Chess & True Freedom

The game of chess is never going to rival soccer or the NFL for popularity. Five hours of watching two players sitting in chairs thinking deep thoughts doesn’t seem like much widespread viewing potential. It is remarkable, then, that this month chess is enjoying global enthusiasm and popularity like it hasn’t since Garry Kasparov played IBM’s computer “Deep Blue” in the 1990s or, even further back, the electrifying performance of Bobby Fischer against Boris Spassky in Reykjavik, 1972.

If you’re an average American, you probably don’t know anything about any of it, so I want to take the opportunity to share this with you: the greatest chess player in the world is a 22-year-old Norwegian by the name of Magnus Carlsen. Get used to it, because it will likely be true for just about the remainder of your lifetime. “Greatest in the world” is not a matter of opinion, either. Carlsen possesses the highest chess rating of any player in history (2870) and is known, for the time being, as “World Number 1.” Added to the mystique of youth and brilliance is the fact that Magnus is not your average awkward “chess nerd,” but is athletic, affable, humble, and handsome enough to get endorsement contracts.

He is currently the challenger in a twelve game match with reigning five-time World Champion Viswanathan Anand in Chennai, India, where he has a virtually insurmountable lead. In fact, the match may well be over as you’re reading this, in a mere ten games because Magnus appears to not need the full twelve to defeat the World Champion.

I have never watched chess until this event. Who would? But the hype surrounding Carlsen proved too much for me to ignore, so I’ve been joining in with the hundreds of millions of others around the globe tuning in to the livestream. It has been incredibly stimulating, as the commentators do an excellent job explaining all the various scenarios that could play out with certain moves. I am too poor a player to do much guessing about the moves Grandmasters might make, so I think about other things.

Like how chess teaches us a fundamental lesson for life.

Contemporary culture teaches us that freedom is the ability to do whatever we desire, whenever we desire it. Creativity and fulfillment is found in a realm absent of boundaries, borders, and restraints.

But consider the following:

Chess has a finite number of pieces (32).

Chess has a finite number of squares (64).

Chess has ironclad rules of movement for every piece.

Yet the possible game variations are, for all practical purposes, infinite. (The actual number is 10 to the power of 120, which, sources tell me—I have no way of personally verifying it—is more than the number of atoms in the observable universe.)

You see, there are reasons people like Fischer and Spassky, Kasparov and Karpov, Carlsen and Anand dedicated and continue to dedicate their lives to understanding and playing this deeply mysterious game. Far from feeling constricted and having their style cramped by all these “squares” and “boundaries” and “rules,” they instead find virtually infinite creativity and freedom. They simply wouldn’t—and couldn’t—if it were otherwise. The strict rules do not result in boring, uniform results, but rather endless possibilities and new ideas. Sometimes they result in games of jaw-dropping brilliance.

Those 32 pieces and 64 squares teach us that true freedom, creativity, and fulfillment only occur in the context of order. That means boundaries and rules.

So it is with this morally ordered universe. Personal freedom, creativity, and fulfillment are not found in doing whatever you want, whenever you want, however you want, with or to whomever you want. They are found when you conform to the moral order of things. Sometimes you might not see it right away. Many a chess game has a long, painful “middle game” when you have to slog it out for twenty moves before the end is clearly seen. Who cannot relate to that as an analogy for much of life?

For example, it relates to economics: cheap, ill-gotten gain isn’t fulfilling, but an honest dollar (earned success) is. Or how about sex? Which is more fulfilling: sticking with marriage vows over the long term, even in rough times, or being tossed to and fro by every fleeting wind of desire?

Whatever you happen to be struggling with, whether it is hating that certain somebody (anger), cheating on that upcoming test (lying), or maybe over-leveraging yourself with debt (greed and coveting), remember this simple lesson from the game of chess: the rules do not hamper your freedom.

They make you truly free.

Brian Mattson