When every guest had been welcomed inside the gate, there were songs, dances, music, games, and of course, food and drink . . . growing food and eating it occupied most of their time. In other matters, they were, as a rule, generous and not greedy, but contented and moderate.[1]

                                                                        —J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

Imagination does not breed insanity. Exactly what does breed insanity is reason. Poets do not go mad; but chess-players do. . . . The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.[2]

—G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

“What’s the moment of greatest pleasure in chess?” “When you break his ego” [3]

—Bobby Fischer interview with Dick Cavett

Before he leaves on his fated journey

No man will be so wise that he need not

Reflect while time still remains

Whether his soul will win delight

Or darkness after his death-day [4]

—Death Song of Bede, The Anglo-Saxon World: An Anthology

I think it may have all started with my G.I. Joes, not the five-inch 1990s version but the full twelve-inch ones, with beards which always rubbed off the chin. Mortar shells which I could actually launch across a small portion of the room, adventures excavating mummies, capturing tigers and gorillas, and infiltrating the island lair of spies and dynamiting it into the depths of the sea all animated my juvenile male mind set on adventure and mission. Probably it began before that, with the tiny (about an inch tall) blue and red, plastic, revolutionary American and British soldiers one could get through the mail, after waiting six to twelve weeks; further waves of combatants breaching the shoreline of my imagination included the slightly larger green plastic army men which populate Toy Story, medieval knights from a castle set, and G.I. Joe-sized Johnny West and Geronimo figures. By the time I reached full adolescence, I had a firmly ingrained habit of not just imaginative but combative play with little soldiers. My son has proudly, but for the most part non-combatively, followed in my tradition with his Legos, creating from scratch such fantastic realms as Virgil’s Aeneid, Gotham City, and the sacred Norse Tree of Nine Worlds, Yggdrasil.

By Junior High, when “recess” was no longer an option, I discovered a thing called “Chess Club.” There were still opposing teams of little armies, but planning and an almost math-like logic were required. I won’t even discuss the board game The Game of Life, my wife’s least favorite of all, though there the parties could harmoniously marry, start families, get jobs, and buy homes, although life in even that format was something of a competition. Not just the phone app game Farmville or colonial era Made for Trade (who can forget Eliza Oglethorpe and Ebenezer Brown browsing fine pewter home goods at the Tinsmith shoppe, or Makepeace Middleton and Prudence Peterson at the Cabinetmaker?) but modern era civilizational advance board games like Settlers of Catan and Civilization owe their inspiration to the innocent Game of Life.

Like G.I. Joe, the chess world supplied its own heroes, or hero, at least: the invincible Bobby Fischer. Raised in the Cold War era (1943-2008), Fischer dared to challenge the Russians at their own game. Unleashing a daring queen-sacrifice-led blitzkrieg “game of the century” against a grandmaster at age twelve, becoming the youngest US junior champion at age 13, the youngest to win the US Open championship (which he would win a record eight times) two months shy of his fifteenth birthday, and achieving the youngest player to achieve Grandmaster status at age fifteen and a half, Fischer was a chess prodigy (though one who worked very, very hard at it). Always playing for the win instead of the easy Grandmaster draw, he would often unleash lengthy winning streaks to capture tournaments or defeat contenders for the world championship with perfect scores. His plans to become the world’s youngest champion in 1963 at age 20, however, were foiled in a qualifying tournament in which he accused the Soviet Russians of colluding to play easy draws among themselves to save their energy for matches against himself and others. His charges were widely accepted, published in Sports Illustrated, and led to immediate change in the structure of qualifying matches in the next championship cycle.[5]

Fischer’s epic achievements at the board were nearly godlike, as in the Far Side cartoon in which God racks up a score of 10,000,000 against Norman’s 0 in a quiz show. They are memorialized in films like Searching for Bobby Fischer (real life story of chess prodigy Josh Waitzkin), and replayed in Pawn Sacrifice with Tobey Maguire as Fischer. The search for chessboard heroes extends across gender, as seen in The Queen’s Gambit, the 2020 Netflix series adapted from Walter Tevis’s 1983 novel, which he described as a “tribute to brainy women.”[6] A very real girl is the subject of The Queen of Katwe, a 2012 book by sports journalist Tim Crother and made into the 2016 film: Phiona Mutesi rises from a slum neighborhood (Katwe) in Uganda, with the support of a missionary soccer and chess coach, to become one of Uganda’s leading women chess players. Mutesi’s story highlights the developmental aspect of chess, which is often promoted in schools both in the United States and abroad. In Teaching Chess in the 21st Century, Chess educator Todd Bartwick explains that chess aids educational goals such as reasoning, problem-solving, and even thinking from another person’s (the opponent’s) perspective.[7] This author’s recent trip to Africa to help promote chess, followed by discovery upon return of a local Asian refugee community chess club teeming with dozens of energetic youth, is discussed in the conclusion of this article.

