Playing Chess With Death

What better way to practice being a Freethinker than imagining yourself playing to win a game of chess with Death?

Swedish director Ingmar Bergman (1918 – 2007) has one of the longest and most distinguished careers in the history of cinema. He is a three time winner of the Oscar for Best Foreign Film, along with nominations for Best Original Screenplay, Director and Picture.

The Seventh Seal

If you ask people about Bergman’s films, there would be one scene that gets recognised more than any other – the iconic chess game played between  a man and Death in The Seventh Seal (1957).

The film tells the story of a Swedish medieval knight named Antonius Block who is returning home from the Crusades, only to find his country in the grips of the Black Death. Disillusioned, he challenges Death to a chess match for his life.

At the beginning of the chess game, Block begins well by attacking Death with a combination from his bishop and knight. However, as the game progresses, Death enters into a dialogue where he becomes a confessor to the sins of Block. During this confession, Block realises that Death is too good a player for him and so he decides to cheat.

Thus, the film poses the timeless question, can you cheat Death?

Block cheats by illegal moves and even taking pieces off the board but all this proves pointless as Death eventually checkmates him.

You may prolong Death, but you can’t successfully cheat him and he will always win in the end.

The film closes with the chess game concluded and Death is seen leading Block away to his eventual fate.

Adaptability In Chess And Life

When playing chess you start out with a strategic plan of how to play your game, but your plan will always be affected by the actions of the other player, Death.

Playing as white you move first and, playing as black, Death moves second. As chess is a turn-based game where you win by capturing your opponent’s king, you have the initiative by going first.

However, as you both begin to play, Death surprises you with a counter attack. How do you respond?

To stick blindly to the same goals you set out with at the start, when Death has changed the pattern of play, will often lead to failure. The 19th century German philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer, used chess as simile for life.

“But for my present purpose, the most suitable simile would be that of a game of chess, where the plan we determined to follow is conditioned by the play of our rival — in life, by the caprice of fate. We are compelled to modify our tactics, often to such an extent that, as we carry them out, hardly a single feature of the original plan can be recognized.”

Arthur Schopenhauer

Jennifer Shahade

Adaptability is the key as the future is a game still being played and the outcome to be decided. Being a freethinker, focus on the state of the board as it now and adapt your play accordingly. The female grandmaster Jennifer Shahade, advises when playing “think of a move, disregard it and think of a better one”.

Using your freethinking skills, in chess like life, you should have a strategy of reflection and revision to become a better player – modify your tactics.

In The Seventh Seal, Block does not change his plan, he abandons it and cheats. If he had modified and adapted his gameplay, rather than resorting to breaking the rules, he would have played a far better game.

You may not be able to cheat Death but in the game of life you should always give him a good game.

It’s your move.

Images from and

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