot, and alchemy. These were all various systematic attempts to present this basic play in ways that were part of profound world views (however much they may have been diluted in our popular culture). I have done many tarot readings, and was fascinated by the unfolding story that would emerge.
So when I rediscovered chess in the last few years, it was natural for me to enjoy the beauty, truth, and symbolism—what I could call the wisdom—of chess beyond the obvious game. It was natural for me to ponder what hidden wisdom and meaning might be implicit in chess that was veiled from the casual onlooker or even player. Similarly, the alchemists claimed to be able to read the "Book of Nature," which was mostly veiled from others. I enjoyed tarot readings to complement the formal study of tarot as a philosophical system, for they were highly individual patterns, arising in the present. There were always the basic themes arising in new patterns whose underlying meaning I would recognize. A story would emerge.
So too, one can study chess theory, and then there is the game as a unique story that unfolds between two people. Chess is more of a game, more oppositional, but here also basic themes and pieces (like the cards) take on different meaning according to their particular arrangement on the playing field. Unlike a tarot reading, chess is more under the control of the conscious mind and will, but in both cases I think there are deeper forces at work. A tarot spread does not seem to be random to one who can read it, as if there were a deeper intelligence at work through the arrangement of the cards. In chess, there are deeper patterns that are often not available to, or recognized by, the players. Further, while the moves might seem to be rational, there are also psychological, philosophical, and aesthetic principles that guide them of which the players are unaware.
I am not a tournament player, a gifted or even a strong player. I am not so much a chess player as a thinker or philosopher who plays chess. I love chess, but I love life and truth more. However, this does not mean that I only use chess as a backdrop for spouting philosophy. I appreciate the beauty of chess itself, the beauty of a winning combination, and the like. However, I feel that chess is a wonderful expression of life on so many levels, and it would be a limitation for this not to be valued. Chess is not a mere substitute gratification for people who cannot win in the struggle of real life, but an important means of studying the larger game of life. As part of education, playing chess is a way of learning about, and participating in, the larger game.
My focus has been on the basics of chess, rather than the more sophisticated and advanced theories and techniques. My background has taught me the value of basics, and it seems that in chess also, the basics are ever present. But I feel that the basics I’m exploring here offer an approach that is largely missing in contemporary chess. These basics go all the way to the philosophic basics of life. These fundamentals, however, are not offered in the spirit of any fundamentalism. My hope is that this approach might contribute in some measure to the evolution of the chess spirit, and beyond that into the larger evolution of spirit.
Surely, the broad and colorful historical background of chess strongly contributes to chess culture. Surely, the thrill of the sport strongly contributes to the growing popularity of chess, especially among schoolchildren. But there is something about the beauty of chess that has made it endearing to me, and enduring for humanity. This something has the precision and clarity of math and the beauty and emotional power of music. This something seeks articulation and unfolding clarity. The beauty, the wisdom, and the power of chess draw us forth in quest of the "truth" of chess. Since chess is not a doctrine or dogma, but a game, I feel it is appropriate to speak of the art of chess.
To make the point more timely, we might well ask if the art of chess is some romantic notion of the past, when daring sacrifices and gambits were played for the sake of crowd pleasing and artistic flourish. This stands in contrast to the chess of today, which seems dominated more by the metaphor of sport than of art. With the time pressure of tournament play, the player is looking for the quickest win by any means, however brutish and unaesthetic. And perhaps the "unblinking silicon monster" serves to render chess more of a science. However, as the invention of photography was not the death of painting, but rather opened new doors of perception, so perhaps human creativity and ingenuity will be pushed to new frontiers in chess. (Already, the internet has tremendously increased chess accessibility and activity, and computer programs and electronic gadgets have made chess play and chess instruction widely available to players of all skill levels.)
In our postmodern era, with its encompassing variety of truly global proportions, there is no dominance of any one era’s style of chess (classical or romantic, for example), but an alive accommodation of them all. Out of this, I see the emergence of new ground. Chess is deeply woven into human culture, and its infinite variety and adaptability reflects humanity. It is as unlikely that chess play will nostalgically return to a bygone era as that its future will end in dry technique. Art is inherent in the very spirit of the game. And what is inherent calls for expression, to reawaken the spirit of chess as art.
My writing on chess as art is offered as a work in progress, in the spirit of contribution, and for feedback for further exploration. Seven themes have emerged from my quest, and they serve as a convenient way of grouping ideas. Each point is imbued with a sense of balancing or integrating contrasts or opposites. This quality relates to the inner beauty and harmony of chess, and how chess can serve as a path of inner development.
My remarks might be more appreciated by older adults who are more sensitive to chess as art than by youth that is more gripped by the excitement of winning a game or tournament. However, the approach I offer has a bearing on how chess might be offered as part of a holistic education. Whether the holistic approach is naturally taught by the chess experience itself is questionable—but I do feel that holistic educators have a great deal to do with using chess as a holistic vehicle for the education of the whole human being.
