I have always been fascinated by the game of chess, but I never learned to play. It seemed too complicated. If I wanted to chill out for a few moments, checkers seemed simpler and took less time. My son, Elie, however, took to the game and played on our high school team with great success. Indeed, our school team, coached by a parent whose son was a chess star, won many tournaments. Even though I did not play chess, the image of our school in the community rose because of our involvement in chess competition. Which is why I was captivated by A Little Game, a story about a young girl who learns how to play chess from a master.
Max is a very bright ten-year old girl living in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of New York City. Although happy in her present school, her parents want to give her the very best education, and so decide to enroll her in a prestigious all-girls private school on the Upper East Side even though it will be burdensome to them financially. Dad works as a building superintendent, and Mom is a chef at a neighborhood restaurant. Neither of them makes big salaries.
Challenges arise in her new school. Friends do not easily connect with her, sensing she is from a lower social strata; and one, in particular, Isabella, is jealous of her academic success. Isabella even makes fun of the fact the Max does not know how to play chess, a game for intellectuals. Compounded with lack of friends is the sudden loss of her beloved grandmother who always shared with her pieces of wisdom gleaned over a lifetime.
Max’s teacher thinks Max possesses exceptional math skills and encourages her to play chess, which requires a similar kind of mathematical discipline. Every day Max walks home through Washington Square Park, and one day she comes upon one of the outdoor chess players who competes regularly against all comers. He is an elderly gentleman and his name is Norman. When Max asks Norman to teach her chess, he at first refuses. However, Max persists in asking him to teach her and eventually he agrees, but only if she learns the game from him and no other.
Norman is an unusual teacher. Instead of teaching her the rules of chess, he gives her clues that require her to be a keen observer of things in the city, and from these clues deduce chess strategy. The chessboard for Norman is not a game board. It is a metaphor for the city and each chess piece has within it a message for life. Over time, Max learns how to play chess, and, more important, she learns valuable life lessons.
Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo reflects about the Jewish fascination with chess. For many Jews, the chessboard is a microcosm of the world. To navigate chess and navigate life, one must know the rules. But knowing the rules is not enough. The rules are tools to discover new pathways of understanding that emerge only because of the “unbearable limitations” that govern the movements of the pieces. Rabbi Cardozo writes that playing chess “is mental torture, but it is the height of beauty as well. It is poetry to the game, as melody is to music — like one gentle brushstroke of Rembrandt on a colorful canvas, making everything look radically different; or like the genius musician playing her Stradivarius, re-creating the whole of Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5. It transports the chess player to heaven.”
Rabbi Cardozo suggests that this sense of intellectual tension and contradiction is the reason why scholars of Talmud love the game of chess: “Chess reminds them, consciously or subconsciously, of the world of Talmudic halachic debate with all its intrigues, obstacles, and seemingly deliberate tendency to make life more difficult. For the true posek (halachic expert and decisor), the tension, challenge and delight involved in discovering an unprecedented solution is the ultimate simcha (joy).”
In the end, Max learns to play chess well and understands its parallels to the real world. Indeed, that “little game” opens up pathways for Max to better understand the big game of life itself.