Using Chess for Divination

I have two confessions to make. First, I love chess. I always have. When I was in elementary school (I don’t remember exactly when, but probably second or third grade), I signed up for my school’s chess club. I loved—and still love—the cleanness of it, the elegance, the strategy.

My second confession, however: As much as I love chess, I’m really, really bad at it. I could probably get better, given practice and serious dedication, but it’s not something that’s ever come naturally to me. I’m an okay chess player, on the poor side of average, where I can win a game or two but I just don’t have the all-encompassing vision and foresight necessary to be really good at chess.

This tends to surprise people who know me. I come across as the sort of person you’d expect to be good at chess, which is to say I’m really freaking smart and generally good at managing lots of moving parts. But for whatever reason, those skills just haven’t transferred to chess for me. This is largely, I expect, because I just haven’t put enough work into it; contrary to what movies and TV would have us believe, almost nobody gets good at chess just by being really smart. The path to success involves a lot of practice and a lot of lost games. As a casual player, I don’t have the experience or dedication it takes to move beyond basic proficiency.

Given this context, it was, perhaps, inevitable that I would eventually try to make a divination system out of chess. This is a thing I do when I get bored; I turn things into divination. While I doubt I’ll ever use chess-based divination regularly (it does seem like a hell of a lot of work, when I could much more easily just pick up a Tarot deck), it’s a fun intellectual exercise. Before we get into my home-made chess divination system, though, I figured I should talk through two pre-existing variants.

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Enochian Chess

This was the ultimate divination system of the Golden Dawn: A four-handed chess game played on a specially painted elemental board designed after the Tablets of the Watchtowers in Enochian magic. Intended as a synthesis of everything else in the Golden Dawn system of magic, Enochian chess incorporates Tarot, astrology, the four elements, angels, and more. It is, to say the least, rather complicated.

There are three main reasons I feel like Enochian chess doesn’t scratch my chess-as-divination itch. The first is that it’s not really chess. It’s more like Chaturanga. And while that’s all well and good, what I really want is a divination system based on regular, black-versus-white, King/Queen/Bishop/Knight/Rook/Pawn chess.

Reason number 2: Enochian chess is fricking complicated. I have deep respect for the sophistication of the system the Golden Dawn developed, but as a general rule, when I’m toying with alternative divination systems, I want to err on the side of simplicity and straightforwardness. I eschew systems that are too overloaded with Qabalistic, astrological, and Tarot-based symbolism; after all, if I wanted Tarot symbolism, I might as well just pick up a Tarot deck. What I’m looking for is something simple, down-to-earth, and qualitatively different from the other forms of divination I practice.

Reason number 3: Because Enochian chess is four-handed and unconventional, there’s no easy way to use the system unless you have three friends who all know the rules and want to play with you. At least with ordinary chess, I can set up a game online versus a stranger. Good luck doing that with the Golden Dawn system (although for the record, if someone set up a website to play Enochian chess online, I would 100% sign up).

I Ching

The other thing I want to mention before diving into my system is something I saw quite a lot of when I googled “chess divination”: The idea that the chessboard can be associated with the I Ching. I was quite surprised when I stumbled across this, but apparently there are a number of people on the Internet who think there’s a meaningful connection between the two. Near as I can tell, this association comes from two observations: That there are 64 squares on a chessboard (the same as the number of hexagrams in the I Ching), and that chess is made up of a black/white duality that’s superficially reminiscent of the Taoist principles of yin and yang.

If people want to combine chess and I Ching, I personally have no objection to that, but it’s not really my thing, for a couple of reasons. For one thing, there’s just… no historical connection there. Chess originates in the empires of the Indian subcontinent, but to the best of my knowledge, it has no actual connection to Taoist philosophy. It feels a little weird to me to superimpose the two systems on each other. I think there’s nothing wrong with creatively combining them, in principle, but a lot of the websites I stumbled across were talking about the “TRUE secret Taoist origins of chess!!!!!” and that made me vaguely uncomfortable.

