There is probably no game as difficult and captivating as chess. Millions of people break their heads over strategies to win this game and spend years learning its ins and outs. It holds them captive as nothing else does. They dream about it and discuss the move of one single pawn as if their lives depend on it. They will follow the most famous chess tournaments and discuss every move of a world champion, for days and even years. They replay famous, mind-boggling games of the past, even those that took place as long ago as 70 years. These chess aficionados try to improve on those games of the distant past, often getting into heated arguments about a brilliant or foolish move that took place 50 years earlier. Thousands of books, tens of thousands of essays have been published on how to get better at the game.
The rules are set up in the World Chess Federation’s FIDE Handbook. Strategies are developed and tactics suggested; countless combinations have been tried to the point that some typical patterns have their own names, such as the Boden’s Mate and the Lasker-Bauer combination. Mikhail Botvinnik revolutionized the opening theory, which was considered nothing less than a Copernican breakthrough. Famous chess studies such as the one published by Richard Reti (1921) are revelations of tremendous depth. (He depicted a situation in which it seems impossible for the white king to catch the advanced black pawn while the white pawn can be easily stopped by the black king.)
The rules are ruthless. There are no compromises, no flexibility. Zero rachmanuth (mercy). It is all about midath hadin (harsh rendering). The rules are rigid, as is nothing else. And they can make players mad to the point of possibly considering suicide. But is chess rigid?
The rules seem easy until you start playing. The entire game takes place on a chessboard smaller than the size of a side table, but the game is larger than the universe. Each party has 16 pieces, which are played on 64 squares, but they become so large in one’s psyche that they dazzle the eyes of the spectator. Some of the pieces can move in any direction; others can move any number of squares along any rank or file but may not leap over other pieces. There are those that can only move diagonally and others that are allowed to move two squares horizontally and one square vertically, or two squares vertically and one square horizontally, thus making the complete move look like the letter ‘L’.
It all sounds very easy. But what any player soon realizes is that these basic rules allow for thousands of combinations, maneuvers and sub-rules, depending on the position of a pawn, a rook, or a knight. These rules sometimes become so complicated and cause such major obstacles that one prefers to take on higher mathematics, which looks easy in comparison. (It is not!) There is good reason why the most famous chess players are considered not only brilliant people but geniuses with advanced mathematical minds.
But again: Is chess rigid? Does it “constrain”? Is it “fundamentalist,” or perhaps “dogmatic”? Does it deny the player his freedom of thought or action? In one sense, it does. The player cannot move the pieces as he would like to. There are rules that make the game incredibly difficult. But that fact is exactly what makes this game so exiting. It leads to an unprecedented outburst of creativity. In der Beschränkung zeigt sich erst der Meister. Und das Gesetz nur kann uns Freiheit geben said Goethe. (1) The chessboard becomes the world, the pieces are the phenomena of the universe, the rules of the game are the laws of nature, and man roams freely on this board once he applies the rules in a way that will deepen their impact to such an extent that a whole new world is revealed.
But let us never forget! He who knows all the rules is not automatically a good player. What makes him a great player is his ability to use these rules to unleash an outburst of creativity, which resides deep within him and emerges only because of the “unbearable” limitations. He then strikes! One small move forces everything to shift around, creating total upheaval and causing the opponent to panic as he never did before. And all this without ever violating one chess rule. This is mental torture. But it is also the height of beauty. It is the poetry of the game, like a melody is to music. Like one gentle brushstroke of Rembrandt on a colorful canvas, making everything look radically different, or like the genius musician playing her Stradivarius, re-creating the whole of Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5. It transports the chess player to heaven. His body must be in top form because his playing ability deteriorates when his body does. Body and mind are inseparable. An entire world of feelings, images, ideas, emotions and passions come to the forefront.
But most important is that there so many options for how to apply the rules. And all of them are authentic. There are hundreds of opening moves and endgames. The Talmudic concept of eilu ve-eilu divrei elokim chayim (these and those are the words of the living God) is fully applicable. There are rishonim (early authorities) and acharonim (later authorities). There are commentaries, sub-commentaries, major differences of opinion, fiery clashes and even mistakes that carry dimensions of truth.
Chess is like a Halachic discussion. It is a clash of the minds. Sometimes, “the passed pawn is a criminal, who should be kept under lock and key. Mild measures, such as police surveillance, are not sufficient.” (Aaron Nimzovich) Its position is treif (totally non-kosher) by all standards. Certain maneuvers are possible in the opinion of some, while others have their doubts. But above all, “chess is so inspiring that I do not believe a good player is capable of having an evil thought during the game.” (Wilhelm Steinitz)
Halacha is the greatest chess game on earth. It is the Jewish game par excellence. (2) For the man who wants to live a life of great meaning and depth, nothing is more demanding and torturous while simultaneously uplifting and mind-broadening. He loves the rules because they are the way to freedom. All he wants is to play chess. He recognizes that others wish to play with less complicated rules. And that is fine. But the chess player smiles. That is not chess. That is nothing but dominoes played by kids. The serious chess player embraces this greatest game of all because these impossible rules give him the thrill of life as nothing else does. They make him divinely insane. On top of that, he has to make a choice from among many options, whether they were articulated by Maimonides, Joseph Karo or other authentic and genius chess players.
Surely chess is just a game, while Halacha, if properly understood and lived, deals with real life, deep religiosity, moral dilemmas, emotions and intuitions far more significant in man’s life than a chess game.
But the man who plays chess in real life as suggested by Halacha will realize that if he “plays” well he is on the track to drawing closer and closer to the King, until he is checkmated and, unlike in a chess game, falls into the arms of the King.