Activity Above All: The Politics Of Chess

Although I am by no means a masterful chess player, once upon a time I was the third-best chess player in my elementary school if I am out of practice these days [1].  Even to this day, though, I enjoy watching chess games and thinking of solutions to various positions or figuring out the best move by thinking a few moves in advance.  Today, though, I would like to discuss one of the phenomena one notices if one sees the posts of chessmasters on Twitter or other social media, and that is the fact that chessmasters are by and large a very conservative lot.  Longtime chess champion Garry Kasparov, for example, makes tweets against the cronyism of Putin’s Russia and profits as a strategy-teaching consultant on MasterClass.  Other examples could be multiplied to demonstrate that chessmasters tend to be a rather pro-market lot by and large that would be considered highly conservative in terms of their political worldview.  Is there something about the game that would encourage this sort of worldview?

As a matter of fact, there is.  When one is sitting across a table from someone else, nothing matters but the moves one makes on the board.  Everyone starts out with the same sixteen pieces in the same places, opposite each other.  One might argue that the white pieces have a slight advantage over the black in having initiative, but this advantage is slight and there are a number of gambits and defenses that allow black to capitalize on any blunder that white makes, and many tournaments have players play white and black an equal number of times to equalize any sort of bias one would have by playing white over black in any particular game.  There are chess champions of all kinds of backgrounds, among both men and women, and it is easy to see why when one looks at chess that people who play the game are encouraged to hold a worldview that is strongly conservative.

There are several reasons for this.  First, we have noted that chess provides a highly egalitarian environment.  The only advantages a player has, over the course of a tournament especially, is the advantage between their ears.  Money cannot buy one extra pieces.  One cannot appeal to government to get extra time or extra space on the board.  Everything is fair and equal, and there are no advantages to the beautiful over the ugly, to men over women, or to the rich over the poor.  No one cares where you come from or from what culture or ethnicity you belong to when you make your move.  All that is cared about is whether you make the right move and achieve the best result possible.  When one spends one’s time and makes a living (as it is possible to do) in such an environment, there are a great many consequences, and among those is the consequence that one takes the egalitarian nature and the unimportance of privilege much more seriously than most people do.

There are additional issues too.  No one can blame a poor chess result on the actions of one’s parents or the problems one has suffered in one’s family history or one’s personal background.  Everyone has agency, everyone has fair resources, and everyone is responsible for the moves they make or the lines they fail to see but pay the price for.  In such a highly competitive and highly fair world, there is little tolerance that people have for whining or complaining.  Everyone is fully responsible and accountable for their game and making the best of it.  That sense of responsibility accepted for oneself because of the game one plays tends to make people who engaged in such a field rather intolerant of those who do not accept responsibility in other, less stressful, walks of life.  Likewise, those people who would want to argue about structural inequalities and injustice tend not to want to prove themselves over and over again over a chessboard, since their inability to take responsibility and improve themselves marks them as poor chess players who are simply not going to succeed at the game.

Are there any lessons for this?  For one, we have to examine our strengths and determine what sort of game best suits us.  We should put ourselves in the position where we can make the best of the resources we are given.  If we have adequate self-knowledge, we should be able to know what advantages we have relative to other people and therefore what niches we can serve in the world that allow us to have the best advantage.  Those who choose to develop mastery of chess are making a statement that they neither consider their own privilege to be worthwhile nor do they whine about the privilege that other people have.  They are rather making a firm statement that they trust their smarts and their strategic and tactical brilliance more than they regard the advantages that can be gained through gaming systems or taking advantage of the injustices and biases of the wider world, a choice of considerable bravery and integrity.  Those who gravitate to fair games show themselves to be just people, and that sense of justice ought to be appreciated even in a world as crooked as ours is.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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6 Responses to Activity Above All: The Politics Of Chess

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