For another thing—and this is just a matter of personal preference—I feel like I Ching is already a complete system on its own and doesn’t need chess to be added to it. There are well established methods of divining with the I Ching that don’t require a modern chessboard, and indeed, those more traditional methods give you more information than you could get if you tried to use a chessboard instead. (I Ching divination with coins or yarrow stalks allows you to identify the “changing” lines of a hexagram, filling out more information and giving a much richer and more complex answer to any question.)

And finally, I’m just not very good with I Ching. It’s a beautiful, wonderful system, but it is steeped in context, and I don’t know most of that context. I Ching comes with a whole metaphysical view pre-loaded, and I only have a passing familiarity with Taoist metaphysics (although I will say that Benebell Wen’s book on the subject really helped me to grasp the basics). Personally, I wouldn’t want to pick up a divination system, let alone to strip it from its context and try to reapply it somewhere else, without a real solid grasp of its metaphysical Weltanschauung.

My System

The basic premise of my system is simple: The querent plays as white;* they ask their question, and then the game proceeds as normal. After the game reaches checkmate, the board layout is analyzed for the answer to the question. If the losing king is checkmated on a white space, the answer to the question is affirmative or auspicious; if on a black space, the answer is negative or unfortunate.** You would then look at the pieces involved in the checkmate (both the pieces threatening the king directly and the pieces blocking his movement) for the details of the answer.

The rules for interpretation are taken from a passage in Manly P. Hall’s The Secret Teachings of All Ages, because I had to get my symbolism from somewhere and this was the best thing I found:

In its symbolism chess is the most significant of all games. It has been called “the royal game”–the pastime of kings. Like the Tarot cards, the chessmen represent the elements of life and philosophy … The chessboard consists of 64 squares alternately black and white and symbolizes the floor of the House of the Mysteries. Upon this field of existence or thought move a number of strangely carved figures, each according to fixed law. The white king is Ormuzd; the black king, Ahriman; and upon the plains of Cosmos the great war between Light and Darkness is fought through all the ages. Of the philosophical constitution of man, the kings represent the spirit; the queens the mind; the bishops the emotions; the knights the vitality; the castles, or rooks, the physical body. The pieces upon the kings’ side are positive; those upon the queens’ side, negative. The pawns are the sensory impulses and perceptive faculties–the eight parts of the soul. The white king and his suite symbolize the Self and its vehicles; the black king and his retinue, the not-self–the false Ego and its legion. The game of chess thus sets forth the eternal struggle of each part of man’s compound nature against the shadow of itself. The nature of each of the chessmen is revealed by the way in which it moves; geometry is the key to their interpretation. For example: The castle (the body) moves on the square; the bishop (the emotions) moves on the slant; the king, being the spirit, cannot be captured, but loses the battle when so surrounded that it cannot escape.

Manly P. Hall, The Secret Teachings of All Ages (emphasis mine)

Extrapolating from this, we get:

  • White pieces represent the querent; black pieces represent the querent’s environment
  • The King*** represents the self
  • The Queen represents the mind
  • The Bishops represent emotions
  • The Knights represent energy and vitality
  • The Rooks represent the physical body

The bishop/knight/rook on the King’s side of the board are active, and the ones on the Queen’s side are receptive; e.g. the white king’s-side bishop represents the way that the querent’s emotions act upon the world, while the white queen’s-side bishop represents the way the querent’s emotions are affected by the world. Yes, this is drawing on a complicated and gender-essentialist Victorian idea of “masculine = active, feminine = passive”, because that’s the framework in which Hall was writing. Nonetheless, I think the distinction between “here’s where you act” and “here’s where you are acted upon” is a useful one for divination. In this case, I think we can genuinely divorce ourselves from gender and just look at the interplay of subject and object.

Each of the individual pawns also has its own meaning. The “eight parts of the soul” referenced by Hall are an obscure piece of Stoic philosophy. For our purposes, we’re going to say that from left to right, the eight pawns represent:

  1. Sight
  2. Hearing
  3. Smell
  4. Taste
  5. Touch
  6. Sexuality
  7. Speech
  8. Willpower

Note that this is from each player’s perspective. That is to say, the white player’s “sight” pawn will be in line with the black player’s “willpower” pawn, white’s “hearing” will be opposite black’s “speech,” and so on. I considered trying to line the pawns up in front of pieces with similar meanings (e.g. having the “touch” pawn in front of a rook, because rooks are the physical body), but I decided that was too complicated.

