Five lessons for Catholic men from the game of chess

In chess, only one thing ultimately matters: your king. It doesn’t matter how many clever attacks you make, or how many pieces you capture. Lose your king, and you’re checkmated. Forget your king, and you’ve lost.

Mankind has been playing chess for over 1,500 years. To many of us, chess may seem like just a pastime or an exercise for the brain. But this age-old war-game in fact offers five practical strategies for living life as a Catholic man.  

Focus on the center

Chess players will tell you that you have to stay focused on the center of the board. If you can occupy the center, you can reach the whole board, and move out to meet your enemy on his side of the battle lines. 

As Catholic men, we need to keep our focus on the center of our lives. What’s most important? What do we spend our time thinking about and pursuing? 

The devil wants to distract us from what really matters—to keep us chasing after pleasure or power, and away from the Heart of Things. Whether it’s sports, television, or the pursuit of money, our busy culture keeps us, as T.S. Eliot once put it, “Distracted from distraction by distraction.” But if we lose touch with the center of our Christian life, we’ll dissipate our energies in a million pointless ways, which is exactly what our infernal opponent wants us to do.

Jesus warns us about this. Explaining the parable of the sower to his disciples, he described the thorns that stifle the Gospel in our hearts: “but the cares of the world and the delight in riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful.” We’re meant to live with purpose; we’re meant to have a mission. Staying focused on the center will place us at the heart of God’s plan for mankind. As the author of Proverbs states, “Let your eyes look directly forward, and your gaze be straight before you” (4:25). So, take a little time to assess: what is truly most important, and which things distract me from the center of my life?  

Don’t overlook the pawns

On a chessboard, pawns may seem pretty useless. They only move one or two squares at a time. They aren’t as “valuable” or powerful as your other pieces. We even use the word “pawn” to demean someone we think is a tool. This is why beginning chess players often carelessly sacrifice their pawns. But those eight little chessmen are crucial to victory in the war. They lay the groundwork of the first assault, they protect your king, and they support your other pieces on the board. The difference of one pawn often decides the outcome of the game. 

In a culture that worships power, success, looks, ambition, wealth, and physical strength, we Catholic men risk overlooking the humble and lowly people God has placed in our lives. The little old lady at church, the guy with Down Syndrome that works at Walmart, the illegal immigrant, the homeless man, or the unborn baby: these human beings may never shape foreign policy or make the news, but they are children of God, and each of them has a divinely-ordained mission on earth. 

Indeed, the saints have often been humble, lowly people in the eyes of the world, and if we disregard them, we miss one of the main tenets of the Gospel of Jesus Christ: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven….Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (Matt 5:3, 5).

In fact, we need to recognize that we ourselves are more lowly than we’d like to admit. In the ranks of the Christian army, we are most of us simple pawns. This should actually encourage us, because God can (and does) use pawns to achieve his great victory. What’s more, in the game of chess, when a pawn reaches the other side (heaven, anyone?), he becomes transformed into a far more powerful piece. That should be our goal: to let God transform our lowliness. So let’s start by treating with dignity the little people in our lives, striving to see God’s great power at work in them and in ourselves.

Work together

One of the quickest ways to lose a chess game is to send your pieces on solo suicide missions into enemy territory. Your pieces need to work together, and the Christian life is no different. 

Men are created to work together. Even Christ didn’t work alone. He chose for himself twelve disciples to help him with his work, and when he sent them out to the world, he sent them in pairs. This is a central purpose and focus of the Church: the assembly of believers worshiping and working together to bring about the Kingdom of God. 

The book of Ecclesiastes tells us: “Two are better than one….For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow; but woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up.” One of the tactics of the enemy is to isolate us. Without friendship, we get lonely; when we’re lonely, we may turn to sin to fill that void—pornography, alcohol or drugs, addiction to our work. As men, we need to stand side by side with other men walking what the early Christians called “The Way” of the Gospel. So let’s commit to seeking the brotherhood that God wants to give us—whether in a men’s group at church, or in other friendships. Working together, with God’s help, we can fight the good fight and defeat the enemy.

Rely on your Queen

The queen is the most powerful piece on the board. She can attack from across the chessboard, in any direction, and if you lose your queen, you’re in serious trouble. 

Catholic men have an incredible ally in our own Queen, the Blessed Virgin Mary. Think about it: Mary was the means Christ chose to invade enemy territory, when He came to earth to defeat the devil. The Book of Revelation describes Mary as a “great portent” that “appeared in heaven, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.” When this woman defied the dragon (the devil), and chose to obey God, she became one of the most powerful human beings in the universe.

As Catholic men, we need to rely on our Queen. Foster a devotion to the Mother of God, and she will help you. If you struggle with lust, turn to the chaste Virgin. If you struggle with pride, turn to the humble Handmaid of the Lord. If you struggle with hatred, meditate on her love for Christ. Catholic manhood requires Marian devotion, so pick something small and start building the habit: pray a decade of the Rosary on your way to work, put up an icon of Mary by your computer, wear a scapular or a miraculous medal. If you make the first move, she will respond and bring you close to her Divine Son.

The King is everything

Finally, in the game of chess, only one thing ultimately matters: your king. It doesn’t matter how many clever attacks you make, or how many pieces you capture. Lose your king, and you’re checkmated. Forget your king, and you’ve lost. 

This is true for us too. Psalm 47 tells us that “God is the king of all the earth,” and anytime we lose sight of that, we’re missing the truth about reality. As men, we may want to be king ourselves; or we may choose religious or political leaders as our kings. We may want to keep God from ruling over our finances, our careers, our relationships, or our leisure. But God wants to govern and bless every area of our lives with his infinite generosity and love. Why would we reject a King who loves and guides us with the love of a perfect Father?  

So we need to stay focused on God, our Heavenly King. Let him rule your life. Keep him close, and let him bring you into his heavenly kingdom. Chess may be just a war game, but in our daily spiritual battle, the stakes are high, and the goal is eternal life in heaven. Let us pray that God may keep us faithful, and that when we die, we might echo the words of St. Paul to Timothy: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Tim 4:7).

About Dr. Kelly Scott Franklin 15 Articles
Dr. Kelly Scott Franklin is a writer and Assistant Professor of English at Hillsdale College