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.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Christians Can Play Chess...

at least some of them, under certain circumstances.

Thanks to all who have weighed in on my original post. Even those who were skeptical of the arguments I mooted helped prove my claim that at least "[s]ome of the arguments...require deep responses, responses that may have real implications going far beyond the question of playing (or not playing) chess."

(1) For starters, the Jollyblogger (see here and here) notes that if my arguments are correct, this would undermine Christian participation in all competitive activities. (Or at least those which aren't intrinsic to the Christian life.) I think that gets to the heart of my concern, the fear that competition qua competition is at least a dangerous thing for one's character.

(2) Victor Reppert writes that many of the good things in his own life "are the result of having spent a lot of time hunched over [the chess] board," and I could say the same as well. What I can't say, however, is whether that means it was right for me to have played and to continue doing so. Good things can result from activities that are morally neutral or bad (cf. Rom 8:28), but those activities aren't therefore automatically good.

(3) Serge elaborated some of the goods to which Reppert may have been alluding: (a) rational thinking, (b) the cultivation of a non-instant gratification mindset, and (c) helping to build up one's opponent by pushing them to use his or her God-given rationality.

I've certainly seen counterexamples to (a)/(c), but studies, common-sense and, I suppose, the preponderance of my anecdotal evidence supports it. As for (b), however, I'm far less sure. One quickly learns that the Scholar's Mate isn't going to succeed against even mildly experienced players, but the overwhelming success of chess books in the "get rich quick" genre and of opening books in general would suggest otherwise; to say nothing of the overwhelming popularity of 1-minute and 3-minute chess compared to even 5-minute, let alone slower time controls.

Even if (a)-(c) are granted, however, they are evaluatively secondary to the moral question. If playing chess is morally inappropriate to the Christian (and here I note that my hypothetical arguments aren't really restricted to the Christian at all, but apply to anyone concerned with the relevant issues of character), then the presence of likely positive goods is irrelevant (unless those goods outweigh the negatives and unless there isn't any other way to achieve those goods).

(4) My friend Dave (aka "Anonymous") suggests that "to some degree...playing a game of chess with a friend is a good work and is helpful," as it contributes to that friend's significance by showing that we value the other person's company and enjoy spending time in his or her presence.

My responses to (2) and (3) would apply here as well, but my impression is that in the scenario Dave describes, the competitive element has more or less dropped out of the picture. Winning or losing has become at best secondary to the real purpose of enjoying the other person's presence and the goods of friendship.

In truth, I can recall occasions when playing against a close friend was very difficult for me, precisely because playing chess is an intrinsically competitive activity, while my affection for the friend was such that the antagonism intrisic to competition was just repulsive to me. Maybe if one can play without caring about the result, and if playing doesn't generate competitive attitudes, then it may be morally unproblematic. Which leads me to

(5) The Jollyblogger, redux. He begins his discussion of my question "Can Christians Play Chess?" with a glib answer (click here and scroll down a bit): "some can, some can't." Maybe that's right: those who can compete without being competitive can play, and those who can't perhaps should avoid it.

(6) Ken offers a lexical comment on the koine Greek word translated "rivalry," and I see no reason to dispute what he says there. Perhaps his implicit point is that there are two senses of rivalry: a good sense and a bad sense. What I want to know is what the good sense is! A rival is one with whom we compete, presumably with the intention of inflicting defeat on him or her. Doesn't that suggest that the priority is on competitive aims rather than the other goods mentioned elsewhere in this post?

(7) Last but not least, I turn to Rakshasas' lengthy reply.

Let me start with a clarification: the arguments I offered were not presented as my version of the gospel truth (pun intended - people who write "no pun intended" should just come clean!). Rather, I offered them because it seemed to me that they introduced some interesting issues and required answers making non-trivial committments concerning what is and isn't appropriate for the Christian who wants to play chess.

Rakshasas' primary objection, it seems to me, is that all of the arguments assume that the Christian chess player can only play from egotistical motives rather than to attempt to use one's mind as well as they can to try to produce something artistic, something beautiful, in collaboration with one's opponent.

I'm inclined to agree that those are noble motives which are certainly consistent with a Christian (and not only a Christian) worldview. But here I want to ask how realistic this is. Here I ask the reader to consider the following scenarios and ask yourself which you would choose, or which seems to more accurately represent how things tend to be in the chess world. Be honest!

Choice A
Option 1: Losing every game in one's life (because one plays only computers and/or GMs, say) but clearly having the ability of a 2500.
Option 2: Scoring around 60% in one's career and achieving a peak rating of about 2000.

Choice B
Option 1: I primarily buy books highlighting the beautiful in chess, especially books featuring the greatest players' greatest games.
Option 2: I primarily buy books I think will most directly improve my results, especially opening books.

Choice C
Option 1: The main thing that won me over to the game, and what gets my children interested is the sheer beauty of the game. My kids roll their eyes at the mention of Scholar's Mate and ask to see endgame studies by Mitrofanov.
Option 2: The main thing that won me over to the game, and what gets my children interested is competitive success. My kids feel good about winning games with the 4-move checkmate.