Chess is a game of many opposites: black and white, the opposing players, winning and losing, attack and defense, initiative and response, combinational (tactical) and positional (strategic) play, logical/scientific and artistic/intuitive styles, calculated planning and intuitive unfolding, one-on-one play and simultaneous exhibitions, playing a person and playing a computer, ordinary chess and blindfold chess (without sight of the board), the contemplative mode of slow play and the excitement of rapid play, playing to win and playing to teach or learn, tournament play and casual play, competitive play and replaying games or solving chess problems or studies. The world of chess has room for all of this and more.
A holistic view of chess perhaps emphasizes the more hidden harmony behind the opposites, but it must include both the unity and the opposition. Each illuminates the other: for example, the underlying unity enhances your appreciation of the opposites, while a tacit appreciation of a given game is immeasurably enhanced by understanding the hidden conflict and threats in the game.
The first theme is: Chess is the art of balancing and integrating the contrast of part and whole. Chess has the ability to engender what we could call "whole mind," which is equally adept at seeing the whole and its interrelated parts. Whole mind has a strong sense of unity as well as the facility to differentiate that unity in many parts and in different ways. This is done without losing the parts in the unity, and without losing the whole in the parts.
This ability is developed in the context of the whole space of the board as well as all its parts. The board itself is a homogeneous space, a basic unity, that is differentiated into 64 squares. These squares in turn are all essentially alike, differentiated into light and dark, and further, into placement (e.g., central and peripheral). The board can be seen as a whole, as a series of ranks, files, or diagonals, as a series of borders around a center, as a division between Kingside and Queenside, or between the White and Black sides, and also as a whole that includes all of the above. The board represents a space of awareness in which the whole is known, as well as each square and the relations of the squares within that whole. Each chess unit (piece or pawn), standing on a square, creates a mandala (a circle circumscribed or inscribed by a square), which is symbolic of wholeness. The circle circumscribing the 64 squares is most often not given, but is for the player to furnish with his or her whole vision of the board.
When the units are on the board, we learn to pay attention to each one, but not as a merely isolated piece of wood or plastic. We learn to appreciate each within the context of the whole, as if each existed within a larger force field and sent out lines of force in patterns unique to its type. We learn to see beyond the isolated material to a world of energy, a field of forces. We thus more readily find open lines for movement. Further, we learn to understand any position on the board within a context of possibilities. In a game, we analyze the position in the context of candidate moves and different sequences of moves. In the study of chess, we learn a position and consider how it would be different if the arrangement were slightly altered. This teaches us to understand what is given within a context of possibilities: a simple example might be seeing a picture and imagining it bigger, smaller, in different colors, etc. Any given thing is then a part in a context of many possible wholes.
For the various positions of pieces and pawns on the board, you have to consider the whole situation, and yet also be able to consider each part within that situation. Just taking it all in, or just considering general principles, won’t do. And just looking at the parts isn’t sufficient—you develop the ability to assess the position from different viewpoints. Partly this involves general principles and your general strategy, and partly this involves assessing the particular situation at hand—both integrated in a workable way. A simple example of seeing parts and wholes is looking at a position and seeing if it’s mate or not. Sometimes you can see this at a glance, all at once, and sometimes you need to assess several factors together to arrive at a conclusion (for example, an escape square is under attack, and a piece that might block the check cannot because it is pinned). Another simple example: have you ever made what you thought was a definitive move, such as Queen and Bishop checkmating the King in the corner, only to be shocked at the rude awakening of the Queen being taken by an unnoticed Rook in the other corner? What happened was that you were so focused on one corner, the local situation, that you didn’t appreciate the larger context.
Chess is a training in understanding many parts within a whole context. The weaker player merely reacts to a move, whereas the stronger player asks questions, looks for options, and selects the best from among them. The wholeness here is appreciating and understanding a move within the context of alternative moves and sequences—and knowing why this is the best move.
The weaker player sees only in part, while the stronger player understands more of the larger story. The parable of "The Blind Men and the Elephant" is applicable here: each man experiences only one part of the whole (elephant) but imagines it to be the whole, or imagines that the whole is simply an extension of that part. (It is interesting to note that the parable is Indian, and India is widely considered to be the birthplace of chess.) Chess is training in opening our eyes and seeing the whole. Chess is training in "whole seeing," which is a direct perception of the significance of the position, while also amenable to logical analysis.
