Chess can be beautiful

Richard Shumack reflects on The Queen’s Gambit, and the moral beauty of chess.

Thanks to Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit and COVID, chess is back.

I’m a mediocre player, but there’s so much I love about chess. I love losing at wine-and-chess nights with friends. I love the aesthetic possibilities of the board and pieces. I love that the number of possible moves is something like the number of visible particles in the universe. I love Chess, the Musical. I love The Queen’s Gambit (twice so far) and agree with Beth Harmon that “Chess can be beautiful”.

Benjamin Franklin believed chess was morally beautiful too:

“Several very valuable qualities of the mind, useful in the course of human life, are to be acquired or strengthened by it, so as to become habits, ready on all occasions. For life is a kind of chess, in which we have often points to gain, and competitors or adversaries to contend with, and in which there is a vast variety of good and ill events, that are, in some degree, the effects of prudence or the want of it.”

I suppose many of us humans do treat life like a game to win – ideally fair and square as Franklin hoped. But, as Jesus once warned a litigious brother, life surely transcends an earthly game of winning and losing.

For all its beauty, chess remains adversarial. It suits Cold War stories because it is literally a war game. So, I’m glad I usually lose – it reminds me to look up and remember to enjoy my opponent.