Opening Moves and Playing the Game

After the recent conversation on universalism and eschatology at Two Friars and a Fool, it's interesting to see Richard Beck post an entry about the relevance of opening moves and knowing that you're playing a particular variation.
If you haven't noticed, people disagree a lot about religion. And sometimes those disagreements get nasty. Recently, however, in my discussions with Dr. Kirk about universalism, many have commended us on the civil and curious tone of the conversation. Why has this been the case?

I think it has to do with the fact that we're aware that we are playing different opening moves. Dr. Kirk is playing 1. e4 and I'm playing 1. Nf3. Neither is right or wrong per se. One is more traditional and orthodox. The other is less common and heterodox. Each has strengths. Each has weaknesses. But after the moves have been played we can sit back and enjoy the artistry of how the game unfolds from those starting points. For each chess opening has its own interior logic. And lots of hidden surprises.

In short, it's fun to watch how people play the game. And you learn a lot from watching.
And I think a big part of this logic comes from the implicit observation that he and J. R. D. Kirk are each playing white in different games, and comparing openings rather than playing against each other. But more than that, as someone who talks about "games" and "play" as serious terms for the activity of theology, I love the image and how extensible it is.

Beck opens with a quip that sets up the image, as much as to say that the lecturer he's just heard is doing nothing new -- "Pawn to King 4." The standard king-pawn opening for white, which can go a variety of ways, but will tend to fall into predictable patterns; the standard opening approach to the topic, likewise. If I'm listening to a king-pawn opening, I'm looking to learn from the moves, but not because anything will be novel there. I'm watching for variations in played-out, thoroughly paradigmatic territory. Which path is the argument taking? If I see novelty, my first thought is that it's a mistake. It's possible that this person has seen something new that generations of master players haven't -- it's always possible, but MCO is pretty thorough, and I've done my study and played the variations. Barring that, the question in a king-pawn opening is always, "what's the middle game going to look like?" Where's the break? It's a setup for a tight game, between masters.

This is orthodoxy. This is the played-out, marked-out territory, the safe paths, the strategies that preserve white's advantage as long as possible, the strategies open to black to take advantage from white and gain tempo or material, the variations to counter and keep advantage for white. The places a gambit is acceptable, and the debates over which risks are worth the payoff. Even the question as to whether the standard value of the pieces is true, if you play it a certain way. Heresies as riskier choices, moves more likely to lose or cede control of the game to black. This is why "1. e4 ..." is standard, especially when followed by a knight's game of some sort. Power and safety.

DeFirmian says of "1. Nf3 ..." -- in the Reti -- that it "is flexible but lacks direct aggression." But it could just as easily slip into another opening, and transposes into the king-pawn openings with little trouble, depending on black's response. This opening move was a favorite of Nimzowitsch. It does not cede the center, it does not reveal the plan, it does not commit white to played-out territory too soon -- and yet it reserves for white the ability to act on the basis of what black plays next. Reconnaissance without losing tempo or advantage. This will be an interesting game from the start.

And this plays along the line Beck sets up. These are different systems of playing the same game. They are based on different internal lines of priorities, balances of attack and defense, etc., and both are integral, correct systems. We may learn a great deal by watching these masters play their games their ways -- but then I wonder about a missing piece of the analogy.

What about black? Who are we playing against? I've notched heresies in place as the spots where you don't go in each of these systems, the spots that make the system fail from inside. But chess is a two-player game, and these openings are systems of mastering a dialogue. Of dominating it, whether centrally from the beginning or responsively on the second move. And there's another aspect here. Beck is careful when he says "Pawn to King 4" originally. He frames it here as observer -- watching the game, he knew where it was headed, and it was played well ... but he knew where it was headed. But what's the lecture? It's at Abilene Christian, and it's about handling same sex attraction in the lives of their students. Who's black in this game? Who are we playing against? That matters. Are they playing, or have we invited a patsy along to play instead? (Worse, are we playing both sides, as though we could do justice to the game that way? As though it were academic?) The gentility of the discussion of universalism isn't just a matter of professional courtesy -- it's a matter of two masters playing white on adjacent boards, comparing notes. But that's not the whole game.

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