While chess appears as the ultimate intellectual dueling ground, I have always wondered what someone like the storied Fischer might have accomplished had he turned to more philosophical pursuits. The idea of chess has a long history of appropriation by philosophers and writers alike in their pursuit of meaning and purpose. We now turn to these luminaries for insights.[8]

Chess in Literature

Chess occupies a special place in literature. In modern times, fantasy writer and dramatist Lord Dunsany (1878-1957) of Ireland, whose works such as The Gods of Pegana (1905) helped pioneer the genre of fantasy, is one example. In addition to being Lord of one of Ireland’s oldest estates, an equestrian, and pistol-shooting champion of Ireland, Dunsany contributed chess puzzles to The Times journal of London, and invented a variant of chess which is popular still today, Dunsany’s Chess. One side has a massive array (four or five rows) of just pawns against the opponent’s traditional set of pieces: it is a symbol of democratic resistance today in Persia (Iran) where it symbolizes how the government may have the big pieces, but the people will be too many for them.[9]

Dunsany brings to mind J.R.R. Tolkien, whose Hobbit and Lord of the Rings series advanced the genre of fantasy. The only (and indirect) reference to chess he made was when Gandalf advised “But the enemy has the move, and he is about to open his full game. And the pawns are as likely to see as much of it as any. Sharpen your blade!”[10]  Of fantasy, however, Tolkien had much to say, declaring that

Fantasy is a natural human activity. It certainly does not destroy or even insult Reason . . . [or] scientific verity. The keener and clearer is the reason, the better fantasy will it make. If ever men were in a state in which they did not want to know or could not perceive truth (facts or evidence), the Fantasy would languish until they were cured.[11]

The very concept of battle, as depicted in chess or found in the trenches of World War 1 in which Tolkien fought, inundates Tolkien’s works. His profound appreciation for Norse mythology over that of the Greeks and Romans was due to the central place held by battling to the death, as he explains,

We may with some truth contrast the ‘inhumanness’ of the Greek gods, however anthropomorphic, with the ‘humanness’ of the Northern, however titanic . . . The ruling [Southern, i.e. Greek and  Roman] gods are not besieged, not in ever-present peril or under future doom. . . . In Norse, at any rate, the gods are within Time, doomed with their allies to death. Their battle is with the monsters and outer darkness . . . It is the strength of the northern mythological imagination that it . . . put the monsters in the center,  gave them victory but no honour, and found a potent but terrible solution in naked will and courage. ‘As a working theory absolutely impregnable.’[12]

In the end, however, he much preferred the gentle, peaceful life of the Shire, where “growing food and eating it occupied most of their time.”[13] Even in the midst of battle, the spirit of the Shire reigns, as Aragorn declares that Orc attacks, conducted “in darkness and loneliness (where) they are strongest” are best resisted “where there are lights and people” as such “they will not openly attack.”[14]

The spirit of Tolkien’s Shire fills Ray Bradbury’s idyllic story of childhood memories and summer in Dandelion Wine. In it, twelve-year-old Douglas Spaulding distills the essence of each day of the summer of 1928 into wine by pressing dandelions, the memories of which are savored in winter. A game of chess frolics across the stage as the story’s sought-after “Happiness Machine” reveals through its windowpane a peaceful scene,

In small warm pools of sunlight . . . sat Paul and Marshall, playing chess at the coffee table. In the dining room Rebecca was laying out the silver. Naomi was cutting paper-doll dresses. Ruth was painting water colors. Joseph was running his electric train. Through the kitchen door, Lena Auffmann was sliding a pot roast from the steaming oven.[15]

Fantastic tales in the spirit of Dunsany and Tolkien echo in the genre of modern chess fantasy literature. Pawn to Infinity, a collection of fiction related to the “Game of Kings,” shows the surreal deployments of the game, most often with a peek at the evolving line between man and machine. In Poul Anderson’s “The Immortal Game,” a scientist programs two networked robotic armies of pieces which embody the struggle between the free will and individuality of the pieces with their side’s collective interests: the result is their collective recreation of a classic masterpiece, “The Immortal Game” of 1851 between Anderssen and Kieseritzky. Daniel Gilbert’s “Kokomu” uses a Japanese context in describing how a computer-programmed Go game secretly guides the politics of real estate maneuverings. Other stories explore the dark side of human reason, as in Fritz Lieber’s “Midnight by the Morphy Watch” which warns of the psychotic damage that chess champions risk. Lieber reminds us that Fischer’s paranoid retirement soon after achieving the title of world champion in 1972 is but an echo of American Grandmaster Paul Morphy (1837-1884) who conquered the known chess world by age 21, then like Fischer mysteriously retired. In the story, a chess enthusiast discovers Paul Morphy’s watch, which aids his imagination and allows him to defeat the ghosts of famous Grandmasters and even of Rasputin before it becomes lost again. A more frightening tale is Victor Contoski’s “Von Goom’s Gambit,” in which an incredibly poor-playing but wealthy Von Goom finally discovers a Gambit line with a pattern of moves so disconcerting that every opponent facing it either loses their sanity or simply dies. The only refutation of the line is found by a group of grandmasters who decide to simply shoot Von Goom and never mention his gambit again. Contoski explains,

Now suppose that someone discovers by accident or design a pattern on the chessboard that is more than displeasing, an alien pattern that tells unspeakable things about the mind of a player, or man in general and the order of the universe. Suppose no man can look at such a pattern and remain normal. Surely such a pattern must have been formed by Von Goom’s Gambit.[16]

Such chess fantasies lead us to ask how chess might be used and to consider how the game of chess might address questions of spiritual meaning.

