Playing Chess with Death


Posted on 8th August 2019

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 Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, along with nominations for Best Original Screenplay, Director and Picture, and a host of other prizes.

And yet, if you ask people about Bergman’s cinema, there would be one scene that gets recognised more than any other; the iconic chess game played between the film’s protagonist Antonius Block and Death in The Seventh Seal (1957).

The film tells the story of Swedish medieval knight Block returning home from the Crusades 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 ends with the chess game over 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. Think of the other player not as Death, but life itself.

Your plan has to constantly modify itself sometimes to the point where the original plan has become unrecognisable.

To stick blindly to the same goals you set out with at the start, when the other player has changed the pattern of play, will often lead to failure. The 19th century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer says chess is best played like life when, “We are compelled to modify our tactics”.

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 modify your play accordingly.  The female grandmaster Jennifer Shahade, says 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.

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.

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