Dennis M's Chess Site

This is a blog for chess fans by a chess fan. I enjoy winning as much as anyone else, and I've had a reasonable amount of success as a competitor, but what keeps me coming back to the game is its beauty. And that, primarily, is what this site will be about! All material copyrighted.

Saturday, February 05, 2005

Can Christians Play Chess?

Obviously they can, because they do! I'm a Christian, and I do. So what I'm really asking is this (at least as a first approximation): can a Christian, as a Christian, play chess without thereby doing something wrong? Here are several arguments to suggest the answer is no:

1. The Christian ought, whenever possible, to do something that builds up his fellow man (or woman). But the goal in chess is to defeat one's opponent, thereby tearing the other person down. Therefore, one cannot play chess - at least not to win - insofar as one is acting as a Christian.

2. The Christian ought to foster in himself a loving character. But the competitive nature of the chess game requires just the opposite; a certain self-centeredness in the pursuit of a selfish goal. Therefore, etc.

3. The New Testament teaches us to view others at least as highly as ourselves: "Love your neighbor as yourself," Jesus tells us, while St. Paul wrote "[d]o nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves" (Philippians 2:3). Jesus' admonition seems incompatible with a desire to defeat one's opponent - I certainly don't want to lose games, so why would I wish it on my neighbor? And Paul's statement is a double whammy for the chess player: what is chess about if not rivalry? Worse still, if I really feel of someone that they are more significant than I am, then I want them to flourish, to succeed - just the opposite of what is likely to happen if I defeat them.

4. We are told to "redeem the time" (Ephesians 5:16); that is, to spend our time concerned with things of ultimate significance. Whatever wonderful things chess has going for it, being of eternal or ultimate significance isn't among them. Therefore, etc.

5. A pragmatic argument: one ought not to engage in practices that tend to develop one's ego and set one against one's fellows. Clearly, however, this happens in chess, especially but not only at the strongest levels. Therefore, even if there's no guarantee that these adverse character traits will develop, the relatively high probability makes taking up or continuing to play chess an unjustified risk.

All sophistry? Perhaps, but I'm not completely sure. Some of the arguments seem to me to require deep responses, responses that may have real implications going far beyond the question of playing (or not playing) chess. In any case, I'd very much like to see readers' reactions - though with the restriction that critiques of religious belief be omitted. The issue here isn't whether Christianity is true or false, but whether playing chess is morally compatible with being an (earnest) believer, and if so how to anwer the objections above.

11 Comments:

  • At 3:55 PM, Blogger Rakshasas said…

    Dennis, these are some fairly interesting questions, but frankly, I think all these arguments are more easily refuted than you might suppose.


    1.The Christian ought, whenever possible, to do something that builds up his fellow man (or woman). But the goal in chess is to defeat one's opponent, thereby tearing the other person down. Therefore, one cannot play chess - at least not to win - insofar as one is acting as a Christian.

    The assumption here is that winning a competitive event tears down one's opponent. This assumption is, in my mind not a given. From the standpoint of a chess player, I have grown more from my losses than from my wins. So I am not “torn down” by being defeated. I am empowered to become better. From the standpoint of a person, I am given the opportunity in defeat to be gracious and humble. If I take advantage of those opportunities, I am built up and not torn down. A defeat at the board is not in anyway synonymous with being torn down as a person. What aspects of my person hood are intrinsically affronted by losing a chess game? I simply see no way to interpret that as an assault upon me as a person. Ergo, I think this argument rests on a fallacious assumption.



    2. The Christian ought to foster in himself a loving character. But the competitive nature of the chess game requires just the opposite; a certain self-centeredness in the pursuit of a selfish goal. Therefore, etc.

    The assumption here is that being a competitive chess player requires that one is “self-centered” in a way that is sinful. I don't buy this assumption at all. Indeed, given that we are instructed as Christians to love God with all of our hearts and minds, it could easily be argued that in exercising our minds to the very best of our abilities to solve any given problem at hand is precisely giving glory to God. If we choose to compromise this opportunity by engaging in ego-mania, that is a problem, but it is not necessarily inherent in the activity of doing one's best. If this argument is valid, then it follows that anyone who drives to excel in any field is engaging in the same sinfulness by mere virtue of focusing on self-improvement and performing one's task to the highest possible standards.

    3. The New Testament teaches us to view others at least as highly as ourselves: "Love your neighbor as yourself," Jesus tells us, while St. Paul wrote "[d]o nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves" (Philippians 2:3). Jesus' admonition seems incompatible with a desire to defeat one's opponent - I certainly don't want to lose games, so why would I wish it on my neighbor? And Paul's statement is a double whammy for the chess player: what is chess about if not rivalry? Worse still, if I really feel of someone that they are more significant than I am, then I want them to flourish, to succeed - just the opposite of what is likely to happen if I defeat them.

