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Growing up in India, I was never much of a sports-playing kid in school. The emphasis was purely on academics, and any activity that distracted from “studies” was considered superfluous. It was even suggested that those who excelled in sports only did so because they were “poor” students and were probably not much interested in studying anyway!

This isn’t to say that I did not enjoy playing football (i.e. soccer), basketball, volleyball or even softball (without the gloves)  at every opportunity that I got during the daily P.T. (“physical training”) class. I even signed up to play “goalkeeper” during an inter-school tournament one year. However, my stint was short-lived because the after-school practices interfered with my “studies”. So, I decided to bide my time to play “real sports” until I got to college. 

However, all was not lost on the high-school “sports” front for me. In the ninth grade, my new brother-in-law started to teach me how to play chess. A combination of “plus points” about chess made it “acceptable” to my parents to allow me to spend untold number of hours playing the game. Firstly, I was viewed as being a good host to my brother-in-law, every time that we played when he visited us. In Indian culture, family members of the sister’s or daughter’s in-laws were always  treated with great respect and accommodation. So, this was strike one in my favor. Secondly, chess is a cerebral game, and this aligned well with the focus on “academic” activities. Thirdly, unlike football, there was no chance of getting physically hurt playing ‘chess’!

After playing diligently for a few years, studying books about chess openings, spending hours trying to solve the chess puzzles that appeared in the Sunday sports section of the newspaper, I actually started winning once in a while when I played with my “teacher”. I even started playing with my brother-in-law’s father, which was always a special occasion for me. This did land me in a bit of a dilemma as I was now finding myself in a position of asking a question. Should I be showing “disrespect” to the “in-laws” by playing “all out” and to the best of my abilities? Or should I be playing with integrity, in the “spirit of the game”, and let the pawns and rooks and knights and bishops sort it out on the board? (The dilemma sorted itself out once I graduated high-school and the opportunities to play became very rare).

Just when I thought I was getting really good at the game, an “International Master (IM)” from the USSR visited our high-school for a demonstration. He agreed to play “simultaneous chess” with thirty-two students and teachers. We all sat, sixteen apiece, in two long rows, and he moved from one board to the next, making one move at a time against each player. One by one we were defeated, and I was totally awed by the surgical precision with which he dismantled all but one student’s carefully crafted defenses. At the end of it that day, I wasn’t sure if I was awed by the IM’s thirty-one wins or the student who escaped with a draw! In those three short hours, I learnt a lot from the IM about the “spirit of the game”, and how much more I still had to learn about playing chess itself.

During my college and graduate school years, there was an unexpected hiatus of about ten years in active chess-playing for me. Fortunately, the love of the game did not die. In the mid-nineties, the advent of the internet and “international chess servers” opened up a lot more opportunities to play with players of different “ratings” (levels) from across the world. I even made a few friends with whom I would play fairly regularly – “friends” who I never even talked with, let alone meet in real life. Perhaps this experience was a precursor to what was to come a few years later on twitter in the form of #SpiritChat!

But what does chess, or sports at large, teach me about life and spirituality?

Chess taught me that the “spirit of the game” goes beyond winning and losing. It allows for the possibility of a well-contested, thoroughly enjoyable draw! I learnt that regardless of how “powerful” they were at the start of the game, every single piece was subject to being “humbled”. Any of the “lowly” pawns could not only humble the “mighty” king but also  become “all powerful” by being “queened”. All a pawn had to do was take one small step at a time until it reached the other end of the board! The bishops taught me about the discipline of “staying in our lane”, for they were only allowed to move diagonally on squares of assigned colors. The knights taught the power of flexibility in movement – the only pieces that can attack without being in line-of-sight of the pieces that they are attacking. The rooks taught me that long-range thinking, even if it is only limited to straight lines, conveys power only second to that of the all-powerful Queen.

One great lesson of playing chess perhaps came from learning that “the center” is all-important. A strong grasp of the center of the board, just like a powerful awareness of our heart, is essential to success in chess and life. Who is it that  controls the center? More often than not, the center is established by the “lowly” pawns, with their one or two small steps at the very start of the game. Similarly, it is with our small, pawn-like moves in our daily spiritual practice, that awakens awareness of our center. Our daily spiritual steps may seem small, even insignificant. Yet, with every heart-based move we make, we are setting up space for our center to prevail.

Looking back on all those years of chess-playing and all the games I must have played, one common conclusion stands out. At the end of every game, all of the pieces – whether they were black or white, winners or losers or participants in a draw,  pawns or queens or kings – all were put back in the box from which they were brought out, to await yet again for  their opportunity to take center-stage again.

The game taught me that winning and losing are often forgotten, but the spirit of those who taught us how to play with purity, fairness and dignity leaves an imprint on our heart. Remembrance of the game’s spirit is perhaps the best way to honor our coaches, and to be grateful for those who choose to be on life’s playgrounds with us! 


P.S. What is your favorite sport to watch or to play? What has your favorite ‘game’ taught you about life and living? If you were to play a position in your favorite game, what would it be? I invite you to share the spirit of the game with the #SpiritChat community on Sunday, Feb 2nd at 9amET on twitter. Maybe we can even play chess one of these days…  Namaste – @AjmaniK


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By Alan Light – Own work by the original uploader, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20299