The Zen of Chess

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Dr. David Snyder with one of his chess sets

Note: The following is adapted from articles that were previously written and published in Chess publications, authored by Dr. David N. Snyder.

There are numerous books in the market with titles such as Zen in the Art of Archery, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, The Zen of Painting, The Zen of Success, Zen in the Martial Arts, etc., etc. All of these books show or attempt to show how these activities can be absorbed into an all-inclusive facet of life where your whole mind and body and spirit is put into the activity – in a successful way. For the purposes of this article, 'Zen' here refers to this use of this activity of chess in a Buddhist way with the whole mind, body, and spirit and not necessarily just to the 'school' of Zen Buddhism. Using sport or another activity in this way may actually have its origin in the Theravada Pali Canon; see Sedaka Sutta.

This especially applies to chess. The game of chess is not just a board game. In the words of former world champion, Anatoly Karpov, “Chess is everything; art, science, sport.” Chess is not only art, science, sport, but also a meditation and a martial art.

The Art of Chess

Chess is an art because it requires all kinds of creative tactics to win. One cannot just play in a mechanical way and succeed very far. One must use different strategies and creative planning, sometimes making what appear to be blunders to the average player, but it could be excellent sacrifices for a more strategic position and a brilliant attack on the opposing king.

As early as the mid-1980’s chess computers were very strong and could defeat about 98% of all chess players. The chess computers and software programs could analyze thousands of moves per second. Yet the top players still could easily beat them. A human being can only analyze a few moves per second, but still the humans were better. How can this be so? It is not that the computers were making mistakes, when they are set at their highest level, there are no mistakes made. The computers could not beat the top human players because the humans have artistic skills, we have creativity. The computers could not see or anticipate the creative attacks.

Postal chess quickly became ruined with the advent of strong computer programs. Many average players were using computers to make their moves while the top rated players did not. The winners of the postal competitions were genuine because they were stronger than the computers, but the rank and file of the average players were ranked by which player had the better and often more expensive computer.

The Science of Chess

Engineering students, math students, and science students in universities and their graduates tend to do well at chess. This is because there is still a very technical side to chess which a mathematical and strong logical mind does well at. There are numerous combinations of moves and potential outcomes of a certain move given a certain strategic position. Sometimes 4 to 8 moves in advance need to be contemplated and the various possible combinations of moves and the probabilities of the potential opponent’s moves need to be taken into account.

Dr. Emanuel Lasker was world champion for 27 years and earned a Ph.D. in mathematics. Numerous other strong players have hailed from the mathematics and science departments.

The Sport of Chess

Most would agree that chess is an art and a science and a competitive board game. But some would argue that chess is not a sport. They argue that chess is competitive and does produce a clear winner and loser and a ranking system of players by ratings and wins at tournaments, but that there is no physical aspect to the game. There is nothing in chess that compares to running against other athletes or lifting more weight, as in typical sports.

This is true, but what these people forget is the training leading up to playing a chess match. A fit mind cannot be fit without a fit body and vice versa, a fit body cannot be fit without a fit mind. Numerous medical doctors and spiritual leaders have demonstrated and taught about the mind-body connection. Successful chess players have known this for decades. The top players all participated in sport and exercise activities.

As far back as the 1972 world championship, Bobby Fisher prepared by playing tennis and riding an exercise bicycle. Spassky liked to swim several laps. The current highest rated player in the world, Magnus Carlsen participates in soccer (football), tennis, runs on a treadmill and does other exercises too to keep in good physical shape.

Some chess players have passed out at the table from the stress or from fatigue. Some were not prepared physically for the game and just relied on the art and science of the game in their preparations. At the world championship level, some players have lost 11 lbs. (5 kg) during their match from the stress and the physical work-outs between games. Compare this to about 5.5 lbs. (2.5 kg) of lost weight from a champion runner after running a marathon.

In 1984 the world championship match between Karpov and Kasparov was halted with no winner after 48 games because of exhaustion of the champion, Karpov. He was winning with 5 wins and 3 losses and 40 draws, but could barely continue he was so fatigued. There is a one to two day break between games, but even with that, there was too much exertion used of the mind and body on the players.

Any exercise or sport is good training for chess, but especially the aerobic sports and exercises, such as running, bicycling, swimming, stair climbing, etc. Aerobic exercises get your heart rate going and then at rest times, the heart works more efficiently, beating less times per minute. The “saving” of millions of heart beats per year could increase longevity and will make you more relaxed during rest times and during chess matches.

The Highest Martial Art

Chess is a military game with two armies facing each other. The king is equivalent to the president or leader in modern political terms and the queen is equivalent to the commanding general. In the ancient, original game of chess, called chaturanga, the queen equivalent was called the general.

