Chess is an ancient game of skill and strategy played
within the confines of strictly defined rules of play, within which the
participants have the freedom to exercise individual decisions (free will). Each
decision has a consequence which affects the response of the opponent and future
moves of the decision maker, thereby influencing the outcome of the game. I have
purposefully described the game in this somewhat unusual manner in order to
emphasize the similarity between chess and the internal and external struggles
of life. The internal aspects are the struggles between our dual natures and
include those spiritual conflicts by which we maintain our self-identity,
rationalize our behavior and live our lives. The external struggles include the
mundane stresses associated with living in the material world, preserving our
physical wellbeing, and survival. Ultimately, the game represents man’s exercise
of free will while operating within the confines of natural law. This parallel
between the game of chess and our material lives is a paramount factor in
grasping the esoteric properties which find active expression not only in the
game of Chess, but also in Freemasonry.
Brother Manly P. Hall said[I],
concerning the Game of Chess:
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.
In Chess, the
playing field is defined by the chess board upon which the chess pieces operate.
The physical constraints of the board, combined with the limitations of movement
prescribed for each chess piece on that board, and together with the rules and
conventions of the game constitute the totality of the tools used equally in
common by each participant. The tools unique to each participant are the mental
and spiritual processes brought to bear during play. The challenge of the game
increases in direct proportion to the match in the degree of skill of the
This paper will deal primarily with the physical
characteristics of the Chess board, the functions of the Chess pieces and the
esoteric symbolism which these game elements exhibit. It will address the
intangible spiritual elements in the context of the physical. The premise of the
paper is that not only is there a strong esoteric symbolism present in the game
of Chess, this symbolism may be positively correlated with Esoteric concepts
found in Freemasonry.
Since I have taken the approach of dividing the physical
elements of the game into the board, and the chess pieces respectively, I will
discuss these elements in that same order. First however, a brief summary of the
history of the game is offered.
The game of Chess is believed to have
originated in Persia[II].
Legend holds that the game was developed for King Vishtaspa by the prophet
who requested as a reward that he receive payment in grain. The conditions of
this reward were that the amount of grain received would be equal to that which
accumulated by placing one grain on the first square of the chess board, three
on the second, six on the third, ten on the fourth, etc. up to the sixty-fourth
and final square. Mathematicians will recognize this to be a geometric
progression, resulting in a greater quantity of grain than could be gathered in
the entire Persian Empire (18,446,744,973,709,551,661 grains). According to
further legend, the original rules of the game of Chess were so ancient as to
have been lost. A wise man in the Persian court by the name of Buzurdjmir,
rediscovered the complete set of rules for the game of Chess, including the
placement and movement of each Chess Piece on the board through study and
analysis. Dr. Ricardo Calvo[IV]
says of Buzurdjmir:
To calculate the arithmetical progression upon the
chess board, he considered 32 pairs of numbers adding up to 65 (1+64 = 65, 2+63
= 65, 3+62 = 65 etc). So 32x65 = 2080… In an allegorical sense, the secret
number of the chess board is not 64, but 65, because all other numbers are
related to it.”
The word “Checkmate” used to signify the games end by
successfully trapping the King, is believed to stem from the Persian word “Shah”
(king) and the Arabic word “mat” (he is dead).
Other accounts of the origin of the game[V]
hold that it began in India as early as the time of the great Indian grammarian
Pānini (circa 500 BC) where it was a game known as “Chaturanga” (Sanskrit
meaning “four members”) which required four participants, and which possibly
included the use of dice. It is interesting to note that by using dice, the
element of fate was introduced as a factor in the game. In the Indian version of
the game, the sixty-four squares (in an 8 X 8 matrix) correspond to the
so-called Vastu-mandala, a diagram associated with the layout of sacred temples.