Chess and God: Chesterton and Eliot

Chess has been used by profound explorers of the Christian faith, namely essayist and author G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936) and Poet T.S. Eliot (1888-1965. The irrationality-inducing Von Goom’s Gambit is a perfect introduction, as Contoski unwittingly echoes Chesterton, who supplied the reason for chess-induced insanity, explaining that

Imagination does not breed insanity. Exactly what does breed insanity is reason. Poets do not go mad; but chess-players do. . . . The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.[17]

For Chesterton, as for Tolkien, the myopic scrutiny of reason for which chess players are renowned (and I am less capable in this area than others), is curable by imagination and fantasy, as practiced by Dunsany and Tolkien. One can even hearken to the imaginative works of Christian fantasy writer George MacDonald, particularly influential for Chesterton and C.S. Lewis, though MacDonald likely did not mention the game of chess. His magical fantasy Phantastes, written of a world dripping with a transcendent glory, had Lewis declaring his own imagination to have been baptized by the experience. Phantastes and various other works by Macdonald are discussed in the An Unexpected Journal issue on MacDonald (additionally, his Lilith is there reviewed in comparison to chess whiz Beth Harmon of the Netflix series The Queen’s Gambit).[18]

Chess is deployed in a less innocent and wholesome world in T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” poem of 1922. The optimism and peaceful aspirations of the nineteenth century had come to a crash with the Great War of World War I (1914-1918), and Eliot reflected the spiritual and cultural deflation with lines such as,

April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land[19]


                       Unreal City,
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.[20]

Replete with imagery such as the Fisher King, a mortally wounded ruler waiting (along with his perishing lands) for the healing touch of the Holy Grail, the second of its five sections is titled “A Game of Chess.” The story of the section is of a tired, lifeless love, as the attraction between Lil and Albert wanes, their five children notwithstanding; Lil’s friend suggests

                       And we shall play a game of chess,
Pressing lidless eyes and waiting for a knock on the door.[21]

In short, a bored game of chess with tired eyes, waiting for some enlivening purpose to come knocking at their door. Eliot struggles in “The Wasteland” to find that purpose, as he juxtaposes observations from St. Augustine and Buddha on the futility of pursuing desires, and finally resorts to Hindu proverbs for ethical guidance and meaning, which he admits as equivalents of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount. When Eliot came to Christian faith a few years after penning “The Wasteland,” he admitted the sorry plight of mankind, as when he requests in Ash Wednesday (1930),

Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death[22]

while yet questioning how we will find our way,

Still is the unspoken word, the Word unheard . . .
Where shall the word be found, where will the word
Resound? Not here, there is not enough silence.[23]

In Four Quartets (1936-1942), he speaks more confidently of the silence,

. . . the bird called, in response to
The unheard music hidden in the shrubbery;[24]

then finally re-finds purpose in and through the stillness, a purpose, the Faith, grounded in our common history,

           In my beginning is my end . . . [25]

 Not the intense moment . . .
But a lifetime burning in every moment
And not the lifetime of one man only
But of old stones that cannot be deciphered.[26]

In the silence we can find the purpose, Eliot continues,

          We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion.[27]

Coming full circle to answer the futile burning of “The Wasteland,” Eliot declares that desires born of the Holy Spirit [its image likened here to that of a German fighter plane; he did write this in the midst of another cataclysm of human desire, World War II], the consuming flame as well as peaceful dove of the Trinity, replace the burning desires lamented by Augustine and Buddha. Eliot builds to his conclusion with,

           The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error[28]

           The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre –
To be redeemed from fire by fire.

           Who then devised the torment? Love . . .
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire.[29]

Eliot’s faith is grounded in the God of history, as he concludes:

           We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time . . .

           At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half heard, in the stillness
Between the two waves of the sea.[30]

Chess, Desire, and Artistry

Half science and half art, probably also half courage and a little bit of luck, chess is a game for the artist (not that poetry and fantasy are any less an art). Just as the fantasy world had Lord Dunsany as a chess-playing writer, the art world has Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968), a chess champion of France, as a pivotal figure. Duchamp upended artistic sensibilities with abstract paintings like Nude Descending a Staircase (1912) and sculpture art like Fountain (1917, an ordinary urinal on display). The painting, described as “an explosion in a shingle factory,” was a classic of Cubism in which an object is presented with multiple facets and thus perspectives, as well as of Futurism in which motion was often depicted as an avenue of escaping a tradition-bound past.[31]  But it was his Fountain that tested the limits of art, introducing ordinary objects (such as Andy Warhol would do in 1962 with paintings of Campbell soup cans) as objects of contemplation, found in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, founded in 1929 under the direction of Duchamp’s colleague, Alfred H. Barr Jr. The Fountain critiqued modernity by asking the viewer to consider something beyond the urinal’s immediate functionality, even though Duchamp had declared that plumbing and bridges were America’s greatest artistic achievements. Duchamp argued that art is more than the object itself, but involves the interpretive mind we bring to bear on it. Duchamp echoed Von Goom’s and Chesterton’s limited expectations of the rational, declaring that

art cannot be understood through the intellect, but is felt through an emotion presenting some analogy with a religious faith or a sexual attraction- an esthetic echo.[32]