For example, when a beginner’s King is attacked, his or her first impulse might be to move the King away. A stronger player pauses and asks, in effect, "Can I move? Can I block? Can I capture?" and then selects the best option. Again, suppose a player advances a pawn and attacks a piece. The weaker player interprets what’s happening on the board in terms of the isolated move or attack, or perhaps merely thinks, "This pawn moved." A stronger player sees the move in a larger context: for example, perhaps it opens a diagonal for a Bishop to attack your Queen, or perhaps it weakens the pawn structure.
You might notice a possible play, say an exchange of a Bishop for a Rook. But you might overlook a larger story of the possibility of mate. Or again, you might notice a move and then reject it because of the loss of material. However, if you had looked further, you might notice that this would set up a position in which you could win even greater material (say, a Knight fork of King and Queen). Such plays are called combinations, initiated by a sacrifice of material, forcing a response which then nets you a winning move. Seeing the partial views is like the situation of the blind men; seeing the whole view is like seeing the elephant itself.
In real life, you might know some fact, but you might not understand the significance of this fact. For example, you know someone said a word or made some simple gesture. But you might not understand the meaning of that word or gesture, because you don’t know the story behind it, its context. Once you understand that story (of course, open to interpretations), the significance becomes clear (or more clear). On the chessboard, you might see that the pawn moved, but you don’t yet appreciate its significance. Or perhaps you are shown a position on the board, and although you see the facts (nothing physically is hidden on the board), you don’t yet understand the significance. Once you see or are shown the forcing moves (say, beginning with a piece sacrifice), once you see the threats in the position, then you appreciate the meaning of the position.
The stronger player sees more of the whole story. The ordinary player might just play move by move, having little awareness of the long-term consequences of his or her moves. There might be a sense of unfolding, but the stronger player has a sense of what sort of Middle Game and Endgame the Opening is likely to develop into. The present position on the board is appreciated more in terms of the larger picture, the fuller story.
Seeing the larger whole is not just a matter of seeing the "one true" way. In the international community of chess culture, there is a space for inquiry, for questioning, rather than for dogmatic approaches. In this sense, it promotes a democratic style in which the individual is encouraged to think for himself or herself, and in which anyone could contribute something new. Surely, sometimes there is the "one best move," or the unique "checkmate in one." However, chess is more than just critical thinking that leads to the one right answer (say, through process of elimination). Seeing the larger whole also involves being aware of the larger context of possibilities, and being willing to question the obvious. Isn’t this what the blind men need to realize? Each is believing his own version of the story, because it seems to obvious to him.
The theme of whole and part applies to the pieces and pawns as a totality. Each chess unit plays its part in the whole. The weaker player does not develop the units in accordance with the team spirit or with a larger idea that unites them all. The stronger player develops all the pieces as a harmonious whole, and in this harmony is both beauty and power. There is greater power for attack, and a position in which the hidden relationship of the chess units can be revealed. Isolated, they have less strength, and their relationships are meager.
In dream interpretation, the person might take on the role of each character (or even object) in the dream. In understanding a whole story in depth, the reader might look out on the whole from the perspective of each of the characters. So too, in chess, place yourself into the roles of each of the pieces (your own and those of your opponent) in order to appreciate the whole story.
A good example of this harmony is the special move called castling. All the chess units involved are happy together: the center pawn is happy to make the first move into the center; the Knight and Bishop are happy to move out onto the battlefield; the King is happy and secure in his castle; the pawns in front of him are happy to stand guard as the King’s castle wall; and the Rook is happy to move out of his corner and also guard his King. The whole exhibits the beauty, simplicity, and economy of moves. Economy is also exhibited in the forms of double attack, where one move accomplishes more than one objective.
The whole involves not only the spatial entirety of the board and pieces, but also involves the temporal unfolding of the game. The example of determining a checkmate can be extended two or more moves ahead. This involves seeing into the position beyond what is simply given in the here-and-now. You can see the larger whole, the whole truth, as if all at once. Perhaps you previously had no clue that a mate was even possible, because it involved a move (perhaps a "quiet move" or a major sacrifice) that was beyond what you even considered relevant or possible. Another example is viewing an endgame position and seeing if it is a win or a draw. The "all at once" ability conveys the sense of art that unifies different parts and aspects. One is reminded of Mozart’s ability to "see" his musical compositions as if all at once before his mind’s eye. In chess, the art of whole seeing is one that can translate itself step-by-step. This differentiation is part of the power of artistic expression, as the ability to carry it out in over-the-board play.
The weaker player plays move by move; the stronger player understands the meaning and possibilities of the position in the larger context of the game—what came before, and what is to come. Each board position is like an episode in the larger story or drama, a still frame from a whole film, or a position from a whole dance. When you reread a story of poem, or when you view a movie again, you have a different relation to the experience. You have a greater sense of the part in the context of the whole. When you replay a chess game, you have a greater realization of the whole unfolding story, and how each move participated in it. As you gain more experience in playing, you develop greater appreciation of each move within a larger whole (for example, in the Openings).
