Nathan Mulcock examines the links between chess and the Catholic Church
In an imagined meeting between Vladimir Lenin and Pope S John Paul II, I suspect common ground would be in meagre supply. However, they did both share a passion for playing chess, a game which unites numerous disparate historical figures across its 1400-year history. The game itself, an abstracted all out war waged between black and white sides, renders itself an obvious yet delicious setting for a meeting of two men of such strikingly, even violently, opposed worldviews.
Lenin’s example was used to encourage the uptake of chess as a national pastime in the USSR, which typically steamrolled its way through international competitions during its existence. More surprising is the pope’s enthusiasm, which had him awarded the superbly flamboyant title of ‘Grand Commander of the Legion of Grandmasters’ by the International Federation of Chess in 1999, a sign of the full rehabilitation of the game in the eyes of the Catholic church, with whom chess had an historically, dare I say it, chequered relationship.
The unanticipated success of The Queen’s Gambit on Netflix has led to a resurgence of interest in the game, in part because the game itself takes centre stage as something gripping in its own right. As an admitted victim of this frenzy, a few clergy friends have found themselves unhappily forced to learn the rudiments of the game under my zealous browbeating. Yet in the past such enthusiasm would be to invite censure, even excommunication. The modern mind that regards chess-playing as a cultural shorthand for intelligence might think that compared to such positively devilish pastimes of cards or the dreaded dice, chess (ludus scacchorum, or scachi in the frequently condemnatory latin texts) would seem an innocent, even commendable alternative. However, upon arriving in Europe from India, through Persia and from the Arab world, chess drew sharp ecclesiastical criticism, which inevitably meant many high-minded reforming individuals and synods attempting to ban it for other people.
Famous vociferous opponents included S Peter Damien who rebuked the Bishop of Florence for playing the game, complaining to Pope-elect Alexander II in ca. 1061 that for said bishop to play chess was: ‘to defile his hand, the offerer of the Lord’s body, and his tongue, the mediator between God and His people, by the contamination of an impious sport’ and further groused: ’how shameful, how senseless, nay how disgusting this sport is in a priest.’ Although as a sign of some confusion how the game was developing, he justifies his condemnation by mentioning canons that forbid bishops to be ‘aleatores’, that is, dice-players, which makes one wonder about how the game was played back then. S Bernard of Clairvaux forbade the Templars to play chess in their Rule. The Archbishop of Canterbury, John Peckham, was so enraged that some monks at Coxford had taken up this ‘clownish entertainment’, that he insisted on three days penance on bread and water before being permitted to enter church again. In this they become equally unlikely bedfellows with the late Ayatollah Kohmeini, though even he repealed his ban after only seven years.
Yet, with predictable irony, what is known of the game and its rules frequently comes to us via the very priests and monks who were meant to have nothing to do with it. The oldest European mention of chess in the early 1000s, the versus de schachis comes from Einsiedeln Abbey, for instance. The captivating Lewis Chessmen in the British Museum show that the ‘Elephant’ (‘alfil’) piece was changed to a bishop quite early on (the groove perhaps being interpreted as a mitre),though there’s no record of this mollifying chess’s enemies. Perhaps because it allowed the 13th century Franciscan John of Wales in his (probable) work Quaedam moralitas de scaccario, to jibe that the diagonal, ‘oblique’ movement of the ‘alfini’ were reminiscent of corrupt bishops chasing after worldly favour instead of straightforwardly striving for virtue!
This ‘Innocent Morality’ is an early allegorisation of Chess as a reflection of the world, and despite setbacks, it was ultimately religious figures that finally raised the prestige of Chess in Christendom. As with Aristotle, the game’s rehabilitation is owed to the Dominicans, although Jacobus de Cessolis is, alas, less of a household name than Aquinas. His collection of moral sermons which were published as the ‘’Book of the customs of men and the duties of nobles or the Book of Chess’ became wildly popular, and was the basis of William Caxton’s ‘The Game and Playe of the Chesse’, likely the second book ever published in English. In both works chess is repurposed as an allegory of all society, where each piece describes the ideal manners and duties of each class in society, working together for a harmonious and just commonwealth. With very charming accompanying woodcuts, each pawn is represented as a different commoner with their own funciton and worth besides the knights, royalty and civil authorities: ‘as noble persones cannot rewle ne governe without the servyse and werke of the people.’ (coincidentally, Caxton portrays the alphyns as judges rather than ecclesiastical bishops).