This “esthetic echo” that goes beyond mere intellect hints at a richer Christian faith than most experience or expect. Even Barr admitted that, although “my Christian faith is intellectual and therefore feeble,” “belief is emotional,” and asked further “how can you be pessimistic if you open the shutter of your soul to beauty?” and worked on various projects relating faith and art.[33]

Art commentator Daniel Seidell likens Duchamp’s spiritual perspective on material objects to that of Jackson Pollock, whose art often resulted from random paint drippings to suggest a fusion of the spiritual and the carnal, saturated with an aesthetic of desire in both realms. Seidell shows this as a move not simply beyond modernity but a return to the premodern approach, a world “saturated with sacramental and liturgical meaning and significance” which “mediates the immanent and the transcendent because God is viewed as the cause of all things; all things are symbols and signs of other things, all of which have their being in and through God.”[34] Seidell echoes Musician and Theologian Jeremy Begbie, who claims that Plato’s concern that “the artist should be accountable to . . . sources of truth and meaning which pre-exist the poetic engagement with the world” naturally gives way to the Christian account of a God-endowed world “as already laden with meaning and order (even ‘beauty’).”[35] Finding such beauty in the world often results from a journey of desire, Seidell explains, as “it is desire that leads one toward the other, and ultimately toward God . . . the ground of transcendence, a transcendence of one’s own limitations, one’s own lack.”[36] Duchamp understood this, though he took the turn of considering such desire from a Buddhist perspective, investigating the practice in which inner peace is sought by overcoming and negating such desires; he needed, however, to read Eliot.

Oxford Literature Professor and popular writer, C.S. Lewis (1898-1963), completed Duchamp’s thoughts on the spiritual nature of art, explaining to an artist in The Great Divorce that

When you painted on earth – at least in your earlier days – it was because you caught glimpses of Heaven in the earthly landscape . . . Every poet and musician and artist, but for Grace . . . is drawn away from love of the thing he tells . . . [till] they cannot be interested in God at all but only in what they say about Him . . . If you’re only interested in the country for the sake of painting it, you’ll never learn to see it properly. You’re forgetting, that’s how you began. Light itself was your first love; you loved to paint only as a means of telling about the light.[37]

It is only natural that transcendent beauty can be found incarnated in the everyday world, as Lewis explains in Miracles:

The central miracle asserted by Christians is the Incarnation. They say that God became man . . . There is no question in Christianity of arbitrary interferences just scattered about. It relates not a series of disconnected raids on Nature but the various steps of a strategically coherent invasion – an invasion which intends complete conquest and ‘occupation.’[38]

Art does reveal such beauty, a beauty impinging on us, or implanted here before us, from another world. Duchamp would have applauded Lewis’s own journey, to which we now turn, as he found the truth behind such beauty.

Chess and Faith: C.S. Lewis

The journey to faith for Oxford Literature C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) was driven by his insatiable appetite for beauty, though he frequently employed chess as a metaphor when describing it. Art commentator Daneil Seidell reminds that Lewis referred to the tension between the mundane and divine, so central to the artistic impulse, as our condition of amphibious existence, as we are “half spirit . . . which belongs to the eternal world, but as animals [we] inhabit time” whose “nearest approach to constancy, therefore, is undulation” between the poles.[39] The journey of desire was as central to Lewis as it was for Duchamp, as he claims that it is in our desire for the eternal that we find our meaning and purpose. Rather than a Buddhist or Stoic posture of self-denial, Lewis claims that,

[given] the unblushing promises of rewards and staggering nature of the rewards
promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.[40]

Lewis further explains that aesthetic beauty is just a travel stop, but not the final destination:

If we are made for heaven, the desire for our proper place will already be in us, but not yet attached to the true object, and will even appear as the rival to that object . . . in speaking of this desire for a far-country . . . [it is a] secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence . . . we cannot tell it because it is a desire for something which has never actually appeared in our experience. We cannot hide it because our experience is constantly suggesting it . . . Our commonest expedient is to call it beauty and behave as if that had settled the matter . . . But this is a cheat.[41]

Lewis’s first use of chess is in Pilgrim’s Regress, his first book after coming to faith. He uses the image of a chess player to illustrate the shallow nature worldly wisdom in the story, which is a modern era retelling of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (1678). In Bunyan’s story, Pilgrim travels from this world (the “City of Destruction”) to the next (heaven, the “Celestial City”); in Lewis’s story, John leaves the legalistic land of his birth, Puritania, in search of a western island which beckons him with desire possessing “a sweetness and a pang so piercing that instantly he forgot his father’s house.”[42]  John wrestles with his sense of sin against the rules of the Landlord of Puritania and comes to convince himself the Landlord does not actually exist, but follows the siren call of the western lands. John journeys between the cold, austere, and intellectually driven land of the North dominated by debates on doctrine and logic, and the fertile, humid land of the South in which passions run powerfully but unrestrained. John finds guidance from Mother Kirk (the Church), avoids pitfalls from both sides, and reaches the Island which he realizes is merely the other side of the mountains of Puritania in which the Landlord was believed to live.

