Headlines: The Speed Chess Championship and a Lesson in Humility

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Editor's Note

Each week, the Christ and Culture podcast features a segment called "Headlines," in which we look at some aspect of the headlines from a Christian perspective. In episode 123, Dr. Ken Keathley and Benjamin Quinn had a lighthearted conversation with Jacob Haley about The Speed Chess Championship. This article is a transcript of that conversation, edited for length and clarity.

You are not ultimately in control of everything. Sometimes you just get outsmarted and outplayed.

Ken Keathley: Here to discuss with us is our own Jacob Haley. Jacob is pursuing an advanced MDiv here at Southeastern, and he serves as this year’s Dancer Fellow.

Benjamin Quinn: So, Jacob, tell us about the 2023 Speed Chess (not speed dating) Championship.

Jacob Haley: So, yeah, you’re right. It is the Speed Chess Championship. You might have thought of chess as this very old slow game with your grandpa.

BQ: No, that’s Monopoly, but go ahead.

JH: So one of the things that chess enthusiasts have been doing recently is shortening the time constraints for chess. So you can play, like, your classical games, which are like an hour and a half for each player. But you can also play blitz, which is like five minute increments of the game. You have five minutes to play an entire chess game, or you can play it in three minutes. You can even play bullet chess, which is in 1 minute. And the 2023 Speed Chess Championship is basically a tournament about who is the king of speed chess.

KK: So whenever you did your particular version of speed chess, are we talking one, three, or five minutes?

JH: At the Speed Chess Championship, they did five minutes, three minutes, and one.

BQ: Is this virtual? Is this in person? Was this televised on ESPN? Tell me more about exactly how this went down.

JH: Yes, it was streamed on YouTube, and it is virtual. And so the virtual thing is nice because if you have like 60 seconds to try to do 30 to 40 moves for a chess game, things are going to go haywire really fast. And so it’s also really cool because you can pre-move. You play one move, and then your opponent has like pre-moved 30 moves in response, and then all of a sudden the game is completely different now.

KK: So who won?

JH: Magnus Carlson won. Actually, Magnus Carlson was not favored to win this one. Hikaru Nakamura was favored to win. They faced off three times before, and Carlson was leading 2-1 in terms of their matchups. And everyone was clamoring for the narrative: Will Hikaru and Carlson face off in the final? And the fans finally got that.

KK: So what is the Queen’s Gambit?

JH: Well, it depends on who you’re asking. If you’re asking an average person, The Queen’s Gambit is a Netflix show, right? But if you ask someone else, the Queen’s Gambit is actually an opening with chess. And so a gambit is when you sacrifice material to gain a positional advantage. So it’s when you move your queen pawn up front, followed by the pawn to the left of the queen pawn, and you sacrifice that pawn to gain control at the center.

KK: Do you ever use it?

JH: Actually, the Queen’s Gambit was my opening of choice for a while. I’ve switched and now play the Scotch game.

BQ: Interesting. Okay, I’ve got more questions, but we’regoing to leave that for another episode. Here’s what I want to ask you. One of our favorite metaphors, at least in English, is to compare when someone’s playing chess versus checkers. And we talk about this in politics, we talk about this in personal relationships, all kinds of things. First of all, do you find that to be accurate? And secondly, how do we think Christianly about this  whole game of chess in terms of the actualgame itself, but then also the way in which it may expand into our imaginations metaphorically?

JH: I totally agree with the metaphor of playing chess versus checkers — chess being the harder game, because actually checkers has been solved. That is, there’s a best move to play in every single circumstance. So that way, no matter what’s going to happen, you’re going to win checkers.

KK: So checkers is like an elaborate Tic Tac Toe game at this point.

JH: Precisely. Chess, however, has been solved near the end of the game. They’re two completely different games. So I totally resonate with that metaphor. And in terms of how to think Christianly about chess, I typically think about chess through the lens of Ecclesiastes, that there’s some inherent joy in the game of chess. Chess is really fun because it’s the perfect combination of preparation and skill. Like, you have to know what move to make in any given position. You have to be good at pattern recognition for the end of the game. We just call it the endgame. But alongside that joy, there’s an inherent transientness to the game of chess. The 2023 Speed Chess Championship ended on Friday; Magnus Carlson was crowned the king of speed chess. But today he and Hikaru Nakamura, who he defeated in the finals, are actually facing off again in another tournament. And now Magnus has to defend his reign once again. So that just shows kind of like the message of Ecclesiastes, that the sun rises and the sun sets, the wind blows and chases itself allover the plains of the Earth.

KK: So checkers is too deterministic for you? Is that what you’re trying to say? There is no free will in checkers.

JH: There is no free will, yeah. And that’s the advantage in that how you can think Christianly about chess. You might win one game, but eventually you’re going to be too old and someone else is going to take the title from you. Someone’s going to outwit you, out-clever you, outthink you.

KK: I think you are spot on about how chess, in many ways, teaches us that there’s always another round. And what would you say about those for whom perhaps chess becomes more than a game; it becomes an identity or perhaps an idol.

JH: Yeah, and there’s nothing more infuriating in chess than losing, because there’s nothing more debilitating than realizing that I just accidentally blundered a piece. I just gave up my bishop for no apparent reason, or my opponent has started a sequence of moves that is going to terminate ultimately in me being checkmated. And there’s this sense of helplessness there that you just can’t help but have to kind of quell that anger. And it helps to remind you that you are not ultimately in control of everything. Sometimes you just get outsmarted and outplayed. So it’s a lesson in humility. That is one of the many lessons you can get from chess.

KK: Well, Jacob, I think I’ll have to dust off my old chessboard.

JH: I’d be happy to give you some lessons.

BQ: He didn’t say he’d be happy to play. He said he’d be happy to be this master teacher.

KK: I picked up on that. This is great, Jacob. Thanks so much.

JH: Yeah, thanks so much for having me, guys.

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Jacob Haley

Dancer Fellow

Jacob serves in the Center for Faith and Culture as the Dancer Fellow while pursuing an Advanced M.Div at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. If Jacob isn’t tucked away in the library, you can find him running, rock climbing, or playing chess.

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