PARIS NOTES #6: Playing Chess with Yourself: empathy training

chess board indoorsThe good thing about playing chess with yourself is the two sides are evenly matched.  The bad thing is you know what the other side is thinking. It becomes an ultimate game of one-upmanship, to outthink the person who is outthinking you as you outthink them. This can go on like mirrors opposite each other where images go into infinity.

It also means you cannot ambush the other side, there are no calculated surprise attacks, and that winning is, more than usual, the result of making few, essentially no, mistakes.

It also means that every time you win, you lose; and every time you lose, you win. This is superior empathy training.

Nonetheless you do – or I do – sometimes choose sides. When black mauled white a couple games back, I found the game distasteful. A bully was on the move and not about to stop until all royalty of its so-called enemy were dead on the field. There was no finesse, only slaughter. It took me a couple days to return to the board.

And I couldn’t help but rejoice when black was clearly winning an earlier game. Check. Check. Check. Check. But when black couldn’t achieve checkmate, he confidently used a turn not to check again but to bring another piece in for the kill. In the space of one free move, the white queen zoomed the length of the board, put the black king in check, and sealed the deal on the next move with the aid of a lone white knight. For 15 minutes black had controlled everything. In 15 seconds white won the game. I knew from the beginning that the white queen was intrepid, and I liked that.

My maternal grandfather played chess 80 years ago by mail with people he didn’t know. My paternal grandfather was the checker champion of Cerro Gordo county, Iowa. It runs in the family. Conniving, pouncing, strategizing, foiling. I own up. It has nothing to do with building peace or inclusive dialogue. It’s not a win-win, but I feel the tickles in my brain, and adversaries who demand respect from each other thrill me.

And I like that the queen is so powerful while the king can hardly move and tends to cower.

I also like when an overlooked pawn steps forth to upend an entire game. “I can take you, queen.” “I can checkmate you, king.” “You didn’t see me coming, did you? Well, here I am.”

I’m not actually that good, and I play only when I’m in Paris, which may be once a year for a couple weeks. There is a chessboard set up in the apartment where I stay and that I used to own. It is a chessboard I bought, and as this apartment has a convoluted story of joy and beauty and love and grief, betrayal, and loss, so do chess games have stories. Some leave me breathless as a queen fights to hang on or a bishop risks his life or a castle frets to break from the corner.

Each piece has a personality. Call it projection, or call it observation, I don’t care:

Kings – lazy, pompous, scared

Queens – determined, capable, calculating

Bishops – graceful in their oblique ways, a little sneaky coming in from the side

Knights – awkward in their armor, wanting to be valiant, often treading too far out

Castles – like all walls and parapets, less powerful than they look

Pawns – secure in their little selves, knowing they may be sacrificed, but up for the game.

Knowing the intelligence of a chess piece and being inside the game, especially when you play against yourself, builds empathy. It is a holistic exercise that resonates with the stories of your life, and the stories of others. It gets you past that only your reality is real. It forces you to be human by having to drink from the winners’ and the losers’ cup at the same time. It makes us want to be good to others.

A game a short while back ended with both kings forced out of hiding, facing each other mid-field with no protection. They hardly knew what to do. They were two King Lear’s who believed they were all-powerful now stumbling to their ends with no one to hear their whimpering. It was a tragedy of hubris. I could not take sides in this. I could only witness, and remember the story of why the apartment was no longer mine, nor even of my own King Lear.

When you don’t have empathy, you are cut off from the rest of humanity. If you do not feel what others experience, you are alone inside your version of your story. It becomes your reality and can stale quickly. You lose the richness of life, its flavors and gifts. You’re in a fairytale with no feedback or changes of scenery. “And lived happily ever after” becomes a jail.

Empathy is epic. Furthermore, it is non-fiction.

. . .

Chess games in the Luxembourg Gardens, where timers are used, and audiences second-guess you. Perhaps here it is more a blood sport than empathy.

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