Chess and the Gospel (by John Nielson)

Chess has often been used as a model for war and geopolitics. It has also been used as a broader model for life and practically everything in it. Thomas Henry Huxley made a remarkable statement that exemplifies the lengths to which this model has been stretched:

The chess-board is the world, the pieces are the phenomena of the universe, the rules of the game are what we call the laws of nature. The player on the other side is hidden from us. We know that his play is always fair, just and patient. But also we know, to our cost, that he never overlooks a mistake, or makes the smallest allowance for ignorance. . . . My metaphor will remind some of you of the famous picture in which Retzsch has depicted Satan playing at chess with man for his soul. Substitute for the mocking fiend in that picture a calm, strong angel who is playing for love, as we say, and would rather lose than win--and I should accept it as an image of human life(Huxley, 82).

Others have commented on the use of chess as a religious model. Larry Evans, an American International Grandmaster, says that “. . . some authorities believe it was meant to glorify God by reproducing a small-scale model of the universe”(Evans, 12).
There are some striking parallels between chess and the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. First, to win in either one, players must “endure to the end.” It takes much pondering, effort, repentance, and sacrifice to be successful in either. After playing beautifully through most of the game of life, or chess, it is still possible to fail near the end. Recall King David’s ghastly blunder following his exemplary youth in ancient Israel. After losing to an inferior player, Latvian chess master Nimzovich jumped up on the table and shouted in frustration, “Why must I lose to this idiot!”(Time, 7/31/72, 35).
If one pushes any analogy to extremes, it breaks down. This is true of the chess/gospel analogy as well. Chess is not life, nor is it the gospel. There are a few parallels but they do not touch at every point. The intense competitiveness of chess is, or should be, absent from the gospel. We do not play against each other in the gospel. We struggle against our own weaknesses and against temptation. But even imperfect analogies are useful if they focus our attention on aspects of things we might otherwise overlook.
As I develop the chess/gospel analogy, I ask the reader to make an adjustment. Rather than thinking of the game as played between two human opponents, I ask that, unless otherwise stated, you think of the game as between yourself and Satan. He is the adversary, the powerful opponent. He is the evil one who is trying to defeat you in the game of life. Fortunately, it is an unequal struggle--you have the Lord on your side, giving you advice on the best moves. Furthermore, the Lord is a Universal Grandmaster, a better chess player than Satan. He knows the end from the beginning. Even after the war in heaven, Satan still “knew not the mind of God” regarding the plan of salvation(Moses 4:6). Nevertheless, even though Satan is an inferior player, he can still beat us if we insist on making poor moves.
There is a fundamental truth common to both chess and the gospel life: Consistently good moves lead to victory, bad moves lead to defeat.
This law is inexorable, there is no escaping it. Good moves in the gospel life follow the “iron rod,” the laws and commandments of God; good moves in chess follow sound principles, powerful strategy, and winning tactics.
There is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated---And when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated (D&C 130:20-21).

Someone once asked Bobby Fischer, eccentric American World Champion in the early 1970's, if he used psychology to defeat his opponents. I have been unable to find an reliable reference but as I remember it, his reply was, “I don’t believe in psychology, I believe in strong moves.” Some of his opponents were made nervous and jittery(and therefore did not play well) by his presence, his persona, his antics. However, when they lost, they lost because their moves were not as good, not as strong.
Perhaps this is a reason chess(and the Church?) is not very popular in this world. It has no element of chance in it. You cannot win by a toss of the dice or a turn of the cards. One does not win by being lucky. Winning comes from playing well, better than your opponent. A strong opponent pounces on every error and exploits it. Chess is very unforgiving of mistakes and errors. If one makes a serious error in chess, one must quickly repent of it, gain some compensating advantage, or the game is lost.
The same is true in the gospel life. We are told in what is, until properly understood, the most chilling statement in all scripture, that “. . . the Lord cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance”(D&C 1:31). Further,
men . . . are . . . judged according to their works, according to the law and justice. For behold, justice exerciseth all his demands, and also mercy claimeth all which is her own; and thus, none but the truly penitent are saved. What, do ye suppose that mercy can rob justice? I say unto you Nay; not one whit. If so, God would cease to be God(Alma 42:23-25).

