Life and Chess: Who’s playing?

All chess games have three stages: the opening, the mid-game and the endgame. And a chess game is a reasonably good metaphor for life.

During the opening stage, the players try to achieve broad strategic goals in deploying their pieces: control the center, develop the pieces, block the opponent’s pieces, protect the king, command the open files etc. In life, during the opening stage, we try to maximize our options, through good education, honing the right skillsets, getting the right degrees, making the right connections at the right universities and so forth. We may also try to find the right life-partners. The opening stages of life are the fun years and end roughly when we get our bachelor’s degree.

The mid-game in chess is where the action is. The strategic positioning of the pieces may lead to exciting attacks and counter-attacks, brilliant moves and amazing defenses. It is full of fun and tactics. In many good games, a victor will emerge during this stage. In life, this is the stage where we reap the benefits of our early investments in education and planning. We try to land the best jobs, chart the best career trajectories. If we are lucky, we may make strong human connections in our spouses and children.

The chess metaphor for life, however, begins to falter after this stage. You see, our opponent in the game of life is Time. It is not an opponent that we can beat. With its infinities before and beyond us, Time is such a formidable opponent that it doesn’t even realize we are playing against it. Our thoughts and cares, our trials and tribulations, our brilliant strategies and valiant plights don’t even register, not even as tiny ripples in its placid continuum. Isn’t there something vaguely comforting in this notion?

Our best hope is, not a victory, but as lengthy a mid-game as possible. For the lucky ones among us, we get to enjoy the game, with the imprints of our existence sure to be carried forward as memories in our loved ones, with the fruits of our labors making it possible to play a few more moves. For the less fortunate, however, it is the endgame stage.

The endgame in chess is where the outcome is more or less predictable. The board is almost empty, and the possibilities are narrow. In life, it may correspond to the stage when the spouses are lost either to death or divorce, the children are separated geographically or estranged emotionally, but the game still goes on because participation is not optional. Our opponent, Time, with infinite patience (and maybe even kindness), makes its moves, easily parrying our feeble efforts and gently guiding us toward the inevitable checkmate.

With another decade around the corner, I just want to remind the Unreal readers – it is not whether we win or lose that matters (because we all will lose), it is how well we play the game. Luck is unreal, an illusion, for however high we soar, or however low we sink, Time is waiting, with its infinite wings, as a great equalizer. Nobody wins. And when nobody wins, nobody really loses either. We all make our moves, make some people smile some times, some people cry some times, savor our minor victories, suffer our minor heartbreaks.

And we make a few more moves. Ours not to reason why…