I am intrigued by chess. I don’t understand it. My rank, if I had one, would fall somewhere between hack and tender beginner. I am regularly beaten by third graders who only play after school with milk and cookies as they wait for their mothers to pick them up. Yet despite this, I am entranced by the game. That game of kings. That game upon which knights have wagered their souls for a chance to out maneuver Death. On her honeymoon, Madame Dechamp had to glue the pieces to the board to stop the bridegroom from contemplating the moves of an impotent king.
With its restricted movements and forced limitations, the game is maddening, infuriating. There is the odd hooking motion of the knight. The racist bishops who refuse to touch a square of another color. The pawns, simpletons left over from some Beckett play, interfering with every move I want to make. Even when they are my own, they get in the way of my more free-flowing and graceful pieces, the pieces that I am when I am my best.
Yet despite the rules and limits, despite the challenges and difficulties, chess shows us life as unimaginable possibility. The number of legal chess positions is 1040. The number of different possible games is 10120. There are 988 million positions that can be reached after just four moves. A player thinking eight moves ahead is presented with as many possible games as there are stars in the galaxy.
Back in our usual galaxy, we’re presented with evidence of a new leak in the roof. During the long commute, reckless strangers drive too fast, the irresponsible ones drive too slow. Bosses move as mute and graceless as a pawn, but are just as demanding. The dog peed on the hardwoods again.
Somehow we get lucky and stumble into an unexpected windfall that will help with the bills and the burdens and the bills. But then somewhere out in the yard, an unseen a pipe bursts. Or one of the kids stumbles and a collar bone must be reset.
And when offered this Queen’s Gambit, I just want to breathe. There is no time to write or pursue dreams minted when we were still young and minting dreams. The brushes are all dried in a coffee can. The portrait in the study has been unfinished for years. Time-and-time again when faced with that stagnant Sicilian Defense that has persistently interrupted my flow for twenty years, it seems easier to just tip the king over on its side and resign. To lay in a fetal repose and dream that everything could just stop.
And yet even with the unrepaired repairs, the debts and inequities, the heavy disappointments, our lives offer as many hopes as there are stars in the galaxy or moves on the board. In spite of our every must-do, because of our every must-do, there is so much more beauty and meaning in our lives. The difficulties that stare us in the face and say “that piece cannot be moved” force us to do something new. They force us to be creative and alive and choose a brighter future, more luminous and untouched. When a poet with his borderless blank page restricts himself to some arbitrary form, A after B after A, he is forced to abandon the easy and cliché, and free to express something true, honest, fresh.
Our lives are worth something because they are limited. Our lives have more value because they are hard. Obligations, setbacks and a greedy Queen, all ask us to be more authentic, more limitless, more beautiful. When we play, we reveal ourselves. When we play, we reveal the truest professions of the heart.