The weaker player might be able to identify isolated patterns on the board, such as King exposure or pawn weakness, but be unable to galvanize them into an action plan. The stronger player might be able to dynamically consolidate these factors into a winning play. The weaker player might be able to identify a possible checkmate but be unable to weave the obstacle (say, a piece guarding a vital square) into their plan in a workable way. Also, a weaker player might scan the board and identify various possible moves, good and bad, while the stronger player intuitively goes for the relevant patterns and the strong moves.
In chess jargon, a move can be called "accurate" or "thematic," if it makes good sense within the storyline or plot of the story of the unfolding play. Of course, a story can go in many directions, but some make more sense, or have a better feeling to them—they ring true. There is not always one best move for every position, but in an opening theme, a move might be more true to the context, to the actual position on the board. If a move or several moves were moving in a certain direction, then the following move might be more accurate than another, because it fits in with the advantages the others were preparing. That next move might have been the point that the others were aiming for.
In a chess problem, it might be helpful to list all the relevant patterns and possibilities you can find in a given position, and then look at the master move that’s given. Then work backwards and figure out why that move was made, and work through the thinking process that led up to it. Finally, be able to view the whole situation at once, with the correct sequence of moves, and with the understanding of why those moves were made. See it all at once, but be able to go through it step by step, as if walking someone else through it.
You might wish to explore the following sequence: First, play through a master game without annotations, getting a sense of the flow of the play. (You might even challenge yourself by playing through the first few opening moves and then, covering one column, make your own move before comparing it with the master’s.) Second, play through the same game, this time writing down your own comments and questions, making as much sense of the game as you can. Third, play through the game again, this time following the notes of a master. Experience the difference from stage to stage, and how your enjoyment and understanding of the game increase as you comprehend more of the whole.
The chess game is an unfolding drama, a story. You get to know the story by first understanding the setting (to start with, how the chess units are arranged on the board), the characters (King, Queen, Rook, Bishop, Knight, pawns), and how they move (singly, and in combination). You understand the problem (two Kings and their kingdoms vie for absolute control), and the resolution (a win or a draw). The chess story has a beginning (the Opening), middle (Middlegame), and ending (Endgame), though sometimes the story gets cut short (by an early checkmate or resignation).
Chess has all the basic elements of a story: the characters, the plot, the surprise, the suspense, the conflict, the resolution. Of course, some games make better stories than others, in terms of the art of weaving together the various elements. But it still remains for the "reader" to appreciate the intricacies of what is involved—and this itself is an art of weaving together many elements and levels.
Over time, the chess player gains experience, gains familiarity with chess patterns, with chess history and tradition, and the whole "feel" of what chess is about. One becomes more aware of the various elements involved, including those involved in the "inner game of chess." And so the game becomes not a mere repetition of familiar themes, but an increasingly rich tapestry, with greater awareness behind each of the parts. It is not just a matter of becoming a stronger player, filling the domain of the chessboard with greater knowing and presence.
All in all, the chess player develops a multifaceted and flexible concentration or presence of many parts and levels contained in one whole awareness. This, of course, is not equivalent to playing while distracted by thoughts about dinner, personal concerns, general mind wandering, an inner critic, and so on. Sometimes, however, the player does have to face such practical matters as time pressure. Psychological pressure, and so on.
Chess serves in the development of a holistic thinking, which is network thinking, pattern thinking, relational thinking, contextual thinking. This is the development of a whole awareness beyond the push and pull of narrow lines of thinking and narrow points of view. (This is "whole elephant" thinking.) It is contextual, but not lost in generalities and abstractions, since it is grounded in the present focus of experience. It is not mindless application of pattern. Such thinking integrates both the "upward thinking" of generalizing, abstracting, induction, as well as "downward thinking" of particularizing, application, deduction. As we shall see later, if this is developed within a view of holistic education, it will not become limited solely to chess.
The second theme: The art of chess involves the ability of the mind to arrange figures into (meaningful and beautiful) patterns. This involves a sense of mastery over the pieces and board, a seeming case of "mind over matter." Consider the difference between the pieces randomly in the box or bag, and those same pieces arranged in their beginning positions on the board, ready for play. Consider the difference between the pieces placed randomly on the board, and those same pieces placed on the board according to the rules of play. And consider the difference between the pieces arrayed on the board in a poorly played game, and those same pieces arrayed in a well-played game.
Looking around at such human creations as books, buildings, and machines, we see matter arranged according to the ideas of a mind. The actions we take, even ordinary behaviors such as walking across the room or moving our hand, are the expressions of ideas. Even the powerful influence of moods, emotions, needs, and desires are deeply conditioned by ideas. On the chessboard, the world is scaled down and simplified, and we have a clearer experience of thinking the thought and putting it into action.