    I think this may well be the easiest of the arguments to refute. I teach my children to play chess. Do I do them a favor and count them as more important than myself if I throw every game we play so they can feel good about themselves? Have I built them up or have I lied to them? I have left them with the impression that they are better than me, when that isn't the truth. False sense of self-worth is, ultimately, destructive. Contributing to a false sense of self is far worse than doing one's best. Paul's speaks of “doing nothing from rivalry or conceit” and that is something we should keep in mind. But merely engaging in competitive behavior is not “doing something from rivalry.” Paul is speaking of internal attitude and drive. If we play chess because we love the artistry and the beauty of the game, then we are not acting out of rivalry. If we enter a tournament to “crush the other guy” we have a problem. But if we enter each game hoping to play our best game and create something of beauty with our opponent, then Paul's admonition doesn't apply.

    4. We are told to "redeem the time" (Ephesians 5:16); that is, to spend our time concerned with things of ultimate significance. Whatever wonderful things chess has going for it, being of eternal or ultimate significance isn't among them. Therefore, etc.

    First, I think it's wrong to assume that Chess can not be used to a holy end. It teaches dedication to a cause. It teaches humility. It teaches to always try one's best. It teaches us to respect others. It can be a vehicle for learning a great deal about ourselves. It can be a vehicle for meeting people and sharing in their joys and sorrows. It can lastly, and most importantly, be artistic. In chess we can create beauty. True, maybe one has to be a chess player or mathematician to appreciate the beauty that can be found in simple patterns, but it is still there to be found, and that points to the glory of God. Moreover, if we take the view that we can only be concerned with things of ultimate significance all the time, then any of us who are not living our lives in the mold of a Mother Theresa is falling short (and likely we are). If that's the case, then any of us who have not given up our jobs, families and entire lives to the pursuit of charity and service to our fellow men have fallen short. And, maybe we all have. Do we really believe that Jesus intended us to live in a world without art, without science or without taking time for any earthly pleasures at all? If we really believe that, what does it say about our view of the purpose of God's creative act in the first place? Didn't he take a look around and declare that what he had created was good?

    5. A pragmatic argument: one ought not to engage in practices that tend to develop one's ego and set one against one's fellows. Clearly, however, this happens in chess, especially but not only at the strongest levels. Therefore, even if there's no guarantee that these adverse character traits will develop, the relatively high probability makes taking up or continuing to play chess an unjustified risk.

    We are born into a world of sin. There is a relatively high probability that we will develop sinful attitudes no matter what we do. If an activity is not intrinsically sinful, then it is up to us to “walk humblely with our God (Mic 6:8).” And we will fail at this repeatedly. That's what forgiveness and grace are for. That's not to say we should be cavalier about our failings. But mere pragmatism is not a valid argument as to if all Christians should play chess or not. I do agree that for some people, who can not use sport and competition to build up themselves and others in a healthy way to the glory of God but use their success to fuel egotism and selfishness, they would be well served to not engage in such activities. But for all people this is overly broad advice.

     
  • At 1:40 PM, Blogger Pawnsensei said…

    I wholeheartedly agree with Rakshasas. I would like to add my experience as well.

    I really started getting into chess late last year. I typically like staying at home reading books or watching television, but after discovering online chess I have made a few good friends and have connected with people I would normally not have connected with in the past. I have found other people that have the same desire to improve themselves and a unselfish willingness to help others to do the same, for free!

    I believe God implanted in all of us a desire to create, to be creative, like how he was with the universe. Some of us have athletic creativity, others have artistic creativity, still others have a gift for the written or spoken word. Up until I found chess I didn't have any of those and was searching my whole life to make some sort of contribution. Chess has brought a happiness and confidence that wasn't there before.

    Pawn Sensei

     
  • At 1:56 PM, Blogger Victor Reppert said…

    Dennis: I put a comment on this subject on www.dangerousidea.blogspot.com.

    Victor

     
  • At 11:07 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Dennis - I also have a short comment on this post at my blog - the Jollyblogger.

    http://jollyblogger.typepad.com/jollyblogger/2005/02/jolly_digest_27.html

    Basically I noted that you apparently don't agree with your own arguments here since you are a chess player, right? I also noted that if these arguments prevailed they would prevail against any activity that is competitive.

     
  • At 7:48 AM, Blogger Milton Stanley said…

    Well thought out. I don't know if it's sophistry or not, either, but it sure is something to think about--and well reasoned. Thanks for writing it.

     
  • At 12:17 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I would like to add that Scripture says that we are to build “treasure in Heaven.” Since there is very little here on earth that I can take with me, the only thing that is left is doing things that improve the quality of life of those around me. Now, I realize that the intent of the Scripture is directed toward doing good works and helping people. However, to some degree I believe that playing a game of chess with a friend is a good work and is helpful. There is nothing like spending time doing something with a friend. It contributes to his or her significance. That is, I feel more significant when someone likes my company and would like to spend time with me. Whether it’s over a game of chess, or fishing, I believe that when we do things that contribute to a person’s significance, we, to some degree, are building treasure in Heaven.

     
  • At 1:55 PM, Blogger OMF Serge said…

    I posted a comment on this topic on www.imago-dei.net.

    Serge

     
  • At 10:13 PM, Blogger Terry said…

    You might go over and read my own story regarding competition.

    http://pruittcommunications.blogspot.com/2005/02/can-christians-compete.html

    By the way, I enjoy a game of chess as long as I can win. :-)

    Actually I read a book on chess this year to improve my chess skills.

