Chess is not an inherently religious game. But it is indeed a game of faith. Looking at almost any chess board from any period of time there may be religious symbols on the board, or the pieces. Most games today have the king wearing a Christian cross atop of the crown. Pieces from the Muslim world might have no specific outward form. The bishop, knight etc. may just be various heights but not really resemble anything specific. This is due to the Prophet Muhammad's stern warnings against idol worship.
Anyone looking at the games global impact would be hard pressed to ignore the roles that so many religions have had on the game. On the Islamic impact of chess during the Moorish rule of Spain, author David Shenk wrote “The game seemed to speak directly to the new Muslim ideals- and found its way into the progressive rhetoric of the day”. Indeed, the first complete book on chess was written by a Muslim in 840 AD.
Judaism has a rich history with chess as well. Abraham ibn Ezra was a Spanish poet and medieval Jewish scholar. He wrote a beautiful poem about the game saying “I will sing a song of battle...Yet no swords are drawn in warfare”. Jewish contributions to the game are many. The hypermodern theme of controlling the center comes from Hebrew chess masters. It was written that “Rabbis have incessantly debated the game’s virtue, some objecting that it took too much time away from scholarship but most praising chess and encouraging it among youth as a tool to focus the intellect.”
Christianity brought its own contributions. From the introduction of the queen (replacing the Muslim Vizer/General), to the introduction of the move called the Ruy Lopez (named after the Spanish priest who invented it) chess been a long time fixture of western culture and art.
Still, chess is a game beyond the dogma of all the religions that have affected its global footprint. Without forcing a specific doctrine onto the mind of the player, one is still forced by the rough and tumble nature of the game to believe in a positive future. Then ones faith is challenged to make that positive vision of the future a reality. I believe that the natural spark of faith that chess inspires influenced almost all religions to embrace the game. But again, chess does this free of dogma.
I often played some of my best games at O’Connell High with a student we will call Che. He is a tough kid from the hard streets of San Francisco’s Mission District. He has a beautiful smile but rarely displays it. Che talks less than he smiles and dresses in a way that makes him easy to loose in a crowd. Its deliberate. Che won’t let me take his picture. I don’t know if that request it because of his shyness, or he does not want enemies on the street, or police, to have a clean look at him. Most of the people he hung out with a few years ago are in jail, or were expelled from O’Connell. He walks alone a lot, keeping a low profile from students as well as teachers.
Everything you’ll never know about Che’s psychology not found through conversation, are displayed in his play on the board. His style is aggressive and deceptive. He never backs down. Any game with him is pure pressure from start to finish. I actually stopped playing with him for a bit because it was demoralizing.
But two weeks ago, for reasons I cannot explain, I decided to go head to head with Che. The woodshop teacher asked me to watch his room for a minute. Soon as Che saw me his dark eyes smiled as he spoke “Yo Deez (my nickname is O.G. Deez- a shortening of the Disa in Adisa) lets play man. C’mon man, lets play a game real quick.” The teacher was like “I don’t care, here is my board, I’ll be back.”
I could not duck the challenge in front of so many other kids. “Thats the chess dude, lets see if Che can beat him” one of them said as he pulled up a chair.
I said “OK, but Che usually kills me, so this should be a short game.”
As soon as I sat down though, for reasons I cannot explain, I had faith that I would win. Without planning anything I just dove in, and did a variation of what they call the fried liver (so-called becoause it a nasty attack). This forced a bunch of holes in Che’s pawn structure that allowed me to follow it with a punishing queen raid. He was shocked...I was shocked.
But now I had to follow my shock with some awe. I surgically removed his pieces and threatening repeatedly. Che stayed focus, but the initial queen raid did too much damage. He refused to die quietly though. Before the finish he snagged a knight of mine I left hanging in the fog of stress that it took to win. “Good game man, I cannot believe it” Che said as he shook my hand. The bell rang as we shook hands. “I want another game tomorrow” he said as he walked out.
A few days later we played after school. It was about an hour long game. Che was his usual, non-emotional self driving in for the kill. I secured an air tight pawn structure that locked down my control of the center. As I did that I lined up a rook on the A file trying to bash in his fianchettoed pawns and bishop. As I distracted him with the pressure on the A file, I played a risky game of chicken with my king, knight and rook on the E file so I could free up my rook on the G file. Eventually, I ran that rook to the 7th rank. In the middle of his stifled attack on my king with his queen I ran my G file rook behind his pawn and now had two rooks on the A file breathing down the neck of his king with deadly intent. He never saw it coming. Faith had got me through, again!
After my rooks won the day we laughed a bit. He promised me another game. I reminded him he wins seven games to any two I win so he should not feel too bad about it. Che told me in whispered tones after the game that he stopped smoking weed and he’s taking after school classes to ensure he graduates this year. Thats the most he’s told me about his life in a long time. We walked away from the board that day with a new sense of faith in what we could do on and off the board with our lives. Faith in winning a game with little chance of victory, opened doors of the heart, giving way to new levels of communication.
In English the word we use is Faith. In Arabic, its Iman. In Hebrew, its Aman. However you say it, in whatever language resonates best with your heart- hold onto it. But don’t be afraid to share some with those in need.