Along the way, John visits the home of Mr. Sensible, a worldly-wise figure with only a shallow appreciation of the spiritual. There he finds the old gentleman “seated by a blazing wood fire with his dog at his feet and his book on his knees and a jig-saw puzzle at one side of him . . . and on the other a chessboard with the pieces set for a problem.”[43] Of such puzzles, Mr. Sensible declares that “the great art of life is to moderate our passions,” have our enjoyments but not so much as to ache for them when they are gone. We will soon see that Lewis would take extreme issue with this approach. But for Mr. Sensible, the chessboard, like any exercise of reason or imagination, is essentially a diversion, not any sort of hint of greater meaning or truth, like the jig-saw puzzle of which he explains “while I am engaged on it it seems to me of sovereign importance to fit the pieces together. When it is done, I think of it no more.”[44]

To understand why Lewis deemed such fleeting joys of supreme importance, we must examine his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, in which he employs the metaphor of a chess game to describe his journey to faith. Lewis admits to having experienced flashes or fleeting pangs of joy (reminiscent of “desire” discussed by Duchamp among others) in various experiences throughout his life, but had grown sophisticated, scientific, and skeptical in his college days.[45] The stories in which he often found them he dismissed as unreal, but came to sense their transformative power when reading a copy of George MacDonald’s Phantastes he purchased in a train station:

It was as though the voice which called to me from the world’s end were now speaking at my side . . . all the confusions that had hitherto perplexed my search for Joy were disarmed . . . now I saw a bright shadow coming out of the book into the real world and resting there, transforming all common things . . . my imagination was, in a certain sense, baptized; the rest of me . . . took a little longer[46]

“Check” Lewis thus declared.

His divine opponent then piled on in His attack. Enchantments introduced by MacDonald’s Phantastes faced him at every turn: academic colleagues he respected (including Tolkien) turned out one by one to possess the Christian faith he dismissed, writers he enjoyed and respected most turned out to be the religious ones, and philosophers taught him to admit some absolute being behind it all, and also to relish “energy, fertility, and urgency . . . even the insolence, of things that grow” and thus to appreciate “all the resonant, dogmatic, flaming, unanswerable people like Beethoven . . . Goethe . . . and the more exultant Psalms.”[47] As Lewis described,

All over the board my pieces were in the most disadvantageous positions. Soon I could no longer even cherish the illusion that the initiative lay with me. My Adversary began to make His final moves.[48]

The checkmate of Lewis’s soul required just a few more moves. “The first Move annihilated the last remains of the [skeptical] New Look” he admitted, as he re-read a mythological Greek classic, the Hippolytus of Euripides:

In one chorus all that world’s end imagery which I had rejected . . . rose up before me . . . I was overwhelmed. There was a transitional uneasiness, and then – instantaneously – the long inhibition was over, the dry desert lay behind, I was off once more into the land of longing, my heart at once broken and exalted as it had never been since the old days at Bookham.[49]

“The next move was intellectual, and consolidated the first Move” Lewis continues. In reading a philosopher’s treatise Time, Space, and Deity, Lewis found an argument which became foundational for him, namely, that contemplating a thing (the thought of it) is far different than actually experiencing and enjoying it. For Lewis, this meant that his desires and joys were mere hints of something else, something undeniably real, so that

the mental track left by the passage of Joy – not the wave but the wave’s imprint on the sand . . . all images, if idolatrously mistaken for Joy itself, soon honestly confessed themselves inadequate. All said, in the last resort, “It is not I. I am only a reminder. Look! Look! What do I remind you of?”[50]

While that move was “equivalent, perhaps, to the loss of one’s last remaining bishop,” the next move was more insidious, though it did not seem dangerous at the time. It consisted merely of connecting his experiences of Joy with his increasingly idealistic philosophy, admitting there was some kind of Absolute Being behind the cosmos. “I was like a man who has lost ‘merely a pawn’ and never dreams that this (in that state of the game) means mate in a few moves.”[51]

“The fourth move was more alarming,” as Lewis pondered the implications of the previous moves. He admitted the sense of some Absolute Being, but realized we had no way to know its mind, just as a character in a story does not allow us to meet the author, the difference between Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Shakespeare himself. But Christianity’s converts confronted Lewis at every turn, “really, a young atheist cannot guard his faith too carefully” he summarized: one colleague admitted that mythological stories about a god dying and rising again looked to have actually happened, while another impressed on him how the seemingly harmless philosophy of Plato was in fact a search, a journey, for the actual truth.[52] His own imperfections loomed in his mind as he contemplated the Being of absolute purity, as well as the need for said Being to initiate any communication, as Lewis could not do it on his own. He soon yielded himself to this God (though it took him a while to distinguish which God it was), on his knees, praying, though “perhaps, on this night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all of England,” though he soon admitted that the compulsion and “hardness of God is kinder than the softness of men, and His compulsion is our liberation.”[53]

