Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Chess Theory

In chess, when one player is outmatched, the game is over.
-Mr. Spock

Life is not a game of chess.

I mean that in a couple of different senses. For one, much to the chagrin of our Vulcan friend up there, life is not as clean-cut and logical as a game of chess. Life is big and confusing and messy and unpredictable. In chess, the queen is the most valuable piece (save for the king), and you know to protect her. You can see all her enemies coming a mile away, and you have plenty of time to prepare. In life, a rook may sneak right up behind your back, and you often have no idea which piece was the queen until it's already gone.

In chess, everyone starts with identical pieces with which to fight their battle. Not so in life. In life, all the pieces are thrown into a bag and spilled out in front of you at random, so that you may end up with any mix of pieces. Some people have seven queens. Others have nothing but pawns. A certain few are born without a king; their game is over before it started.

But the most important way that chess differs from life is that life is in color. Chess has only black and white. It is clear who your enemies are; they are the ones Not Like You. Your goal is to destroy them. In life, you've got all the colors known to Crayola running around. I like to think I am a nice rich shade of purple, maybe Violet Red. When I look around the world, I may see other shades of purple and try to join with them, but very few will be Violet Red. And if I want to look for an enemy, what then? I never did like Cornflower and Yellow-Green, but if I look at them closely I'll realize we're both made of blue. And anyway, the goal of coloring was never to defeat the other colors, but to combine with them and make something nice.

But I may be getting too deep into the world of metaphor. What I'm trying to get at here is that a lot of people, using whatever measuring stick is most relevant to them, try to divide life up as if it were a chess game. They choose a team, choose an Other to oppose, and try to outmatch them. Sometimes it really is white vs. black. Sometimes it's gay/straight, old/young, liberal/conservative, traditional/radical, vegans/omnivores, lactivists/bottle-feeders, unschoolers/"Muggles"*, or whatever else you can think of. And then it becomes a zero-sum game. In extreme cases, it can slip into wild statements about wishing the other group would stop existing. Because remember what Spock said about chess: "When one player is outmatched, the game is over." The only way to stop the Others from outmatching you is to outmatch them first, to end the game. A world where I cannot "win" without defeating someone else is not the kind of world I want to live in.

I firmly believe that life-as-chess is the mindset that leads to all of the most heinous, reprehensible acts in the world, whether on as large a scale as the Holocaust or as small a scale as kids beating each other up over small-town football rivalries. But the life-as-chess mindset requires tunnel vision. It requires imagining life as purely logical, instead of wonderful and tangled and messy. It requires pulling only the black and white crayons out of the box and dumping all the others on the floor as if they simply didn't exist. It requires you to behave as if everyone had all the same pieces, and ignore the people who don't. If your view of the world includes only Us and Them, you're missing all the people who fall outside of that dichotomy. If your answer to all the world's problems fits on a bumper sticker, you're not seeing the whole picture.

I like chess, but if I have my choice of all the games in the whole wide world, I'd much rather play Beatles Rock Band. Let's get some harmonies going in here.

*I have to admit, I can't resist the cuteness of the "Muggle" metaphor. But I like it precisely because it is only the evil wizards who oppose the Muggles; the good guys respect the Muggles' rights, even if they cannot share their worldview.