In The Moves That Matter (Bloomsbury, Nov.), Chess grandmaster and philosopher Rowson applies the logic of chess to the question, “How does one live a life that matters?”
Having played chess all your life, what made you want to write about it now?
I fell deeply in love with chess as a child, and it helped me cope with growing up and helped me make my way in the world. But then I gradually detached from the game. So some of the need to write the book was making sense of that process. Why today? I think the world is difficult to make sense of for lots of reasons. The kind of echo that I notice in the chess world is that the questioning individual trying to make sense of a confusing universe on the board is a parallel for the questioning individual trying to make sense of the world at large.
Why is chess a “meta-metaphor” for life?
I’ve taken the question of what chess can teach us about life quite directly, quite seriously. So, it’s that concentration is freedom, that it’s the mattering that matters. Chess is there as a way into an inquiry to help us untangle a lot of things, but it’s not the kind of ultimate thing I’m keen to discuss.
You write that chess can help one know “what matters.”
This construction of what it means for something to matter is absolutely central to chess, but also to life in general, I think. I speak of this in terms of a chess competition, which operates on the underlying principle of ordering something with your attention in a higher-order way. The tension about mattering that I don’t quite resolve is between the construction of a self as a unique individual, and the strain within Buddhism that says that the self is ultimately an illusion. I think we have to hold both these things simultaneously—you live your life as if it really matters, as if every second is precious, and yet simultaneously know that that’s not the whole story, that actually you’re here and gone in the blink of an eye and the self is an illusion. It’s a conundrum right at the heart of life.
The influence of your family and your two young sons is felt throughout the book. How did they figure into its writing?
I love the intensity of competition and the sense that your life is on the line. However, I think that’s not a full life—it’s more an initiation into knowing what matters to you. It’s important to expand beyond winning and losing. In that context, experiences like family, where you’re decentering the self, where it’s not about you anymore, there’s something very good about the ego being thinned out in this way. What I do is try to show how these things come together, and the kind of mindset that was at one point all about getting better at chess so that I could beat more people, really became about something more generative, something more about thinking about life and society as a whole.