What we can learn about power from chess etiquette

In our interactions, we’re not always equals. Parents aren’t equal to their children, company owners aren’t equal to their employees, and students are not equal to their teachers.

There is nothing wrong with these relationships despite unequal authority and faculties. In fact, these can be some of the most helpful and rewarding relationships of our lives.

Yet we all know inequality causes problems. “Power corrupts,” people say, and we see it happening all the time. So how do some unequal relationships remain unscathed by power’s evil reputation?

Consider the example of parents and children. Parents have absolute power over their children for the first couple years of life. As children get older, parents loosen their grip and share more of the power with the growing child. Power is responsibility, and responsibility is work. Your parents don’t want to do that work, and they never did it for the benefit of power in the first place anyway. They did it out of love, and the transformational power of relationships with shared power. In situations of shared power, people take care of each other and share resources. This means a shared power relationship is often more beneficial than one where you exercise complete control over another.

We realized this early on, giving way to the social contracts, marriages and partnerships. Throughout history we’ve created codes of behavior to remind ourselves of this fact.

What’s interesting about the codes around power is that they are not codes of law (rules for justice), but of etiquette (reminders of shared values). Take chess for example:

About a thousand years ago, the Persians were playing an early version of chess and they had a problem. Games weren’t lasting long enough to be fun. If someone was good at chess, they would win right off the bat, and the loser would be caught completely off guard. Both the winners and losers grew tired of playing like this, so they developed checks. Announcing check to your opponent gives them a heads up. Until the 19th century, it was even common to announce if the queen was in danger, by calling, “Check the queen!”

By announcing check, you are prolonging the game and increasing the possibility that the other player will win. It may seem like a bit of a gamble to give the other party a heads up.

But check advocates found something they liked more than winning chess: playing chess. And thus, check was born to alert the one’s opponent of a potential check mate.

In situations that are unequal – do you check? There may be moments when we are dealing with someone less intelligent, less aware of the rules of the game you are playing, or simply having less resources. Do you give them a heads up or do you end the game?

And more importantly – what are you missing out on by ending the game early?