Unexpected Lessons from the Chessboard and the Hagaddah

I failed to make the chess team because of my height. Woody Allen

Last summer I revisited my chess addiction. I should have known better: I’ve been caught out before. But that chess.com app winked at me from the margins of my facebook page, and summers are quieter workwise…before I knew it I was tumbling down a rabbit hole of gambits and doubled pawns

Ah! Chess, you’ll say. There are worse things to get lost in. The life lessons are invaluable, like thinking out the box. Granted, but I don’t use the word addiction lightly. I moved quickly through the gears. In June it was three or four ten minute games a day. By mid-July I was bingeing on the site’s 6 minute offering, squeezing up to 8 games into an hour between clients. I became obsessed with my rating: a moth drawn to the glowing beacon of 1200 points, then 1300.

I lost interest in exercise, and sometimes refused to go pee, preferring to sit with my legs squished together as I clicked another instant matchup. My pupils were perpetually dilated because i was ramped up on adrenalin, pumping my fist and shouting abuse at the screen when I won, or at myself when I lost. I would catch myself watching infernally boring Nigel Short chess clips before crawling into bed in the wee hours of the morning, bug-eyed, exhausted and wired. I needed to win. I needed to play. What had I become?

Then this started to happen. With ‘chat’ enabled, in the frenzied 6 minutes of blunders and counterattacks, there’s room for friendly repartee. Chess.com displays each player’s flag, in my case the Star of David, and profile picture, my son singing his barmitzvah at the Wailing Wall. Whoever’s playing me appears to be pitted against a cherubic 13 year old. When I would come up against opponents, mainly those sporting flags that do not recognise the state of Israel, the banter would go something like:

Arash1978 (Iran): Allah be with you,

Yochai (Israel): Allah be with you,

Arash1978 (Iran): Do you feel God is with you?

Yochai (Israel): In my more graceful moments

Arash1978 (Iran): But how can he be when you are slaughtering women and children?

Yochai (Israel): (copy and paste a link to the Iranian friends of Israel facebook page )I look forward to the day when we will hug as brothers,

Arash1978 (Iran):Not going to happen!

Yochai (Israel):(rook to A8 with three seconds remaining) Checkmate!

Except this time I’m not punching the air in exultation. This time I get up to go to the loo..

Or

ISIS4eva (US): I feel sorry for you you poor hellbound bastard!

Yochai (Israel): I appreciate your concern.

Clearly unpleasant interactions, but I learned to deal with them. I even enjoyed the buzz of copying and pasting the Farsi onto google translate and then back again within the timeframe, defending my king, and my country, if you will.

However, most games where citizens of declared enemies of Israel were randomly lumped against me ended in forfeit: As soon as they realised who they were up against, they bailed.

At first I was delighted. Not only did I not have to put up with ignorant abuse, my ranking soared with zero effort and I had the moral high-ground. I would even hope for a fated mismatch and found myself identifying with the Israeli Judokas at the Olympics, which was happening at the same time. Or, I would shake my head patronisingly at the impossible predicament his government’s policies had inflicted on my opponent.

But the more this took place, the more I understood that something odd was going on. With each ‘celebrated’ forfeit, in spite of myself, I began to get irritated. I finally passed 1300 points, and felt no joy. Worse, my mood darkened, and I experienced an almost physical pain. The silver lining to this? I was effectively weaned of my compulsive visits to the chess board!

I remembered growing up in apartheid South Africa. Of all the repercussions, none, I’m ashamed to say, stung more than the sports boycott. White South Africans apparently ranked this in their top three. But that was when we were the bad guys. Right or wrong, I certainly don’t suffer the same moral compunction today as I did then. So I shouldn’t be feeling sick from this, should I? Confused, I turned to uncle Google for answers.

I discovered that I had been sentenced to ‘the social death penalty’. There’s no difference between the way the brain perceives physical pain and the pain of social rejection. Furthermore, it doesn’t matter if it’s at work, school, online, if it’s pretend, or even if you’re rejected by a group you’d rather stick pins in your eyes than be a part of!

I was going in circles: I’d swapped chess for the legitimate but potentially more compromising need for social belonging. It shouldn’t surprise us that our brains see this as the same kind of pain. (Anyone interested in the tyranny of ostracism is welcome to read my take on it here).

How does this relate to Pesach, and what about it’s message of freedom might help here? I remember a prayer book introduction once offered a definition of man as ‘the creature that prays’: we are all looking to bow down to something. The more flawed the idols we worship, the lower we are likely to sink. In the Exodus story, enslaved Jews in Egypt sank to the 49th level of spiritual debauchery, their own rock bottom. The pain of this recognition made us cry out to a Greater Power, and so begins the epic (unfinished!) story of our redemption, as told in the haggadah. But the hagaddah, read every Passover, is more than a storybook. It is also a formula for freedom from slavery in all its insidious forms: (You may recognise themes common to other recovery programs)

Tell your story. Tell your story again. Tell it again.

– Admit you were a slave

– Respect yourself! Remember that you are unique and you can change the world

– Stay curious

– Be grateful for the good and the bad

– Keep an eye to the future

– Value time. It’s the stuff life is made of. It can all change in an instant.

– ‘Until we are all free, we are none of us free. ‘ – Emma Lazarus

– Sanctify life by enjoying it – not fleeing it, but

– Let your spiritual self rise above your physical self

– Leaving Egypt means obeying your conscience, not social convention

– Sing – it turns darkness into light

– All this is a whiff of redemption – we’re on our way home but there is much work to do!

I should point out that this is also works as a way to play chess – building step by step, and it’s good social too. As my daughter says: be your own kind of beautiful.

If you’ve stayed with me to the end of this musing, all that remains to say is that we should all be blessed with a long deep whiff at redemption, and have the tenacity to see it through. Chag Sameach.

About the Author
Yochai is a South Africa educated clinical psychologist living and working in Ra'anana Israel.
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