On Chess and Virtue

This week I felt inspired to take a break from my libertarianism series.  I’ve been thinking a lot this week about chess.  I love chess.  I can’t remember how old I was when I began to play.  I do remember losing regularly to my dad in elementary school until I picked up a beginning chess strategy book. Before long I was winning most of the time. I still own the portable wooden chess set I received as a Christmas gift many years ago. In junior high I attended chess club every week, hosted by Mr. Johnson, our junior high civics instructor.  “Here comes the power!” he would say when stronger club players would enter the room.  I came in second place my first year in his chess club, winning a computer chess set with gleaming metal pieces. During the summer I would pretend to be an aspiring chess master playing a rated chess match against my computer foe. I attained a small library of chess books. Every school year I would check out from our school library a book of the collected chess games of Bobby Fischer.  I had dreams of one day becoming a chess grandmaster. I looked forward every month to the arrival of my Chess Life magazine. In those pre-internet days the magazine’s arrival in our mailbox would provide the much anticipated update on the Karpov-Kasparov world championship match.  Times have changed.  These days you can watch the world championship match live via an online stream, with unbeatable computer engines providing their live assessments of the game.


For several years I was a member of the United States Chess Federation, and occasionally my dad would drive me to the Pittsburgh Chess Club (1 1/2 hours from my home) to play in their Saturday tournaments. I recall one game in particular, a game in which I drew a won endgame against a player rated 500 points above me. I was disappointed by my failure, and my opponent replayed the endgame with me to show me my mistake. I lost a lot, and I won some. In college I stopped playing regularly, but during my doctoral work I became interested once again in the game. While I’m currently only an intermediate chess player, and while I rarely play in rated events, since 2010 I’ve been an organizer for scholastic chess in Abilene, TX.  Every week I run a chess club at Taylor Elementary School that has almost 60 members. Two years ago I began a second chess club for one of our local Boys and Girls Clubs.  I also direct the annual Abilene Scholastic Chess Tournament, a competition that over the past several years has hosted 60-70 students each year. Yes, I love chess.

Thinking about the elementary chess kids that I spend time with each week, I am reminded of an illustration that Alasdaire MacIntyre employs in his seminal book After Virtue. MacIntyre’s book is a polemic against the state of contemporary moral discourse, which he argues relies on an incoherent set of moral beliefs stemming from our Enlightenment past.  The modern presuppositions we bring to ethics render contemporary societies morally fractured. Moral disagreements abound, and modern enlightened selves employ a moral language without substance, rendering our moral discourse vacuous and sterile. We live in a world that truly is “after virtue.” Against this bleak picture of moral aimlessness and chaos MacIntyre advocates for the recovery of an Aristotelian ethic in which communities embrace moral languages and practices that promote virtues and cultivate character, all oriented toward a shared conception of the Good.


In this blog post I don’t intend to engage the larger argument MacIntyre is making about modernity and morality. Irrespective of the merits of his argument, MacIntyre’s claim that contemporary ethics needs to renew attention to the cultivation of virtue seems valid to me even if one does not share MacIntyre’s pessimistic assessment of modern ethics. I want to assume that MacIntyre is correct in calling for the recovery of virtue and consider the consequent question: how does one cultivate virtue? MacIntyre’s answer is illuminating, and this part of After Virtue helps me make sense of the value of the work I do every week with my chess students. MacIntyre points to “social practices” as the locus for the formation of moral character.  A “practice” is

“any coherent and complex form of socially established cooperative human activity through which goods internal to that form of activity are realized in the course of trying to achieve those standards of excellence which are appropriate to, and partially definitive of, that form of activity, with the result that human powers to achieve excellence, and human conceptions of the ends and goods involved, are systematically extended” (187).

Practices are those things we do that require dedication, effort, and skill.  The range of activities in human life that qualify as such is broad.  Bricklaying is a practice. Playing football is a practice. Farming is a practice.  So is painting.  So is playing music. How do you cultivate virtue, then?  You cultivate virtue by participating in these sorts of practices.

Furthermore, each one of these practices can be associated with two types of goods: extrinsic and intrinsic.  Extrinsic goods are those things that we attain through the practice that can be attained in alternative ways.  If I play football, for example, a college might see fit to give me a scholarship to play for their teams. Or perhaps I will earn a lot of money when a professional football team contracts with me to be their quarterback. The scholarship funds I receive or the money I earn or  are both extrinsic goods.  The money is not essentially connected to the practice (i.e. I could play football in my backyard and receive no money or scholarship at all. I could also earn money or receive a scholarship in other ways). By contrast, intrinsic goods are those things that are internal to the practice itself, goods that can be attained only by participating in the practice.  If I want to become an excellent football player, for example, I can’t simply read about football.  I won’t become an excellent football player by playing Madden on the XBox (though I might become an excellent player of the Madden football game if I give enough time to that activity).  No, to become an excellent football player I need to play football. The practice is integral to realizing the good in question.

