Chess As A Spiritual Paradigm of the Universe

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I found this elegant and attractive:

Once, at a Sabbath gathering (farbrengen in Yiddish), in 1948, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, zt”l, in recognition of the presence of Sammy Reshevsky (world-famous chess master), explained the spiritual meaning behind the chess game.

The Chess Game

There is one king. All of the other pieces revolve around him and their entire mission is to protect and serve him. G-d is the King, all else was created by Him, given the opportunity to connect to His truth and to serve Him.

The queen represents the feminine manifestation of the divine, known as the “shechinah,” intimately involved with every aspect of creation, granting vitality and substance to every existence. The queen is the most practically affective piece, often sent into the lines of fire, even placed in danger. Likewise, G-d risks His own dignity, as it were, by investing Himself in every creature and existence, subjecting Himself to the vicissitudes of the human condition.

Then there are bishops, rooks, and knights. They are swift, free, not limited by the squares immediately surrounding them; they can “fly” around freely, without constraints. These are symbolic of the angels-in their three mystical categories we discuss in the daily morning services, “seraphim,” “chayos” and “ofanim,” represented by the bishops, rooks, and knights.

In order for there to be free choice in the world, there are two teams, the white and the black. One team representing G-dliness and holiness; the other team representing everything antithetical to G-dliness and holiness. The teams are engaged in fierce battle. And for the confrontation to be meaningful each team contains, at least on the surface, all the properties contained in the opposite team. Both teams pretend to have a king, queen, bishops, rooks and knights.

Finally, there are the pawns. They are very limited in their travel, moving only one step at a time, only in a singular direction, and they constantly get “knocked off.” But… when they fight through the “board,” arriving at their destination, they can be promoted even to the rank of the queen, something that the bishop, rook or knight can never achieve.

The Pawn represents the human being living down here on earth. We humans take very small steps, and we are so limited in every aspect of our journey and our growth. We also constantly make mistakes and get “knocked down.” But when man perseveres, and overcomes the angst and despair of his or her own failings and mortality, when we fight the fight to subdue darkness and to reveal the presence of the “king” within our own bodies, our own psyches and the world around us-the human being surpasses even angels; the pawn is transformed into a queen! The human life reunites with its source above, the queen, the Shechinah, experiencing the deepest intimacy with the King Himself.

The bishops, rooks, and knights, though spiritually powerful and angelic, are predictable, and limited by their role. There is no room for real promotion, no substantive growth, no radical progression. Yes, they fly around, but only within their own orbit. The angels on high, as well as the soul alone on high, before entering the body, are powerful yet confined by their own spiritual standing. It is the limitations of the human person that stimulate his or her deepest growth. The limits of our existence create friction, causing us to strain against the trials and disappointments of life.

(From Rabbi YY Jacobson)

Thanks to Dr Saul Newman, Los Angeles and Rabbi Dovid Eliezrie, Yorba Linda

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11 Responses

  1. the sabra says:

    Thanks for linking to this.
    The world needs Chassidus!

  2. shlomo zalman says:

    Shanks, one more thing. I have two relatives who knew Reshevsky and they both told me that the refusal to play on Shabbos resulted in many scheduling problems, not to mention practice time lost, essentially preventing him from making it to the top. It is well known that he left chess for seven years, ages 14-21 to attain an education and degree. Arguably, these would have been his formative chess years. As far as his ranking, I cannot verify it, but Bobby Fischer said he was greater than all the Russian grandmasters in the 1950s. The Russians colluded against him in tournaments so he would not win, as they admitted decades later.

  3. shlomo zalman says:

    Dear Shanks,
    Thanks for all your corrections, I admit I was doing it from memory and did not check all the details. My apologies.
    Thanks also for your agreeing with the gist of what I wrote. I will add two things. One, Tal was arguably the best blitz player ever, his love of tactical complications and daring play threw all blitzers out of whack. Two, Reshevsky’s prime years were way before the prime years of Petrosian (18 years his junior) and Spassky (26 years his junior). Reshevsky’s greatness spanned so many eras that sometimes we forget that he defeated the legendary Capablanca in 1935, two years before Spassky was even born.

