How Life (or Politics) is Not a Game of Chess


Chess is a great game, but it is very different from life.  Yes, it is complex, like life.  Yes, like life it is surprising. And winning a game of chess does require you to think further ahead than your opponents, anticipating what they will do and how they will respond to your moves.  Yet, it is still not like life.  It is not even like politics or international relations.  As a matter of fact, I believe that referring to world leaders’ interactions as a game of chess is probably harmful.

Here is how I came to that conclusion:

For a time I played a game called Go.  It comes from China, although it is played in other Asian countries, too.    For those who are not familiar with the game (almost everyone who might read this), it requires surrounding your opponents’ pieces with your own.  The object is essentially to control as much territory as possible with as few pieces as possible.  The rules are simple, but they create a complex game with many possible moves at any given point.

For a while I played Go on my Kindle Fire during my lunch breaks or any time I had a few minutes of down time.  Even though the computer opponent in the app was rather foolish and weak, it was still a struggle to beat it.

As I played Go and struggled against my digital opponent, I found myself thinking about the human conflicts I was involved in, feeling like I was struggling to win them as well.  I thought about human conflict, about winning and losing.  My mind was repeatedly drawn to the sitcom husbands who think they are winning arguments with their wives until suddenly things turn and they find they have completely lost.  I wondered why those TV moments seem so realistic.

Gradually, it occurred to me that cause of these husbands’ problems is the whole idea that there is going to be a winner and a loser.  They were treating the argument and the relationship like a contest, and it was the very fact that they thought there would be a winner and a loser that caused their downfall.

I realized that human relationships are not a game of Go, nor are they are a game of chess or any other game.  In human relationships there is never a winner and a loser, at least in the long term.  In the long term either everyone wins or everyone loses, and if one person tries to come out the winner, both parties will lose.  I now think that in a human relationship, just trying to win guarantees that you will both lose, eventually.

I think this may be true of all human relationships, whether they are personal or just economic.  I think it may be true of conflicts between groups: nation vs. nation, management vs. unions, even Republicans vs. Democrats.  I think it may be true that in these situations there are only “win-win” or “lose-lose” outcomes, that there is no “win-lose” possibility.

I think it’s when we forget this that human disasters happen.  We always declare winners in war, but there really aren’t any:  everyone loses.  Wars happen when we forget that fact.  When we forget that we all have to get ahead economically for any of us to prosper, we take unusual risks, lie and cheat.  In the process, economies shake, even crumble, and we all lose.  When employees and management forget they are in it together, the business declines and ultimately fails.  When political parties forget that we all win or lose together, they fight until we all lose.  In a family, if someone tries to win, everything can fall apart.

I think this is a result of the most basic fact about human relationships: we’re in them for our own benefit.  As a result, if we want to “win” in a relationship, it means getting more out of the relationship than the other person or group (getting our way, for example).  Most people will tolerate getting less than the other party for a while, because they know the benefits they receive will always vary. Sometimes things will go your way and sometimes they won’t.  People will wait it out until things get better.

But the minute we begin to treat human relationships like a competition, all that changes.  Suddenly one person or group is trying to win.  They want more of the business’ profits than the other person.  They want more favorable terms in the treaty than the other nation.  They want to get more of what they want in the negotiations.  They simply want more benefits from the relationship than the other person.

This works great for the winning side, at least for a while.  They get more than they would have if they hadn’t competed and things look great…until the loser finally withdraws from the relationship.  Employees quit or management declares bankruptcy.  Nations quit trading with each other or even go to war.  Political parties quit negotiating or just destroy each other and make room for new ones.  Friendships end.  Marriages are dissolved.  One way or another, competitive relationships all end and somehow the “winner” becomes a loser, too.

I don’t mean to sound like I’m advocating communism or that I favor a world where winning is banned, because I am actually arguing the opposite.  Communism treats relationships between capitalists and laborers as a simple contest about who will reap the benefits of labor.  The communist worldview is extraordinarily competitive.  In it, the 99% fights the 1% for the world’s resources.  And just as in every competitive relationship, in the end everyone loses.

We can’t win if we only advocate for the 99%.  We can only be sure to win if we advocate for the 100%.

So, no matter how many similarities chess or Go may have with the conflicts we encounter, life is not a game of chess.  It is not any kind of game.  Over time, we can only win if we make sure everyone wins.  And one of the saddest facts of life is that it only takes one group or one person to turn a relationship into a competition where everyone loses.

Please don’t be them.