The Hindu King Balhit[VI]
is attributed with writing a book about the game of Chess in which the Game is
portrayed as an allegory of the Zodiac. According to historian[VII]
“ The cyclic symbolism of the chess-board resides in
the fact that it expresses the unfolding of space according to the quaternary
and octonary of the principle directions (4 X 4 X 4 = 8 X 8), and that it
synthesizes in crystalline form, the two great complementary cycles of sun and
moon: the duodenary of the Zodiac and the 28 Lunar mansions; furthermore, the
number 64, the sum of the squares on the chess-board is a submultiple of the
fundamental cyclic number 25920, which measures the precession of the
The representation of the Chess board in this fashion
brings to mind similarities of the Vastu-mandala and the Kabalistic Cube of
Still other sources identify that the game of Chess was
invented by Mercury, also known as Hermes or Thoth. Regardless of its origin,
the game of Chess became extremely popular in the Arabic world, thereby
spreading to Spain and eventually to the rest of the Western world.
The Chess Board
The traditional Chess board is an
eight-by-eight mosaic of sixty-four squares arranged in alternating dark and
light shades (Figure 1). The squares are arranged in ranks and files; ranks are
the rows or lines of eight squares running
from left-to-right across the board, whereas files are the rows or lines of
eight squares running from top-to-bottom along the board. Ranks are commonly
numbered from 1 to 8, and files are lettered from “a” to “h” (left-to-right).
The board is commonly viewed to be divided into four
zones. The first zone is the division of the board into the White v. Black Half
into groups of four Ranks. Traditionally, white's half of the board consists of
all of the squares from Ranks 1 to 4; Black's Half includes all the squares from
Ranks 5 to 8. A similar, but vertical division creates a second zone delineating
the Kings Side versus the Queen’s Side of the board. The Queen’s Side includes
all squares from Files a through d, whereas the King’s Side includes all squares
from Files E to F. The third zone is actually a combination of the Center and
the Expanded Center of the Board. The Center includes the four most center
squares on the chessboard; whereas the Expanded Center includes the 16 squares
in the board center. The fourth and final zone consists of the Flanks.
There are 6 Flanking squares in total, 3
squares on the Queen’s Side (Files a to c) and 3 squares on the Kingside (Files
f to h).
While the game is now traditionally played by two
participants, there have been four-handed versions such as Rosicrucian or
which appear to be an adaptation of the earlier “Chaturanga”. In 1922
George Slater, a member of the Sodalitas Rosae + Crucis & Solis Altati (The
Rosicrucian Order of A.O.) prepared a detailed description of the game of
Enochian Chess and a ritual associated with the game, which has been transcribed
and is available via the internet[IX].
In this transcript, a Table is provided which gives correspondences between the
Chess Pieces, Cards of the Tarot, and the Elements.
There are correlations between the 64 Squares of the Chess
Board and the 64 Hexagrams of the Oriental divinatory system known as the
The 8 major trigrams of the I-Ching coincide with the 8 ranks and 8 files of the
Chess Board, and the six lines in a hexagram may be correlated with the 6 types
of chess pieces. There are also similarities between certain of the Chess Pieces
and the cards in a Tarot deck. As is frequently the case when exploring true
esoteric symbolism, there is a great deal of similarity which can be found
between different, seemingly unrelated systems.
The Masonic allusion most commonly associated
with the Chess Board is that of the Mosaic pavement, and the allegorical
representation of the dark and light squares as symbols of opposites. Somewhat
less recognized are the allusions of the Chess Board to astrological concepts
(see earlier references to the book of King Balhit) and the similar allusions to
the Astrological layout[XI]
of the lodge. During our later discussion of the Chess Pieces further
astrological allusions shared in common between the game and the lodge will be
A somewhat lesser-known allusion concerning both the Chess
Board and the Mosaic Pavement also exists in the Masonic allegory of the 3, 5,
and 7 steps leading to the middle chamber. The numbers 3, 5, and 7 represent
the difference of squares of the first four integers as follows:
12 = 1,
22 = 4,
32 = 9,
42 = 16
Subtracting the square of each integer
4 - 1 = 3
9 – 4 = 5
16 – 9 = 7
Although logic indicates a continuance of the sequence
could be obtained by squaring the integer 5, and thereby deriving a difference
of squares (25 – 16 = 9), it is important to note that the numbers 3, 5, and 7
are all primes (indivisible by any number other than 1 or themselves), whereas 9
is not a prime number. As will be shown, only the 3, 5, 7 sequence is
accommodated by the Chess Board. The squaring of the integers may be represented
graphically as shown in Figure 2:
The difference (subtraction) of squares may also be
represented graphically as depicted in Figure 3:
The Chess Board may be discovered to have a common center,
which can be located at the point of intersection of diagonals constructed from
the four corners of the board. This is true also of the Masonic Pavement[XII].
