Friday, October 20, 2017

Chess, existentialism, and boredom

I was just rereading Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground in preparation for the Existentialism course that I will be teaching again in the spring. It's an absorbing read, and yet every few pages I'd get a bit restless, and feel the urge to put the book down and play a game of online chess.

That was when I was suddenly struck by the difference in mood and outlook between chess and philosophy. Chess promotes--almost forces--a very positivistic and certain outlook on the universe. In the world of chess, there is only one, crystal clear final goal: Checkmate your opponent. All the pieces move according to fixed rules, and ideally at least, they all work together to bring about this one goal in the most efficient way possible. The knight never pauses to ponder the meaning of his existence ("Am I just a being that moves in an L-shape? Or can I transcend my knightness and become more than that?"). The queen never questions her undying loyalty to her king, and will not stop at anything--even self-sacrifice--to achieve the all-important goal of annihilating the enemy king. There is no room for existential musings in the game of chess.

Philosophy, as you might guess, is quite different. For the existentialists in particular, to be alive is to be thrown into a world in which one is constantly uncertain, constantly struggling to discover one's role/s in this world, continually negotiating (and re-negotiating) the meaning of this role/s. It is in this spirit that the Underground Man, the protagonist of Notes from Underground, declares that an intelligent man is not and will never be a man of action. To be a man of action, one must take something as the first cause and justification of one's life (money, honor, love, etc.). Secure in the conviction that this first cause offers, one's mind is then at ease, and one is able to act and feel with complete confidence and without the slightest trace of hesitation.

The intelligent man, however, sees an infinite regress where the man of action sees a first cause. Because of this, the intelligent man lapses into inertia, and has no motivation to feel and act in the way in which the man of action does. The intelligent man can still make himself feel and do things, but he only does this because he doesn't want to be bored.  

People often say that chess is a thinking man's game. I'm not so sure I agree. For me personally, chess is the only thing right now in my life that I can lose myself completely in. When I play chess, the demands of the chessboard absorb me so completely that I stop thinking about everything else. Temporarily at least, I become a man of action. I believe that if there ever comes a day when I lose this feeling of being completely lost in the game while playing chess, that day will probably be the day that I quit chess. Then again, that's just what I believe right now. What do I know?  

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Yoga, Life, Chess

Wow, I realized that I haven't written anything on this space for more than a year now. No particular reason for this; maybe for whatever reason, blogging ceased to be a thing in the past couple of years, as Angela so astutely observed in her latest post. Along with it went my motivation to blog. And besides, when all is said and done, life is to be lived, not blogged about. So I stopped blogging.

But after reading Angela's latest very thoughtful post, I decided to write something here again. Does this mean I'm going to start blogging regularly again? I don't know (who does?). But maybe I'll start by telling you (whoever you are) what has been going on in my life recently, and then we'll see what happens:

(1) I'm still doing the Ashtanga practice six days a week. These days, I mostly just do primary, except for certain days when I add on second up to Kapotasana. Don't know why this is so; I guess I like the constancy of primary. And also, I seem to have lost the ambition to go on to third (or sixth) series. And I don't talk much about the practice to anyone; it's just this thing that goes on in the background of my life, like an engine that keeps things going without drawing much attention to itself.

(2) After many years of anxiety and angst, I finally got my green card. I am now a permanent resident of these United States (yay!). What's really funny is that when I actually got my green card, it was a bit anticlimactic. Back when I first started the application process a couple of years ago, I told a friend that when I finally get my green card, I'll be so ecstatic that I'll probably go get shit-faced drunk. But on that fateful evening two months ago when I opened my mailbox and found my green card there, I was happy (more relieved than anything else, actually). And then I said to myself, "Okay great, now you can go sleep." So I just went to bed. How's that for anti-climactic?

But anti-climacticism aside, I am seriously really happy that in these uncertain times, there is still a place for me in this country. So I will go back to saving the world with even greater appreciation than before :-)

(3) Over the past year, the one thing that has really been taking up a lot of my non-teaching time is chess. I have basically become a chess nerd (not sure how else to describe what's going on). Since the beginning of 2016, I have played in a few chess tournaments. From a purely objective point of view, my performance has been mediocre. Seriously, there have been times after tournaments when I thought I was going to quit chess forever, so upset was I by my crushing defeats. But somehow, after a couple of days, the love of the game always brought me back to the chessboard.

Here's a recent picture of me playing at a tournament in Twin Falls, Idaho:

I don't know if you can tell, but I was losing, and in the midst of great mental suffering. My opponent was a young boy of 11. How about that?

What attracts me to chess? Besides the fact that it is a very complex and beautiful game (there are actually more possible chess games than there are atoms in the physical universe), it is also a great way to keep you real and grounded. In a chess game, losing focus for even a moment can lead to a blunder that will result in defeat.

Moreover, as some famous chess player once said, "It's not enough to be a great chess player. One must also play well." It doesn't matter if you are a complete novice or a grandmaster. When the pieces are set up at the beginning of the game, both players have an equal chance of winning or losing. It doesn't matter if you have won ten thousand games in the past, every single game is a new beginning, a new adventure, one that comes with the risk of defeat and the opportunity of victory. Unlike many other fields (for some reason, art and philosophy come to mind here), one cannot simply bamboozle the other party with big words or grand theories. In chess, the proof is always in the playing. If one believes oneself to be a great player, one must prove it on the board in actual play. In this way, chess keeps one real and requires that one constantly become vulnerable by exposing oneself to the continual possibility of defeat. It's inherently anti-bullshit.  

All in all, perhaps we can say that chess has become my other yoga practice. BTW, many scholars believe that chess originated in India, where it was called Chaturanga. Sound like a coincidence?

Anyway, that's all I have to say for now. Good night, and good luck.