The solidity of the chess units and board represents a physical expression of an idea. The power of each unit, and the networks of their relationships, however, are not solid but are fully penetrable by the mind. All the chess units are simply forms of wood or plastic (for example), differing in shape, which itself expresses different powers attributed to them by the mind. When a chess unit is pinned, it is as though there were a force field that held it in place. This is not a physical force, but the power of the mind. All the rules of chess that hold the game together are held in place by the mind. Working within these, it is the mind that creates the unique art of each game.
In working a chess problem, when you first view the position on the board, it might seem a chaotic arrangement. Then you might come to understand the position, the threat it contains, and what is possible here. A basic principle or idea might emerge to the inquiring mind, and the whole falls into place. This is expressed in an "Aha!" which is followed by the move itself. Sometimes you study the position and you cannot figure it out; then you get a hint or look up the answer, and it is as if you are seeing through the eyes of the master. In either case, it is mind-expanding and satisfying, like getting the answer to a riddle. There is a sense of discovery, the sense of a dawn of understanding, the emergence of the idea from the material, which sometimes can feel revelatory. When a player discovers an idea that reveals itself, there is a sense of, "Ah!" When a player comprehends an idea that he or she couldn’t see unaided, there is a sense of, "Oh!" These are complementary ways of connecting to the idea.
This power of arrangement, or mastery over the pieces on the board, can be developed to an extent that seems almost magical. Akin to the wonders of the stage magician pulling rabbits out of hats is the chess master’s ability to pull a win out of a "lost game." Or again, the artistry on the board by which a checkmate is materialized out of the "thin air" of a seemingly equal and stable position is reminiscent of the mastery of the professional magician over a deck of cards. The familiar ring of, "Watch closely… there is nothing up my sleeve," could be applied to this chess "magic," where nothing can kept out of sight. Everything is "above board," in "black and white," but while everything is seen, the hidden relationships and potentials are not. It seems magical when you cannot see the hidden patterns, but the strong player looks out for them and even creates them by forcing moves. And yet there is something magical about the really original move, for it is "logical" only in hindsight. Where it originally came from is still a mystery, the mystery of what we can call the Origin, the source of the creativity. This is never reduced to the logical machinery of a system.
Creativity has roots in both logic and a higher order intuition. Some people have tried to show the originality and genius of creativity, defending it against any attempt to reduce it to a "paint by number" technique that anyone could employ. This has its place, but it can go to the extreme of idealizing and idolizing creativity as something untouchable and unreachable by the masses. On the other hand, others have fought against this tendency by emphasizing its logical structure, and that the average person can be trained in creativity. One doesn’t have to be blessed by the gods, so to speak; one can actively develop the germ of creativity within oneself, much as one can develop any skill. This, too, can be taken to the extreme, reducing something really original, uncontrollable, and unpredictable to formula. Yet if we take into account what it worthwhile in both camps, we can say that creativity is co-creative—that is, it has a receptivity towards a higher order of being, as well as an activity that has an individual initiative and responsibility. Within this holistic view, we can acknowledge both the mystery and transcendence in creativity, as well as that aspect that is teachable and trainable.
Chess involves the mind’s ability to arrange the same pieces in different combinations. For example, you can look at the same situation on the board with respect to material, or mobility, or pawn structure, or King safety, etc. Or again, you can look at the complexity of a position and focus on connecting different pieces, leading to the choice of different moves. You look for discovering the essential feature on the board, including what is as yet only potential and needs to be worked out. In some respects, this is a matter of style and the larger plan of the game.
Of course, the whole game is imbued with mind, for the pieces themselves have no intrinsic relationships or powers except as the mind gives to them. A person who knows nothing of chess could very well see the board and the pieces, know the material out of which they were made, see the shape of the pieces, and see the actual position on the board. But this person would have no appreciation or understanding of the game or of the position on the board. This is comparable to a printed page viewed by two people, one who cannot read and one who can. The stronger player sees more into the board position (is more "chess literate") than the weaker player. Much as a good reader sees words and phrases at a glance, rather than decodes each word, the stronger player can "read" the board position at a glance. The mind or understanding connects with the "idea" implicit in the position.
The weaker player can see all the pieces, and recognize some of the apparent threats, while the stronger player understands the fabric of the story of the game, what is actually unfolding on the board, and what could unfold. The weaker player’s attention gets focused on the material, rather than on the idea behind the material.
