A Chess Pattern Language

Chess strategy as the Timeless Way of Building

Let’s have a game. To decide the first move, ask yourself, where do the pieces want to go? Where do they feel most coordinated with each other? What forces are at play that need resolution, amplification, or dampening? What structures might we construct that lead to a winning combination? Chess is a game of emergent pattern shaping.

General chess strategy is rich with the Timeless Way of Building Christopher Alexander describes:

“At every step of the process—whether conceiving, designing, making, maintaining, or repairing—we must always be concerned with the whole within which we are making anything. We look at this wholeness, absorb it, try to feel its deep structure.”

Use all your pieces. Develop them as a whole and coordinate them.

“We ask which kind of thing we can do next that will do the most to give this wholeness the most positive increase of life.”

Look for a way to improve your worst-placed piece. Place your pieces on squares where they are the most active or “alive.” Where do your pieces want to go? How can you help them get there?

“As we work to enhance this new living center, we do it in such a way as also to create or intensify (by the same action) the life of some larger center. Simultaneously we also make at least one center of the same size (next to the one we are concentrating on), and one or more smaller centers—increasing their life too.

We check to see if what we have done has truly increased the life and feeling of the whole. If the feeling of the whole has not been deepened by the step we have just taken, we wipe it out. Otherwise we go on.”

Chess talk can be mysterious for the uninitiated, but often it sounds like the Timeless Way of Building. Chess players say things like, "You made your knight sad with that move" if they move it somewhere it can't coordinate or contribute to the efforts of the other pieces. Or they say, "Now my bishop has some life" if they free it from being locked in behind pawns.

“We then repeat the entire process, starting at step 1 again, with the newly modified whole.”

Each move is what Christopher Alexander calls a “structure preserving transformation.” Improving the position bit by bit, imbuing it with more energy and potential, but not so much that the existing structure falls apart. A position that is well coordinated is like a good bonfire, it feels alive, it sustains itself, it generates heat evenly and consistently, it's easy to manage and adjust. A position that isn't feels like a poorly built fire. It's too hot and burns too quickly, or too cool and fizzles out—it doesn't hold itself together. When two experienced or evenly matched players play, the board is alive with patterns and ideas.

The master does not search for combinations. The master creates the conditions that make it possible for them to appear.

Until suddenly, an opportunity emerges before you, rewarding you for your patience and the care you’ve given your pieces. A tactical pattern of moves that resolves all of the potential forces on the board, bringing them to rest in a checkmate, or very often, a draw. Like a strong center, the patterns in the structure of the board lead to the emergence of events, conditions, and activities that “keep on happening.” The pieces are able to express the full potential of their energy, and forces within the game resolve. When the mind and the board are at rest, the game is over and the pieces are reset.

Yes, chess is a game abstracted from the “real world,” but games make practicing the flow of shaping emergent pattern more accessible. By focusing the forces at play to the world of the chessboard, we can play and practice, becoming more fluent in pattern shaping. By playing it, it’s possible to practice the process of repair, building, and generating life and take away lessons that we might apply in our homes, neighborhoods, software, relationships, art, music, government, and on and on and on.

And yes, chess is competitive. Your “opponent” might be trying to undermine and damage the structure you’re building with your pieces at every move. It’s a game steeped in metaphors of war and conquering. From the perspective of the individual player, the goal is simply to win. But from the perspective of the entire game and the thousands of years old history of chess playing, it's a collaborative system in which new patterns are generated/discovered within the forces defined by the game rules. Patterns are often in competition with each other. They must be tried out, put to the test, played to their fullest, to see which is most effective, beautiful, useful, or enjoyable. For a single person or pattern, this is a win-lose zero sum game. But the true joy of chess is in the potential for mutual discovery, flow state mastery, and a collaborative deepening of understanding of the game and each other.

Anyway. Send me a challenge if you’d like to play a game. ♟