22 August 1913: Walter Wisby, aged eight, playing a game of chess with T Whiltard, aged 91, in Cheltenham. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Why you should add chess to your home school curriculum

It is strange to think that a piece of wood on a board can be so emblematic of what it means to be human

“I consider myself a genius, who happens to play chess.” – Bobby Fischer.

My son’s primary school has obliged me to educate him. I suppose this is fair enough, him being my son and not an assumed vassal of the state. I have therefore embraced the opportunity by moulding the requirements of the National Curriculum into a more bespoke form. If he’s going to be indoctrinated one way or the other, it might as well be by me.

We have ditched the letters to Donald Trump about “climate change” in favour of lessons about the glories of empire. I have eliminated any mention of “personal and health development” so that I can teach him about the beauty of the Tridentine Mass. We have reinvigorated prayer life.

But what about recreation?

Chess is a sixty-four square compression of the possibilities of the universe

I’ve been teaching him how to play the unfathomably complex game of chess. In this game all life can be found. Chess is a sixty-four square, 32-piece compression of the possibilities of the universe. A chess board on its own is a merely piece of wood (well, mine is); when complete with a set of pieces and rules, however, it immediately offers up a quantum complexity, one which challenges the finite minds of those who play it. When Wilhelm Steinitz (the first official World Chess Champion) was asked if he would win a game of chess against God, he replied that it would depend on who had the first move. I suspect that He might agree.

Chess announces its sophistication to minds of differing plasticity. When I was a child I was a fan of the mathematician/Grandmaster John Nunn. Nunn was (is) a mathematical genius: a prodigy within the academic conventions which gifted him a place at Oxford in his teens. But he never got anywhere near the level of Kasparov: the greatest player who ever pushed a pawn and who once shrugged at the idea of an essential connection between chess and mathematics. Chess eludes characterisations of intellect.

Siegbert Tarrasch, a “Grandmaster” of the twentieth century, made the point well: “Many have become chess masters; no one has become the master of chess.”

I have therefore decided that chess is an appropriate vehicle of home schooling and that it can teach the teacher as well as the student. If it’s impossible to properly teach something, then best to start right away.

I realise there are some immediate objections. Chess is old and therefore outside the zeitgeist. It’s entirely possible that the traditions of the game disclose prejudices yet to be discovered. Or invented. But I’m fairly sure that the “wokery” of the chessboard is intact.

I’ll explain.

You can’t regulate a game of chess; the rules are what makes the game possible in the first place

We have the obvious feminist point: that the King is the most important – the sui generis player. This may be true, but being the most important player does not make you the most powerful player. The Queen is the most powerful piece and the Queen sacrifice is the most amazing (and frankly Shakespearean) move that can happen within a game. By definition, the King cannot sacrifice himself. Macbeth was the King, but he was rarely able to step beyond one square at a time.

Moving on, and this bit could be problematic…

No major piece can suddenly declare an alternative identity. The identities are fixed; otherwise, the game cannot work. There is no way a bishop can decide to become a knight. The separation of church and state remains intact. It’s true that the bishops move within fixed diagonal lines, with little power to think for themselves but… (do you see where I’m going with this?).

A minor piece (the pawn) is able to change its status provided it’s been through the eighth rank realignment.

Personally, I think that’s a rule which should be revised. But it’s been in place for a while.

A game of chess is a system of choices conducted within a system of permissions

And then there’s the historical context. When I teach my child the traditions of chess, I am at the same time immersing him in the Persian culture from which the game emerged. There is a Western intellectual chauvinism in play which causes us to overlook the beautiful history of the Eastern medieval intellectual tradition. It’s no good me forcing him to read Aquinas if he’s unaware of the intellectual currents of the time. Chess was a pastime of those who were writing the intellectual history of the time. And, trust me, he is forced to read Aquinas.

And the literary context? Chess has been prominent there too. Beckett was particularly keen: to the extent that in Murphy he invites us to imagine a game between the eponymous anti-hero and the “resident” of a care home; in the course of which the resident asserts his freedom by moving within the rules of chess while violating its etiquette.

And that’s the point. The philosopher John Searle cites chess as an activity which is not regulated by rules but is determined by them. If you remove the rules of chess from two people playing it, it’s not like telling them which side of the road they can drive on. Some rules constitute an activity; others merely regulate it. You can’t regulate a game of chess; the rules are what makes the game possible in the first place. No rules equal no freedom; no freedom means no rules.

This is the best bit of my connection to my son when it comes to learning chess. It isn’t the “bonding” (which is wonderful); nor is it his suspicion that I might have let him win. It’s the weird assertion of freedom that attends a child when they conquer a new task. They look at you and, as a form of reassurance, assert that they have won. And as a decent response we agree with them. But if there are no rules in the first place, then “winning” means nothing.

Within a game of chess there are endless possible moves and games. A game of chess is a system of choices conducted within a system of permissions; this is what makes the game so astonishing. It allows for a Karpov to develop a reputation of defensiveness against a Kasparov who is more thunderbolts from the sky.

And this is what I’ve been able to teach my child: that it is from within a system of rules that true freedom becomes possible. You cannot be free to violate rules which don’t exist. It’s the existence of rules which makes freedom possible. People who fight against rules need to understand that it is the rules which make the fight possible in the first place. And to fight back against the rules – as sometimes becomes necessary – we need to have acquired the grammar of that fight.

It’s very strange to think that a piece of wood carved in a particular way and populated by other pieces of wood can be so emblematic of what it means to be human. But when a human mind looks at that board, all manner of possibilities – while constrained by the rules of the game – come to life.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try three issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £5

Critic magazine cover