Why Chess Is Like the Talmud, and Why Jews Love Both
There is probably no game as difficult and captivating as chess. Thousands of books and tens of thousands of essays have been published on how to improve your game. The rules are ruthless. There are no compromises, no flexibility. Zero rachmanut (mercy). It is all about midat hadin (harsh rendering). The terrifying rigid rules can make players mad to the point of possibly considering suicide.
But is chess rigid?
The rules seem easy until you start playing. The entire game takes place on a chessboard smaller than the size of a side table, but the game is larger than life. There is good reason why the most famous chess players are considered not only brilliant people but geniuses with advanced mathematical minds.
But is chess rigid? Is it “fundamentalist,” or perhaps “dogmatic”? Does it deny the player his freedom of thought or action? In one sense, it does. The player cannot move the pieces as he would like to, but this is exactly what makes the game so exciting. It leads to an unprecedented outburst of creativity. In der Beschränkung zeigt sich erst der Meister. Und das Gesetz nur kann uns Freiheit geben, said Goethe – “It is in limitation that the master proves himself. And law alone brings us freedom.”
The chessboard becomes the world; the pieces are the phenomena of the universe; the rules of the game are the laws of nature; and man roams freely once he applies the rules to such an extent that a whole new world is revealed.
But let us never forget: He who knows all the rules is not necessarily a great player. What makes him a formidable opponent is his ability to use these rules to unleash an outburst of creativity, which emerges only because of the “unbearable” limitations. It is mental torture, but it is the height of beauty as well. It is poetry to the game, as melody is to music — like one gentle brushstroke of Rembrandt on a colorful canvas, making everything look radically different; or like the genius musician playing her Stradivarius, re-creating the whole of Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5. It transports the chess player to heaven.
And that is why Talmudic scholars, and religious and secular Jews love this game and often excel at it.* Chess reminds them, consciously or subconsciously, of the world of Talmudic halachic debate with all its intrigues, obstacles, and seemingly deliberate tendency to make life more difficult. For the true posek (halachic expert and decisor), the tension, challenge and delight involved in discovering an unprecedented solution is the ultimate simcha (joy).
Chess reminds one of the Talmudic concept of eilu ve-eilu divrei elokim chayim (these and those are the words of the living God). There are rishonim (early authorities) and acharonim (later authorities). There are commentaries, sub-commentaries, major differences of opinion, fiery clashes, and even mistakes that carry dimensions of truth.
Halacha is the greatest chess game on earth, the Jewish game par excellence. The serious chess player embraces it because the impossible rules thrill him as nothing else does. They make him divinely insane. On top of that, he is inspired by the greats who came before him, reminding us of the famous halachic positions of Rambam (Maimonides, 1138-1204), the Ravad (Rabbi Avraham ben David, 1125-1198), Maran (Rabbi Yosef Karo author of the Shulchan Aruch, 1488-1575) and the unparalleled Rogatchover (Rabbi Yosef Rozin, 1858-1936).
Certainly chess is just a game, while Halacha, if properly understood and lived, deals with real life, deep religiosity, moral dilemmas, emotions and intuitions far more significant in man’s life than a chess game.
The man who plays chess in real life will realize that if he “plays” well, he’ll be on track to drawing closer and closer to his goal, until he is checkmated and, unlike in a chess game, falls into the arms of the King.
*Jews make up 0.2 percent of the world population, but 54 percent of the world chess champions. (David Brooks, “The Tel Aviv Cluster,” The New York Times, January 11, 2010). The Israeli city Beersheba has the most chess grand masters per capita in the world. (Gavin Rabinowitz, “Beersheba Masters Kings, Knights, Pawns,” LA Times, January 30, 2005). A typical example of a great Jewish chess player is David ben Gurion, first prime minister of Israel, who used to secretly play chess behind the Knesset plenum, when he was bored with the superfluous debates in the Israeli government!
To read an expanded version of this article, click here.