Chess and democracy — control the field, and treat your pawns well | In Focus

Chess is a complicated game, but its lessons can be applied globally

Where did chess originate? The game came either from India, China, Pakistan, or Russia.

The earliest versions of modern chess have their origins in the 500s A.D. Chess is war on a 64-square gameboard. What makes chess so interesting is that each piece has a different level of power. Those varying levels reflect an attitude about human worth that those of us living in America normally don’t consider when we look at politics.

As in the medieval world, the greatest number of pieces are pawns. Pawns, or peasants, had little value and were considered expendable for the “good of the great”. The word “pawn” has a modern meaning of being “used”, or as an act of desperation when “pawning” one’s own property.

Power only comes to pawns if the player moves one square at a time except for the first move, by attacking diagonally, or by reaching the eighth square and being turned into any player but a king. This transformation only comes to a few, and probably represents life after death.

Bishops move in diagonal lines, but only in their designated color—either black or white. In medieval times they were powerful because they followed narrow doctrinal beliefs.

Knights’ strength comes from the ability to jump over other pieces. They are equal in value to bishops, but are also limited in movement.

Rooks (castles), like the buildings they represent, are very powerful, but can only move in straight lines.

The queen is the most powerful piece on the board since it can move in all directions. This is ironic. In medieval times women had little influence, except behind the scenes—with a few exceptions.

The king, like the pawns, can only move one space at a time, but losing this piece means defeat.

How would the rules for chess change based upon a democratic egalitarian model? The rules would be entirely different. All pieces would be considered as having equal value, but they could still have differing levels of power.

There would be no king or queen since the idea of an aristocracy (rule by the best) is out of fashion. The king would gain power by being voted in by the other pieces. The king might be male or female and would probably be called a president instead.

The queen’s power would be divided into three branches and shared with other pieces who might be as concerned with the power of its own members as with its opponent’s.

The rooks and the knights might become even more mobile and powerful due to the level of technology today. They would be tightly controlled by the president who wielded the powers of a chess queen, but whose power was delegated to other pieces like branches of the military.

The game would almost never begin if the battle was fought against another democracy. If it were fought against an autocracy, then one player would act according to its original medieval rules, while the other would play according to modern democratic values.

In order for the autocracy to win in a modern-world chess version, it would have to strike its democratic opponent quickly before it had time to organize itself into an unbeatable force. If, however, the democracy survived the first onslaught, then the sense of equality and teamwork would eventually overwhelm a system where pawns had little value.

It is possible that the autocracy’s pawns might change sides and fight on the side of the democracy unless religious beliefs or their blind belief in “divine right of kings”, or hope of immortality could sustain them. This is what the Germans and Japanese did during World War II. Survival of the state turned soldiers into expendable pawns.

Why is chess so popular today? The answer lies in the fact that the rules are based upon medieval morality. They are simple and direct and far less complex than the modern game I am proposing. Today, modern democracies like the U.S. use economic boycotts and sanctions, diplomacy and alliances to pressure opponents.

In places like Ukraine, we use native population to do the fighting while we supply the weapons and training. We learned from defeats in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq that fighting war on our own brings about disaster and defeat. For democracies to win wars, they must understand war weariness of their people. There must be clear, simple goals backed by a bigger vision of the future.

Chess is a great board game, but it cannot be used as a model for how to run a modern democracy. We’ve got to treat people better than how chess players have historically viewed their pawns.