May 25, 2012

Chess: the metaphorical way

I don't like to argue, unless it's a constructive activity of course. A disagreement can bring insights into a certain subject much more than if you just think about it on your own.
Such an experience I had recently, regarding the popularity of chess terms in daily speaking. My position was that chess is by far more frequently used in metaphoric expressions than other sports for example. But because this was more of a hunch than an organized thought, I couldn't convince my interlocutor.
So here it is:
A lot of chess terms are borrowed by completely different fields, such as politics, business, even fashion! Chess is an incredibly rich source for...everything! ("Chess is a sea in which a gnat may drink and an elephant may bathe" - Indian proverb) If only the game itself would gain more popularity...

Chess Terms

Metaphoric expressions
A game of chess
A complex life situation that involves interaction with other people, in the attempt to achieve one's goals, using a planned action.
- "The Chess-Board is the World, the pieces are the phenomena of the Universe, the rules of the game are what we call the Laws of Nature. The player on the other side is hidden from us." – Thomas Huxley
- "Life is a kind of chess", Benjamin Franklin
Open Innovation chess paradigm - explains in detail the picture above.
Participants: the players, master, grandmaster
Opponents in a complex life situation, skilful participants.
  • “He's a grandmaster of litigation.”
(Grisham Novel)
  • Isaac Asimov – ‘The Grandmaster of science fiction.’
  • Alias: ‘Grandmaster Flash’, real name: Joseph Saddler – a well known DJ
Stages in a chess gameopening, middlegame, endgame
Beginning, middle and final stages in one's life or in a complex situation.
- Making the correct opening moves is very important. (Marketing solutions)
- “Obama administration’s Afghanistan endgame gets off to bumpy start”, The Washington Post
Move (usual collocations with the adjectives: first, second, last, final, decisive, good, bad, strong, dubious, risky, strong, smart, obvious, forced, the only…)

First move

(Planned) action, in reaction to or expecting reaction from the opponent, aimed at achieving the goal.
  • That was a smart move!
  • “Every move must have a purpose”, by Bruce Pandolfini (business book);
  • “Three moves ahead”, by Bob Rice (business book);
- the most frequently used in Romanian language, present in all kind of situations: relationships, politics, business and even football: “Who is going to make the first move?!”
Outcome/result of the chess game: win, loss,
Usual collocations and expressions: to
accept/offer/make a draw, drawish position
Outcome of the complex situation, frequently used in negotiations: “Let’s call it a day and make a draw.”
Setting of the chess game:
- (Chess)board

- square

- Black, White
Setting of the situation
- place where the conflict takes place; Romanian newspaper: “Secret moves on the chess board of politics”;

- Expression in Romanian language: “Stay in your little square and give me a break!”

- allegory: Good and bad (see the movie “The Seventh Seal”)
Elements of playing a chess game
Battle-like words: attack, defence, sacrifice, threat, (positional, spatial, material, decisive) advantage
These words come from other
conceptual metaphors CHESS IS WAR,
Note: this part of the metaphor is
shared with other sports and
competitive activities
Specific chess words:
- Check
- to give perpetual/double check

- Checkmate

- Stalemate

- Zugzwang

- Gambit

- Castling

- Fianchetto

- Mating-net

- Back rank

Specific actions aimed at achieving a goal
- to put the opponent in such a
situation that his position is endangered

- politics: “The most important, and most difficult, element on my new political agenda was developing a strategy that would pump life into the anti-Putin forces. It was like sitting down to a chess game already in progress and discovering my side was close to checkmate in every variation.”, Garry Kasparov – ‘How life imitates chess’;
- relationships: “Checkmated by each other’s eyes”, ‘The Chess-Board’, by Edward Robert Bulwer-Lytton.

- A situation in which further action is blocked.
“The recent discussions ended in stalemate”- reached an impasse in the negotiations;

- a situation where one is forced to act in a way that is unfavourable for him:
"Oh, he understands his position: he is in trouble, he is faced with the zugzwang to end all zugzwangs." – about baseball, in The Seattle Times;

- a remark intended to start a conversation or make a telling point;
Example: “I couldn't tell whether her earlier poor-mouthing had been sincere or just a gambit to get me to pick up the dinner check.”