So what does all of this have to do with chess? In the context of his discussion of extrinsic and intrinsic goods, MacIntyre uses chess as an example to illustrate the importance of this distinction:

“Consider the example of a highly intelligent seven-year-old child whom I wish to teach to play chess, although the child has no particular desire to learn the game. The child does however have a very strong desire for candy and little chance of obtaining it. I therefore tell the child that if the child will play chess with me once a week I will give the child 50 cents worth of candy; moreover I tell the child that I will always play in such a way that it will be difficult, but not impossible, for the child to win and that, if the child wins, the child will receive an extra 50 cents of candy. Thus motivated the child plays and plays to win. Notice, however that, so long as it is the candy alone which provides the child with a good reason for playing chess, the child has no reason not to cheat and every reason to cheat, provided he or she can do so successfully. But, so we may hope, there will come a time when the child will find in those goods specific to chess, in the achievement of a certain highly particular kind of analytical skill, strategic imagination and competitive intensity, a new set of reasons, reasons now not just for winning on a particular occasion, but for trying to excel in whatever way the game of chess demands. Now if the child cheats, he or she will be defeating not me, but himself or herself” (188).

Playing chess is a practice too, and what I find most meaningful about organizing scholastic chess is that it affords me the opportunity to do ethics, not simply study it.  Every week I participate in the gritty, sometimes mundane, practical work of cultivating character among the girls and boys I am given the opportunity to work with. In teaching kids how to play chess, I don’t want them to simply want to win.  I want them to pursue excellence, to develop the attention and habits of mind essential to playing chess well.  That might sound abstract and ethereal, but the day-to-day things that one must do to cultivate these qualities of character are not.

Every September a sizable group of second graders make their way to chess club for this first time.  Most of them have never played chess.  Over the first few weeks they learn the rules of chess, and eventually they begin to play. They move pieces around the board with reckless abandon, with no apparent aim or reason behind the chaotic mess they leave in their wake. Disinterested in the finer points of chess strategy, some of my students feel it necessary to grant some of their pieces special powers.  “It’s Harry Potter Chess!” said one of my students some years ago when trying to describe the strange happenings between him and his opponent, who apparently had either forgotten or lost interest in the basic rules of chess. During their first semester in club, illegal moves are par for the course.

No, Brady, you never capture your opponents king.

No, Claire, your king is in check. You need to get out of check.”

“No, Ian, that’s a stalemate, not a checkmate.”

No, Alexandra, your board is set up wrong.  White square is always on the right corner.  The Queen always begins the game on her own color.”

They lose a lot. Sometimes they cry, and some of them have a hard time sitting down for an entire game of chess.

They keep coming to club.

Late in the fall we begin working on basic chess strategy.  Students practice some simple one-move checkmates.  We talk about the importance of developing your pieces in the opening, controlling the center of the board, and winning exchanges.  They keep playing. Some of the kids keep losing, and the new members who don’t lose quite often end up stalemating positions that they will win with more practice.  We talk about how to win well and lose well (“Shake your opponent’s hand.  Thank your opponent for the game.  Don’t cry.  Don’t rub it in when you win.”). Through the Fall and early Spring students participate in a regular season club tournament. In March we begin the March Madness club championship, a double-elimination tournament that concludes with the crowning of a club champion. By the end of the Spring most of the students have improved to some degree, some of them remarkably so.


They keep coming to club.

And some of them keep coming back for four years.  By the time they get into fifth grade, my veteran players–those same kids that lost every game in second grade and couldn’t stop crying–are not only winning games regularly but are modeling for the kids who’ve come behind them how to win and lose well.   Keep playing chess for four years in a club organized around a commitment to practicing the goods intrinsic to chess, and you’ll leave that club a different person. Stick with chess long enough, you might even become an excellent–that is, a virtuous–chess player.

Ten years into my academic career, I love my job. I count myself very fortunate to be in a career and working at a university where I continue to find my day-to-day life invigorating and my labor meaningful.  I know that there are many (too many!) people in this world who do not have this luxury.  That said, there are days when I feel that the time I spend with my young chess students, standing over a 64-square board and discussing such simple things as forks, skewers, double checks, and fianchettos will have more lasting impact than that journal article that will soon be published to be read by a handful of scholars in my field.

I need to wrap this post up.  My chess students beckon.




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