If we can assume the historical rule of thumb that repeated church prohibition indicates unsuccessful suppression, chess evidently retained widespread popularity. However from de Cessolis onwards, the horror towards it began to recede. With the emergence of the far more spiritually optimistic humanism of the Renaissance, chess decisively moved from harmful to commendable recreation. S Francis de Sales sternly advised that ‘It is actually a defect to be so strict, austere and unsociable that one permits neither himself nor others any recreation time.’ And recommends chess (as well as backgammon, but certainly not games of chance) as justified and good relaxation, although warns against undue attachment: ‘Are you actually surprised to find your spirits exhausted after playing chess for five or six hours?’ In Spain meanwhile, Fr Rodrigo López de Segura, apparently ignoring such advice, was unashamedly celebrated as one of the great chess masters of his time, with his writings contributing to modern game of chess, particularly its opening theory. He remains honoured in the chess world with the popular and highly playable ‘Ruy Lopez’ opening (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5) which is named for him.
This intriguingly entwined history of chess and the catholic faith may have even influenced the game itself. Bishops aside, it is speculated that the emergence of the Queen as the most powerful piece on the board (replacing the much weaker ‘vizier’) was not only in response to the emergence powerful catholic queens such as Eleanor of Aquitaine and Isabella I of Castille, but may also have been influenced by the growing devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Certainly, Abbot Gautier de Coincy in his own thirteenth century allegory of chess ad played between the God and the Devil, likens the Queen of Heaven to a piece that moves in all directions in a way that leaves the devil ‘so tied up and so worried that he doesn’t know where he should move.’ A description surprisingly similar to the modern Queen piece.
Clearly, whether it aroused horror or approval, chess struck deeply at the European and Christian psyche. When not being condemned as a tool that rendered players pawns of Satan, the mediaeval imagination particularly saw rich allegory within the game, with it representing at different levels the cosmic struggle between heaven and hell, or the proper ordering of Christian society, even the struggle of the individual soul. There is something rather wondrous about the tension in the Middle Ages where some ecclesiastical figures condemn the pastime while others simultaneously see the divine order represented within it.
Even with the disappearance of the hierarchical mediaeval society that chess reflects, I’d venture with the more sympathetic religious figures, that the game is on the side of the angels, and encourages commendable thinking and habit. It relies on one’s pieces being co-ordinated with each other and working together to deliver victory. Moreover, crucial to the play is the fact that winning is achieved through making key sacrifices to reach the ultimate goal; one of the most famous chess games (‘The Immortal Game’) is famous because of the daring sacrifices Adolf Andersson made to achieve checkmate with his minor pieces. The piece-hoarding player never prevails. There is rich metaphor here for the spiritual life that both requires the harmonic co-ordination of our virtues and is required to make sacrifices in order to win the King. As the weak pawn struggles its way across the board it can become the mighty Queen, a sign to always have regard for the humble, and that in faith low-key persistence is more valuable accomplishing great and flashy deeds. The fact that pawns often have to work together to achieve this goal adds another rich symbolic layer.
In it’s winner-takes-all struggle, there is an image of the spiritual combat as we battle against sin and the devil. The Game of Life presents existence as a linear journey through time, but chess perhaps better represents the far from smooth experience of the Spiritual life. There, every advance we make nevertheless requires vigilance to protect our other sides from attack. We are frequently confronted with unanticipated setbacks, often as a consequence from our own ill thought-out blunders, and these require reflection and re-calculation as we seek to recover our lost position. It encourages us to choose patience over aggression and to work with what we have, to be on the constant lookout for openings and opportunities to do good and to think ahead of the outcomes of our action; the virtue of prudence.
Admittedly a game that traverses cultures and ideologies is open to any number of interpretations (as Lenin would no doubt remind me), however the patron saint of chess, S. Theresa of Ávila, defends my interpretation. In the Way of Perfection, (after apologising for even knowing of the game forbidden in her convents) thought it a suitable analogy for instructing her nuns: ‘How legitimate it will be for us to play it in this way, and, if we play it frequently, how quickly we shall give checkmate to this Divine King! He will not be able to move out of our check nor will He desire to do so.’ and warns strictly against those who think themselves contemplatives without long practice in the virtues: ‘[He thinks] that, in order to give checkmate, it would be enough to be able to recognize the pieces. But that is impossible, for this King does not allow Himself to be taken except by one who surrenders wholly to Him.’
The analogy somewhat breaks down here, as surrender is never a sound strategy for winning at chess, but it points to that happy truth about God: Our fate does not rest on obtaining tricks, chance throws of the dice, and certainly not convincingly bluffing our way through life. The good ordering of providence allows us to work out our salvation through Christ, to find ourselves progressing, even under opposition, as long as we’re willing to choose our moves with deliberation and care for the ultimate outcome. It can be a battle, it will be costly, but we only truly lose when we refuse to make that next move towards obtaining the King. Let the clergy play chess. At any rate, I’d like to see mammon-worshipping, dice-rolling Monopoly attempt such edifying claims.
Fr Nathan Mulcock trained for the priesthood at St Stephen’s House, Oxford. He served his curacy in the Diocese of St Alban’s.