Chess: Catechism On a Board

What do Pope John Paul II, Benjamin Franklin, St. Theresa of Avila and Harry Potter possibly have in common?

Their love for chess, of course.

“Life is kind of chess,” wrote Franklin, “with struggle, competition, good and evil events.” It is a game that has enticed the minds of men and women for centuries and continues to rise in its popularity. It has been banned by religions, the cause of death for some, and most recently instituted in American school systems because of its positive influence on players and its power over the mind.

Invented more than 1,500 years ago, legend has it that chess was started by a ruler in India. He wanted his wise men to create a way to teach his children, members of the royal family, to become better thinkers and better generals on the battlefield.

And true to its creation, it has evolved into an essential teaching tool for developing our children's minds and can help to teach them about our faith as well.

The Catholic Church has always used symbols and art to capture the spiritual battles for our souls as seen in our cathedrals with the help of Michelangelo and Dante, and the game of chess carries on that tradition.

Jesus was and is the king with the Blessed Virgin Mary, the queen, at his side and the center of the game. Each chess piece bestows some moral attributes to the game and portrays a visual display of the Church's majesty on a game board.

The Queen, Mary, is chaste, docile and attentive to her son. “The chess queen was born in a Catholic world and grew in stature along with the devotion to Mary,” wrote Marilyn Yalom in Birth of the Chess Queen. The queen's position is the most active piece on the board and is at the king's defense.

However, the queen piece was not as powerful until the late 15th century. Before that the queen had to earn her position and started out very weak taking only one diagonal space at a time. In 1497, Queen Isabelle of Castille (wife of King Ferdinand and both avid chess players) pushed her weight around and the queen piece finally gained her power and sat at the right side of the king where she protects her lord and destroys all enemies. Isabelle and Ferdinand also began the Inquisition during their reign.

The bishops flank the queen and king and take the role of judges. They are firm, intelligent, incorruptible and wise. They are Church leaders, confessors, protectors of souls, and adhere to the king's wishes. The ornate bishop replaced the elephant that was used in India up to that time. In the 1500s, when the queen took on her new position, he initially only went three squares but was eventually given unlimited diagonal moves.

The knights are as always chivalrous, brave, compassionate, generous and true to their king. They have the potential of 122 million moves in the game, making them very formidable pieces to contend with. They are sometimes dressed as warriors for the Lord mounted on gallant steeds or just the horse is used in less elaborate sets.

The rooks represent the apostles, and were sent out to all four corners. In some instances they are dressed in fur and hold a staff in their right hand. They are on “king's business” and are envoys of the king. This position represented justice, piety, humility, patience, voluntary poverty, and generosity.

The rook is one of the most powerful pieces on the board.

Chess was considered a Christian morality play. It was not allowed to be played by Jews or Muslims because of the graven images it displayed and its implicit relationship to Christianity.

John of Wales, an English Franciscan, wrote, “All the world is a chessboard. It is not only a symbol of life and death but a metamorphic space for sin and redemption.”

Throughout the ages, many chess sets have been bequeathed to the Catholic Church and have been given respect for the quasi-religious veneration given to them. Some have been considered as sacred as rosaries and blessed crosses.

In 1550, St. Theresa of Avila, a Spanish reform nun, saw the religious dimension of chess. She was brought up in a well-to-do family and it is believed she was exposed to the game as a child. She loved the game, and when she founded the Order of Discalced Carmelites she wrote a testament to it. St. Theresa was later proclaimed the “Patroness of Chess Players.”

She wrote, “Now you will reprove me for talking about games for we do not play them in the house and are forbidden to do so. However, they say the game is sometimes legitimate. 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…. It is the queen which gives the king most trouble in this game and all the other pieces support her. There is no queen who can beat this King as well as humility can.”

Paula Rivera writes from Mamaroneck, New York.