Therapeutic Chess… or… When the engineering analogy breaks down

Therapeutic Chess… or… When the engineering analogy breaks down

This Christmas a three-player chess-set was given as a present and we had a game. It was a fascinating experience. I am not a great chess-player. As someone said to me recently, I always have the sense that my opponent has some far-reaching grand scheme that I unequivocally lack. This hexagonal chess board reduced the three of us to very similar levels of ineptitude as we reminded and re-reminded ourselves and each other which squares the pawn could take, how many bent diagonals were currently open to the queen, and the oddly straight knight’s move.

But that was not all. We found how hard it was to build any strategy when the person you took to be your opponent for the last two moves turns out to be an ally. The rules (one version, at least) spell out that, if you fail to take available steps to prevent a checkmate, you lose. And yet no checkmate that we encountered in two days of playing was achieved without the effective, if inadvertent, collusion of the other player.

We have been raised with a firm understanding that the triangle is the most stable structure. And yet, with this game, we found ourselves unseated from a stable, albeit viciously confrontational, dyadic structure into a disorienting dream world in which familiar shapes abounded but relationships flickered constantly and with bewildering rapidity. Chess had changed.

It seems that however important the triangle may be in the creation of stability and rigidity in the physical world in the world of interpersonal dynamics they represent a massive step into instability.

Our first relationships are with one Other (even if based on a misunderstanding about the identity and composition of that other) and I suggest that we would happily have it stay that way provided the Other remains committed and continues to come up with what we need. We often use a metaphorical third party to stabilize the dyad (you and me against the world) but the truth of the matter is that the world inexorably introduces genuine third parties with agency and their own urges to combine forces. What is more, the Other we have got used to fails, from time to time, to come up with the goods, we develop our own roving eye and the world, for evermore, is a place of unstable triads.

Or, if you prefer, the world is for evermore a stable-ish scenario of constant flickering transitions as triads configure and reconfigure. This is the world we found ourselves in with three-sided chess. It was initially disconcerting but, once the unfamiliarity was overcome, a new relief settled in. We found that the bitter paranoia of being in the lonely position was always momentary and was replaced by a higher-level sense of everyone being equally and temporarily both in a dyad, and in relationship with a dyad. Rigidity had actually been the problem; This idea that I am rubbish at chess, for example, or the constant search for a chess partner exactly like me.

This set could be sold as Therapeutic Chess …. and triangles rock.