Chess and Life: Jen and Sixty-four

Chess and Life: Jen and Sixty-Four

Pentecost 104


It was a problem posed first in 1848 by Max Bezzel although, in reality, it was a problem mankind had faced for centuries.  How could one place eight queens on a chessboard so that no two queens might threaten each other?  In other words, no two queens could share the same row, or the same column, or be diagonal to each other.  There is a mathematical way to express this but today we will just deal with the word problem.


Chessboards contain sixty-four squares.  As a number, sixty-four is considered a perfect number since it is both a perfect square and a perfect cube.  The standard chess board has sixty-four squares, eight rows across and eight rows down.  It is an excellent representation of the square of the number eight because 8 x 8 = 64.  Sixty-four is also a perfect cube since 4 x 4 x 4 = 64.  (Take a moment and check my math, if you’d like: 4 x 4 = 16 and 16 x 4 =64.)


If you are not an ardent fan of the game of chess, then it might not seem so difficult to place eight pieces known as the queen on the board.  I mean, there are only eight chess pieces to place and sixty-four squares, right?  Of course, the problem includes placing these eight queens so that they could not pose a threat to each other, given a queen piece’s manner of movement on the board.  The queen can move perpendicular and parallel as well as diagonally.


Jen, sometimes written as ren, is part of Confucius’ philosophy and involves altruism.  More specifically, jen is concerned with how we treat each other.  Confucius posited  this question:  “We do not know yet how to serve men, how then, can we know about serving the spirits?”  He was concerned with the conduct of a person and felt proper conduct would lead to a more humane mankind and a brighter tomorrow.


Throughout history, man has sought to learn how to live with his/her neighbor, especially those who are different.  One might consider our living on this earth a living example of the eight queens problem.  How do we live and exist, moving around as we need and want to do, without posing a threat to others?  Unlike a race, there is no finish line we must cross in the game of chess.  The finish line in life seems to be constantly moving. In actuality, the game of chess is won when the king is captured.  One might say the game of life is won when our treatment of others best reflects the spirituality, beliefs of a Kind or Creator, whose teaching we ascribe to believe and follow.


Put someone who does not play chess in front of a chess board and they might think the game of chess is much like a game of checkers.  In checkers, one reaches the other side and gains power to us in eliminating the competition.  This power is indicated by “being crowned” and using the newly acquired power to capture the opponent’s pieces.  In truth, the two games are very different.


In checkers, the pieces are identical except for color and there are only two colors.  Allowing for varying degrees, many of the world’s cultures began much the same way.  As mankind began to travel and expand its boundaries, variances were introduced into the gene pool.  However, differences would have appeared any way.  Two parents can give birth to a large number of children without all of those children being identical.  Life is about variety.


Life is also more similar to chess than checkers.  Each of us moves about with certain abilities, both literally and figuratively.  We should strive to do so in a non-threatening manner, much like our eight queens.  Life sometimes requires us to be that perfect square and at other times, more of a perfect cube.  In other words, we will face different situations requiring different responses, moves, skills, and yes, sometimes we do get kicked off the playing field.


It only took two years for someone to come up with a solution to Max Bessel’s eight queen problem on a chessboard of sixty-four squares.  Today we know that there are over four billions possibilities for placing eight queens on a chess board.  Imagine that – eight queen pieces, sixty-four squares and 4,426,165,368 possible moves!


We live on a finite planet.  There are limitations to our physical world on this planet and so it might seem that countries are like those eight queens and the planet is a chessboard upon which we all try to live without posing a threat to others.  One strategy on the checker board is to form a blockade so that your opponent cannot move.  Countries have attempted to do this by building a wall.  The problem with that is that it limits one’s own movement and restricts potential.


If eight chess pieces known as the queen can be placed on sixty-four squares in over four billion ways, I am confident we can figure out how to move about in a “jen” manner.  To be sure it will require quite the artful blending of kindness, humanity, and respect.  Of course, out of those almost 4.4 billion moves, only ninety-two are really solutions and dependent upon one’s perspective, there are actually only twelve solutions.


The eight queen chess board dilemma is used to day in determining nontraditional approaches to problems.  It is a simple problem but do not confuse simplicity with it being trivial.  A true chess player will tell you there are no trivial moves in chess.  Our living is not trivial, regardless of our station or socioeconomic status in life.  We all play a role in humanity.  How we move about the board of our existence should not threaten another being but display humanity, kindness, and respect.  If it does not, then how are we to be recognized, remembered, and/or respected?


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