A popular saying contrasts ‘sticks and stones’ with words, but in Jewish thought words ARE like stones. They can either break down or build up. Indeed words can be like chess pieces that can either capture or protect a special piece called a queen, a mystical reference to the soul.
Living in Boulder in these times, I have found two areas of interest besides covid, that stood out this November- One is the second year of Clean Speech Colorado, a program dedicated to teaching proper ways of talking. The second feature of this month is many of my friends’ fascination with the Netflix series, “The Queen’s Gambit.” Stirring these topics together in my Covid isolation selfie mind, I have emerged with an interesting cholent of connections. The CSC, as it is called, this year focuses on the prohibition of O’naat Devarim, or hurting the feelings of another through speech, the polar opposite of lifting people up with our words. As I mull over the various effects of both negative and positive speech, I am naturally drawn to the impact that both kinds of speech, affect the characters in “The Queen’s Gambit.” In particular, the main character so stunningly portrayed by Anya-Taylor Joy, is both aided and thwarted throughout her life by the words of people very close and not so close to her.
Though frustrated by my lack of knowledge about chess, I couldn’t help but be drawn into the dramatic role that speech plays in the fortunes of the both brilliant and troubled young protagonist. The first words of encouragement come from her laconic chess teacher, the handyman at the orphanage, Mr. Shaibel. Beth, the name she likes to be called, sees him playing chess alone, and even before she has any inkling of how to play, she immediately falls in love with the board and its merry men. When Mr. Shaibel sees how quickly she learns, and wins, when she asks ‘Am I ready?’ his terse reply is: ‘You are….(pregnant pause) astounding!’
Unfortunately – her climb to success is handicapped by a growing addiction to tranquilizers, which the orphanage used to give out to the children with their regular vitamins, but then became legally prohibited. However, like the Jewish idea that within a liability, a talent may be lurking, the tranquilizers help her visualize the chessboard and actual games! As Mr. Shaibel so succinctly puts it: ‘You’ve got your gift, and you’ve got what it costs.’
There are other impediments, mainly internal, to her development both professionally and as a functional, mature woman. Her relationship with her adoptive mother has both negative and positive outcomes. The strains of a chronic illness and an unhappy marriage – much like Beth’s birth mother – contribute to Mrs. Wheatley’s heavy drinking and smoking. Given the challenges of her own background, it is no surprise that Beth too holds on to those crutches. At the same time, her relationship with her new mother formed a delicate bond that helps both of them come out of their shells.
Beth might have fallen by the wayside if not for critical words from key figures in her life who facilitated the shaping of her identity, words from both her supporters and detractors. In her early years, after miraculously walking away from the car where her mother took her own life, she ends up in an orphanage where the head matron is not quite the wicked witch, but comes close in a child’s mind. Beth’s first friend is another rebellious young girl who commiserates with her. Jolene is as wild as Beth is restrained, but they both provide a lifeline to each other that is maintained through the years.
When they meet again later in life, Jolene insists ‘you’re no orphan anymore; we are not orphans as long as we have each other.’ They revisit the school after Mr. Shaibel’s funeral and when Beth goes down to the school basement, she sees pictures of her and her chess accomplishments all over Mr. Shaibel’s space! Beth cries for first time and then refuses a drink in plane to Russia. These two people who have cared about her for the long haul, allow her to begin to build her self-confidence. The key to the way Jolene and the janitor speak to her have made all the difference.
Her critics too have strengthened her. The Talmud tells a story of two famous rabbis – Rabbi Yochanan and Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish who were both friends and intellectual opponents, both allies and adversaries – as well as brothers-in-law. When the latter died, the former wept inconsolably. People thought it was because Rabbi Yochanan lost his main supporter, but he said it was the opposite – Rabbi Shimon would often challenge him with 24 arguments, and now his colleagues mainly just agreed with him.
In life we can grow from both our supporters and our detractors, just like Beth did. She did not get phased by those who questioned her chess prowess; on the contrary, their questioning and taunts challenged her further, like with the two rabbis. However her self-confidence did depend very much on others. Because she didn’t have a solid basis of support as a child, she was personally vulnerable as she got older. When she loses an important game, she looks in the mirror and calls herself ‘A creepy piece of trash!’ It took a while for her to internalize a better self-image.
We see two things here; sometimes people’s put downs can goad you to further growth, and sometimes they can stunt your progress. It depends, I think, what are your weak areas, and where you know you excel, whatever others say. When her adoptive father, Mr. Wheatley, asked ‘doesn’t she ever change her clothes,’ she became fashion conscious for the rest of her life. But when some chess rivals teased or even mocked her, she became even more determined to succeed. Often the words of both spoken and written reviews contained begrudging praise; after all chess was much more of a man’s game in her times. …’you really are something’, ‘you’re amazing’. ‘You ‘destroy’ everyone you play.’ ‘She’s quiet, well mannered, and out for blood. Is it compulsion, addiction, or birthright?’
Some of her chess friends and admirers realize that she may be too obsessed with the game. They try to tell her to ‘cool it.’ Henry, who really likes her, says ‘my dad drank too much; you smell like him.’ But in Russia, strong praise at the right time, hits home; an elder chess champion tells her: ‘you are a marvel my dear; I may have played the best chess player of my life.’ The effect of that comment prods her to finally discard her pills.
When I was a teenager, I tried teaching some Torah to a group of teens at a Shabbat club. They responded with heckles and even threw some food at me! But somewhere deep in my soul, I knew that I was meant to teach Torah and even though I didn’t try again for a long time, that negative response strengthened my conviction. Similarly, I once had a college professor who said that my writing would remain at a ‘B’ level. Again, like a dam holding back a growing force of water, I didn’t write for quite a while after that, but later returned with a vengeance, as the saying goes.
Of course, I have had, thank G-d, many teachers, as well as students and friends, over the course of years, who have nourished me with life-giving waters of support and encouragement. Above all were the words of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, whose words of fatherly care and guidance continue to resonate within me.
Since I’m soon approaching my eighties, the clock in a chess match conveys a powerful image of time ticking away; ‘you have 40 moves in 90 minutes.’ The Baal Shem Tov teaches on a verse from Song of Songs: ‘My soul has expired from his word,’ He explains this phrase to mean that we all have a limited amount of words to speak in the span of our lifetime. When our time is up, so are the moves. In the film, there is a quote from Thomas Huxley: ‘the chess board is the world: the pieces are the phenomena of the universe; the rules of the game are what we call the laws of nature. The player on the other side is hidden from us….‘
Most of chess is conducted non-verbally. But, as in the game of life, what we say in between the stillness, can make all the difference in how we play. As I frequently like to remind people, as well as myself, ‘will the next words that come out of your mouth, improve the silence?’ In the game of life, there is also an ‘invisible’ player who responds to our every move, with both justice and mercy. As King David put it, ‘G-d is your Shadow!’ So whenever we speak, it is good to have in mind the One who is always listening. If you are interested in the above ideas, you can find more about the Jewish message of chess in an article entitled ‘Reshevsky and the Lubavitcher Rebbe.’ And you can explore Clean Speech Colorado to find weekly talks and daily messages throughout November about the importance of ‘keeping it clean.’