We can consider three levels of focus: 1) first is the outer, the focus on the material pieces, their shapes and positions; 2) second is the inner, the focus on the forces (lines of force) these represent, as the inner life of the pieces; 3) third is the higher, the focus on the ideas behind the forces, and the patterns that relate the forces, as the inner essence that animates the pieces. Just as the outer shape of the pieces (in the standard Staunton set) conform to their inner force or function, so the latter conform to the idea of the pieces. We can add a fourth level, that of spirit or chess presence, that pervades all the other levels and guides them all. This is the core source of chess insight, chess intuition, chess brilliance, chess genius. Following the ancient differentiation of wholes into four, we can represent these levels according to the Four Elements: 1) Earth: outer form 2) Water: inner force 3) Air: inner idea 4) Fire: guiding spirit. We will meet this spirit or presence of chess in our fourth theme and beyond. Here, we shall simply point out that these levels indicate an increasing degree of transparency of the material to the essential, allowing the inner idea and spirit to emerge.
The stronger player can orchestrate the material on the board in the way music contrasts to noise, or (in the extreme) the way intelligent order contrasts to random movements. The contrast is akin to the master artist’s ability to conjure up exquisite forms with pencil and paper, compared to the average person’s productions. The ideas might be there, but there is a lack of ability to concretely express them with the given materials. The chess board and chess units are the artist’s materials for the expression of his or her ideas.
We get a sense of the possibilities of chess—the beauty and grace of chess—when we experience the game of a master. We get a glimpse of what is possible, of what is potential in every game, where the game is elevated to a level of real art. It is like going to hear a master pianist, violist, or guitarist, for example, and experiencing what is possible in this form. More generally, it is the experience of beholding anything being done very well—so well that it becomes as if a translucent vehicle for the expression of art, of genius. And if the master explains the moves of the game, we can feel enthralled, as if by a master storyteller. (Of course, this does not apply to every master game, since the average player would not even appreciate some of the level of master play. It might be comparable to trying to appreciate genius-level mathematics, when you find it barely intelligible.)
The stronger player sees connections and relationships that the weaker player misses. The stronger player sees the ideas inherent in the position, whereas the weaker player misses them, because the material and the complexity of the position obscure the essential idea. From the endless possibilities of positions and sequences of moves, the mind finds those that are most meaningful and beautiful. And it is the stronger player who is more adept at using this resource of the mind. The computer also can do this, but the computer itself is an invention of the mind.
Further, the priority of the idea is strong in chess. In the study of chess, understanding takes priority over memorization, and the underlying principle over the specifics. The idea of the checkmate, for example, is an essential idea that can be illustrated by a board and pieces of any material, size, or shape. The essential idea shines through, whether it was played a hundred years ago or today, in Europe or in Asia, by young or old. Again, a strong move is one that sees connections (ideas) that are otherwise obscured. A strong move is one that gives the sense of cutting through the material world to the essential, to the "point." In actual play, this priority of the mind in chess is reinforced by the "touch move" rule, which states that if you touch a piece, you must move it (if it is a legal move). The point is, "Make the move in your mind first!"
A striking example of the power of the idea in chess is the beauty of the sacrifice (especially the Queen’s), where weaker material wins over the stronger due to the dominance of the mind over the material situation. We experience a sense of mind expansion, as we become aware of the power of limiting belief and untested assumption—namely, that which does not allow us to even consider such a move in looking for possibilities. The situation involves "thinking outside the box" of narrow assumptions (as in the famous "Nine Dot Problem"). There are no miracles in chess, but what we call brilliancies are like the inner form, idea, light, or spirit shining through the material. They also shine through the crystallized patterns of mind, breaking down barriers to let new light in.
In chess, we seek to maximize options. On the material level, this involves the free mobility of the pieces. The stronger side has the greater mobility. Checkmate is the ultimate in no mobility (for the King), no options. On the mental level, this involves sufficient awareness to see possibilities. If we operate on limited assumptions, then we already limit our options, our freedom of choice. For example, if we make our play, assuming our opponent is going to make the moves that fit into our plan, then the next move might burst our bubble. Making limiting assumptions might also mean that we don’t ask all the right or relevant questions.
Chess is essentially a game of ideas rather than moves. The moves are the expression of the ideas, although the ideas are not disembodied. Chess is not wholly abstract—it involves concrete thinking involving the relations of the pieces on the board. You do have to assess the actual and specific position before you, and not simply rely upon generalities. You have to attend to the other’s responses and not get lost in your own ideas. While chess ideas seem essential and directly intuited, we must also recognize that basic principles are generalizations made from many years of master play. In this regard, chess is more like an inductive science of open-ended inquiry than a deductive system like mathematics. Each game is more like an experimental approach to basic "laws" (or paradigms) than a deductive application of basic principles. Each generation’s play extends the boundaries of the body of accepted chess knowledge, much as in science—and sometimes the paradigms themselves are modified.
The idea and principle are tested in action, the general is tested in the forge of the specific, the beauty of the idea is tested in the results on the board. The idea, the inspiration, the imagination, must be grounded and will be challenged on the board. Beauty and efficiency are both valued in chess. It is true that some players will focus more on what works, while for others the brilliance or beauty of a game or move takes precedence over the win or loss. Nevertheless, both factors are important in the total view of chess.