There is no possibility of deceiving the Lord and somehow getting into heaven unworthily. Likewise, there is no possibility that an inferior player can conceal, throughout an extended series of games, his limited ability against a strong opponent in chess. While the Lord never blunders, strong chess players sometimes do. Therefore, they will sometimes lose single games against inferior players. But they will virtually never lose a whole series of games against weaker players.
O then, my beloved brethren, come unto the Lord, the Holy One. Remember that his paths are righteous. Behold, the way for man is narrow, but it lieth in a straight course before him, and the keeper of the gate is the Holy One of Israel; and he employeth no servant there; and there is none other way save it be by the gate; for he cannot be deceived, for the Lord God is his name(2 Nephi 9:41).

Of course, here is a major difference between chess and the gospel. In life we have a Savior, the atonement, forgiveness on conditions of repentance.
And thus he shall bring salvation to all those who shall believe on his name; this being the intent of this last sacrifice, to bring about the bowels of mercy, which overpowereth justice, and bringeth about means unto men that they may have faith unto repentance.
And thus mercy can satisfy the demands of justice, and encircles them in the arms of safety, while he that exercises no faith unto repentance is exposed to the whole law of the demands of justice; therefore only unto him that has faith unto repentance is brought about the great and eternal plan of redemption(Alma 34:15-16).