Conclusion: Games and Bede Revisited

My gaming journey has now come nearly full circle: I sought entertainment and adventure as a young boy with little army men, though when I got closer to being a man, I put away such childish things, but discovered chess instead. Chess pushed my sense of logic, but often left other parts of me unfulfilled. As I now survey the development of board games, including chess, across the span of cultures, it becomes apparent that the exercise in strategic reasoning goes beyond the morals it purports to teach to the cosmic order behind them. I am reminded that Joseph Pieper teaches us that the term “culture” has as its root “cultus’ or divine worship, so in a way these games universally reflect man’s aspiration to find spiritual meaning.[54]

The drama of battle played out on every chessboard is rarely the same, though the story is: bring a form of death to the opposing king, preserve life for your own. Even for the victor, however, the game comes to an end, and the question of the meaning of it all remains. Two choices remain: either it was merely an amusing pastime, as for Lewis’s Mr. Sensible, or it evoked deeper questions as it did for so many others. Had Fischer exerted his skills at mastering life in the same way he dominated the chessboard, he might have come to the same conclusions as so many here, that our reason is a tool best used when engaged on a more significant journey. The journey engages all of our faculties, not just the intellect but our senses of meaning, of cosmic order, of aesthetics, of desire, and of ultimate purpose. Lewis found the flashes of desire to be only useful to a point, admitting in the finale of his autobiography, Surprised by Joy:

But what, in conclusion, of Joy. For that, after all, is what the story has mainly been about. To tell you the truth, the subject has lost nearly all interest for me since I became a Christian. I cannot claim, indeed, complain like Wordsworth, that the visionary gleam has passed away . . . But I now know that the experience, considered as a state of my own mind, had never the kind of importance I once gave it.[55]

Instead, they served as road signs on his ultimate journey:

It was valuable only as a pointer to something other and outer. While that other was in doubt, the pointer naturally loomed larger in my thoughts. When we are lost in the woods the sight of a signpost is a great matter . . . they will encourage us . . . but we shall not stop and stare, or not much, not on this road, though their pillars are of silver and their lettering of gold. ‘We would be going to Jerusalem.’[56]

Lewis thus harkens back to the sage advice from Bede the Venerable (672-735), the Anglo-Saxon monk writing in chess’s earliest days, which endures yet today, that the wise will:

                        Reflect while time still remains
Whether his
[or her] soul will win delight
Or darkness after his death day
[57] [58]

Postscript: Chess for the Masses

As a postscript to my life journey thus far with the royal game, I was privileged recently to become friends with a soccer ministry group, which organizes teams and training across the globe.[59] Moral and spiritual guidance is as important as tactical skills, such training tools being primarily Bible verse memorization and stories that illustrate various Christian doctrines in the guise of soccer stories. I was able to recently travel to Liberia to explore adding chess as a social and intellectual service as well as ministry opportunity. Chess is promoted in schools across the globe as an activity to intellectually engage children and develop mental discipline and skills which help in their education and career. African governments increasingly recognize this value of chess, a fine substitute for machine guns skills often foisted on the youth during times of civil strife.[60]

My current challenge is to find Bible verses for weekly memorization easily associated with chess, as well as a chess-oriented story to illustrate key doctrines and Bible stories. The game of royalty naturally lends itself to illustrating scriptural truths, as God’s rule over all of creation is the good news of the gospel. This is illustrated by passages such as Psalms 95:3 (“For the LORD is the great God, the great King above all gods”). Other pieces are suggested by various scripture: The Bishop, a shepherd of believers, might be associated with Psalms 23 (“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want”), the knight (horse) with Rev. 19 (“I saw the heaven opened and a white horse. The one sitting on it is called Faithful and True . . . His eyes are like a flame of fire . . . on his robe and on his thigh is a name written ‘King of Kings and Lord of Lords’”), and the rook (castle) with Psalm 46:1 (“God is our refuge, a very present help in trouble,” the inspiration for Martin Luther’s hymn “A Mighty Fortress is our God”). It has also been suggested that the four central squares being key for control of the board could suggest key verses from each of the four gospels for memorization.

The centrality of the Kingship of Christ over man and creation offers further avenues for promoting the faith imaginatively, as in the stories of Lewis and Tolkien. Any other king, whether mortal or on the chessboard, pale by comparison. Following Bede by a handful of centuries, King Canute the Great (990-1035 A.D.) offers a similar wisdom. Through uniting the crowns of England, Denmark and Norway, Canute realized the limits of his sovereignty, famously placing his throne on the shore of England, and deigning to command the tides to stop at his feet. As his royal command was ignored, King Canute declared, “Let all men know how empty and worthless is the power of kings, for there is none worthy of the name, but He whom heaven, earth, and sea obey by eternal laws.”[61]

