The game of chess originated in India and its symbolism is clearly linked to the strategy of war. What takes place is a battle between black pieces and white pieces, between light and darkness, between Titans (asura) and gods (deva). The game of Stones (Go) between Heaven and King Wu-yi, was a battle between the owl and the pheasant and the stakes in the game, as always, were the mastery of the world.
The game is essentially a test of discipline and intelligence and the player’s skill partakes of the Universal Mind (viraj) of which the vastu-mandala is another symbol. One of the arts of the Kshatriya is world dominance through sharing in the viraj: this is the ‘royal art’.
In all the Celtic languages the game of chess (Irish: idchell, Welsh gwyddwyll; Breton gwezboell) means literally ‘intelligence of the wood’ and, according to some sources, was played by the king for one third of the day. His opponent was always some prince or high dignitary and never a person of humble birth. The play was for high stakes. Thus the King of Ireland saw the god Midir carry off his wife, Etain, after losing a game during which he had foolishly failed to specify the stake. In fact, in the Celtic world, the game of chess symbolizes the intellectual side of kingly activity and its purposes have nothing to do with the moral order.
This pattern of geometrical shapes, squares, diamonds, lozenges and so on, used for example for draughts, chess and the game of goose, is a figure of the visible world, woven from light and darkness, in which the balance is maintained as yin follows yang. In its basic form the chequer-board is the simple square mandala, the symbol of Shiva the transformer, and equivalent also to the Chinese yin-yang. The standard chequer-board comprises sixty-four squares and is the vastu purusha mandala which provides the pattern for TEMPLE-building, setting universal rhythms and crystallizing cosmic cycles. The chequer-board is thus ‘the battlefield of cosmic forces’ (Burckhardt), a field which is also the Earth (square) bounded by the four cardinal points. Of course, since the mandala is the symbol of life itself, the warring tendencies concerned can also be transposed to man’s inner life.
Symbolizing the opposing powers which battle against one another in a life-and-death struggle within both the universe and the human individual, its pattern is especially suitable for a board game. It encapsulates the conflict situation. The arrangement of squares is a signal that battle is about to commence. That battle may be between reason and instinct, design and chance, of one set of factors against another, or of the different potentialities of a single life. The chequer-board thus symbolizes the arena in which such conflicts and battles take place.