There is probably no game as difficult and captivating as chess. Millions of
people break their heads over chess strategies and spend years learning its ins
and outs. It holds them captive as nothing else does. They dream about it and
discuss the move of a single pawn as if their lives depended on it. They will
follow the most famous chess tournaments and discuss every move of a world
champion, for days and even years. They replay famous, mind-boggling games of
the past, even those that took place as long ago as 70 years.
aficionados try to improve on those games of the distant past, often getting
into heated arguments about a brilliant or foolish move that took place 50 years
earlier. Thousands of books, tens of thousands of essays have been published on
how to get better at the game.
The rules are set up in the World Chess
Federation’s FIDE Handbook. Strategies are developed and tactics suggested;
countless combinations have been tried, to the point that some typical patterns
have their own names, such as the Boden’s Mate and the Lasker-Bauer
Mikhail Botvinnik revolutionized the opening theory, which
was considered nothing less than a Copernican breakthrough.
studies such as the one published by Richard Reti (1921) are revelations of
tremendous depth. (He depicted a situation in which it seems impossible for the
white king to catch the advanced black pawn while the white pawn can be easily
stopped by the black king).
THE RULES are ruthless. There are no
compromises, no flexibility.
Zero rachmanut (mercy). It is all about
midat hadin (harsh rendering). The rules are rigid, as is nothing else. And they
can make players mad to the point of possibly considering suicide.
chess rigid? The rules seem easy – until you start playing. The entire game
takes place on a chessboard smaller than the size of a side table, but the game
is larger than the universe. Each party has 16 pieces, which are played on 64
squares, but they become so large in one’s psyche that they dazzle the eyes of
Some of the pieces can move in any direction; others can
move any number of squares along any rank or file but may not leap over other
pieces. There are those that can only move diagonally and others that are
allowed to move two squares horizontally and one square vertically, or two
squares vertically and one square horizontally, thus making the complete move
look like the letter “L.”
It all sounds very easy. But what any player
soon realizes is that these basic rules allow for thousands of combinations,
maneuvers and sub-rules, depending on the position of a pawn, a rook, or a
knight. These rules sometimes become so complicated and cause such major
obstacles that one prefers to take on higher mathematics, which looks easy in
(It is not!) There is good reason why the most famous chess
players are considered not only brilliant people but geniuses with advanced
But again: Is chess rigid? Does it “constrain”? Is it
“fundamentalist,” or perhaps “dogmatic”? Does it deny the player his freedom of
thought or action? In one sense, it does. The player cannot move the pieces as
he would like to. There are rules that make the game incredibly difficult. But
that fact is exactly what makes this game so exiting.
It leads to an
unprecedented outburst of creativity. ‘In der Beschränkung zeigt sich erst der
Meister. Und das Gesetz nur kann uns Freiheit geben,” said Goethe: The
chessboard becomes the world, the pieces are the phenomena of the universe, the
rules of the game are the laws of nature, and man roams freely on this board
once he applies the rules in a way that will deepen their impact to such an
extent that a whole new world is revealed.
BUT LET us never forget! He
who knows all the rules is not automatically a good player. What makes him a
great player is his ability to use these rules to unleash an outburst of
creativity, which resides deep within him and emerges only because of the
“unbearable” limitations. He then strikes! One small move forces everything to
shift around, creating total upheaval and causing the opponent to panic as he
never did before. And all this without ever violating one chess
This is mental torture. But it is also the height of beauty. It is
the poetry of the game, like a melody is to music. Like one gentle brushstroke
of Rembrandt on a colorful canvas, making everything look radically different,
or like the genius musician playing her Stradivarius, re-creating the whole of
Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5.
It transports the chess player to heaven.
His body must be in top form because his playing ability deteriorates when his
body does. Body and mind are inseparable. An entire world of feelings, images,
ideas, emotions and passions come to the forefront.
But most important is
that there so many options for how to apply the rules. And all of them are
authentic. There are hundreds of opening moves and endgames. The Talmudic
concept of eilu ve-eilu divrei elokim chayim (these and those are the words of
the living God) is fully applicable. There are rishonim (early authorities) and
acharonim (later authorities). There are commentaries, sub-commentaries, major
differences of opinion, fiery clashes and even mistakes that carry dimensions of
CHESS IS like a halachic discussion. It is a clash of the
Sometimes, “the passed pawn is a criminal, who should be kept
under lock and key. Mild measures, such as police surveillance, are not
sufficient” (Aaron Nimzovich).
Its position is treif (totally non-kosher)
by all standards. Certain maneuvers are possible in the opinion of some, while
others have their doubts. But above all, “chess is so inspiring that I do not
believe a good player is capable of having an evil thought during the game”
Halacha is the greatest chess game on earth. It is
the Jewish game par excellence. For the man who wants to live a life of great
meaning and depth, nothing is more demanding and torturous while simultaneously
uplifting and mind-broadening.
He loves the rules because they are the
way to freedom. All the real chess player wants is to play chess. He recognizes
that others wish to play with less complicated rules. And that is
But the chess player smiles. That is not chess. That is nothing but
dominoes played by kids.
The serious chess player embraces this greatest
game of all because these impossible rules give him the thrill of life as
nothing else does. They make him divinely insane. On top of that, he has to make
a choice from among many options, whether they were articulated by Maimonides,
Joseph Karoor other authentic and genius chess players.
Surely, chess is
just a game, while halacha, if properly understood and lived, deals with real
life, deep religiosity, moral dilemmas, emotions and intuitions far more
significant in man’s life than a chess game.
The man who plays chess in
real life will realize that if he “plays” well he is on the track to drawing
closer and closer to the King, until he is checkmated and, unlike in a chess
game, falls into the arms of the King.
The writer, who is an author and
international lecturer, is dean of the David Cardozo academy in Jerusalem.