Then he reportedly hung his gold crown on a crucifix to be never worn again, “to the honour of God the almighty King.”[62] Lewis’s Aslan, a lion as is typical of symbols of royal power (as indeed Christ is described as “the lion of Judah” in Revelations 5:5), is an effective figure to illustrate the kingship of Christ in his Chronicles of Narnia. Lewis’s Aslan reflects the mystery and divine sovereignty when described with, “He’s not safe, but he’s good;”[63] but is yet eminently approachable and knowable, as Lewis further claims that, “In your world I am known by another name. You must learn to know me by that name.[64] Likewise, Tolkien’s Aragorn, an image of Christ the King in his Lord of the Rings trilogy, portrays the Divine caretaker when Gandalf declares, “The hands of the King are hands of healing.”[65]

Even more telling is Tolkien’s implicit likening of Aragorn to Christ, fully human yet fully divine, when portraying the King of Middle Earth with,

Thus he became at last the most hardy of living Men, skilled in their crafts and lore, and was yet more than they; for he was elven-wise, and there was a light in his eyes that when they were kindled few could endure. His face was sad and stern because of the doom that was laid on him, and yet hope dwelt ever in the depths of his heart, from which mirth would arise at times like a spring from the rock.[66]

For Lewis and Tolkien, Aslan and Aragorn are inspired by the true King, King Jesus, of whom Paul stated in Philippians 2:6-8:

Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon himself the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men . . . and humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.

Chess, the “Royal Game,” is most true to its nature when it echoes heralds of the True King, King Jesus.

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Citation Information

Seth Myers, “Bombs, Board Games, and Bede the Venerable: But Mostly Chess,” An Unexpected Journal: Leisure 6, no. 3. (Fall 2023), 265-297.


[1] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring (New York: Ballantine Books, 1982), 50, 31.

[2] G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (Digireads, 2018), Ch. 2 “The Maniac,” 20.

[3] Bobby Fischer, interview by Dick Cavett, The Dick Cavett Show (1971), https:// www.youtube.com/watch?v=boyYKCr3T8w.

[4] Death Song of Bede in The Anglo-Saxon World: An Anthology, trans. Kevin Crossley-Holland Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 205.

[5] Bobby Fischer, “The Russians Have Fixed World Chess,” Sports Illustrated, August 20, 1962, vol. 17, no. 8, 18-19, 64-65,https://vault.si.com/vault/1962/08/20/42447.

[6] Herbert Mitgang, “Author Who Checkmated Academe,” New York Times, April 6, 1983, https://www.nytimes.com/1983/04/06/books/author-who-checkmated-academe.html.

[7] Todd Bartwick, Teaching Chess in the 21st Century: Strategies and Connections to a Standards Based World  (Englewood, Colorado: Chess Detective Press, 2005).

[8] Regrettably, however, many of the explorations into the history of Chess would simply not fit in the space allotted here. Given that the Russians have been heavily involved with modern chess and our next issue is on Dostoevsky, expect additional cerebral gaming eye-candy to appear there, including the development of chess across time and space including variants from India, Persia, China, Japan, and Scandinavia, as well related games like Go, Checkers and Backgammon from Egypt, Greece, and Rome among others.

[9] This was related to me by an exchange student, who said the board was often displayed on buttons pinned to clothes.

[10] Todd Bardwick, Teaching Chess in the 21st Century, 19.

[11] J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories”  in The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays (London: HarperCollins, 2006), 144.

[12] J.R.R. Tolkien, “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” in The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays, 25-26.

[13] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring (New York: Ballantine Books, 1982), 31.

[14]Ibid., I.10, “Strider,” 236.

[15] Ray Bradbury, Dandelion Wine (New York: HarperCollins, 2006), 68.

[16] Victor Contoski, “Von Goom’s Gambit” in Pawn to Infinity, ed. Fred and Joan Saberhagen (New York: Ace Publishing, 1982), 206.

[17] G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (Digireads, 2018), Ch. 2 “The Maniac,” 20.

[18] Seth Myers, “Lilith and The Queen’s Gambit: Two Ingenue Who Learn to Love Through Sacrifice” in An Unexpected Journal(Advent 2020: George MacDonald: Vol. 3, No. 4.). https://anunexpectedjournal.com/lilith-and-the-queens-gambit-two-ingenue-who-learn-love-through-sacrifice/. The MacDonald issue is at https://anunexpectedjournal.com/archive/v3-issue-4-george-macdonald/.

[19] T.S. Eliot, “The Wasteland” in The Complete Poems and Plays: 1909-1950 (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1971), I.1-2, p. 37.

[20] Ibid., I.60-63, p. 39. The lines are reminiscent of Rome as the Eternal (but now fallen) City and Dante’s lines from Inferno of damned souls wandering lost in hades. An of course excellent discussion on Eliot is found in Seth Myers, “Arthur in T.S. Eliot’s Wasteland: The Search for Regeneration” in An Unexpected Journal Vol.6, No. 3, June 23, 2023), https://anunexpectedjournal.com/arthur-in-t-s-eliots-the-waste-land-the-search-for-regeneration/. Dante is similarly discussed with a high caliber of discourse and profound insight at Seth Myers, “Dante for Moderns” in An Unexpected Journal Vol. 3, No. 3, Sept. 14, 2020. Online https://anunexpectedjournal.com/dante-for-moderns/.

