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The Queen’s Gambit: Chess and the Game of Life

An article by Gustavo Bernardino, Co-founder at Fire Can Burn.

The chessboard is one big square divided into sixty-four little squares. It is a matrix of limited and exact space. The rules are fixed and the pieces move within stable patterns. Every time a piece moves, the possible strategies move along and also change. There are many ways to beat and to be beaten in chess, but there’s a limit to it, for it is a finite universe. So much so, that a computer can master the game by rendering all the possible outcomes with combinatorial mathematics.

Elizabeth Harmon in the Netflix series “The Queen’s Gambit” is the orphan girl devoid of care and security who finds shelter in chess. The limits and predictability of the game are able to set boundaries to her desperation and to comfort her disquiet mind and angry soul.

Elizabeth is a grandmaster in chess, but no more than an amateur in existence. Her life, with all its tragedies and misfortunes, is a too complicated game to play so she prefers to escape it whenever possible: At all times she is trying to sedate and tranquilize herself, using medication, alcohol and other drugs, shutting out life and transposing her mind off to a chessboard.

The series shows very clearly that one can be a great player in a game, but still do poorly in comprehending one’s own concrete vital existence. We could say that Elizabeth is an absolute illiterate when dealing with different dimensions of life other than chess.

Although chess could be a symbol to life itself, it takes place in an almost pure logical dimension, whereas life in its total experience has a full range of different dimensions. Chess is logical and mathematical, but concrete human existence is never pure computation and predictability. The very own substance of life is drama and adventure, as the spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset used to say.

Adventure comes from the latin verb ad-venire, which we could translate as to come to or that which comes to. It happens, it is not called for, it just stems from a hidden source, a life’s motor, the wheel of fortune, luck, destiny, you name it, but it comes to us without us ourselves creating it.

There are many additional life dimensions, beyond the chess-thinking one, that Elizabeth seems to lack proper education or skills to deal with. And why is that? Because our society does not provide such orientations any longer. Elizabeth’s mother was equally lost.

“The Queen’s gambit” is able to bring us to these existential reflections. This text is just a small attempt to deepen these reflections a little bit more. What is there in the game of life, which surpasses chess? What are the factors that we cannot reduce to a simple game?

Beyond the dimension of adventure, we could also account for the dimension of meaning, which does not contradict logic, but extrapolates it. This is the simple individual act of asking “But why? Why is it so when it could’ve been another way just as good?.

Understanding how the pieces move does not satisfy us completely, we need to know why they move. Not only an explanation to the pieces, but as to why we should move ourselves at all. We need to signify, we search for a layer of meaning in which we can evaluate and situate ourselves in our own existential equation. We attribute meaning and see meaning in everything and this is something that probabilistic games nor science are able to offer us, at least not in its deepest form.

To prove my point is easy: Even when we are playing chess we need meaning. If chess was pure calculation, it would be very hard to play it. We would simply have numbers and codes instead of symbols. But, due to the way our cognition is structured - always searching for meaning - chess is full of archetypes: The king, the queen, bishops, towers, knights and pawns. Each one of them with an emotional content and a symbolic representation in the way that they are and move.

Chess is very logical, but there is also an epic feeling to it. After all, these are two armies battling for victory! We are never reducible to absolute quantity, we always need a layer of qualitative perception. Life also has intuition. The word intuition comes from the latin intuire, that means, to go in, to penetrate. We have this ability to penetrate reality without the prefrontal cortex’s mediation and find guidance to move in it. This is the only life dimension in which Elizabeth has learned to educate herself so far. After all, logic and chess also have an element of intuition, of fast and brilliant conclusions and moves. It is only when she - an intuitive chess player - develops reliance on her own intuition, on her ability to deal with the moment, that she wins really big.

Elizabeth is also blind to the dimension of faith, she does not know what to do in her practical life or how to orient herself. Her secluded ways and her questions reveal how she is lost. What is life for her? What is the meaning of her mother’s death? What is it all about? Where will she go once she reaches the peak of the chess world? She does not know. In the last episode (watch out for spoilers!) is when she seems to have found herself somehow. Among the elderly, in cold Russia, she is in full contact with reality, without any sort of drug. She is walking her own path, free.

Beth also has a hard time in dealing with the dimension of emotions and relationships. Our concrete vital reality, in dealing with others, is hardly predictable and not “black and white” as a chessboard. It has many shades, color variations, nuances, shapes, humors...

The emotional sphere does not work so much so as in a logical dimension of “yes” or “no”, “zero” or “one”, as with computers, but in terms of fidelity and betrayal. What are we devoting ourselves to? Are we being truthful to it? Are we being honest to the people around us?

Carl Jung was a thinker who understood our mind and its profound need for meaning. He believed we are essentially religious: we are not creatures who exclusively count and think, but we abhor and adore. We search for meaning. It is silly to reduce everything to a game, be it chess, economic or political games.

Finally, the Netflix series also poses us a very interesting question: What constitutes real human victory? What does it mean to win? For we see such a successful winning in chess, but at the same time, Elizabeth has a confused and tragic personal life.

One thing is for sure: We all appreciate when talent is manifested in its highest expression. Elizabeth managed to become a true chess grandmaster and not throw her gift away, she made her talent render its secret juice and shine its light, multiplying benefits to everyone. There is no question about it, we all love to see a clean, honest and talented triumph: Russians, Americans, Brazilians, Chinese… The series portrays just that. Elizabeth goes beyond nationalism and is praised equally by Americans and Russians. This feeling of accomplishment and excellence is indescribable. Pure bliss.

However, the matter of what constitutes real victory is for each one to respond for himself, of course. In my case, I’d love to see our societies produce a real smart queen’s gambit, knowing the place of our tools and games - seeing them in their true nature: accessory tools and games and not absolute finality - and looking to achieve a life where human nature is not belittled like it was only the matter of solving chess. A life in which we are not reduced to pawns in an economic and political chessboard. A life both contemplated and respected in its epic and adventurous ways, full of meaning with all its tragedy and glory. And, hopefully, all of the Elizabeth Harmons of the world will find their path in the great game called existence. How to achieve that? Well that is another topic. But, I realize now, as I write the words “epic”, “tragedy” and “glory”, that a good start would be to escape our technocracy for a moment and go back to reading great literature. I believe there you could find the ones who appreciate the game of life more fairly.

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