In each case, option 1 is the one we'd like to embrace and that is most consistent with the respondents' replies. And yet the reality I see with my own eyes is a consistent (but not universal) preference for option 2-type answers: in my students, in my friends, in the chess world at large, and at least sometimes, in some ways, in myself.

So in sum, I think the respondents have the right answers: if we can play for the love of the game, for friendship, for the intellectual challenge and so on, then great. But there's the application question: do we really play for those motives? Would we continue to play without any competitive successes at all? And is the nature of the game and the general chess environment such as to foster the noble reasons for playing or the baser ones?


  • At 11:50 AM, Blogger Rakshasas said…


    It seems to me that in each of your scenerios your primary objection is that the vast majority of us will not achieve an ideal.

    Ummm.. yeah, I agree. So?

    Do I achieve an ideal in any area of my life?


    I have purchased items for myself, my family, heck, even for my dog, that were not truly needed and were obtained for what are ultimately non-ideal purposes. The time and resources spent on obtaining those items would in every case have been better spent to "visit orphans and widows in their distress."

    I have failed to in all cases and at all times "do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God."

    I admit it. I'm a human being. Non
    posso non peccare.

    I also admit that there are moments of my chess life where I do glimpse the ideal. I lose a game of great beauty (at least for my meager talents) and am elevated by that experience. I fair badly in a tournement but manage somehow to take pride in really knowing I did do my best. It's rare, but it happens.

    But I'd like to comment on a few of your objections just to further refine my own thoughts.

    Point A -- scoring 60% or only playing "computers or GM's."

    Well -- it's not possible to play only GM's. At least not where I live. Further, if I only played computers, then I'd wonder to what extent my activity is in fact consistent with my view that one of our great purposes in life is to communicate Christ to others, and to see Christ in others communicated back to us. If I'm locked away in my room with Fritz, I may be playing beautiful chess, but then maybe I have a bigger problem than if my chess playing is sinful or not. I'd take the 60% score, simply because I don't really want to be a shut-in. Though, in my own foolishness, I'm sure I'd mourn the chance to be better.

    Point B -- books highlighting beauty in chess or books tauting how to get better.

    Here, I call false Dichotomy! I have plenty of books that do both, and do both quite well. And frankly, the books I buy tend to do both.

    Further, I do not believe that striving to be the best one can at something is in anyway objectionable. Indeed, as we are commanded to love God with all our hearts and minds, I still contend that failing to try to be as good as one can be at one's choosen activities is precisely failing to uphold that instruction.

    So, this entire question is frankly a red herring with regards to my position (though not perhaps with someone else's).

    Point C - beauty versus competitve success.

    While I think the whole "fools mate" is an off-topic segue. However, I can distinctly remember the first time I saw it -- I was entranced by how something so simple could be so powerful. It is the very same reaction I now have when I see a beautfiful study or a fantastically concieved middle-game plan. And, I think, it's why Capablanca (renowned for his simple, powerful moves) remains my favorite chess player. So while a fool's mate may not be Mitrofanov, it does contain within it something of the same character that at least some children react to.

    Some people come to appreciate Bach by first coming to appreciate Yngwui MalmsteinLastly, I think that my objection that competitive success is a natural result of trying one's best at a competitive activity is somewhat missed. I'm not at all convinced that what you're postulating here are all more or less false dichotomies. In the real world of chess one can not have only beauty but not success, one can not have only improvement without art. The games of Capablance are beautiful at least in part because his simple forcing moves did in fact win on occassion. Mitrofanov's studies are amazing because they work to effect the goal of winning. Would they really be just as beautiful if they all ended in a draw?

  • At 8:49 PM, Blogger Dennis Monokroussos said…

    I'm not sure how much disagreement there is between Rakshasas' views and my own, but there certainly appears to be plenty of misunderstanding. Hopefully this comment will help clear things up a bit.

    I'm not at all arguing that if the vast majority of us will not achieve some ideal, we ought not to play chess.

    What I might be claiming, or really, kicking around as an idea for mutual consideration, are two theses: (1) many of us who play chess are primarily motivated by competitive rather than aesthetic or other noble desires; (2) the nature of chess as a game and the general chessplaying environment tends to conduce the negative motivations mentioned above in a way that goes beyond what we might call the background inertia of our own individual fallenness.

    If (1) and (2) are correct, then more drastic steps than repenting and repeating may be in order. Jollyblogger is right here, I think: some Christians (and non-Christians) can play chess without having any problems, and some can't, just as some people can drink alcohol without any problem at all and some can't. If the shoe doesn't fit, then don't wear it.

    Some brief comments on the three scenarios I raised.