  4. Raymond says:

    Bob Miller, I think the duality in chess is compared to the dual nature of our souls, with our good and evil inclinations battling it out with one another. Evil may not ultimately exist in some transcendent sense, since G-d ultimately cannot have any real rivals, but meanwhile, in this world, things have been set up such that things have different apparent degrees of G-dliness in them. Thus, even though G-d is everywhere, we are not permitted to bring the Torah into certain rooms and places considered too degrading for it, and the Temple Mount is considered a holier spot than any other place in the world.

  5. Shanks says:

    POSTSCRIPT:
    Also, Reshevsky had a 12-move draw with Karpov.

    It might be of interest to the readership here that one of the three yeshiva-educated grandmasters played Reshevsky: Akiba Rubinstein destroyed Reshevsky. Reshevsky never played Nimzowitsch or Steinitz.

  6. Shanks says:

    I have a longstanding, if casual, interest in chess history: I’d really like to know when Reshevsky was ranked number 1 in the world. I’d also be interested in who considered Shabbos the obstacle between him and the title of World Chess Champion.

    Also, since I’m a stickler for accuracy: Shlomo Zalman’s tribute is great, but there were a few errors. It wasn’t 15 people Reshevsky played at West Point, but 20; he won 19 games and drew one. Reshevsky didn’t “defeat all the famous Russian grandmasters.” Just sticking to the undisputed World Champions Reshevsky played: Reshevsky only managed to tie Tal in 1964 in their one non-blitz game; in the blitz games, Tal wiped the floor with him. Tigran Petrosian defeated Reshevsky twice (eight draws) and Spassky once (two draws); Reshevsky never beat any of those players.

    Don’t get me wrong. Reshevsky was one of the best in the world. He’s one of 6 non-World-Chess-Champions who Kasparov covers in My Great Predecessors. Just trying to get the facts straight.

  7. Bob Miller says:

    The ancient Persian Zoroastrian religion was dualistic; isn’t chess,too? (white vs. black, each with its own king)

  8. Raymond says:

    Shlomo Zalman, thank you for that wonderful tribute to Samuel Reshevsky. I would have never known about this otherwise, as I do not follow chess. But his heroics reminds me a lot of that very famous heroic act of my all-time favorite baseball player, Sandy Koufax who, despite not even being religious, refused to pitch the opening day of the 1965 World Series because it fell right on Yom Kippur. People imagine that he must have spent that entire day in deep prayer and fasting, but the truth is, is that he watched the ball game from his hotel room. So why did he do it? Because he knew he was a role model for millions of young boys, and lived up to that responsibility. He did not live only for himself. I wonder how many professional baseball players of today, would have such strength of character.

  9. shlomo zalman says:

    Reshevsky a world famous chess master? Ouch.
    Sammy Reshevsky as a nine year old child prodigy, defeated the entiore West Point cadet team (15 players)simultaneously. A master tactician and theorist, he was once ranked number one in the world, and was favored to win the world championship. His commitment to orthodox practice prevented him from playing professionally on shabbat, nor did he play for fun on shabbat as for him it was “uvda d’chol”. Many considered this as the obstacle between him and the world championship, which eluded him. He was considered among the top players in the world for decades,well into his sixties, almost unheard of in the chess world. He defeated all of the famous Russain grandmasters, even without the aid of a team of seconds (helpers).
    When mentioning his name, one should stand in awe, not only for his chess genius, but for the fact that even as the best chess player in the world, he never compromised on Toras Moshe. Yehi zichro baruch.

  10. BTG says:

    Please note that (at least judging by the date) the Rebbe here is R’ Yosef Yitzcho Schneersohn, Z”L.

  11. Raymond says:

    What a perfect example of the knack that the Rebbe had, for bringing G-dliness down to this mundane Earth. My understanding is that this is precisely the goal of the Chassidic movement.