Chess is life, but life may not be a chess game. If you have ever done a Google image search for the word chess, then you might have noticed that there are many interesting digital interpretations of the game that include the armies of good and evil fighting each other on massive chessboards that span entire realms. Often, God and Satan are portrayed as Grandmasters moving souls around the universe like chessmen in their quest to win life’s grandest tournament. Unfortunately, while the image is striking and most likely provokes deep existential reflection in many players and non-players, but I believe that the interpretation of good and evil as a chess game does not go far enough to explore the complexities of the human condition.

In chess, as with many things, the player is at the mercy of the rules. Chess is a game of strategic and tactical skill that requires a person to successfully integrate elements of both techniques to solve a puzzle. As with life, chess is a puzzle to be solved through proper planning and execution from the opening, through the middle game, to the endgame. Regardless of skill level, nothing will ever allow a chess player to escape the necessity of the rules. The Bishop can only move diagonally, the pawn one space at a time, and the Rook is confined to a limited, but powerful straight path. In chess, the player makes the decisions that affect the outcome of the game, not the pieces. The configuration of chess pieces on a chessboard are abstract representations of the player’s strategic and tactical expressions. Unlike the heart and souls of humanity, chess pieces do not have feelings or care about the outcome of a game.

Humanity is endowed by its Creator with free will. It is through the execution of free will that complex decisions like those required to win a chess game can be made (or not made) without requirement to consult a higher authority. The relationship of God’s control over the universe is traditionally referred to as providence and it means that nothing happens by chance: everything has a purpose and everything is directed (in some way) by God for his greater purpose. Without writing hundreds of pages of theological text to analyze the differential in the limitations of free will and providence, it is simply vital to note that each player (person) in the universe has a conscious choice to make in life’s many battles. Is it time to take a gambit and hope that your opponent accepts? Or, is it time to look for new and inspiring moves that are outside the lines of Houdini or Fritz? This is the capability of the human soul, the human intellect, and the human spirit that is not inherent to the capabilities of the chess pieces. For the pieces on the board, they are wholly at the mercy of the person playing them, whose methodology might be flawed and disastrous.

“If he should set his heart to it and gather to himself his spirit and his breath, all flesh would perish together, and man would return to dust.” (Job 34:14–15, ESV)

Just as the chess pieces cannot function without human players, humanity cannot function without the spirit of its Creator. Yet, the complexities of the human condition far outweigh the complexities of a chess game. While we are quick to reference common day events as blunders or gambits and think of ourselves as Kings, Queens, or more often, as Pawns, the truth of humankind is far more than moving across the board. The human story of chess involves the personal interest and empathy of the players themselves. The pieces of God’s chess board care about their plight and want to win the game! Perhaps the most remarkable part of chess is that it can tell a significantly powerful story that closely mirrors the lives and struggles that we experience. The victories and defeats played out across the black and white squares are representative of the thrills of defeat and victorious celebration in life. The power of chess is that it can be a form of worship in that it is as close as humanity can get to capturing the essence of what it means to be a human on the greatest chess board of all.