Argument for a New Paradigm in Socially-Conscious Activity: The Chess Analogies

by Richard Martin Oxman

He’s only a pawn in their game.” — Bob Dylan

One of the great myths surrounding the game of chess is that you must be a human calculating machine to play well. Well, a certain amount of calculation is involved, of course, but chess players primarily rely on pattern recognition. Specifically, the ability to spot similar configurations of pieces and pawns, and the intuition to choose the best moves.

The chess players I know have rarely told me this fact, because most of the time the process I’m addressing is subconscious. If you ask them why they played this move instead of that one, they often reply, “I just knew what they right move was” — or something of the sort, undermining the possibility of enlightenment.

If you’re unfamiliar with chess, all positions on the chessboard probably appear equally chaotic to you. If, however, you’ve seen scores and scores of games, the significance of many relative positions among chess pieces is understandable at a glance. And I submit that the powers that be dance with glee over the fact that we — concerned citizens who’ve transformed into activists aiming to bring about institutional change — have refused to alter our tactics and strategies for decades. Have made it easy for them to rely on pattern recognition.

Some chess aficonados have likened the building up of a store of recognizable patterns to a sort of chess vocabulary. The words of any non-native language seem unfamiliar to one at first exposure, but after there’s a build up of vocabulary, one understands many words, terms, and concepts in a given language without any conscious thought at all. That general idea is pretty much the same in chess. And there’s an analogy to be made vis-a-vis the world of activism. Marching in circles with placards for a set amount of time — broadcast on megaphones and via social networking — add up to making pattern recognition quite easy for the opposition. Predictable behavior is easy to control, conquer, if you will.

One would not dream of announcing ahead of time what moves one was planning to implement on a chess board, would not let a competitor know in any game what was in the process of being made manifest. That’s self-evident, yes?

Well, if you answered yes, it begs the question of why anyone would think that the situation were any different when a psychological battle is waged between political opponents. One of the problems I see is that proactive concerned citizens are not acknowledging the fact that pattern recognition is a factor at all in the dynamic between them and their… opposition.

Whether or not one is submitting a petition, participating in a candlelight vigil, taking part in a hunger strike or boycott, writing to an editor, calling a representative, occupying a building, or even setting fire to property… all of that time and energy — all of those heartbeats — amount to less than a hill of beans, seeds planted for future generations notwithstanding. For they don’t stand to bring about the desired institutional changes.

Legitimate civic engagement must embrace a new paradigm for the transformation of society which is now necessary. And so a fresh paradigm for protest must be considered.

I recommend two things, in conclusion. One, I strongly advise one and all to play the game without the timer that’s employed in professional chess contests. Meaning, the consideration of new paradigms should take place without the pressure of temporal concerns. Evaluation of various proposals must be leisurely, not rushed. Two, since I don’t see that sort of dynamic in gear at present anywhere in the U.S., I offer to interact with any readers with whom the above resonates, prepared to delineate a way to deal with our present game board; my contact information is below.

The game board on which common citizens are being played, on which they have been splayed forever, is not only uneven, it is now toxic to the touch. And the aim of activists must be to — legally and nonviolently — do something other than replace a white rook with a red rook and/or substitute a black bishop with — forgive the pun! — a green piece. Rather, the goal must be to upend the unacceptable, unconscionable game board that’s being used. Letting the pieces fall where they may. Following that, I can live with differing* common citizens putting pieces back onto a new board, as they see fit, as long as career politicians — who, by definition, are too self-serving for the Collective Good — do not control the new configuration.

*The first order of business cannot be along partisan lines, or with ideological passion dominating. Rather, purity trumps politics. Before we get caught up with party lines, we are obliged to get aligned with people who have their hearts, heads and souls in a healthy place. Securing an office for this or that careerist can’t hold a candle to having someone who wants to serve unconditionally — and with eyes on Eternity — looking out for you.      – It’s called Love.

I promise, I won’t play games with you. None of this is addressing a game.


Richard Martin Oxman has been an educator and activist for over half-a-century. He would be honored to speak gratis at any educational institution which makes a request at He lives about one hour south of San Francisco, and — upon request — can host any initial core group meeting which might be appropriate.

View all posts by