The Power of the Pawn

Never underestimate the power of the pawn.’ That was good advice from my late father’s friend and fellow chess player, John Fischer. In the early 70’s, Dad was a tournament player. He and Fischer played many games, both in competition as well as against each other. And, as I gather it, Fischer was tough to beat.

But so was Dad. He taught my older brother, Gary, and I to play. Gary knows enough about the game of chess to be dangerous (and like any loving brother, I’ve been very keen to inform him of this fact). I’m not the best player in the world, but I can hold my own. I only beat Dad a handful of times, and truth be told, he probably let me win.

I taught both of my sons to play the game. When they were still living at home on a full-time basis, we had our own little chess tournaments. Matthew, my eldest, is actually a good player. But my youngest son, Andrew? He’s an E.O. Darling kind of player—right after my dad’s own heart. Andrew is tough to beat.

But let me tell you more about John – John Fischer was also an artist. He and Dad met in 1973 while stationed at Bitburg Air Force Base (AFB) in Germany. Over the three years our family was stationed there, Fischer and Dad played many spirited games, peppered with all manner of expletive criticisms, suggestions, and epitaphs. No game was complete without Bitburger Piles and potato chips. I still remember the cloud of cigar smoke perpetually hovering over the table in our small dining room where they played.

Before Dad was transferred to Maelstrom AFB in Montana, Fisher painted a chess themed watercolor as a going-away present.  At the top of the painting was a crest with a chessboard background, a king’s crown, and a pawn. A banner at the top of the crest admonished: ‘Never underestimate the power of the pawn.’ A banner at the bottom of the crest additionally noted: ‘In honor of the Fischer – Darling Games, 1973–1976.’ That painting hung in every house we lived in from then on and up to my father’s death eight years ago. Now the picture is with Andrew.

Why the Pawn?

If you know the game of chess, then you know that the pawn appears at first glance to have limited strength. The most it can move is two squares on its first move, and one square thereafter. It has the power to capture other pieces, but it can only do so by moving diagonally into the occupied space. However, the truth is that when it come to the pawn, its power lies in its simplicity.

I once held the same view as many – that the pawn, due to its limitations, was disposable. If pressured by an opposing piece . . . well, just move a pawn if you can, and let it get captured. Dad educated me, thought. He showed me (as Fischer had showed him), that if one manages their pawns correctly (pawns being on the front lines of the game), they can be key to winning.

Sure, they aren’t powerful pieces in and of themselves, but when they’re used strategically in conjunction with other pieces, pawns can save you from hearing, “Hey idiot . . . checkmate,” from the other side of the board. (Disclaimer: This is/was a common epitaph from the Matthew – Andrew games in the Darling household).

So then . . . what does any of this have to do with the struggle of good and evil throughout the universe? Truthfully speaking: In some ways, it has nothing to do with it. Maybe I just shared a nice anecdote about chess and my life. But if we think just a bit more on the subject, we’d find that, in some ways, it has everything to do with it.

Consider our church for a moment. This past Sunday evening, August 13th, 2023, Rev. Dr. Miskelly, our District Superintendent, was with us here at NAUMC-LaMisión to constitute us as achurch. Now what does that mean? Well, the nickel-version is that it completes the process of ratifying us, in the eyes of the General Conference of the United Methodist Church. So then, we are officially a full-blown, bonified, CHURCH. It’s no longer a dream, an idea, or an initiative. We are a reality. Just for dramatic flair we could say: We have risen from the ashes of disaffiliation to become this new and unique thing best identified as a church.

During her time with us, Dr. Miskelly preached a sermon titled “Dare to Dream,” and she used an analogy of a painting that depicted Satan playing chess. The painting shows the adversary moving to checkmate his opponent. But in looking at the arrangement of the chess pieces, it appears that the game’s protagonist can move his/her king to another square and avoid the loss . . . the point being, that the King (keep emphasis on the upper case “K”) has ONE MORE MOVE.

Yes! Christ is our Chess Master; the One who anticipates every move. Just when it seems that evil has us in checkmate, Jesus has one more move up his sleeve in the grand strategy of the game. As a chess player myself, that idea resonates with me deeply . . . but let’s not forget the pawns.

Dr. Miskelly’s sermon brought me back to that painting by John Fischer. ‘Never underestimate the power of the pawn.’ I can’t speak for you, but if we look at life as a game of chess, I’m certainly more like a pawn than any other piece! I’m a day-to-day kind of guy; a guy who only knows how to take things one square at a time. I can only attack problems one at a time, and I’m definitely vulnerable to attacks by more powerful pieces (or players).

But that doesn’t mean that I should be discounted. NO, NO, NO! Don’t go underestimating Dan! That could be fatal. Because sure, by myself I’m nothing, but when my life coalesces with the power of the King, when our Chess Master has laid out his strategy for me and is taking to the offensive, I am a force to be reckoned with! I may be just a pawn, but I can be used with the pieces in my Chess Master’s possession, and when I am, the game is not only winnable, but so is the tournament.

Blessed to be the King’s Pawn

The fatal mistake of most would be chess players is that they focus too much on the presumed power of what they perceive as more prominent pieces—a knight trumps a pawn because it can jump other pieces, a bishop trumps a pawn because it can move diagonally as many blocks as wanted, a rook trumps a pawn because it’s the only piece that can move in tandem with the king, a queen trumps a pawn because it can move in any direction for as many spaces as desired.

It’s easy to let these disparities in apparent power cloud your judgement of value in the pieces, but it’s worth noting that there are 16 pieces on either side of a chess board—one king, one queen, two bishops, two rooks, two knights, and eight pawns. Perhaps we could even say that it’s the strength in the numbers, that overcomes the apparent weakness of the pawn. Because in chess – as in life – it takes pawns to serve the objectives of the King. The very same is true for us, because it will take each of us working together in our presumed weakness to accomplish the missions set out by our Heavenly Father!

I think this is why we find Jesus saying things like: “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth (Matthew 5:5),” or, “ . . . the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me (Matthew 25:40).” Moreover, in Luke 17:20, Jesus assured his disciples that that the Kingdom of God was not coming in ways that could be observed. And this on the heels of his previous story of Lazarus and the rich man, where we find, that in death, the sore covered beggar, comforted only by dogs, fared better than the rich man who lived sumptuously (Luke 16:19–31).

Is it any wonder that the Apostle Paul reminded the Corinthians that . . . “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong (1 Corinthians 1:27)”. If only St. Paul, or perhaps even Jesus, were chess players! What advice would they give to a novice like me (or you)?