Daddy: What is Chess?

Wisdom is like fire. People take it from others.

~ Hema (DRC) proverb

It was a little over a year ago during the African winter when my then four-year-old son, Khafre, asked me a very difficult question: “Daddy, what is chess?”
Immediately my mind was flooded with a kaleidoscope of fragmented answers, and in the nano-seconds it took for me to flick through most them, I could not come up with a satisfactory answer.

Part of that was due to the fact that at four he already knew how the pieces moved and was playing with his 9-year-old sister Neo, therefore he should at least know what chess was. This question must be deeper I thought. My cold hands were warmed by my slightly above average heated head as I contemplated how to best respond. I glanced down at him.

Model: Khafre
That penetrating gaze does not look out-of-place behind a chessboard.|Photo credit: Cosmos Chipepo

He had already inherited a deeply penetrating inquisitive gaze that seemed to be searching your entire soul to the core from a very young age. It should serve him well in his future if harnessed properly, I thought. I shifted uncomfortably, cleared my throat and finally gave this elaborate response:

A long, long time ago, an elephant on its way to the elephant graveyard had one final wish before it ate the Baobab tree from the roots, and that was to know what it looked like. This was during a time before time, where there were no mirrors, and surfaces betrayed no reflections. A time when the ancient Peruvians still possessed the ability to soften stone and the motherland’s sorcery was defying nature like never before, or since.

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The elephant’s wish was granted and seven blind men were allowed to tell it what it looked like after being allowed to briefly touch it.

After this short introduction both my children, and their dog, were now rapt with attention and I knew that I could kill several birds with one stone by telling them a part of their history while still making an attempt to answer their question.

The first blind man was a sangoma from the royal kraal of inkosi uShaka kaSenzakakhona who told the elephant after touching one of its tusks, “You stand tall, firm and proud like a young Zulu warrior surreptitiously observing the voluptuous bathing maidens in the Thukela River”.

“You stand tall, firm and proud like a young Zulu warrior surreptitiously observing the voluptuous bathing maidens in the Thukela River”

Voluptuous is a big-boy word and I will tell you what it means when you are older.

The elephant was a bit confused by this description, but nevertheless proceeded north past the monoliths of the Great Kingdom of the Dzimba-dza-mabwe of the Gokomere peoples, into the copper rich lands where a retired blind hunter-gatherer from the tribes near the Mulungishi rock in Kabwe-Ka Mukuba told it that it was like a small snake after briefly groping on its tail.

Even more perplexed, the elephant decided to have not one, not two but four blind men of the pygmy Baka tribes in tropical Kameroun touch it simultaneously and they all had common consensus that the elephant was definitely like a banana tree after each of them briefly held on to one of its sturdy legs.

One, from the Oba of Benin’s three Edo blind seers of the royal maze-like Benin City, described it as a Great Wall just from laying hands on its side while a blind Berber Sufi from one of the elusive nomadic Zawāyā tribes of the desert described it as a camel after feeling on the elephant’s long-lashed eyes.

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Finally was the blind King Pheron, son of Senusret III, whose real name was lost forever to the desert sands. He touched the elephant during his ten-year affliction of blindness, and he nearly died of shock as he described it as a great serpent after handling its writhing trunk!

The end

My 9-year-old daughter was definitely entertained. “But dad, you said seven blind men, but now you described nine!”. Nothing got past her nerdy glasses and protruding ears, I tell you. She possesses the regal poise and grace of her mother.

“Ah, but the pygmy men each count as half, silly!”, was my quick rejoinder.

Like the blind men in the story there is no complete way to describe chess. Each of us are like one of the blind men and we all have our own unique experience of chess. That can sometimes mean that we have seemingly vastly differing descriptions but they are just the same bits and parts of the huge elephant that is chess.

