What is Marriage? What is Chess?

Last month, Harvard Law School hosted “What is Marriage? A Debate” between Andrew Koppelman, a professor at Northwestern Law School (arguing for same-sex marriage) and Sherif Girgis, a student from Yale Law School (arguing for traditional marriage).

In arguing for same-sex marriage, Professor Koppelman used an interesting analogy: He compared marriage to the game of chess. Just as the rules of chess evolved over time, Koppelman argued, so too might the “rules” of marriage evolve to include same-sex couples.

Koppelman had used this chess analogy previously. In his 2010 book, The Gay Rights Question in Contemporary American Law, Koppelman wrote:

Chess hasn’t got an essence. Doubtless the present game of chess was developed through just such fiddling; perhaps someone once thought that the drunken reel of the knight was hostile to the essence of Chess. The question is what sort of chess rules are likely, under the circumstances, to best realize the good of play.

But does Koppelman’s chess analogy ring true? We need to explore it further.

To be sure, chess did evolve over the centuries. Chess was invented in India around the 6th century, and its rules changed as it spread to the West. For instance, the queen replaced the earlier vizier chess piece—and its movements evolved until it became the most powerful piece. By the late 15th century, chess had largely evolved to its present form.

Today, chess is played on a checkered board with 64 squares. Each player begins the game with 16 pieces: one king, one queen, two rooks, two knights, two bishops, and eight pawns. Ever since the stalemate rules were finalized in the mid-19th century, the rules of chess have remained constant.

Thus, the rules of chess have evolved. But does it imply that chess lacks an essence? Is there an ideal point at which the game should stop evolving?

Interestingly, there is a variant of chess called “Two Kings Chess,” where each side receives two kings (instead of the customary king and queen). One might consider calling it same-sex chess.

Now, imagine what the chess world might look like in a hundred years’ time:

The year is 2113, and the World Chess Federation is facing a crisis. Almost half of all chess games end in losses, and the vast majority of pawns do not get promoted. Although millions of people still love to play chess, the Chess Federation has been split over a divisive issue: Should Two Kings Chess be recognized as fully equal to traditional chess?

For centuries, the vast majority of chess players had played traditional chess, where each side had a king and a queen. In contrast, only a tiny minority of people played Two Kings Chess—in part because chess sets (by default) had always contained kings and queens.

But the Two Kings minority grew over time. Some chess players simply preferred the game with two kings, because it offered a more symmetrical game. Other players simply didn’t like playing chess with the queen, because it was the most powerful piece and often tricky to handle.

About 5 percent of chess players identified themselves with Two Kings Chess. They organized their own clubs, camps, and tournaments. They wrote chess books about the unique features of Two Kings Chess. They started coaxing toymakers to manufacture chess sets containing two kings instead of a king and a queen. And some of the Two Kings players were really good at the game, and they wanted to become Grandmasters—the chess equivalent of a black belt and the highest honor that a chess player can receive.

Alas, that was where the conflict started. The World Chess Federation only awarded Grandmaster titles to people who played traditional chess, a game with one king and one queen. The President of the Federation said: “If we have to award the Grandmaster title to folks who excel in every variant of chess (of which there are hundreds), the Grandmaster title won’t be of much distinction anymore.”

Thus began an intense debate. What, exactly, is the essence of chess?

Interestingly, it was surprisingly difficult for either side to come up with a robust, foolproof definition of chess.

The traditionalists started with a religious argument. “Garry Kasparov, the God of chess, played the game with one king and one queen. We should keep it that way.”

The Two Kings players replied, “We believe that Garry Kasparov, with his love of the game, would have supported equal rights for all chess players, not just those who play with the king and queen.”

“Redefining chess would destroy the game as we know it,” the traditionalists said.

“That’s nonsense. Chess wasn’t destroyed when it was expanded to include both black pieces and white pieces on the same board,” said the Two Kings players.

The traditionalists replied, “Real chess depends on the complementarian nature of a king and a queen, with their different moves and roles. Over the years, people have found that it’s the most natural way to achieve checkmate.”

“A sizeable number of traditional chess games fail to end in checkmate,” the Two Kings players retorted. “Does the lack of a checkmate make it any less of a chess game?”

The traditionalists decided to talk about the little ones. “Preserving traditional chess is best for the pawns,” they said. “Pawns are more likely to get promoted if the game has a king and a queen.”

“That’s not true,” the Two Kings players insisted. “Whether you have two kings, two queens, or a king and a queen doesn’t make any difference to the welfare of pawns.”

“Your argument leads down a slippery slope,” said the traditionalists. “At this rate, we might have to end up awarding Grandmaster titles to people who play Two Queens Chess, people who play with Two Queens and a King, or even the folks who play Checkers. Where will the redefinition end?”

“Excuse me,” a distant voice interrupted with a tone of indignation. “There is nothing wrong with playing Checkers.”

And so the debate continued.

Chris Seck is a 3L.

The views in opinion editorials, columns, and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of The Record.

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