We Are Pieces In The Mysterious Game Of Chess Played By God

I have from time to time written about God as a chessmaster.  Some people may find it comforting to realize that God is a master of strategy and that, as we are not on His level, divine providence will work in ways that we do not understand [1].  Not everyone is comforted by this thought, though.  The medieval Persian poet Omar Khayyam wrote, for example:  “This is the only truth:  we are pieces in the mysterious game of chess played by God.  He places us, holds us, drives us forward and then throws us one after the other into the box of nothingness (70) [2].”  Nor was it a comfortable thought for the benefactor of one Dawid Janowski, a one-time competitor for the World Chess Championship in 1910 who lost against longtime champ Emanuel Lasker and died penniless of tuberculosis in 1927 in France after thinking he was sick with a heavy cold while he had shown up to play (and presumably earn some money) in a chess tournament there.

Was it fair for either Khayyam or Janowski (or his benefactor) to feel this way?  Dawid Janowski was a gambling addict, and died penniless because he could not live sensibly, even if it was impressive that his chess skills allowed him to escape the ghetto of Grodno, in what is now Belarus.  Like some chess players admired today (Carlsen comes to mind), Janowski was tenacious in playing in what most people considered drawn positions, hoping to turn a tie into a win, and this grinding habit was not well appreciated by those who wanted a quick draw so that they could rest and relax.  Certainly not all of this misfortune of his life was his own fault–as a citizen of the Russian Empire he was in the wrong place at the wrong time and was interned along with a few other successful Russian chess players (Alekhine and Bogoljubow, for example) when World War I began during a chess tournament they were at.  Likewise, he almost certainly suffered from the anti-Semitic attitudes of those around when he was growing up, likely feeling that if life was a gamble that he may as well enjoy the sort of gambling and fierce spirit it takes to overcome a bad start in life.

If we are the workmanship of God, then what right do we have to complain to the one who formed us in the womb?  To be sure, my reading of scripture (especially Job) convinces me that God relishes a challenge, but we ought to recognize we do not have the right to challenge Him, even if our spirited self-dignity induces us to do so.  Does a villain have a right to complain with how one’s author creates one in service of a plot?  Does an outhouse have a right to complain that it was not created as a treehouse or porch?  Those of us who are creators know (and relish) the creativity that comes with creation.  We are pleased by the aesthetic beauty of a well-scanning line of poetry by people like Khayyam, or an elegant chess combination from a grandmaster like Janowski, or a beautiful and elegant work of art that we may see in a gallery or museum.  Few would argue, though some would lament, the freedom that a poet has with the words at one’s disposal, or the chess pieces on the board, or the brushes and colors that make a compelling painting.  We understand that as a creator, what we create is under our control to do with it as we wish.

Yet we do not like that feeling so well when we are the pieces in the hands of someone else.  At least when we find governments wishing to enlist us in their foolish plans and schemes we can point out that the people in those offices are no better, and often far worse people than ourselves.  We may resist being sent to far off lands as cannon fodder in their schemes for domination and control, and we may dislike the hostility and enmity between people of different worldviews closer to home, and the danger that we suffer merely for being ourselves, and not even particularly offensive versions of ourselves, who simply disagree with the zeitgeist wherever we happen to be.  Yet when we think of ourselves in the hand of God to be directed as He wishes, our disagreement is tinged with the half-admitted realization that of all beings alone, the One who created us has the right to do with us as He wishes.  What God allows and what God providentially brings about is not always (or even necessarily often) to our liking.  We certainly dislike the trials our lives contain, whether we bring them on ourselves because of our folly or not.

Yet ultimately, we need to come to a proper understanding of the nature of what God does to us.  When the Persian poet complained that he (and the rest of humanity) were mere pieces to be directed by God, he was speaking a great truth, but it was not a truth that reflected well on himself.  He was a poet, and he did what he wanted with the gifts and talents that God had given him.  He likely squandered more than a few of those gifts, and yet he felt empowered to be embittered at being held accountable for how he had spent his life.  Janowski was a bankrupt gambling addict who had, at least for one moment, reached the pinnacle of the chess world before dying penniless and seemingly abandoned, but had he not wasted what God-given talents he had been made accountable?  Surely he knew his own flaws and the waste that he had made of his life, so what right did he have to complain about being held accountable for it?  Humankind as a whole is remarkably unconcerned with the fate of others as we work out our own creativity and freedom, and yet as soon as we are brought to account for what we have done, we get on our high horse and seek to shout down any tribunal.  To the extent that we throw around words or chess pieces in our own willfulness, what right do we have to complain about being pieces in the hand of God?  Surely as we have meted out to others, it will be meted out to ourselves, whether we like it or not.  And we usually will not like it very much at all.

[1] See, for example:




[2] Andre Schultz, The Big Book Of World Chess Championships:  46 Title Fights – From Steinitz To Carlsen (New In Chess:  Alkmaar, The Netherlands 2016) 70.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in History, Musings and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to We Are Pieces In The Mysterious Game Of Chess Played By God

  1. Pingback: Dungeon Master God | Edge Induced Cohesion

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