peace

Chess: A Game of Faith NOT Religion

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.

How Martial Arts Teach Nonviolence


American’s have been fascinated by martial arts since the mid 1970′s to 1980′s.  A Chinese man from San Francisco, California  named Lee Jun-fan would change the entire planet with his films. We came to know him by the name Bruce Lee.

Movies like The Big Boss, Fist of Fury and Way of the Dragon altered the U.S. film industry and the minds of American people forever.  His movies brought a new idea to what it meant to fight, and what it meant to be a fighter. Bruce Lee spoke differently, he talked of the importance of self knowledge, and fearless free expression.

These were not things American folks usually accepted with the idea of combat.
Around the same time, the Shaw Brothers began to make their own films like 36 Chambers of Shaolin, Five Deadly Venoms and One-Armed Swordsmen hypnotized the American masses. They instilled a new the idea of what violence, honor, respect, discipline, humility and human character meant.
This fascination with martial arts culture took an even bigger turn when the TV Show Kung-Fu aired. It was not the best TV show ever made. There were many racist undertones in the show from time to time. However, some of the conversations between the original Master Po and his students.

Additionally, these films and TV shows introduced a new idea of how to practice  nonviolence to Americans from all walks of life. These films had an affect music as well. Rap music from artists such as Wu-Tang Clan, Dilated Peoples,Andre Nickatina, Mix Master Mike of the Beastie Boys, One Be Lo and many others have paid much homage to the impact of the movies and the philosophies learned from them.
The work of Bruce Lee, The Shaw Brothers, Jackie Chan, Jet Li and other films of the time helped teach Whites and Blacks alike the power of peace. To seek peace not  just outside ourselves, but more importantly the one we all seek inside ourselves.

Unfortunately the biggest mistake we make in the West is to think that someone who loves to study boxing,  kung-fu, wrestling or jiu-jitsu loves to fight. We think somewhere internally they enjoy hurting other people.
Now take a look at Buddhist monks. They are known globally as one of the most peaceful people on the planet. But they are also known for having a long tradition of cultivating self defense techniques.It is precisely because they have extensive knowledge of how to break bones and choke people, that they choose not to.
Let me be clear. When someone lashes out at a woman and swings wildly at her, it is proof that they’ve lost emotional control.

That act is completely different from the woman being swung on to tactically evade the fist coming at her. If she decides it is necessary to isolate her attackers arm, and  break it so she can be safe- that is nonviolence. She has created no violence in a space where violence was prevalent. Buddhism teaches nonviolence without question. Still Buddhists were taught that to observe injustice going on and do nothing made one worse than “devils.”

Martial arts films are the only movies in existence that consistently show women of clear mind and action fully capable of defending themselves. In America we look at women who can fight as “manly” and unattractive. Martial arts encourage women to learn self defense to cultivate and preserve their beauty and spirit. At the same time, we learn that violence is never to be taken lightly. That seemingly casually aggressive situations can turn deadly fast.

The roots of what motivated the attacker and the response from the woman who was attacked came from two different places. The attack came from rage or a desire for power. The response the woman gave was rooted in self preservation and a desire for peace. Jet Li was recently explaining the meaning of martial arts to CulturePulp :

In Chinese writing, wushu comes from two words: one is “stop” and one is “war.” “Stop-war.” In most action films, people focus on the “war.” Fighting, fighting, fighting. Violence against violence. Nobody talks about the “stop.” [laughs]

Today MMA (mixed martial arts) is taking over the world. The sport proves humanity has evolved to a place where martial artists can test their skills safely and make a great living a it. It is also important to acknowledge that many of the fighters you see in the UFC and Strikeforce

 almost never get caught up with the law. They are often far too focused on their physical and mental well being to run the streets trying to hurt people for the sake of their ego.

Now we see bullying as a long ignored social epidemic. We see crimes against women and young girls as a global cancer. Our children are also horribly out of shape. Teen obesity and disease from poor health are common among our kids. It is not the parents, educators or politicians who are helping America solve this issue. It is a family of martial artists, named the Gracie’s. Two brothers, Rener and Ryron Gracie, created Bullyproof and Women Empowered for children and adult women  in need of realistic ways to protect themselves.  Their cousin Kyra Gracie is respected around the world for her accomplishments. Beyond the self defense techniques, the students are taught about thepsychology of an attacker so they can used “verbal jiu jitsu” to evade a confrontation altogether.

Today we see many of today blockbuster movies for kids like Kung Fu Panda and Jaden Smith’s Karate Kidintroducing young people to the ideas of self discipline, inner peace and learning the power of not fighting. In these ways, the martial arts fused with film and music have helped preserve the legacy of nonviolence laid down in America by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.