In a manner identical to that used in the layout of the Masonic Pavement, the
Chess Board is constructed from its center outwards in four concentric rings
with each quadrant of the board encompassing four groups of nested squares (See
Figure 4) which are identical to the nested squares associated with the 3, 5, 7
sequence shown in Figure 3. Among other things, the arrangement of the nested 3,
5, 7 Difference in Squares incorporates an approximation of the Golden Spiral[XIII].
One of the
key features of the Board Layout when envisioned as nested squares derived from
the 3, 5, and 7 sequence is that when all four quadrants are considered there is
a central common group of four contiguous squares (shown in black outline in
Figure 4). The only two Chess pieces which are capable of simultaneously
controlling all four of this group of squares are the King and Queen. Four (4)
is a cubic number (and 4 X 4 X 4 = 64). In this regards, the four squares, which
in a Masonic Mosaic Pavement would be occupied by the Altar, represent the Holy
of Holies in Solomon’s Temple. The traditional symbolism of the Chess Pieces
(the King and Queen) are that the King represents the Sun, and the Queen
represents the Moon. This symbolism identifies the four squares as the center of
the universe from the Astrological standpoint, and places two of the three
Lesser Lights of Freemasonry on the altar.
There is an additional feature of the “Nested Squares”
which requires a three-dimensional perspective, in which each of the nested
squares in the board is considered to be a three-dimensional cube (Visualize the
Chess Board to represent a top-downward view of nested cubes). This is a
plausible consideration since the number 12 which describes the cube and the
sequence 3, 5, and 7 are related. Albert Pike wrote (concerning the cube) that:
We have visible three faces, and nine external lines,
drawn between seven points. The complete cube has three more faces, making six;
three more lines, making twelve; and one more point, making eight. As the number
12 includes the sacred numbers, 3, 5, 7, and 3 times 3, or 9, and is produced by adding the sacred number 3 to 9; while its
own two figures 1, 2 the unit or monad, and duad, added together, make the same
sacred number 3; it was called the perfect number; and the cube became the
symbol of perfection.
Thus, if we consider each nested square to have a height
equal to its length and width them stacking the nested cubes results in a
four-stepped Ziggurat as shown in Figure 5. This Ziggurat has been interpreted[XIV]
as representing the “world mountain” which the ancients believed was the central
axis of the revolving cosmos.
There are a significant number of other esoteric
characteristics incorporated into the Chess Board Layout[XV].
The natural symmetric division of the Chess Board into four quadrants taken in
the context of astrological symbolism represent the four opposing seasonal
cycles. Extension of this symbolism into the art and science of Alchemy would
find a correlation between the Chess Board Layout and the so-called “Square of
Opposition” of the elements (Figure 6) proposed by Aristotle.
Other characteristics of the Chess Board also fall in line
with our current discussion of Astrological associations, namely that the
perimeter of the board consists of 28 squares (Figure 7), which correlates with
an approximation of the number of days in a monthly lunar cycle.
The Chess Pieces
The major chess pieces represent[XVI]
the three traditional energy forces analogous to the three forces represented by
the Christian Cross (active, passive, and modulating) and which form the
Theological basis of the Christian Trinity.
The game is played with a total of thirty-two pieces,
sixteen pieces are black and sixteen are white. In each set of sixteen there is
one King, One Queen,, Two Bishops, Two Knights, Two Rooks, and Eight Pawns.
Figure 8 provides an illustration of the initial placement of the Chess Pieces
on the Board.