Other martial arts, such as karate, judo, and aikido, are also military exercises. The hand-to-hand military exercises like karate are similar to the skills needed of ground troops or in terms of rank, the enlisted men and women who serve in the military. Martial arts that use weapons like Zen archery, kendo (Japanese fencing), and kung fu provide the skills and abilities of slightly higher ranks of the historical military positions.

The historical and modern highest ranks in the military of the highest officers and generals are those in the “war room” who make the decisions. The generals and the leaders decide which course of action to take, what strategies to employ and what sacrifices (if any) must be made. Here is where the tough decisions of warfare are made and the decisions are left to those who have moved up the ranks and have shown that they have the abilities and the intellect to make these decisions.

Of all the martial arts, it is easy to see where chess fits in the military ranks. Both historically and in modern use, chess is where the strategies and decisions are made. It is the “game of kings” not only because many historical kings have played the game, but also because it represents the highest martial art, the skills of the highest ranking generals.

Chess includes 6 different types of pieces that each move in different directions and have different roles and power. This is more accurate to the real world and warfare where there are different soldiers and tools of different skills and use. The game of Go or checkers, for example, has pieces that are all the same and the object is to finish all of your opponent’s pieces. In the real world, this is not how a win is achieved and there are specialists of different skills and abilities.

In some ways too, chess can be considered the “highest sport.” This is because it requires the skills of art, science, sport, martial arts, and meditation and because it represents where humans really shine. Some marvel at the fact that a champion sprinter can run 100 meters in about 9 to 10 seconds. But this is a poor performance as compared to most animals who can do it in half the time. Some marvel at the fact that a champion weight lifter can lift 500 lbs. (227 kg) over their head. But this a poor performance as compared to most animals who can either lift more weight than that or more than 4 times their body weight, where champions can only lift two to three times their weight.

The thing that really makes humans so great and what separates us to a superior point is our creativity, our science, our intellects, and spirituality. In other sport matters, we are quite poor in comparison to animals. Therefore, chess is the highest martial art and the highest sport.

Chess as a Meditation

Chess originated in ancient India, possibly as early as 100 B.C. It was called chaturanga, which is a Sanskrit word, meaning four parts or divisions (of the armies). In ancient India at that time numerous spiritual traditions were arising which all had a contemplative, meditative side to them. The major Western religions too all have a contemplative and mystical side, such as the Kabbalists (Judaism), Gnostics (Christianity), and Sufis (Islam).

In many Asian cultures and religions, the number 8 is significant. In Buddhism (to which Zen is a school), the main teaching is that of the eight-fold Middle Path, which consists of: Right Understanding, Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration. The first we thing we notice on the chess board is that it consists of 8 rows horizontally and 8 rows vertically on an 8 x 8 board for a total of 64 squares.


There are 16 black pieces and 16 white pieces facing each other and 32 white squares and 32 black squares. This mixture of the white and black makes the games work. There is no annihilation of the other side as the point is simply to capture the king. Just as in the real world, one side does not win by annihilating the other, but rather by capturing the headquarters, in the case of chess, it is the king. This is similar to the yin-yang philosophy of Taoism where it is a mixture of positive and negative, the male and female qualities, the opposites, that moves us beyond dualism and to the Tao (Way).

In everyday life we as humans are left with decisions to make all the time. These decisions have to do with work, family, relationships, and others. Life is basically a series of decisions. Chess is an intellectual game that requires the use of our intellects and decision making skills. You succeed by being very careful, organized, and not too hasty in both real life decisions and in chess.

As noted above under Chess as an Art, chess computers were defeating about 98% of all chess players. Chess programs were designed that could analyze thousands of moves per second and later even millions of moves per second. The computers made no blunders and were incredibly strong at chess, yet there were humans that could still beat the computers in head-to-machine matches. This shows that there is something unique to being human. We have creativity, intellect, the ability to imagine, and perhaps we are spiritual beings too, capable of insight through the powers and concentration of our minds.

Meditation practice involves a complete awareness of your surroundings and mindful attention to everything happening with the mind-body and is not a form of sleep or sensory deprivation as some misunderstand it. Meditation does not involve “tuning out” the rest of the world either; it is simply complete awareness of everything that is happening from your breath, physical sensations, and thoughts using all of your senses. A person with this heightened awareness from meditation practice will do better at chess.

One of the most important teachers of Confucianism after Confucius was Mencius (372 BCE – 289 BCE), and he wrote that meditation and concentration can be more important than intelligence in board games such as chess. He argued that a person with weaker intelligence than his opponent, but with strong concentration skills, will do better than the intelligent player whose mind wanders away often.

In world championship matches, players are typically given 2 hours and 30 minutes on their play clock to make the first 40 moves. This is an average of 3 minutes and 45 seconds per move. Often they make some moves rather quickly to leave more time for more difficult positions later. On several occasions some champions have been seen getting up from their chair at the chess table and pacing back and forth in a type of walking meditation on the stage with some of their extra time. They do this even though they are taking their eyes off the board, so that they can calm down the heart, mind, and body for the rest of the game. The game itself is played from the seated position, like sitting meditation.

