A Game of Chess: The Intimacy of Antagonism

The second part of T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Wasteland” is called “A Game of Chess.” The poem, of course, famously emerged following World War I and is often described as a model example of a piece of art that captures the anxiety of a Europe struggling to emerge from a time of desperate loss and death, as much as it is also emblematic of the anxiety of a world transformed by modernity, the technology that marks this period of modern warfare and the spread of mass media as well as all of the concerns that such technologies raise about our humanity and inhumanity to others.

“A Game of Chess” may serve as a microcosmic representation of such concerns, as it eschews discussions of politics and nationalism to pursue brief fragmentary personal narratives about people that want to connect to one another but fail to do so. Among other tales, “A Game of Chess” includes the story of a rape that results in the victim’s tongue being cut out (the myth of Philomela), a rather unsatisfying sexual rendezvous between two co-workers, and a married woman discussing the abortion of her sixth child (feeling that her body couldn’t bear up through another pregnancy). None of these moments would seem to resemble anything like games, and yet Eliot groups them together under the heading “A Game of Chess” because they do, perhaps, all have in common something that the chess board provides: intimacy and antagonism.

Chess is a game that is social in nature. Two individuals spend time together, a rather long time usually, given the complexities of the game. Companionship is created or justified by the game itself, but, of course, it is always a companionship that is created through a requirement of the game, competition, and thus an antagonistic companionship is always born over the checkerboard that represents the field of battle. What binds the players to one another, what creates the social space itself, is battle. That Chess nods its head at court intrigue (certainly a social “game” as well) by populating its boards with Kings and Queens, Bishops and Knights, and the various Pawns sacrificed for the sake of victory ties battle and antagonism rather closely with the social world as well.

Now, my wife and I have been playing games, board games and card games, with another couple for over 10 years. Discussions of gaming was what brought the husband and I together, and our friendship was forged over game boards and hands of cards. He and I share an occupation (we are both university professors), though we come from rather disparate fields (He is a mathematician. I am a literature professor.). To be frank, he and I have little but academia in common, as we have opposing political views, opposing religious views, and often opposing social views. Nevertheless, when we do talk about topics besides gaming, we generally do so amiably enough. I respect his views and he mine. We don’t see much reason to battle over issues of world view. After all, they are deep seated things that we are unlikely to change one another’s perspectives on. We’re both a little too long in the tooth for that.

We play games amiably enough as well. After all, in that case, we have managed to remain friends despite nearly weekly instances of competing with one another over a hand of Dominion or another game of Puerto Rico. Both of us contend that the final outcome of games is less interesting to us than in the play of games. We like strategy. We like tactics. And as much as we like to win, we both also like to experiment with new approaches to an old game or to see a new strategy implemented that proves to beat out a tried-and-true strategy, even if that means losing to one another to get that opportunity to see how a new idea plays out.

Still, though, underlying it all is the game, and the game is about solution and resolution. The win-state defines the game, and while I suggest that playing out new ideas and discussing tactics is as exciting as winning, it isn’t like we aren’t keeping score. On evenings that he gets the best of me in most games, I find myself ashamed of my own poor play, mildly irritated that he seems “smarter than me” for this brief moment in time. On nights when I tend to sweep the field in a series of games, he so very often evokes the need “to play just one more,” and I know it isn’t merely because he wants to test out a new idea. He needs to beat me, and I get that.

This give-and-take, this trading of a sense of superiority back and forth is the cornerstone, perhaps, of our friendship. He needs me because he needs someone to beat, and I need him because I need someone to beat. Oddly, in games, this mild form of intellectual violence, this antagonism may be the very thing that generates intimacy between us. The stakes, it would seem are much lower than they might be if we were to debate “important” topics like who should be running the government or if there is or isn’t a God. Though if the outcome of these silly, trivial little simulations of reality and its systems of rules in part define a sense of ourselves and a relationship to one another, maybe they are truly more important than any instance of solving issues of politics or religion. After all, I have no real direct access to Washington or to the heavens, but I do have access to the game board, a place that defines the social boundaries of at least part of my world, if not the world.