Chess and Freemasonry
An Address given by Bro A J (Tony) Ford, Right Worshipful Master of Lodge Montrose No 722 (SC) on behalf of the Hawke’s Bay Research Lodge No 305 to Lodge Turanganui No 1480 (EC) in Gisborne on
Saturday, 21st July 2012
Brethren, my subject for today is chess and its relationship to freemasonry. The idea came from a lecture I read a while ago which explored the esoteric aspects of freemasonry in relation to the chessboard.
Now, I am sure you are all familiar with the chessboard, made up of sixty-four squares in eight rows and eight files. In essence, it looks somewhat like our pavement on the floor of the lodge, except that our pavements are generally oblong and consist of a varying number of squares depending on which lodge you visit. In at least one lodge, the squares have been placed diagonally, although I am unable to ascertain why this might be. One of the cryptic degrees in freemasonry tells us that the pavement was originally square, which would make it more or less like the chessboard.
In the first degree, we are told that the floor is one of the ornaments and referred to as the beautiful flooring of the lodge. The blazing star is the glory in its centre. It is said to be beautiful by reason of its being variegated and chequered. This points out the diversity of objects, which decorate and adorn the creation, the animate as well as the inanimate parts thereof.
It may be said that the mosaic pavement is emblematic of human life, chequered with good and evil. Interestingly, if we count the number of black and white squares making up the edge of the board, we have twenty-eight squares, which equates to the number of days in a lunar month.
Chess is, without doubt, a game that has its origins in antiquity. Various theories have been put forward as to the country of origin, with the strongest claims coming from India where it is said to have derived from the ancient game of chaturanga and also from China where it was known as liubo. However, there is also a strong link with Egypt where an illustration in the tomb of Queen Nefertari (1295-1255 BCE) shows her poring over what appears to be a chess-type game.
It is quite possible that there was contact between Egypt and China at this time and that the Egyptian game was derived from the Chinese one. Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra, speaking in the twelfth century, suggested that Moses had invented chess. In the tenth century an early historian, Zakariah Yahya, commented on the mythology of chess history. He reported that he had heard accounts of chess being played in Noah’s Ark by Japheth and Shem, by Aristotle, the Greek philosopher, and even by King Solomon. It is the reference to King Solomon that leads us to the Masonic connection with chess, where the allegories and symbolism of chess relate to the moral and ethical teachings of freemasonry.
The ceiling of the Masonic temple symbolically represents the entire universe. The symbolism of the floor – black and white squares like the chessboard – represents the connection between the spiritual realm and the physical world. Black and white is also regarded as symbolic, allegorical representations of light and darkness, good and evil, life and death. They further signify such diametrically opposed concepts as heaven and earth and water and fire.
In ancient Egypt, where many early Masonic secrets were known and studied, white was perceived as an expression of goodness, joy and abundance whilst black stood for death, the mysterious underworld and rebirth. Ancient Egyptian thinkers interspersed black and white to symbolize the reunion of spiritual and physical life. For them, as for freemasonry, the chessboard is highly symbolic – and sacred. Thus, the floor of the Masonic Temple may be looked at as a chessboard.
In the game of chess, black and white each have sixteen pieces, or men, arranged at opposite ends of the board occupying the first two rows. This leaves four rows separating them. Eight pawns are arranged on the second row, whilst a King, a Queen, two Bishops, two Knights and two Rooks (or Castles) occupy the first row.
To compare that to the lodge, we might say that the King represents the Master of the lodge and the Queen is his strongest defender. Some would say this should be the Tyler, as he stands outside the door of the lodge to defend all within. However, I would suggest that this should be the Director of Ceremonies, the one who supports the Master and gives direction to the lodge.
Either side of them are the Bishops, which of course equate to the Senior and Junior Deacons, then the Knights, which represent the Inner and Outer Guards, with the Rooks at the end, representing the Senior and Junior Wardens.
The Pawns are our Master Masons, ever moving forward to gain the prize of becoming one of the positions in the first row, just as every Master Mason should be seeking to advance in knowledge through the chairs and eventually become Master of the lodge. The King, limited in movement and needing the constant protection of his fellow pieces, suggests that the Master’s power should be used in small doses with the support of his officers. His importance lies in the game itself, for once the King is checkmated, or forced into a position where he cannot avoid capture, the game is lost.
The Queen, moving both diagonally and in a straight line on the board, has the greatest freedom, as does the Director of Ceremonies as he directs the ritual and ensures that each officer does their duty. When chess is regarded as a miniature war game, the Queen is really the King’s champion, his most powerful defender, a combination of his bodyguard and his army’s commander-in-chief.
The Bishops, too, have freedom of movement anywhere in a diagonal line on the board, just as our Deacons, carrying their wands, have the freedom of the lodge. The Knights, having the ability to move in unusual directions and jump over other pieces have tremendous power on the board, just as our Inner and Outer Guards have absolute power to defend us both within and without.
The Castles, or Rooks, move only in a straight line, redolent of that straight and undeviating path alluded to in freemasonry. In general there are three parts to the game of chess - the opening, middle and end games. In essence this is like the three degrees of freemasonry.
The Opening Game
The beginning of play in chess consists of a series of carefully pre-planned moves known as the opening game. Both white and black know what is expected of them and quickly seek to gain control of the centre of the board in preparation for the next phase of the game. This can be equated to the birth of life and growth as a child, the forces of good and evil taking their opportunities to gain ascendancy.
Likewise, in the first degree of freemasonry, the candidate is initiated by entering in a state of darkness, like one being born, and as the degree progresses, becomes enlightened by the basic principles of the craft.
The Middle Game
In the next phase of the game, known as the middle game, serious play begins as black and white clash in the middle of the board.
Here is the fight between good and evil, the clash of opposites as each side seeks to destroy the other and neutralize the opposing king.
Here is life as we live it, daily seeking good over evil, light over dark. It is here too, that the mason in the second degree is taught, in passing, to advance his knowledge and investigate the hidden mysteries of nature and science. Whoever gains ascendancy in this phase will have the upper hand in the next and final phase.
The End Game
Finally the end game is reached, that point in the game where the King can no longer find a place to hide, where his loyal pieces have fought and lost and the game is over. Whether white or black win depends on the skill and knowledge of the player.
Equally in life, the skills we learn, as part of our daily journey will determine the outcome of our life when we finally die, as we all must. Here, the third degree teaches the mason about the end of this life, yet as he is raised he learns that there is a life to come, that there are secrets to be learned and that he is to seek them.
So we have seen that chess has many similarities to freemasonry, that each in principle teaches about good and evil, light and dark, and the balance between the two. The best chess players think of their sixteen pieces as one whole organism, or totality, not as individual units.
Freemasons regard themselves in much the same manner. Each brother is part of the Masonic community and family, each does everything possible to help the others. During a chess game, a piece will frequently come under attack from the enemy and a defending piece will be moved up to protect it.
In real life, just as in every other loyal, loving and caring family, freemasons guard and defend one another. On the chessboard every piece has different powers and different ways of moving. In Masonry every member is different; we have different skills, different qualifications, different life experiences, etc. Yet, freemasons work together harmoniously and successfully, just as a good chess player employs his pieces to create a closely integrated and unified team.
During a skilful chess game there may be a need for sacrifices; one piece may be placed in danger, and even captured by the enemy, in order to improve the overall position of the remaining pieces, or to checkmate the enemy’s King.
Masonic ethics and morals also require sacrifices from time to time, sacrifice of our own time, or finances, to assist others who may be in need. Ethics, morality and integrity come first with every true freemason, closely followed by the altruistic determination to help others, even when that entails sacrifices.