There is one Zen story that includes the game of chess. A Zen master instructed a beginning student to play chess with one of the senior students. Then he told them that the loser would be killed. The student played chess with more concentration devoted to the game than he had ever done before in his life. As he nervously played and shaked his pieces, sweat started to pour off his forehead and all over. He was playing for his life, literally. Then he started winning, his position was very good. And then he started to have compassion for his opponent, not wanting him to be killed, so he purposely made some blunders. The game was a test and no one was killed. The point of the story is that full concentration is needed in every facet of life to succeed and the importance of compassion. Today modern athletes often evoke this Zen attitude, attempting to feel that they will literally die if they do not make the next shot or score, etc.

In the 1978 world chess championship Victor Korchnoi (Switzerland) played against then champion Anatoly Karpov (Russia, formerly USSR). Korchnoi had a much lower chess rating than Karpov and he was significantly older at the age of 47. Karpov was expected to win easily. Karpov took off to a commanding lead of 5 - 2 in a match that would declare the winner the first to reach 6 wins, not counting draws. Korchnoi then started practicing yoga and meditation to relax. He started an incredible come-back, winning three games to zero over Karpov. On the very next game Karpov won and retained the world title. But such a come-back was unprecedented in the chess world and occurred because Korchnoi recognized the value of yoga and meditation on the mind and body.

The current world champion, Viswanathan Anand, is a Hindu from India and had these excellent things to say about religion and meditation:

“I avoid the rituals and ceremonies associated with religion. That does not mean I stay completely remote; when I am in India I make it a point to visit a temple. I revel in the tranquility it offers and the beauty it symbolizes.

I may look calm and sober when I’m playing, but that’s a façade. On the inside I can hear my heart pounding. Everyone brings a particular characteristic to the way they play. I bring my calmness to the table. Chess is warfare waged in solitude. In many ways, the game prepares you for the challenges that life hurls in your direction.”

The egalitarian nature of chess

Very few sports allow people of all sizes and body types to compete at a world-class level. Even fewer allow different age groups and genders to compete together at the world-class level. For example, in basketball there is a definite advantage to being very tall and short people would mostly be wasting their time attempting to perform at the world-class level. In weight lifting, short people have the advantage because they have shorter limbs and less distance to raise the weight over their heads. In swimming, those with very long arm wingspans perform well. The former communist countries knew this very well and trained their elementary school children to perform in a sport that matched their body types and that is why they performed very well at the events of the Olympics.

In chess there are people of all body types and all ages. Arthur Dake (U.S.) was still a grandmaster at the age of 90. Magnus Carlsen (Norway) became a grandmaster at the age of 13. There is no advantage to any body type or even between male and female. Since the game is primarily mental, these distinctions do not matter in chess. It only helps that one be in good physical shape for the mind-body and for relaxation and an efficient heart, but the definition of what is good physical shape can vary based on your own specific body type.

Judit Polgar (Hungary) regularly played against the top men in chess rather than the women's events and won several tournaments against an all male field. She participated in a World Chess Championship tournament making it to the quarterfinals. She lost by only one point to a player who went on to win that championship, thus, potentially missing the World Championship title by only one point. In February and May of 2004 she had a chess elo rating of 2746 which placed her at number 5 in the world on the men's list. This is an incredible feat considering that about 90% of all chess players are male. In individual games, she has defeated eleven current and former world champions including Kasparov (the highest rated player in history at the time), Karpov, Topalov, Anand and Carlsen (current highest rated player in history).


Chess is everything; art, science, sport, highest martial art, meditation, and it is egalitarian. Chess strengthens your concentration skills and can be an aid to meditation practice. Meditation calms the mind-body and can be an aid to chess training. Chess is not to be done in lieu of meditation, but can greatly assist a meditation practice.

See also


  • Arnot, Robert and Gaines, Charles L. Sports Talent. Penguin, 1986.
  • Chess Life magazine issues
  • Cooper, Kenneth, M.D. The Aerobics Program for Total Well-Being: Exercise, Diet, and Emotional Well Balance. Bantam, 1985.
  • Fox, Michael and James, Richard. The Even More Complete Chess Addict, 2nd edition, Faber and Faber, 1994.
  • International Chess Federation
  • Mencius. Lau, D. C., translator. Penguin Classics, 2005
  • Mozart of Chess: Magnus Carlsen
  • Online and print encyclopedias, newspapers, including New York Times
  • Reuters News Agency, Interview with V. Anand, 2007
  • Sohl, Robert. The Gospel According to Zen. Mentor, 1970.
  • TC club news 1986-1991