[21] Ibid., II.137-138, p. 41.

[22] T.S. Eliot, “Ash Wednesday” in The Complete Poems and Plays: 1909-1950, I.40-41, 61.

[23] Ibid., V.4,11-12, 65.

[24] T.S. Eliot, “Burnt Norton” in The Complete Poems and Plays: 1909-1950, I.28-29, p. 118. The Four Quartets, which helped earn Eliot the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948, was comprised of four separate poems written between 1936 and 1942, Burnt Norton, East Coker, Dry Salvages, and Little Gidding, with each structured after the five sections of “The Wasteland” of 1922.

[25] T.S. Eliot, “East  Coker” in The Complete Poems and Plays: 1909-1950, 1.1, p.123.

[26] Ibid., V.23-25, p. 129.

[27] Ibid., 33-35.

[28] T.S. Eliot, “LIttle Gidding” in The Complete Poems and Plays: 1909-1950, IV.1-4, p. 143.

[29] Ibid., IV. 1-8, 13-14; pp. 143-144.

[30] Ibid., V.26-38, 145.

[31] Daniel Seidell, God in the Gallery: A Christian Embrace of Modern Art (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008) 36.

[32] Seidell, God in the Gallery, 91; Quoted in David Joselit, “Moles and Swarms” in Part Object Part Sculpture ed. Helen Molesworth (Columbus Oh: Wexner Center for the Arts; University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2005), 161.

[33] Seidell, God in the Gallery, 38; quoted in Sybil Gordon Kantor, Alfred H. Barr Jr. and the Intellectual Origins of the Museum of Modern Art (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002), 6.

[34] Seidell, God in the Gallery, 92.

[35] Jeremy Begbie, “Through the Arts: Hearing, Seeing and Touching the Truth,” in Beholding the Glory: Incarnation Through the Arts (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2000), 19.

[36] Seidell, God in the Gallery, 93.

[37] C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (New York: HarperOne, 2000), Ch. 9, 83, 85.

[38] C.S. Lewis, Miracles (New York: HarperOne, 2000), Ch.6 “The Grand MIracle,” 173.

[39] C.S. Lewis, Screwtape Letters (NewYork: HarperCollins, 2000), Letter 8, 37.

[40] C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory (New York: HarperCollins, 2000), 25-26.

[41] Ibid., 29-30.

[42] C.S. Lewis, The Pilgrim’s Regress (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1968), Bk 1, Ch. 2, 24.

[43] Ibid., Book V, Ch. 4 “Mr. Sensible,” 82.

[44] Ibid., 83.

[45] The three instances Lewis gives are a flowering currant bush on a summer day reminding him of a toy garden constructed by his brother, the idea of Autumn from Beatrix Potter’s Squirrel Nutkin stories, and some poem lines about the death of the Norse god Balder – “Baldr the beautiful is dead, is dead” – all of which evoked moments of intense desire, whether of John Milton’s “enormous bliss of Eden” from Paradise Lost, or of “being lifted into huge regions of northern sky” and desiring “with almost sickening intensity something never to be described (except that it is cold, spacious, severe, pale, and remote)” C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy (New York: HarperOne, 2000), 17-19.

[46] C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy (New York: HarperOne, 2000), Ch. XI “Check,”221-2.

[47] Ibid., Ch. XIII “The New Look,” 242-3.

[48] Ibid., Ch. XIV “Checkmate,” 264.

[49] Ibid., 265.

[50] Ibid., 268.

[51] Ibid., 271.

[52] Ibid., 276.

[53] Ibid., 279, 280.

[54] Josef Pieper, Leisure: The Basis of Culture (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2009), 15.

[55] C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 290.

[56] Ibid., 291.

[57] Bede the Venerable, “Death Song of Bede” in The Anglo-Saxon World: An Anthology, 205.

[58] The depth and riches of Bede’s thought is explored in Annie Nardone, “The Venerable Bede: Following the Medieval Christian Footpath,” An Unexpected Journal Volume 3, Issue 3, Fall 2020. https:// anunexpectedjournal.com/archive/v3-issue-3-medieval-minds/.

[59] Ambassadors Football USA, www.ambassadorsfootball.org of Twinsburg, Ohio. Valued friends include Jon Ortlip, Rahel Hagemeier, Ben Marias, Matt Pheneger, William, Edwin, and John “Boggsey” Boggs; special mention to Scott Myers for introducing us all in our early morning 2-3 v 1-3 indoor soccer playdates.

[60] “Chess in Schools Program Launched in Liberia” Sept. 27, 2019. https://fide.com/news/123.

[61] Henry of Huntingdon, The Chronicle of Henry Huntingdon (London: Legare Street Press, 2022), 199.

[62] Ibid.

[63] C.S. Lewis, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe (New York: Collier Books, 1977), Ch.VIII, 75-76.

[64] C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (New York: Collier Books, 1977), Ch. XVI, 216.

[65] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King, Book VI.4, “The Fields of Cormallen,” 252.

[66]  Ibid., Appendix A.v, 374.

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