Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Fairness of Dice

Two Spaniards took a break from the sauna-like heat of the borderlands between Arabic-influenced Moorlands, and fiercely Roman Catholic Spain, to play a game of chess on the shaded veranda. Both men were enthusiasts for the game that by this time was popular on three continents and most of the classical “known world.” Time was short this afternoon, with demands of the plantation promising interruption of the historically slow-paced, strategic game. Rather than pausing their game, both were interested in options to shorten their match.

In other parts of Europe, more liberal rules were proposed as solutions to the same problem. However, these serious players, comfortable with the legal moves of the present game, had a different idea. They could introduce dice to the first game in history that was played entirely without chance.

Philosophers and aficionados of the game appreciated the raw intellect of chess. Human minds and wills warred with each other, ignoring fate, defying the existence of fate, and asserting a freedom. Unlike other popular games in each country prior to the introduction of chess, there was no element of chance. The game always began the same way, with the same rules to each player. Then it proceeded matching man to man, mind to mind.

So why would any serious chess players submit their glorification of the human mind to dice? The answer may have been that they were not creative enough to try modifying rules to shorten their game. They may have liked the challenge afforded by the limitation on their control of the game (dice were used to regulate which piece had to be moved each turn). Or, the first answer that occurred to me, it’s fair.

A skilled player might approve the challenge of thriving under such constraint. The common man would submit to his lot in the game, as he seemed to do in life. Do you see the distinction? We all have the choice between being dominated by the circumstances of our life, and responding to the circumstances in a strategic way. Profoundly connected to this option is our decision to endure all of life in the sinful nature bestowed upon us as heirs of Adam, and God’s offer to be saved. God offers the power we were without, to live and to resist sin. This is relational, the mystery of the Holy Spirit indwelling a disciple of Christ in a way that affects his choices.

But that isn’t what made me stop to write. A simple solution to a fundamental question about the story The Immortal Game’s historian told of Europe provides an apt illustration of the very God whose sovereign rule of fate has drawn so much attack. Why would two competitors of chess introduce dice into the game of sublime skill? I for one hate games that are entirely chance, and am immensely frustrated by those games which are mostly chance. Take Yahtzee. The substance of the game is five dice. I cannot control the outcome of each roll, but I am required to choose after each roll which dice to set aside, for what purpose. At the end of each turn I make a decision where to fill in points. With hindsight one sees that any number of decisions could have been wrong. I had nothing, so I zeroed the coveted 50 point Yahtzee, only to roll five of a kind my succeeding turn. This is too frustrating for me.

For me, chess is humiliating. I’m not good at it, and unless my challenger is an amateur, I lose. But I would rather, if a loss is to be credited to my name, have earned it entirely myself. So what strange Spaniard (it was a Spaniard quoted explaining the use of dice with chess) pair sat at their board and decided to inflict chance upon themselves? Even if one man suggested it, why would the other agree?

The answer that struck me was fairness. Neither player was controlling the dice. Each submitted equally to the fate of the roll. Were there other fair rule changes that could have sped up the game? Yes. So my answer doesn’t entirely explain the emergence of dice with chess.

However, think about the fairness of dice. If any of you have played Yahtzee, or some other dice- or card- dependent game, no doubt you sensed at some point that the fair chance of the dice had dealt you an unjust blow. The outcome of a game did not rest on your choices or your merits. Winning by chance was occasionally unjust. The better player could lose. Do we really want fair? The same fate to everyone? Each person equally born, equally bred, equally fed? Storms of the same number, death at the same age?

See, God isn’t about fairness. He is about justice. And justice means when something is earned, it is granted. The marvel of Christianity is that Jesus became the propitiation, complete substitution, for our sins so that He might be just toward Himself and justifier toward us. What we earned, death, was executed.

"Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus."
- Romans 3:24-26

To God be all glory.

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