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.
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.