The symbolism of the Chess Pieces is largely found by
examination of their function and the range of freedom with which they may move
on the board. Brother Manly P. Hall[XVII]
aptly describes the role of the Chess Pieces as representative of the spiritual
constitution of man. Hall observes in this regard that:
“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.”
The pieces may be found to have analogy to planetary
bodies, the elements, cardinal direction, and many other forms. In the view of
the Chess Board as an Astrological platform, one of the most interesting
symbolisms of the Chess Pieces concerns their planetary associations[XVIII].
These planetary associations are consistent with the layout of the Lodge in that
the original Blazing Star which was central to the Lodge pavement was a Hexagram
[XIX] and not
the Pentagram. The Hexagram is itself a common symbol of planetary order.
In the Astrological scheme, as already noted, the King
represents the Sun and the Queen represents the Moon. The King may move only one
square at a time in any direction (including diagonally). The King captures
other pieces by displacement, i.e. assuming the square upon which an opposing
piece occupies. The Queen moves freely vertically, horizontally, or diagonally
and may do so for any desired distance. The Queen captures by displacement.
Bishops move diagonally along squares of similar color (black bishops move on
black diagonally connected squares, white bishops on white diagonals).
The Bishop’s pattern of movement is decidedly triangular,
and is taken to represent the spiritual world. Astrologically the piece
represents the Feminine character and the Planet Jupiter. The Rook moves “on the
square”, that is to say either vertically or horizontally. It is taken to
represent the Masculine character and therefore Saturn.
The knight is the only piece which can leap over other
pieces. It can move two squares up and one square over, or one square up and two
over. In this regard the Knight’s movements resemble the Masonic square and
represents the planet Mars. Pawns move straight forward one square at a time,
except that on the first move they may be advanced two squares. Pawns are unique
in that while they normally move forward, they may move forward diagonally when
capturing an opposing piece. Pawns which move forward to the final rank may be
exchanged for a piece of greater value. In this regard they are metaphors for
spiritual advancement and reward. Martinists would consider the pawn a symbol of
reintegration both potential and realized. Pawns are considered to represent
Venus and Mercury.
The Chess Pieces are also attributed to symbolically
represent the four Cardinal Directions[XX]
and the four Classical Elements (Fire, Air, Water and Earth).
Chess has gained a reputation for being the game of choice
for individuals in possession of a high intellect. It is interesting to note
however that medical studies[XXI]
performed to evaluate the cognitive function of individuals with a high aptitude
for the game of Chess concluded that intelligence is not a factor in success at
the game. The existence of so-called “idiot savants” who are Chess prodigies
seems to indicate that other factors are responsible for Chess excellence. The
Author would speculate that the high esoteric content of the game may have
something to do with the unexplained capabilities of persons who are naturally
talented Chess players; perhaps in these persons, the Universal Consciousness
speaks, and speaks loudly. As for me, I apparently need a new hearing aid.
I feel it is important to address the fact that the
squares (and the Chess Pieces) are divided into light and dark shades.
Traditionally, this has been taken to represent good and evil (respectively) and
the game has been considered to represent a cosmic battle of the forces of light
and the forces of darkness.
I believe a better description is possible. Each
participant engaged in the game is assigned either light or dark pieces based
upon a blind system of draw. It is not likely that either participant truly
represents evil, regardless of the shade of Chess Piece he or she is given to
play. Much like the esoteric symbolism of the game board and pieces, the
struggle in Chess represents that good and evil are relative to the viewpoint of
the individual. Certainly during a good Chess match, one’s opponent who is
engaged in assaulting your position could be viewed as having evil intent
towards one’s King. The opposite might be true as well. I believe this
represents a great truth in the Cosmos; namely that life is a struggle against
threats both real and perceived, and is a battle waged for the purpose of
self-knowledge. The exercise of free will in the context of the Chess game, in
which our choices are constrained only by the game rules (natural law) certainly
parallels the exercise of free will in our lives. Therefore Chess, with its
light and dark squares is a struggle of man with his inner self, waged in a
realm consisting of shades of gray.
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