In chess, there is no savior. You cannot take back a move once it is made(you can on your next turn to move, but then it may be too late). Also, you must suffer the consequences yourself if it is a blunder. No one will pay for your sins for you. Even in the gospel life, as in chess, there is no forgiveness for unrepented sins. This, I believe, is the meaning and intent of the chilling statement quoted earlier. The Lord cannot look upon unrepented sin with the least degree of allowance. We cannot shoot, lie, smile, cheat, finesse, or beg our way into heaven. We can only get there, or gain a victory, by making good moves. Huxley, in his analogy between chess and the universe, placed god on the other side of the board as our chess opponent. Recall that he put the point this way: “The player on the other side (God) is hidden from us. We know that his play is always fair, just, and patient. But also we know, to our cost, that he never overlooks a mistake, or makes the smallest allowance for ignorance”(Huxley, 82).
We cannot pretend to be either a good chess player or a good Christian. It does no good to just go through the motions. Moroni said that “. . . if [a man] offereth a gift, or prayeth unto God, except he shall do it with real intent it profiteth him nothing. For behold, it is not counted unto him for righteousness. . . . for God receiveth none such”(Moroni 7:6-9).
There are many people who believe that God is so merciful and compassionate that he cannot bear to condemn the sinner. They believe he will, in the final judgement, forgive all, or punish very lightly. The Book of Mormon calls these ideas “false and vain and foolish doctrines” (2 Nephi 28:7-9)
As mentioned previously, chess is not a very popular game. This is especially true in the U.S. Perhaps because it demands such concentration, study, and effort to become a good player. Also because mistakes against a strong player, or a computer, are never overlooked. Most people learn the rudiments of the game, play a few times, get beaten badly, and give up, never to play again. New chess players apparently need as much fellowshipping, encouragement, instruction, and experience as do new church members if they are to stay with the game. Most new players do not get much encouragement and so most do not survive.
We seem to have a revolving door at the entrance to life in the Church. People enter through baptism but often understand the gospel imperfectly. The demands of activity, the many meetings, the new terminology, the steep learning curve with new volumes of scripture, may discourage many new members. Without a deep understanding of the gospel, they soon exit through the other side of the revolving door into the more comfortable world of inactivity. Worldwide, only about 50 percent of the membership is active. So, although there about 12 million members, only about 6 million are active. And for every member, worldwide, there are about 540 people who are not members.
There are also certain parallels between the qualities of a good chess player and the virtues of a good Latter-day Saint. This may strike you as surprising since chess players are often characterized as aggressive and ruthless--at least in their over-the-board play. Not everyone, however, approaches the game as a matter of cut-throat competition. Grandmaster David Bronstein says that in his philosophy of chess, having fun should be the object. He also characterizes chess as a game played with someone, not against them(Rostedt, 32).
However, there are some kinder and gentler virtues, common to chess players and Latter-day Saints. One is patience, to be able to wait until the end of mortal life, or the end of a long game, for the payoff. Another virtue held in common is empathy, the ability to see things from another’s point of view. Fred Reinfeld, a well-known American author of chess books, says he has leaned a great deal from chess: “. . . how to be patient, how to bide my time, how to see the other man’s point of view, how to persevere in unpromising situations, how to learn from my failures”(Reinfeld,v).
In the list of virtues in Section 4 of the Doctrine and Covenants, at least the following have some common application to Saints and chess players: “knowledge . . . patience . . . brotherly kindness . . . charity, humility, diligence”(verse 6).
Knowledge and patience, even diligence, are obviously good qualities for both, but what of the others? Brotherly kindness, charity and humility seem to be of little service to chess players. But in real chess games, when one’s opponent is another human being, and especially if one expects to play the same person more than once, there is a definite value to elementary chess courtesy. Learning how to both win and lose gracefully becomes a goal for most lifelong players. Kindly congratulating one’s opponent on a good game when losing, and humbly accepting victory without boasting, goes far towards smoothing a potentially tense conflict situation at the end of games. It makes the continued enjoyment of the game possible. Not every chess player or Church members, of course, really practices these virtues.
It is the precision and order of both chess and the plan of salvation that is most striking. In each there are rules, laws, rewards, punishments. If we learn the rules, obey the laws, make good moves, we will receive the rewards and avoid the punishments in both.
The rewards for good moves in chess and life are just as sure and certain as are the punishments for doing evil. Nephi states this as clearly as anyone.
The gate by which ye should enter is repentance and baptism by water; and then cometh a remission of your sins by fire and by the Holy Ghost. And then are ye in this strait and narrow path which leads to eternal life; yea, ye have entered in by the gate; ye have done according to the commandments of the Father and the Son; and ye have received the Holy ghost, which witnesses of the Father and the Son, unto the fulfilling of the promise which he hath made, that if ye entered in by the way ye should receive.
And now, my beloved brethren, after ye have gotten into this strait and narrow path, I would ask if all is done? Behold, I say unto you, Nay; for ye have not come thus far save it were by the word of Christ with unshaken faith in him, relying wholly upon the merits of him who is mighty to save.
Wherefore, ye must press forward with a steadfastness in Christ, having a perfect brightness of hope, and a love of God and of all men. Wherefore, if ye shall press forward, feasting upon the word of Christ, and endure to the end, behold thus saith the Father: Ye shall have eternal life (2 Nephi 31:17-20).

If we lose in chess, we cannot blame anyone else, though many will try. One grandmaster said, “I’ve never beaten a healthy man, they all claim to be suffering from something.” But despite this unfortunate human tendency to shift the blame to others for our chess defeats (or the dim lights, the unusually small board, the stuffy air, the poor sleep we had last night, the flu, etc.), we have lost because we made some poor moves.
At the 1992 chess rematch between Fischer and Spassky, chess journalist and Woman International Master, Cathy Forbes, asked Bobby Fischer if he would play a casual game with her. Surprisingly, he agreed to play a quick game and pulled out his pocket set. Following is her account of what happened.
Without, of course, wishing to make excuses, I can truthfully say that I almost never play on a pocket set. Not if I can help it, anyway. Overuse, moreover, had eroded the flat representations of this set, particularly the bishops, down to barely intelligible squiggles. “I’m at a disadvantage here,” I complained.
“Yeah, I’m used to this set,” he agreed. One the other hand, he did let me have White . . . but perhaps I should have taken a leaf from Bobby’s own book and insisted on perfect playing conditions for this important game?(Forbes, 26).