     
  • At 7:04 PM, Blogger Ken said…

    Some others have given some excellent answers so I'll limit myself to the following passage below.

    Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves" (Philippians 2:3).

    as well as Dennis' following comment

    "what is chess about if not rivalry?"

    I believe the Koine Greek word used for "rivalry" is "eritheia" or "eriqeia" which refers to selfish ambition, a desire to put oneself forward over others even if you have to be unfair about it. In fact,in Aristotle's works he used it to refer to self-seeking pursuit of political office by unfair means.

    You can see the word again in Php 1:17(?) ...some proclaim Christ out selfish ambition (eritheia) rather than from pure motives.

    That being said then, I would translate Php 2:3 as "do nothing from sneaky underhanded ambition...(KRV...Ken's Revised Version :-)Seriously though, I think using the word "rivalry" is an inaccuracy given the common usage of the word "rivalry" in today's society. And a quick check on-line of various translations seems many of them do go with "selfish ambition" or something similar.

    So, while computer cheaters may certainly be violating Paul's edict, I don't think playing chess for enjoyment and the beauty of the game does...so we can keep playing chess in good conscience :-)

    Caveat: I used to know how to read and translate Koine Greek but that was 20 years ago, and all my books are 4,000 km away in storage. I'd hate to lead anyone astray with my faulty rusty Greek so please don't go and base any life-changing decisions on my comments. :-)

     
  • At 4:12 PM, Blogger Ross Hytnen said…

    1.
    I think I would go further with this argument in order to make a case that the competitive spirit is good and not just acceptable. You may want to do this in order to address the other issues in a more "consistent" manner.

    Ok, so let me start by saying that "tearing down" and "building up" are extremely vague and are at least a matter of degree. In many processes, as rak says, tearing down is actually a constructive process - weeding out the ineffective ideas. More over, I'm not sure that it is fair to give the game of chess such an over-arching significance. It is a personal trait of a person that he/she lay so much importance on it, not an actual fact. We can't allow ourselves to be responsible for every persons complete state of mind - we each must have a responsability to ourselves first.

    Incidently, we all know the positive affects chess has on developing children.

    Now, I would like to try and protray compeition as a constructive rather than destructive motivation. Initially let me repeat once more what Rak brought up - tearing down ideas is often a way to weed out the bad ideas. Actually this is the entire nature of competition - the best is recognized for what it is in general.
    Seconly, let's address the nature of the human mind. Humans have caveman minds - that's a fact. Competition and survival are in our genes even now as we have had no adequate time to adapt to the surging pace of technlogy and philosphy. Therefore, I contend that God would not create an environment for us in which the only way to survive is through severe competition within ourselves and with other species only to fault us for it later. It is our compeitition and instinct for surivial that has produced so many powerful ideas and made us so dominant. Competition within ourselves, raises our level as a whole, even if an individual suffers as a consequence of not being as competitive.

    So the goal in chess is to produce better ideas than your opponent. The only proof is victory. This victory does not harm him as a human and so I say it can only be that much more positive.

    Yes, we do as invidividual have a certain bloodlust over the board - but I have addressed this above as being part the process of improving. It -must- be adversarial.

    P.S. you may cross apply the diversity argument from point 4.

    Point 2.
    I'm not sure it assumes chess players have to be self-centered. I think it assumes chess players have to be competitive. I think you can cross apply the reponse to issue number 1 here to understand how this supposed self-centeredness can be the means of a high productivity.
    I would say that we exhibit love of ideas and chess - but this may open the door to some kind of idolotry argument that I would really rather avoid.

    Point 3.
    I'm not sure Paul's statement is really refering to trivial matters. I prefer to think of it in terms of do not be envious or conceited about your neighbor. These passages have been translated so many times that I find it more probably that this was his intention rather than do nothing out of rivarly. Was he against the foot race? Was he against working hard for your living? The statement is too over-reaching to be interpreted so literally and so broadly.

    Now as for loving thy neighbor and holding them at least equal in self-esteem. There are plenty of nice chess players (Vishy and Judit no?). It is holding our opponents in high esteem that helps us stay competitive. Should we think of them as lower than us, we are sure to blunder away the game.

    Really I don't think point 3 is very fair or accurate.

    Point 4.
    So what is ultimate significance and who says so? My point to make is that chess is beneficial in the development in our children at the LEAST. It's also brought together a huge diversity of people from all over the world into a common stage to suffer together in a clash of ideas.
    Very enlightened if you ask me.


    Point 5.
    If you buy the argument from point 1 about competition being ultimately necessary and good for our survivial then you buy into the fact that these traits are not necessarily bad. If you don't buy into point 1, then I will at least make the argument once again about chess empowering its practitioners children. Then we can attempt so form of balance b/w bad character traits and the positive character traits.
    Besides, who says we will not be able to control ourselves? The empirical evidence is there - there are not riots at all the chess tournaments.

    -- Ross Hytnen

     
  • At 4:12 PM, Blogger Ross Hytnen said…

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

     

Post a Comment

<< Home