Metaphor and Meaning - A Grandmaster's Reflections

A Book Review by Jerry Nash

At the London Chess Conference last month, GM Jonathan Rowson made an appearance to promote his latest book, The Moves That Matter: A Chess Grandmaster on the Game of Life (Bloomsbury, 2019). The work is partly biographical, chronicling Rowson’s life in relationship to chess. However, it is also philosophical, offering meditations on why chess is such an important metaphor for so many aspects of life and on how the game can serve as an important component in modern education.

Rowson offers this insight on why chess as a metaphor for life is so pervasive in society.

“No wonder chess has long served as the touchstone of choice for the competitive tension that defines business, sport and politics. The themes of planning ahead, knowing the opponent, anticipating responses and sacrificing for future gains are adaptable, and meaningful for anybody familiar with the symbolism of chess, even if they have never pushed a pawn.”

The Moves That Matter is Rowson’s attempt to explain what chess has taught him about life. In the process, he also posits the value of chess as an educational tool.

“The educational value of chess is that it makes asking questions a reflex, and the experience of getting better at chess is finding that your questions get richer and more pertinent…. Chess in particular may have something to teach us about the know-how of concentration: exactly how we direct attention towards the right things in the right way with the right intensity over several hours.”

Rowson’s presentation at the conference included a passionate explanation of how the struggle of winning (or losing) at chess is a wonderful lesson in the value of struggling to learn anything. No matter their background as a chess player, anyone interested in chess as a game or a teaching tool will find much to reflect upon in Rowson’s narrative.

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