The Power of Empty Space

(Inspired by Josh Waitzkin’s first podcast on the Tim Ferriss Show, which I revisit about every year, and “Empty Space” by The Story So Far. This piece is an experimental form for me.)

In chess, white always moves first. And that’s why when the best computers play one another, white always wins. Because black can never make up for the initial tempo at the onset of the game, most often taking up space in the center of the board immediately. But for us humans, the endgame comes, maybe with a slight advantage ready to convert into a checkmate. In an endgame, a position of drastically reduced complexity and often a very finite number of moves (a stark contrast to the infinite aspect of the game), the principles shift.

Your king becomes active. Your pawns, vital. And sometimes, unlike at the onset of the game, you actually wish it weren’t your move. In many positions, every move you make leads to your king’s demise. These situations are known as Zugzwang. Creating Zugzwang for your opponent requires a relinquishment of tension, to allow the power of empty space to take over. You let your opponent have no other option but fall into the empty space on the board. Then, the game is yours. In the end game, it’s not the player who uses the squares best that wins, it’s the player that understands the power of a vacant square.

New York City’s streets look a lot more like a complex middle-game position. Buses move like knights one block up and two over. The ACE train is like a rook, moving up and down, the 123 like a bishop striking across Broadway. But none of the complexity of the city functions without the coordination of what belongs where at what time. Who’s filling what empty space? The pedestrians stride through the streets, the hungry New Yorkers take a seat at a vacant table. No moment exists unless there is a vacancy for it. And it’s in the vacancy where the hidden harmonies lie. The empty street space for movement, an empty table space for a conversation, a meal.

But what about the space in our minds?

The open squares in our mind get filled with emails, dings of the phone, all like a pawn prematurely suffocating an enemy, where it will stray too far from its partners in battle and get picked off. If harmony and creativity can’t exist without open squares, what happens when we cut it off? Is all the external noise tuning out our internal music? What if we let our pieces hold back for a moment, and hold the square open? 

An alarm clock rings, or rather, a smartphone with an alarm clock feature. The accumulated notifications fill your mind. Any insights your subconscious mind has gone to work on while you slept are forgotten because those notifications like marching pawns suffocate your attention, distract it. 

The next morning your alarm clock rings. And you sit with the silence. You see where your unconscious mind wants to take you. Is it thinking about how you slept? How your body feels? Events from the day before? Excitement for the day ahead? If you were to imprint those thoughts onto an empty page and read them aloud, what would they tell you? 

Of course, there’s no way to know what that piece of paper, once empty and now filled with ink, would expose. The answers are only possible when the void in your is left for your mind to explore on its own.

But, just as in a chess position, there are times when you force your opponent into Zugzwang, and other times when you take the initiative and shove it down into the throat of your opponent’s king. Yes, you want space for your pieces to move, but they also need to be occupying and guarding squares together, coordinating. Often, in close vicinity. The open squares are a tool to maneuver and discover combinations. But if it’s not coordinated, instead of Zugzwang, your opponent will escape from the mating net. The pages of ink from your brain’s thoughts will lead to insight only if you ponder them, adjust your position, take up space out in the world. Empty space is only worth something if it’s designed to be filled, when your opponent has no choice but to step into checkmate.

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