Chess Is Life

A famous quote by Bobby Fischer: "Chess Is Life"

Many aspects of the game of chess are reflected in life. For example, the war scenario of chess symbolizes the wars between nations. The hierarchy of the chess pieces, where the King is the most important piece and the pawn is the least important, reflects the pecking order that exists in society.

Can you think of any other similarities between chess and life ?

Chess was invented (as far as anyone knows) in India as a simulation of war. It spread through Persia to Europe, arriving here during the middle ages. It became very popular in upper class circles -- it was one of the essential skills that a knight had to know -- and the game's popularity gradually filtered down to the lower classes until card games displaced it in the 14th century. Europeans made several changes to chess; they could not or would not use the Persian names for pieces, they changed how the pieces moved, and so on. More importantly, they changed chess from a game about war into a game about mediaeval court politics. This explains the selection of pieces and their relative power. For example, the Queen is the most powerful piece because Queens had to be expert politicians just to survive in medieval court life, the King is less powerful but must be protected at all costs, pawns are weak and are sacrificed to protect higher ranks but can get promoted to ranks of power, bishops are powerful (the Church had a far greater influence on politics in Europe than it does today), knights are used to protect high ranking pieces, and so on.

I think this is somewhat fanciful. From what I know of medieval politics, kings and queen had to be adept at manipulation - and many kings fought battles from the front lines, so they were hardly needing of protection from political opponents.

The Europeans could not or would not use the Persian names for pieces. I get the impression they simply translated them, just as we now call a king a king instead of a roi or rex or some such. But the name rook still refers to an exclusively eastern sort of siege tower.

And the term "checkmate" is a corruption (via French?) of "shah mat" -- "the king is dead", in Persian, IIRC.


I don't know if I'd accept the opinion of a chess Master about chess and life - he knows much about chess, but from what I've seen of that group, he knows little of life.

That's right. Really, RpgsAreLife?. They try to mimic it, at least.

I don't know if this is true of all chess masters, though it was certainly true of Bobby Fischer, who was a class-A flake.

I prefer a backgammon metaphor because it has a lot of randomness, and power is derived from position. Still a bit of a stretch though.


Sometimes I wonder if the SapirWhorfHypothesis can be extended to the games people play. In particular, people who play a lot of chess versus people who play a lot of Go versus people who play Doom. Do people tend to use the strategies they learn playing these games in real life ? When a game teaches that some particular stategy doesn't work, does that lead to people assuming they won't work in real life either ? -- DavidCary

Some differences between chess and Go and Doom, that could possibly explain differences in real-life behavior:

Comparing chess and Go is silly: they are both zero-sum two player games of perfect information, and that's about it. Go is so much richer than chess that it's even hard to talk about them using the same vocabulary. I do have one point of comparison, though: I never really got to grips with chess, and a keen club player friend of mine stated, after playing me a few times, that I never would because I lacked the "killer instinct" required. I think I'm quite glad to lack a killer instinct. In Go, the meta-strategy for success is PlayToDraw. Maybe in life too, unless you think that crushing the other player(s) utterly is a valid life goal, I suppose.

The second point above illustrates my point well. I'd guess that it was written by someone who hasn't played much Go. In Go the power (or influence, or value on the board) of a stone is determined by the environment on the board in which it currently exists. It is this emergent, and strongly time-dependent feature of Go play that makes it a more satisfying game, and (if you need it to be that) model of life. Whole games can be won and lost on the play of a single stone, and that stone could be the first one you played, and you might not realise its true significance until the last move you play.

Yes, you've pegged me exactly. I'm a mediocre chess player. I must have played hundreds of games of chess in my lifetime, but less than 5 games of Go. When you say that Go is a better model of real life than chess, do you think that is true in general for all humans ? If I wonder how a particular human is going to act in some real-life situation unrelated to game playing -- for example, I wonder if some general is going to attack, retreat, or surrender on a particular real battlefield -- will I make more accurate predictions if I describe his actions in terms of Go, or is it possible that (when that general plays lots of chess, has never played go) I will make more accurate predictions if I describe his actions in terms of chess ? -- DavidCary


"zero-sum two player games of perfect information" Naturally this leads the discussion to games that do not fit this discription. The first one that comes to mind is MineSweeper?, a one-player game that has hidden and partial information.

If you've had some revelation/epiphany about some fact in the real world while playing any kind of game, I would be interested.

But I'm more interested in games people have played for decades (Go, chess, poker, cricket ... ?), long enough for them to heavily influence their thought patterns, and discussion about what exactly (if any) that influence may be.

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