Is Chess a “Life Game”?

The African-American Chess Association (Facebook) recently posted a podcast conversation of hip-hop artists discussing chess. Chess and hip-hop have a long history and are heard in many classic songs. Young Guru (Gimel Keaton) weighed in on whether chess is a metaphor for life or if it is a strategy game. A short, but spirited debate occurred. The Delaware native is known for producing beats for some of the biggest artists in the hip-hop industry (Roc-A-Fella and Def Jam Recordings). Like many entertainment personalities, he is in the circle of chess aficionados.

Chess is not a life game -  Young Guru

“Chess is a strategy game, not a life game.”

~Young Guru

Whenever you hear a group discussing the subject of chess it is always going to have many angles. Listening to Yasser Seirawan’s stories is always golden. Listening to stories about the Black Bear School of Chess is also captivating. However, listening to chess enthusiasts who are not tournament players provides us with a very candid insight into the game we may not have considered… at least for a very long time.

Young Guru, who once taught African history classes as a teen, stated emphatic words about how he saw chess. The 49-year-old Howard University alumnus and Grammy award nominee had the rapt attention of the room which included names like Esso, Mecca, Sean Bigga, Hynaken, and host Math Hoffa. When he dropped the words, “Chess is a strategy game, not a life game,” there was a pause before Math Hoffa weighed in. (02:1205:30).

Video by Math Hoffa

So… Is Chess Life?

Bobby Fischer once said, “Chess is Life.” The legendary world champion dedicated his life to chess and many followed him in the tradition. Chess has been around for 1500 years and legend has it that it was created to avoid physical war. Chess is a game but is also seen as an art, sport, and science. Chess is often used as a metaphor for strategic thought, but also an activity that allows for deep introspection. There is a metaphysical aspect of chess that causes us to delve into our minds and externalize our thoughts. This occurs while we are manipulating inanimate objects in our minds.

From that angle, let’s look at four points Young Guru made.

Guru: “When you play chess, everybody starts out with the same pieces. That don’t happen in real life.”

Indeed. Each person who sits down to play a game of chess starts with the same pieces. However, in war as in chess, not every combatant starts with the same resources in terms of knowledge, experience, or skills. The game of chess is not so much about the numerical value of the pieces as it is an extension of who is making use of the pieces. Each player is going to bring different knowledge and experience to the board just as in the game of life everyone is faced with a different set of circumstances. Chess games are not inherently equal just because you have the same set of pieces.

Guru: “I get to see every move you make (in chess). It doesn’t happen in real life.”

Yes and no. You can see every move of your opponent, but may not know (or understand) the thought process and the plans that led to the move. Just as you can see someone act on something, but may not know what motivated that action, it’s the same in chess. The opponent has to tell you about their emotions and thought processes so you can get a clearer picture of the move they made. When your opponent moves, you do see “a move,” but what you are really seeing is the culmination of a collection of thoughts.

DNA Melanin

Guru: “In chess, every soldier (chess piece) does exactly what the general (the player) tells him to do.”

Young Guru makes the point that in warfare a soldier may have orders, but may not carry them out as the chain of command demands. Of course, that soldier would be working against the chain of command of the military and could be punished, if discovered. However, in chess, the player is also punished by going against what the position calls for… if the opponent discovers it. Every piece has to move a certain way, but let’s look at this differently.

Just as the soldier may violate the chain of command and not do what the general wants, chess also presents us with similar conflicts. In chess, you may be the general, but the soldier in chess is the mind itself, not the inanimate chess pieces. There are times in chess when you have an array of choices and may have decided on one of them. At the last minute, you do something else because of a better option, an emotional response, or a terrible blindspot. It happens all the time in chess and in many cases, the rash decision leads to punishment. The mind can sometimes betray you.

Guru: Fourth, there is no emotion!

On the contrary, emotion is a big part of chess, but it is not in the pieces. It’s in the ideas. You can tell a lot about the emotions of an individual by how they are expressing themselves on the board. The strengths and weaknesses are there for everyone to see. If you are in the chess community you see emotion all the time and it is a dominant part of the gladiator battle. There are chess personalities and styles of play… and the emotion is raw.

Chess can bring a range of emotions during battle. In this (now famous) video, Grandmaster Maurice Ashley plays an unsuspecting park hustler and a viral moment happens in the battle. It ends in a light-hearted manner, but we can feel the emotional intensity in the game itself and those watching.

Video by GM Maurice Ashley

Life of the 64 Squares

All of Young Guru’s points boil chess down to what is physically on the board, but there is a metaphysical aspect of chess that covers the analogies to life. In an essay titled, “Metaphysics of the Chess Mind,” I write:

Certain traits of our personalities and subconscious thoughts emerge during play. Every time we play chess, we are engaging in an affirmation of self. Perhaps this is why players may be very upset when losing a battle at the chess board. The faults that reside safely in the corners of our minds are brought out into the physical realm for all to see. How much of the subconscious mind can one see by examining one’s chess games? Is the mastery of chess an ultimate measurement of attaining mastery of one’s self or is it merely a game to be played and enjoyed at the sport level? These eternal questions are certainly reasons why chess can be considered not only a game, art, or sport, but also a science.

All of the actions that we make in chess are extensions of the mind which has been shaped by life experiences, skills, and knowledge. So while we all have the same pieces and rules in chess, each time a player sits down, they are displaying their unique combination of attributes on the board. Thus, chess becomes a reflection of their life. When you notice a player’s style, it sometimes will be similar to how they conduct themselves in life.

In another essay titled, “Prison Chess: The Game Called Life,” I write,

Chess is where you are accountable for your actions and are mercilessly punished if you are careless. Chess is also a war… a game of survival… a game of life. Many inmates have had to learn this skill on a deeper level “on the inside” and chess appeals to these instincts. In prisons around the world where chess is allowed, competition is often fierce, but it has a positive impact on the inmates in a variety of ways.

Pawn Power in Chess

While it is true that there are rules in chess, it is similar to life. Our lives are bound by endless rules that we obey (or not) and decide on our destiny or fate. Young Guru refers to the TV show, The Wire where chess is described in metaphorical ways to describe the drug trade. He spoke on the scene where the 12-year-old drug dealer Kenard shot and killed the fierce stickup man Omar. “You would never see the pawn taking out the king, but if you watched The Wire, Kenard took out Omar.”

Sometimes those in positions of power are neutralized by weaker opposition for a variety of reasons. In games of chess, we do see the king succumbing to minor pieces and even the lowly pawn. In addition, it is the pawn that is coveted as a potential queen. In fact, in the same series, the character D’Angelo described the drug game emphasizing this very point. He says, “Everyone stays who he is, except for the pawns. If the pawn made it all the way down to the other dude’s side, he gets to be queen.” We all know, the lowly pawn has to be respected, especially in endgames.

D'Angelo (center) explains to Wallace and Bodie the importance of the pawn.

D’Angelo (center) explains to Wallace and Bodie the importance of the pawn in the “life game.”

Chess strategies can show you how to counter a stronger opponent by using tactics to keep them off balance. It is the same ideas smaller corporations use when facing a much larger competition. It can also work when trying to solve a major obstacle in life. Some play chess as an exercise in solving problems… instilling discipline, sharpening analytical ability, or improving the management of resources. Regardless of whether we see chess as an enjoyable leisure game, a competitive sport, or an intellectual challenge, there are aspects of life that we see in the lessons that it brings.

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