How chess can help build character

In addition to the various benefits of teaching and playing chess, the game and its individual pieces can be interpreted to symbolize certain important aspects of life; we can use chess as a platform to have conversations and discussions with our children about those aspects. What can be extracted from chess are not only analytical, logical and creative skills, but also clarification of values, a personal philosophy of life, and spirituality.

Chess Queen, chess art by Oksana Yambukh

Chess Queen, by Oksana Yambukh

In mental health terms, the ideas in this book can be viewed as a method of Logotherapy, which is a meaning-centered psychotherapy originally developed by Viktor Frankl—a Holocaust survivor and one of the greatest psychologists of the 20th century. He taught that there is potential meaning to be fulfilled in every situation in life, no matter how painful and difficult it may be. During World War II Viktor Frankl and his family were imprisoned in the Nazi death camps; his pregnant wife was murdered in the gas chambers and his parents died of starvation and illness. Frankl miraculously survived and after the war wrote about his experiences and conclusions about human nature in his book “Man’s Search for Meaning.” I am presenting this method to be used not only by therapists, but also by parents, teachers and all others in a position to help young people discover the meaning in their lives.

Chess is seen by most as a war game. The great Yugoslav chess master and historian Pavle Bidev, in his article “Chess—A Mathematic Model of the Cosmos”, was among the first to challenge that common assumption, pointing toward allegorical interpretations of chess “in the light of Indian ideas of religious and philosophical symbolism.” He explains that, according to the Indian philosophy of nature, there are three fundamental factors that determine the life of matter in the universe: light, darkness, and movement. The chess board and the movement of the pieces symbolize those factors, while the pieces themselves symbolize the four elements: earth (the castle), water (the horse), air (the bishop), and fire (the queen). He points out that the King symbolizes ether—“a divine, celestial element.” Bidev states: “The King means that which is first and chief.” He theorizes that playing chess was not just a game, but a religious ritual for the initiated.

In this vein, the idea is not new that chess can be applied as a rite of passage for our children as we welcome them to the world. In modern times, when such rites of passage are more likely to be absent, we see adolescents create their own rituals (piercing and tattoos for example) to make themselves noticed in a world that is almost indifferent to their coming of age. In this sense, playing chess and connecting it to life can be seen as an unofficial initiation ritual.

Character education in chess book cover

Roumen Bezergianov is a counselor working with troubled youth in Phoenix, Arizona. The excerpt is from his book Character Education with Chess, available on Amazon, Kindle.

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