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"Chess is a sea where a gnat may drink from and an elephant may bathe in." ~ Anonymous

The above proverb is scattered everywhere throughout chess literature, folklore and even software.

I have never fully understood its meaning, however. Does the gnat represent a patzer and the elephant represent a master?

Is the proverb trying to say that the game is a game for everyone?

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I disagree with all answers treating the gnat and elephant as allegory for players of varying skill level.

Rather, the actions of the gnat and elephant are the main point. Chess as a game with rules is not very broad. There are only six types of piece. Half the actual number of pieces are identical and have moves that are almost as simple as it is possible to be (with the exception of en passant, and even then, it is not nearly as complicated as many chess teachers and commentators make it out to be). The other pieces are moved in ways so simple a toddler can understand them. The board is a simple square only eight spaces wide. If one only looks from above the surface, chess is indeed narrow enough that a small insect could metaphorically fly across its whole.

However, in the centuries of its play, strategies and tactics have developed almost to excess. There is gambit and counter-gambit and analysis measured in the millions of pages, billions of words spent on dissecting just a few landmark matches together, let alone the game as a whole. If one considers the depth the game can present, it is indeed a sea deep enough to drown the metaphorical elephant in.

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    To be clear I don't think elephant/gnat represent skill level, but rather appearance, or social status, or whatever other irrelevant attribute that might be used to prejudge people. – itub Jul 22 at 13:53
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    "Elephant" and "gnat" can mean whatever you wish them to mean in the context of this proverb. That's one of the hallmarks of a good proverb, or a good prophecy, or a good story - you can make of it whatever you will. – Bob Jarvis - Reinstate Monica Jul 22 at 17:21
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    But the proverb isn't that chess is a sea that a gnat could fly across - it's a sea that a gnat could drink from, which says absolutely nothing about the overall size of the sea, only about the portion of the sea that's experienced. I disagree that this is a comment about the simplicity of the rules, I think it's more about the ability to play and enjoy the game, even for an inexperienced player who just scratches the surface of the strategic depth. – Nuclear Wang Jul 23 at 16:16
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I think your thought "Does the gnat represent a patzer and the elephant represent a master?" is right. A beauty of chess is this combination of two aspects. The rules are simple enough for a child to learn. But the game has so much depth that you can spend years studying the game, and amass a great deal of knowledge about it --- but there is more to the game still to discover.

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Edward Winter's page about Chess Proverbs has this and a few other proverbs. A couple look like they could be related to the one you are asking about:

  • "The game of chess is like the ocean, which a gnat may cross and where an elephant may drown". (English translation of a Spanish version of possibly the same proverb.)
  • "Though thine antagonist be an ant, imagine he were an elephant". (Similar in that it involves an elephant and a small insect.)

I think the two proverbs I quote above are clear: don't underestimate your opponent, because in chess anyone can win (as any adult who has been beaten by a bright child knows firsthand).

Going back to the original proverb, perhaps it is a more subtle and less violent expression of the same idea, with drinking and bathing instead of crossing and drowning. Or maybe it was a case of "lost in translation". :-)

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