- “Let’s castle” – which literally means, in Romanian language: let’s swap places.

- A complex manoeuvre… and this smooth fianchetto enabled him to gain more
manoeuvring space to rearrange the company to meet the challenge. (book on management)
- Inspiration for…fashion! ‘Fianchetto dress’ - Here is a simple strategy for creating a winning outfit: … this dress, with its black, sleeveless, folded-boatneck top and fully-lined black and white checkerboard skirt is perfect for queens of fashion and "rook-ies" alike…will make you look as dignified as a "dut-chess."

- A cunning calculated manoeuvre which puts the opponent in the situation where s/he loses, a trap: “She doesn't notice there's a mating net around her”. (film)

- a famous Dutch commentator, during a football match: “This is like a game of chess: Who is going to reach the back rank?!
Time-related aspects of the chess game, which is time-limited:
- Flag

- Time-trouble

Time for the dealing with a complex situation is limited
“The flag's about to fall!” You must call him at once! (film)
Not having enough time for a
particular activity, which usually
involves deadlines
Chess pieces (king and pawn are the ones used for metaphoric expressions):

- King

- Pawn

- To promote a pawn

Largely used in politics, business or team sports.
- in a Moldovan newspaper: “Moldovan citizens used as chess pieces in the Grandmasters’ game of international politics…”

- "When the chess game is over, the pawn and the king go back to the same box." – Irish saying

- the term is mostly associated in mass media with important persons: presidents or successful people;

- someone who doesn't control the
situation, who is not considered important and is likely to be used and manipulated

- a newspaper comment about an
unknown and unimportant local
politician who (unexpectedly) got to
an important place in the party hierarchy;

Thanks to Biljana Mišić Ilić's work, "Chess-Related Methapors - Gens Una Sumus", 2008, which inspired me for today's post, I could gather together a rather scattered material. Which could be extended if you know more situations (not mentioned above), where chess is used in a metaphoric way.

It would be very interesting to make a cross-cultural analysis, since different countries have a different degree of interest towards chess. I believe that Russia, with a long ongoing chess culture would be richer in chess related metaphoric expressions than Brasil for example, where football terms might be more frequently used. And yet, what is it that makes chess, rather than some other sport, such a rich source domain for life?

Well...I suppose chess has some sort of magical 'aura' which inevitably attracts people:) It's the mistery, the chance for us to shine as little geniuses, thanks to our brilliant intellect in using chess terms so 'difficult' to understand. Or...perhaps the fact that chess is a game based on logic, on rational thinking, where luck plays a secondary role, gives us a sense of control? If extended to the complex life situations, it seems as if we are more in charge of our actions, dependent on our own logic rather than on physical strength, mere luck or just  fate in our 'battles with other people.

You are more than welcome to contradict me and to suggest other expressions of which I didn't think about nor have in my own native language. And of course: enjoy the World Championship!


  1. Nice site Alina,

    I guess that in writing this article you were so focused on stating your case "that chess is by far more frequently used in metaphoric expressions than other sports for example." That you seem to neglect the obvious.

    Chess-terms are borrowed frequently by other sports! "Stalemate" most oftenly offcourse, when 2 teams or competetors are afraid to make a move. Just to name one sport as an example: in football (soccer) the comparison to a chessgame is soon made when 2 teams try to build up slowly and tacticly. Just follow a game of Italy during the comming european championship.

    Thanks for the article and regards to Erwin. (De man die jou heeft geschaakt :-))

  2. Thanks Siebren!

    Regarding your remark: I am not sure I understand it correctly. What I meant to say was that chess is often used methaphoricaly as well as in other sports. Your example could be added too, it is a nice one. But generally speaking, my feeling was that chess terms could be seen more often than football terms, or swimming terms etc. I didn't exclude the fact that other sports borrow expressions from chess.
    I hope I am not becoming too confusing:)
    Regards from our family!

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