Chess is a time machine

Here are seven more descriptions of chess, I continued:

  1. Chess is a Time Machine:
    Through notations we can go back in time and enter the minds of the players of the past and ‘see’ what they saw.
  2. Anybody Can Play Chess: it is easy to learn but much more difficult to master regardless of your age, gender, level of education etc. anybody can learn and enjoy chess.
  3. Chess is Cheap:
    Almost an oxymoron, playing chess does not initially require much in terms of playing equipment. A chess board and chess pieces are a basic necessity. In this age of smartphones you can even just play on an app. It is only when attempting mastery will chess require more in terms of coaching, travel, study materials etc.
  4. Chess is Exercise:
    A chess player can reportedly lose as much as 20 pounds (just above 9 kg) during a chess game. I need to ask GM Nakamura how much weight he lost on his visit to the Hyena Cave!
  5. Chess Improves Cognitive Ability:
    Nobel prize winner Herbert Simon concludes in his study that the study of chess players’ memory and perception has contributed to our understanding of expertise in many other fields, such as music and computer programming, and that the impact of chess on cognitive science is comparable to that of Drosophila (fruit fly) for the field of genetics. Read more here and here.
  6. Chess is Intellectually Challenging: Chess is the most intellectually challenging board game of all time, with the Chinese game Go at close second, the complexities, memory requirements and study content required to play chess at the highest levels elevate it intellectually to almost non-comparable levels among board games.
  7. Chess is a way of life: The pattern or mannerisms and preferred style of play of individuals tend to mirror their real-life personalities. Attackers on the chess board tend to be quite outspoken and defenders usually stand their ground. Strategists tend to be more diplomatic in their approach to problem solving and creatives types abhor dry play positions in imagination on and off the board. All in all chess brings out the best in all of us and for generations it keeps on being the gift that keeps giving.

Do you agree? Leave a comment and like one of the blind men describe what chess means to you. I look forward to your responses!

Oh, and no African chess discussion is complete without mentioning the current number one player on the continent, Grand master and Doctor, Bassem Amin of Aegypt. See my discussion with him in my next article!


  1. Well written article. I remember being taught how each piece on the board moved… Being a movie fanatic I’d often imagine the aggressive faces on each piece as it attacked. Chess, the game of kings and queens.

  2. Now i know The first blind man was a sangoma from the royal kraal of inkosi uShaka kaSenzakakhona,you are dope Mr Cosmochip

  3. I was as attentive as Khafre and Neo. Brilliant and captivating way of describing what chess is

  4. I feel like the article is beautifully written
    Even though it contains a lot of big words which may seem appalling to an ordinary reader. The caption is well written and the introduction brings about a sense of thirst to wanna read further

    Well written

  5. Wow I didn’t know you are more than this super daddy @story telling lol,looking forward to more articles!

    I agree with your answers and I could just shorten as “Chess is a mind game that needs analysis before moving each piece to achieve a win or end with a draw”

    So if one’s life can be analysed like chess pieces before making the decision in every challenge or goal or any move we take, we can easily for see what is to come in our lives or goals,whether a win/ fair results or leading to a loss

  6. “Each of us are like one of the blind men and we all have our own unique experience of chess” Indeed, I only my own side with the little experience I have would describe chess as self discovery and building tool, it makes you aware of your strengths even if you not as good. Take for instance yourself, you are hardly a 1300 rated player and yet you up in the hierarchy of chess leadership of the hyenas..

    • Thank you for your kind words, Sanele. You are mentioning Africa’s most feared chess predators when you mention the HYENAS. Hopefully I will see you become a hyena soon.

  7. Story telling has always been our African way of passing wisdom and knowledge through generations…like the fact that you kept to that. Now I need to know more about chess. Can’t wait for the next article.👍

  8. in simple terms ,Chess is a game that ,as Shakespeare put it , makes a man and mars him,it makes man stand to and not to stand to …

  9. brother ,you should have told him that it is a game that will build his confidence and destroy it at the same is a game that will make him love that woman and actually have no time for is a game that will say to him ,you are the man and few moves later ,you are “a” nothing,and “a next ” to nothing.It is a game that wil, teach you not to love free things,and free things are probably not free …

  10. Well written article Cosmos, will definitely use this to explain chess to my lil one who recently started lessons.

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