The Divine Insanity of Halachic Chess

Nathan Lopes Cardozo

vrijdag 12 juli 2019

There is probably no game as difficult and captivating as chess. Millions of people break their heads over strategies to win this game and spend years learning its ins and outs. It holds them captive as nothing else does. They dream about it and discuss the move of one single pawn as if their lives depend on it. They will follow the most famous chess tournaments and discuss every move of a world champion for days and even years. They replay famous, mind-boggling games of the past, even those that took place as far back as seventy years ago. These chess aficionados try to improve on those games of the distant past, often getting into heated arguments about a brilliant or foolish move that took place fifty years earlier. Thousands of books and tens of thousands of essays have been published on how to improve at playing the game. The rules are set up in the World Chess Federation's FIDE Handbook. Strategies are developed and tactics suggested; countless combinations have been tried to the point that some typical patterns have their own names, such as "Boden's Mate" and "Lasker's Combination". Mikhail Botvinnik revolutionized the opening theory, which was considered nothing less than a Copernican breakthrough. Famous chess studies, such as the one published by Richard Reti (1921), are revelations of tremendous depth. (He depicted a situation in which it seems impossible for the white king to catch the advanced black pawn while the white pawn can be easily stopped by the black king.)

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. Each player has sixteen pieces, which are played on 64 squares, but they become so large in one's psyche that they dazzle the eyes of the spectator. Some of the pieces can move in any direction; others can move any number of squares along any rank or file but may not leap over other pieces. There are those that can only move diagonally and others that are allowed to move two squares horizontally and one square vertically, or two squares vertically and one square horizontally, thus making the complete move look like the letter 'L.'

It may sound very easy, but what any player soon realizes is that these basic rules allow for thousands of combinations, maneuvers and sub-rules, depending on the position of a pawn, a rook, or a knight. These rules can become so complicated and can cause such major obstacles that one may prefer to take on higher mathematics, which looks easy in comparison. (It is not!) 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? Does it constrain? Is it "fundamentalist," or perhaps "dogmatic"? Does it deny the players their freedom of thought or action? In one sense, it does. Players cannot move the pieces as they would like to. There are rules that make the game incredibly difficult. But that fact is exactly what makes this 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 (1).

The chessboard becomes the world; the pieces are the phenomena of the universe; the rules of the game are the laws of nature; and players roam freely on this board once they apply the rules in a way that will deepen their impact to such an extent that a whole new world is revealed.

But let us never forget: One who knows all the rules is not necessarily a great player. What makes players formidable opponents is their ability to use these rules to unleash an outburst of creativity, which resides deep within them and emerges only because of the "unbearable" limitations. They then strike! One small move forces a major shift, creating total upheaval and causing the opponent to panic as never before. And all this without ever violating one chess rule. It's mental torture. But it's 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. Their bodies must be in top form, because their playing ability deteriorates when their bodies do. They are inseparable. An entire world of feelings, images, ideas, emotions and passions come to the forefront.

There are hundreds of opening moves and end games. And all of them are authentic.

And that is why Talmudic scholars, religious Jews and secular Jews love this game and are often very good at it (2). Chess reminds them, consciously or subconsciously, of the world of Talmudic halachic debate with all its intrigues, its severe obstacles, and its seemingly deliberate tendency to make life more difficult and sometimes nearly impossible. The truly religious Jew loves it because it is these challenges that make life exciting and irresistible. For the true posek (halachic expert and decisor), the tension, challenge and delight involved in discovering an unprecedented, mindboggling solution is the ultimate simcha (joy). Skipping through a maze of obstacles, circumventing what seems impossible in the eyes of his halachic opponents, and backing them into a corner like a pawn on the chessboard, thereby solving a serious halachic problem, is the peak of divine satisfaction that a halachic authority can experience.

Chess reminds one of the Talmudic concept of eilu ve-eilu divrei elokim Chayim (these and those are the words of the living God, Eruvin, 13b). 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.

Halachic discussion is like chess. It is a clash of the minds. Sometimes, "the passed pawn is a criminal, who should be kept under lock and key. Mild measures, such as police surveillance, are not sufficient" (3). Its position is treif (non-kosher) by all standards. Other times, maneuvers are possible in the opinions of some, while still others have their doubts. But above all, "chess is so inspiring that I do not believe a good player is capable of having an evil thought during the game" (4).

And so it is with Halacha. Who would have a bad thought while studying the Avnei Miluim (5) and Ketzot HaChoshen (6), two of the most sophisticated halachic works ever to appear on earth?

Halacha is the greatest chess game on earth. It is the Jewish game par excellence. For people who want to live a life of great meaning and depth, nothing is more demanding and torturous while simultaneously uplifting and mind-broadening. They love the rules because they are the way to freedom. All the real chess player wants is to play chess. Players recognize that others prefer dominoes or rummikub. And that's fine. But the chess player smiles, for those games can't hold a candle to chess. They are child's play. The serious chess players embrace this greatest game of all, because the impossible rules give them the thrill of life as nothing else does. They make players divinely insane. On top of that, they have to choose from among many options of genius chess players. This reminds 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 a person's life than a chess game.

Those who play chess in real life will realize that if they "play" well they're on the right track to drawing closer and closer to the King, until they are checkmated and, unlike in a chess game, fall into the arms of the King.


(1) "It is in limitation that the master proves himself. And law alone brings us freedom." Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's sonnet ‘Natur und Kunst, sie scheinen sich zu fliehen’ (‘Nature and Art, they go their separate ways’) in Was wir bringen (1802).

(2) 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!

(3) Aron Nimzowitsch, My System (Dallas, TX: Hays Publishing, 1991) p. 32.

(4) This quote is attributed to Austrian and later American chess Master player Wilhelm Steinitz, the first undisputed world chess champion from 1886 to 1894.

(5) A halachic work by Rabbi Aryeh Leib HaKohen Heller (1745-1813), which explains difficult passages in the Shulchan Aruch, Even HaEzer, which deals mainly with marital issues.

(6) A halachic work by Rabbi Heller, which explains difficult passages in the Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat, which deals mainly with business and financial laws.

3 + 3 = ?

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