Opinions, Column

This Is Your Brain on Chess

I never wanted to be a chess guy—someone who obsesses over midgame strategies, remembers the names to all the openings, and talks about high-profile matches with friends. Despite this, over the past few weeks, the game has swallowed up my free time and invaded my thoughts.

It all started because I got a new iPhone at the start of this year. Prior to this purchase, I had stubbornly professed the superiority of my Google Pixel, so when my texts suddenly turned from green to blue, a lot of my Apple-supporting friends became very excited. The culmination of this excitement resulted in several GamePigeon requests for games of chess. And since then, I’ve been hooked.

But this is not the first brush I’ve had with the hypnotic checkerboard. Up until college, I was a part of every chess team at every school I attended. I had a sort of a knack for getting fourth place—never quite good enough to beat the people who were really into chess. None of my schools were particularly competitive at chess, so I never felt pressured to up my level of intensity. And by the time I got to college, I figured my chess-playing days would finally be behind me.

But now, I start and end my days with chess. Before I’ve even had a chance to fully wake up, I’ve already done a daily puzzle. In class, I hide my phone under the desk and sneak in a rapid game when the lecture hits a lull. My homework is frequently interrupted by my longing to play just one more time before I move on to the next problem. As I try to fall asleep, my mind is flooded with images of queen trades and blundered bishops. But I stay true to my desire to avoid becoming a chess guy by refusing to learn anything new about the game. Despite chess’s reputation as an intellectually challenging and complex game, I try to take the opposite approach. I play chess to turn my brain off for a bit, the same way others might scroll through social media or play Candy Crush.

I recently found out that a lot of my friends have also been spending their idle time playing chess online. It’s nice to talk to each other about newly discovered strategies, strange moves that our opponents made, or critical moments when we slipped up in a game. There’s a sense of community among people who play chess—even with those who, like me, aren’t particularly good at the game. It’s nice to think of chess as this secret little world that I get to share with those close to me. 

But, I have recently come to realize chess is so much more important than a casual pastime.

I know that chess played a symbolic role during the cold war, and some people have dedicated their lives to the pursuit of perfecting the game, at times at the expense of their own sanity.

In Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 film The Seventh Seal, a knight returns from the Crusades to find his country ravaged by the plague. Overwhelmed with the feeling that he has not yet had the chance to do something meaningful with his life and hoping to complete some act of redemption before he dies, the knight encounters Death and challenges him to a game of chess to prolong his life. He plays the same game that I play on my phone while standing in the elevator, but while my victory stands to gain me a handful of points for my chess score, his stood to save his life. 

In the end, it didn’t matter if the knight won or lost, because all he was doing was delaying his inevitable death. And yet, chess, despite its simplicity, was so captivating that even Death became entranced by the game.

It’s strange to think there is such a disparity among the levels at which this game is played, but there’s such a straightforward beauty to chess that makes every game feel meaningful, regardless of the stakes. Whether you’re a grandmaster or a beginner, a knight fighting death, or a student passing the time, we’re all playing the same game.

March 19, 2023