Chess is Violence

chess-boxing Chess is typically considered to be a passive activity closely associated with mental pursuits like philosophy and poetry.  Most people would never mentally categorize chess alongside wrestling or boxing.  And indeed, it is this apparent contrast that makes the sport of “chess boxing” so idiosyncratic.

Of course, major chess tournaments are advertised as battles between titans, but the relationship between chess and violence goes far deeper than metaphor.  Chess is violence.  Chess is about unilaterally imposing your will on another human being, while he tries desperately to avoid having your will impose.  And if you fail, his will will crush yours.  Some might argue that all two-opponent games could be tarred with this same brush of “violence”.  But no other voluntary game presents such a distilled essence of violence, except perhaps for the middle game and tesuji of the game of Go.

Violence is about will power.  With physical violence, the body is simply an instrument of the will.  In fact, wrestling could be seen as half cooperative dance, and half violence.  Boxing is much closer to pure violence.  And chess is pure violence – all that is preserved is the ruthless wills locked in combat.

To understand why chess is unique, you need to consider what other sorts of non-violent mental activities can be involved in games.  Cooperation, clarity of communication, pun and fancy, metaphor, narrative, empathy, persuasion, seduction, estimation of probabilities, and so on.  None of these mental skills are very important to chess, and are not developed with chess practice.  To become great at chess, you need brute force mental capability and extreme will power and concentration.  Your killer instinct and desire to crush the opponent needs to be strong and sustained over much longer periods than in the typical physical confrontation.  There is a reason that chess is physically exhausting, and that chess masters often go mad.

What else compares?  Maybe only love.  As Shakespeare said, “all’s fair in love and war”.  St. Paul gave the most beautiful definition of love in his letter to the Corinthians, saying that “love is not self-seeking”.  We all know that most human love affairs are completely the opposite of St. Paul’s description, and end up looking a lot like chess boxing: periods of intense mental calculation and scheming punctuated by bouts of overwhelming physicality.

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Note that this is not a criticism of chess.  I personally enjoy the intensity of chess.  And when I play Go, I often play on a smaller board, to increase the element of battle and will power and to reduce the component of broad strategy that is critical on a larger board.  I am simply arguing that chess is a fun game because it strengthens and exercises the selfish will; a point which I intend to revisit in a future post about C.S. Lewis’s “Bulverism” and the “ad hominem” fallacy.

8 thoughts on “Chess is Violence”

  1. I agree with this post whole-heartedly (except for the comparision with love, but i’ll get to that)…

    Chess is like a slow-motion no-holds-barred death match. Arguably the most important thing in chess is to get the “initiative,” meaning you want your opponent reacting to your moves, not to be reacting to his/hers. This is where “imposing your will” comes in. If you have the initiative and keep attacking (and don’t overreach or mess up), you are pretty much bound to win.

    The comparison of chess to violence really is apparent when you play online. There is only basic chat on the site i use, so there is none of the banter or jokes you would get while sitting across a table from a friend. Playing someone online really gives you the opportunity to be brutal (and be brutalized, lately in my case) and just take piece after piece without remorse. For example, one of the ppl I play quite often is someone who i beat every time. It is really hard for me to “play off” and NOT take his queen or other power pieces when he leaves them unprotected. This is the chess equivalant of kicking someone when they are down.

    The end of the chess game is pure violance. Checkmate is basically like choking somebody out (a la Hans Reiser) or holding them immobile (like wrestling).

    Chess might be able to be compared to a bad relationship, but I don’t think there is any way to compare a healthy relationship to chess. At least in love there is some give and take, in chess there is only take. Even sacrifices are meant to give you some advantage, either in board position, initiative, or piece development.

  2. Cool, the word “sente” in the game of Go means initiative, and is also the most important factor.

    Regarding “love”, I am definitely talking about bad relationships. But I think there is a reason that relationships between lovers go bad more often than other relationships like friendship, parent to child, sibling to sibling, and so on. Love, as opposed to fondness or obsession, is implicitly about commitment. In romantic relationships, two strangers come together and become “bound” by love. We romanticize the fact that the lover is willing to do anything for the beloved, even die. The marriage vow says “until death do us part”, but even that is not enough for many: what young girl has read “Romeo and Juliet” or Poe’s “Annabel Lee”, and not wanted to have a man love her so much that his heart is bound even after her death?

    There are admittedly some major differences to chess, though. When people want to cause another to fall in love, it’s normally because they have already fallen in love (in a manner of speaking) with that person. It’s relatively rare for people to be completely calculating and one-sided about love. So, unlike chess, it’s usually a process of mutual self-extinguishment rather than unilaterally extinguishing someone else. But at the core, the allure of love is that we imagine it to create certainty and bind another’s will in such a way that we can forever depend on them.

  3. This is silly. It takes an interaction and broadens it to the point of oversimplification. By these guidelines, everything in life is violence. By having a conversation, I am expressing my ideas and attempting to change the ideas and thoughts of someone else. That is expressing my will over the mind of someone else… by this article, violence. Tag? Violence. Yawning? By taking air into my lungs I exclude others from the rights of that air…. exerting my will and depriving others… violence. In fact by merely existing, I exert my presence and will upon this world…. violence. All life is violence… or so this article would have you believe.

    An oversimplification of the word and concept, where truth lies with intent. Do I intend to cause harm. That is the crux of the matter.

  4. @Jonathan – I find your comment to be very hostile and confrontational, bordering on violence 🙂

    Would you agree that wrestling or boxing are violence? Intent is important, as you say. With chess, you have two contenders sitting down with the express intention of dominating the other. I don’t normally see people doing that with breathing.

    If you can construct a scenario like that with a breathing contest, I’ll buy your analogy, but I bet the scenario would be pretty violent.

  5. METAPONTUM: Bridge beyond war: chess without violence in thought & action; players’ aim: Win peace together; cooperative play of pieces to other side of the board; exchange of place with chess rules instead of beating the other. Discuss, seek consensus in all moves, apply the law of reciprocity/golden rule; give all men their due (see Plato Laws 5,739 sacred chess). Politics is war (chess) with other means; but…If politicians use the example above, world peace, justice & harmony of men, nations, cultures will come, for God is only in harmony. What can we lose?
    see: http://www.metapontumforpeace.org or metapontum.nl; press English flag.

  6. I came across your article, trying to find an honest assessment of chess, which to my mind is greed, hate and selflessness etc., to recapitulate: war.
    If we look at war [WW1 or WW2 etc.,] we see that nothing is really achieved, the countries like France, Germany, England, etc., are still what they are, except for the millions of lives lost and the untold human misery; chess is like that intellectually, it does nor what it pretends to do, to make one smarter, no, only more vicious. Politics is like chess, see the present world situation. But, with the same effort and intellectual power, on the chess board, one can exchange pieces and help each other to the other side of the board or any other predetermined setup, the land go milk and honey, heaven. That is what Metapontum does. Do chess players play it, very few, they find it difficult. I played with two grandmasters, they had a hard time. Is chess transcended by Metapontum? I hope so, It is only after I became a Christian, a Catholic, that I gained this insight. I like to hear from you,
    Sincerely,
    H.Th.Frenkel

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