The idea needs experience to test itself and unfold. Brilliance or genius needs to be complemented by skill and experience. Both study and practice are important in chess. It is not enough, for example, to study the ideas—just as you cannot really learn to play chess without actually playing. Conversely, play alone does not make you a better player if you do not understand the principles involved. You can play and enjoy chess once you know how the pieces move, but even here, you are not really playing chess if you don’t understand the primacy of the King and what check and checkmate are about. From there, it is a matter of more experience and understanding to really get what the game involves—aside from even becoming a strong player.
The third theme: The artistry or wizardry of chess carries the power of magic, as if bringing the pieces to life. Here the emphasis is not on the mastery over matter but on the ability to liberate the inherent forces in the matter. It is like the master violinist who can pick up an old violin and make it "sing." In the hands of a chess master, the board and the pieces can come alive with magic and beauty. If we imagine the units having the powers given to them by the rules of chess, then the good player is able to create "magic" on the board. It is all there in potential, waiting for the good player to actualize. It is a beauty that is more than dry, logical analysis, yet it is a beauty that is very aware and can articulate its wisdom. There is a sort of "360 degree" knowing, a knowing space, within which the units move. These lifeless figures seem to come alive with grace and power, as the chess master adeptly moves them across the board with the grace of a dancer.
The player (of whatever strength) discovering patterns on the board is like a scientist discovering hidden laws of nature. Often it is like the artist working with the powers of nature, for often the chess player has to manipulate the situation in order to create the workable patterns. Discovery is a major part of the joy of learning the game. The artistry is not mere expression on a blank canvas, but more of a discovery of what is in the actual position on the board. It might look like magic, like the rabbit out of the hat, or the idea "out of the blue," but the artist is reading what is there and seeing deeply into the possibilities.
Whereas the weaker player might see only a forest of possibilities on the board, most of them going nowhere special, the stronger player discovers essential features in the position. The stronger player is already familiar with patterns and knows what to look for, but there is the intuitive seeing, the discovery, as the idea reveals itself through the particulars of the position. It can be like one of those three-dimensional puzzles that require you to unlock the parts: before the solution is seen, nothing looks workable, but once it is pointed out, then it becomes so obvious. The experience is not simply one of, "Oh, of course," but rather an experience of liberation from a totally cramped position. The same can be experienced with a chess puzzle (such as, "Mate in Three"), or a position that seems hopelessly lost. It can seem like magic, but one can learn some of the "secrets" of this magic.
The fourth theme: The art of chess is inspired by what we could call "the spirit of chess," which has been personified as "Caissa." The pronunciation of the word itself is suggestive of the balance between opposites: pronounced "KAH-EE-SAH," it stands between the hard "KAY-SAH" and the soft "KESSA." Though this personification is feminine (considered the goddess or muse of chess), it is the root of both whole intuition and logical analysis. Caissa is the offspring of Mars and Aphrodite, the god of war and the goddess of love and beauty, respectively. So too, chess is both a war game and a work of art.
Caissa can represent the presence and intensity you can experience in a chess game, chess tournament, or grandmaster simultaneous exhibition. It is highly alive, but also clear—not spaced out. Its wholeness can be indicated in three ways: First, it represents a presence that is not simply transcendent, impersonal and beyond space and time. It is not simply a high state of bliss, joy, or freedom, for it is also very concretely present in the situation on the board. Second, the direct seeing and knowing in chess is not some ineffable intuition or aesthetic perception. It is not even something, like a poem or flower, whose beauty is diminished upon reflection or analysis. Rather, these contribute to the fullness of the beauty. Third, it is not some "gift of the gods" that we can only receive passively, for it can be cultivated and strengthened as an inner power.
This "chess presence" is neither solely transcendent nor solely a product of scientific training and programming. It is a "sacred marriage" of the "left brain" logic and "right brain" intuition. This is a further development of what we call "whole mind." Beyond this, we can speak of "higher mind," which is receptive to inspiration whose source we can personify as Caissa.
When you play a game and win it, you of course want to feel that it is your win, that you earned it. After all, you planned it, you made the moves, and it is backed by all your study and training. Of course it is your game, your win, and it might even bear the stamp of your personal style. However, have you ever played with inspiration, "in spirit," where "who" was playing became almost as an opening or channel to a seeming higher power and intelligence? You might feel, at such times, "I play, and yet it is not I, but Caissa—the ‘spirit of chess’—playing through me." Paradoxically, it can feel both like a higher source as well as an inner, core source.