As a final, bonus layer of interpretation, we may add some optional meanings of the pieces based on the pieces’ names. These may or may not come into play in a divinatory interpretation, depending on the querent’s question and circumstances. Some potential ideas off the top of my head:

  • Kings represent a man; Queens represent a woman
  • Bishops represent religion, spirituality, or institutional authority
  • Knights represent soldiers, police, weapons, or fighting
  • Rooks represent physical buildings and places

Putting It Into Practice

Phew. Okay. That was a lot of theory. Let’s do a sample reading to see how it all goes into practice. The idea here is that you would look at the position of the pieces after the game is over, and particularly the pieces involved in the checkmate. As a sample question: A boy named Jack has been tasked by his mother with selling the family cow. He’s received an offer to trade the cow for a set of magic beans, which seems like a great opportunity, but he wants to consult us for divination to see whether it’s really a good buy.

This is, no joke, the result of an actual game of chess I played online after asking this question. (See? I told you I wasn’t any good!) Interestingly enough, the game didn’t actually end in checkmate. My opponent made the mistake of taking my last pawn rather than rolling me into a checkmate with the queen and rook, so we finished in a stalemate (which I was sincerely not expecting).

Let’s give this a go for interpretation. Because there was no checkmate, the answer to Jack’s question is neither yes nor no—sort of a “The Gods are laughing” scenario. (I gotta say, not ideal for an attempted sample reading, but whatever, we’ll roll with it.) It’s not clear that Jack shouldn’t trade his cow for the magic beans, but it’s obviously not a great idea, either. The two major factors here are the black queen and rook: He is caught between mind and body—between the clear-headed vision of what he rationally should do and the impulsive behavior of a young boy who doesn’t want to do his chores. Taken another way, quite literally, the figures here are a woman and a castle: The giantess who’s waiting for Jack at the top of the magical beanstalk.

This was an underwhelming sample reading, so we’ll try another one. (Gods know I could use the practice playing chess.) A young princess was playing with her favorite golden ball when it fell into a well. A talking frog retrieved the ball for her, but now he’s demanding all sorts of special treatment, and he even wants a kiss. The princess is torn. Should she kiss the frog?

Once again, this is a real game I played, and once again, I wish to emphasize that I am not a terribly good chess player. White lost here, but lost on a white square—therefore, the overall takeaway here is that yes, she should kiss the frog. The three pieces that have checkmated the King are the bishops (emotion) and the King’s side rook (how the environment affects her physically). Thus, we’re given to understand that the princess should kiss the frog, despite her physical repulsion and strong negative feelings about it, because there are even stronger positive feelings to be had on the other side (i.e. a happily-ever-after).

To be clear, I don’t think that this chess system is actually all that workable as a system of divination. Just about every real system of divination out there is going to be easier, more accessible, and more practical, and if I ever really want answers to a question, I’ll just pick up my Tarot cards (or my beans, or my tea leaves, or—very rarely—I’ll run a geomantic chart). There’s a 75% chance that I will never look at this chess system again after hitting “Publish” on this post. But putting it together was a fun intellectual exercise. This is the sort of thing I like to play with, and I had a great time putting it together.

What are your thoughts? If you were tasked with designing a chess-based divination system, how would you do it? Are there things about my system that you liked? Didn’t like? Feel free to get creative with it! This is an excuse to play, more than an actual attempt to design something we’ll ever use, so let your imaginations run wild and share all your thoughts with me.

Until next time!

*I vacillated on this, because I feel like it has racial undertones, but I think it’s important that the querent (who is bringing the question to the divination) be the one to play first.

**I had considered making this yes/no, auspicious/unfortunate distinction a matter of whether the querent wins or loses, but I don’t like that because it makes the outcome too dependent on how well matched the querent and her opponent are. A querent playing against someone who’s much better at chess would always get a “no” answer, and that hardly seems right.

***I’m being inconsistent with capitalization conventions in this post, but I’m too lazy to go back and make everything uniform.

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