    (A) Of course there aren't GMs down at the club for you to play - that's not the point. The issue is whether one would prefer, all things being equal, to have competitive success and be weaker or no competitive success (by one's choice) but be much stronger. If your club has masters, ask if you'd prefer to be a successful 1500 or a winless (because always and only playing masters) 2000. If it has experts, change the example to 1300 and 1800. To use a non-chess example, would you rather be an above-average Pop Warner football coach or the leader of the 1977 Tampa Bay Buccaneers?

    (B) Of course there are books that both show the beauty of the game and help one to improve, but the point of the choice was pretty clearly one of motivation, as could be seen from the way I asked the question. It's a question for self-evaluation, not an alleged presentation of the mutually exhaustive and exclusive options.

    (C) I think what makes the Mitrofanov study beautiful is that the solution achieves its aim with depth, paradox, geometrical elegance and surprise (for starters). I don't think that the goal's being a win has much to do with it - there are plenty of studies with the aim of a draw, including probably the most famous study of all time. (Reti's W: Kh8/pc6 vs. B: Ka6/ph5 study: 1.Kg7! h4 2.Kf6 Kb6 3.Ke5 h3 [else 4.Kf4 stops the pawn] 4.Kd6 h2 5.c7=.)

    Second, and here I'm certainly to blame for this misunderstanding (on account of one of the orginal five arguments [none of which were intended to represent the truth as I saw it, but to provoke reflection]), I don't have any opposition to winning. (Not that any individual wins in the study - those trying to solve it aren't actually playing.) The central issue, which may not have been as clear as it should have been, is whether competition qua competition is morally acceptable, and it's within that framework that the initial argument about "winning = tearing down" should be evaluated. I hope that clears things up.

    Finally, a logical point about false dilemmas. False dilemmas are context-sensitive - the range of options is not always and automatically unrestricted. If one dines at an Italian restaurant and is asked if she would prefer soup or salad as part of her dinner special, it would be a bad joke to reply "that's a false dichotomy."

    The waiter wasn't implicitly claiming that the logical space of possible food items was exhausted by the sorts of soups and salads served at the restaurant in question, but merely asking which of the only two available items the customer would prefer.

    Similarly, I wasn't attempting to provide a set of mutually exhaustive and exclusive options with my scenarios. It could be that some players don't value either the beauty of chess or care about their results, but are for the social scene. Some may purchase chess books so they can resell them, or because they make particularly good kindling.

    More seriously, I also recognize the presence of the both/and option as well. With respect to my Choice B, I agree that there are books that exhibit the beauty in chess as well as providing material that will improve results, and that someone might buy a book for both reasons. Likewise for Choice C, there are kids who are excited by both beauty in chess and by winning.

    The point is granted (and wasn't ever denied), but my question is about one's leaning, of tendency. Which sort of book is the reader more likely to buy, or which motive predominates? What was the hook that really won the reader over to the chess world? Maybe both aspects played a role, but for many of us, one is likely to have been weightier. The options needn't exactly represent one's motivations, but it's reasonable to ask which seems to more accurately capture the situation. (And if both equally or nearly so, then that's fine too.)

  • At 9:30 PM, Blogger Rakshasas said…


    I didn't suspect that you were postulating the extremes as the only choices, per se. But rather that extreme was (at least in my reading) being implied. Something that is always a danger when one tries to have a nuanced discussion about ideals. In reading your response I think we are very much on (or at least near) the same page.

    For good or ill, we do live in the real world, which is noticably lacking in realized ideals. When one is talking about ideal views, it is very difficult to stop the discussion from swaying into extremes, and in posting my replies I'm trying to keep the "realist" perspective.

    In my mind, the questions are interesting, but only to the extent that as intellectual excercises they remain somewhat grounded in the real. I have a hard time conceptualizing actualized ideals.

    I do agree that in as much as someone holds particular moral stances that one is obligated by virtue of those stances to try to live by them. And as such, having particular views about how one is suppossed to relate to the world as a Christian (or a Buddhist, Hindi or whatever one is) that all activities one engages in should be looked at under the lens of those moral stances.

    But I'm also struck by the irony of having this discussion in the first place. I've spent an hour or two thinking about, reading about, and writing about these questions now. I'm typing on my nice new computer, sitting in my nice spaceous office, in my nice heated and air conditioned house, in my nice safe suburban American home. How many people are still homeless from the Tsunami again? How many dead? And the best use of my time is debating what the ideal relationship between a Christian and chess is? I hope God has a sense of humor . . . 'cause I don't know about you but if he doesn't, I'm really in trouble . . .

  • At 12:58 PM, Blogger Ken said…

    Rakshasas said..."And the best use of my time is debating what the ideal relationship between a Christian and chess is? I hope God has a sense of humor . . . 'cause I don't know about you but if he doesn't, I'm really in trouble . . ."

    I suspect most people living in rich nations would be in trouble, esp considering the verse about camels, eyes of needles and the kingdom of heaven :-)

    And this chess thread reminded me of a friend who did quit playing chess because he did feel that his attitude towards it was not right. He has since become a father with two children and has taught his children how to play chess. Chess, for him, is not wrong. It was his own attitude towards it that bothered his conscience.


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