She blundered and had to resign on the twenty-seventh move. But her excuses had already softened the blow to her pride. Still, she lost, not because of the overused pocket set, or overworked bishops, but because she had blundered and Fischer had not.
The same is true in the gospel. If we do not gain exaltation we cannot blame our parents, our bishops, our neighbors, our friends, our enemies, or anyone else. We make our choices and we take the consequences. According to Samuel the Lamanite, “Whosoever perisheth, perisheth unto himself; and whosoever doeth iniquity, doeth it unto himself; for behold, ye are free; ye are permitted to act for yourselves; for behold, God hath given unto you a knowledge and he hath made you free”(Helaman 14:30).
Some people were born into broken homes, or they were molested or abused as children, or they were always very poor, or they did not get an education, or they were systematically discriminated against because of their ethnic background. While all of these unfortunate circumstances, or others, make life here on earth very unjust and unequal, they will all be overcome eventually in the moral economy of God. He has said that “. . . unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required; . . .(Luke 12:48).
The converse is no doubt true as well. Those who have suffered much injustice and deprivation in this life will be compensated(the Lord speaks of some being “recompensed at the resurrection of the just.”)[Luke 14:14] in the next until all have an equal opportunity to hear, accept, and live the gospel or reject it. Then, if we perish, we can blame no one but ourselves.
The analogy between chess and the gospel, and the scriptures quoted above, may make God seem harsh, judgmental, strict, unmerciful, wanting to condemn every sinner for the slightest infraction. This is not true. God does not want to condemn anyone. But many people condemn themselves. As Jesus said, “O Jerusalem . . . how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!” (Matt. 23:37).
God will forgive every repentant sinner, he has prepared a kingdom of salvation for everyone except the sons of perdition, his arms of mercy are extended to all. But he is a god of justice and cannot forgive unrepented sins.
It is more satisfying to play good chess with a worthy opponent, one who is just as strong, or stronger, than oneself. It is also more satisfying to serve a God who is unfailingly just, but merciful to the penitent. How unsatisfactory it would be to believe in an unstable God, who forgave capriciously, or one with no standards, who forgave everyone of everything. Actually, that kind of God is no God. If mercy were to rob justice, “God would cease to be God” (Alma 42:25).
Doing the right thing(or making the right move), at the right time, for the right reasons is what makes both chess and life beautiful and rewarding. Either, or both, can be frustrating and disappointing when we do the wrong thing(or make the wrong move) at any time.

Works Cited
Evans, Larry. Chess Catechism. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1970.
Forbes, Cathy. “Bobby Fischer, the Holy Grail--A Balkan Odyssey--”Chess Life, March, 1993, 26-27.

Huxley, Thomas H. Science and Education: Essays. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1896.

Reinfeld, Fred. The Complete Chessplayer. Greenwich, Connecticut: Fawcett Publications, Inc., 1953.

Rostedt, Charles. “Bronstein Visits Chess Palace,” Chess Life, March, 1993. 32.

Standard Works of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.


At 4/07/2006, Blogger Eric Nielson said...

I don't think your analogy here makes God seem harsh. In your analogy, God is able to give you sound advice on your moves in order to defeat your oponent who is satan.

Very nice analogy. I hope a few people take the time to read it. Many won't because of the same reasons they are not chess players.

At 4/07/2006, Blogger C Jones said...

Eric- I laughed when I saw your second paragraph in your comment. I read through this post quickly this morning and my first reaction was that if I'm too dumb for chess, I'm too dumb for this post. But I know your dad has great insight, and I decided to come back and read it more carefully (actually I'll have to read it several times). This might take awhile :-)

At 4/07/2006, Anonymous John said...

Another way in which chess and the gospel are different is in how difficult they are for the average person. The basics of chess are quite simple and can be learned by anyone of normal intelligence. The difficulty is in becoming very good at it. That takes a lot of study and hard work and perhaps a particular aptitude for spatial problems. Few people have it in them to be world class chess players. On the other hand, the basics of the gospel are also quite easily learned and living it (or being "good" at it) is within the grasp of virtually anyone who really desires to do so. There are many Latter-day Saints who are excellent at living the gospel.

At 4/13/2006, Blogger Wade said...

I plan on reading this post...havn't got around to it because I want to give it some time.


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