You are not going into a trance; it feels more as if you are co-creating or participating in a creative process. And the more you know about chess, the more you feel inspired by its calling and spirit, the more fully and consciously you can participate in the process. You feel part of a rich heritage, as well as directly connected to the spirit of that tradition. You might feel deeply connected to yourself, to that core within you; you might feel deeply connected to that tradition and world chess culture all around you; and you might feel deeply connected to that Source above you. In this way, chess play can open into deeper dimensions of the personal, interpersonal, and the transpersonal.
In chess, you need both inspiration and logical thinking. When you look at the position on the board, you can go through a series of logical questions and answers, and there is also an intuitive seeing and knowing. It is not all logic, and it is also not all intuition. Intuition yields the candidate moves, but logic gives the choice among them (or at least supports the intuitive choice).
You might be attached to your first idea as if it were a gift from Caissa. However, there is a saying, "If you find a good move, look for an even better one." For example, instead of Knight takes Rook, Knight forks King and Queen, and better than this, go for checkmate. This is not greed, but prudence and patience. It is allowing enough space for the larger truth to be revealed. The real gift of Caissa is the alchemical marriage of differentiated logical mind and intuitive chess wisdom.
While we might meaningfully distinguish the art of chess from the science of chess, the beauty of chess combines both. For example, there is beauty in a "mate in two," even though it has logical precision and calculation every step of the way. There is a freshness and clarity to it—not something cold and calculating—even after playing it over and over on the board. Conversely, original and artistic play can be subject to post-mortem analysis which, far from reducing the art to cold-blooded calculations, reveals the intricacies of its beauty. Art without science is like artistic passion without mastery of the materials of expression. And science without art is unalive.
Chess appeals both to the logician/scientist and the artist. On the one hand, there is plenty of room for decisive thinking, with clear-cut problems and solutions. For example, sometimes you can decisively demonstrate the single best move on the board in a given position. You either can or cannot make a certain move, and a given move either is or is not mate. So much is clear. On the other hand, there is also plenty of room for creativity, surprises, explorations, choices.
The unfolding story of a game, the drama unfolding on the board, is a work of art, weaving the logic of strategy and tactics with imagination and daring. It takes imagination to appreciate the game as a story, to see the high drama of battle in the moves of wooden or plastic pieces on a checkered board. It takes imagination to see them as live players caught in a web of forces on a battlefield. This is true whether the pieces are shaped into realistic figurines or the simplified standard style.
While the player can do with them as he or she chooses (within the rules), the dedicated player must come to know the team, with their concerns and desires. You have to take as real the King’s concern for his own welfare and the welfare of his kingdom. You enter into each chess unit, both as a living being and as a member of a team. This involves a sort of empathetic involvement with the units, as well as an objective viewing of the situation.
Pure geometry and logical precision play a crucial part, and imaginative involvement with the battle on the board needs to be balanced with logical objectivity. For example, you cannot afford to become so emotionally attached to your Queen that you couldn’t bear the thought of sacrificing her to win the game. And you must keep your cool and not get emotionally swayed in either overconfidence or a sense of defeat. Further: the artist inspired by his or her muse is also vulnerable to various delusions. In chess, the objective basis of performance on the board serves to counter flights of fancy with a good dose of reality.
The game of chess has the power to evoke clarity of thought, much as a puzzle might. The game also has the power to evoke deep emotions and passions (both positive and negative). In play, you cannot afford to be driven by strong emotion or passion; the prospect of playing like a calculating machine, on the other hand, doesn’t contribute to the enjoyment and adventure of the game.
The polarity of the masculine/Yang (scientific, logical, technical) and the feminine/Yin (intuitive, imaginative, creative) is evident in the history of the game, and this is also reflected in the individual player. The game itself affords a spectrum of play, from lengthy games, where there is sufficient time for thorough analysis, to speed chess (of ten minutes or even two minutes per game), where players must rely more on quick intuition.
Chess is a meeting ground of human passion and drama (Yin) with logic and mathematical structure (Yang). Each player must find his or her own balance in this regard, since both aspects are part of our nature. At its best, chess is a training and balancing of both. Imagination seeks inspiration, but it can be vague and incomplete. It can be subjective, falling in love with its own visions. Logic seeks clarity and precision, but alone it can be rigid and narrow.
Chess draws us both along the lines of the cerebral and the emotional, the cognitive and the affective. Chess demonstrates the priority of the idea, the form, the principle, the idea, but it is not simply a cerebral exercise. Chess evokes a love of beauty, and the higher pleasures, as the soul’s passion for the goddess. Chess evokes a sense of the power of pattern, and the value of method, discipline, organization, systematic study and analysis—in contrast to merely vague intuition and unfocused awareness.
The spirit of Caissa not only has room for both, but opens us toward their integration. Such integration is not simply a blending of the two, but arises from a source of awareness that is beyond both and not limited by either. Such a source can rightly be called the spirit of chess or the chess spirit (personified b