U.S. politics is no stranger to strange expressions.
Theodore Roosevelt famously said that it was important to “speak softly and carry a big stick” in foreign policy, while founding father and modern-day hip hop sensation Alexander Hamilton argued that “war is in fact the true nurse of executive aggrandizement.”
Another political phrase you may have heard is the idea of playing 4D chess.
What Does It Mean to Be “Playing 4D Chess”?
If someone is described as playing 4D chess, that means they are incredibly smart and making political moves that cannot be understood by ordinary people. This phrase is sometimes used by conspiracy theory proponents who believe that Donald Trump (or some other political figure) is fighting a war against a deep state run by evil democrats. Alternatively, people may use the phrase “playing 4D chess” sarcastically, to imply that even though a political figure thinks they’re smart, they’re being obvious and foolish.
Politicians and Conspiracy
Let’s be clear: 4D chess isn’t a real game. Although the fourth dimension is technically time, you can’t really make a board game that somehow includes it as an integral part of play.
At its core, the phrase “playing 4D chess” has to do with political figures trying to outmaneuver one another. That’s quite appropriate for chess, a game about doing exactly that.
The phrase is used primarily by conspiracy-minded individuals to try and explain why the figures at the center of their conspiracies sometimes (or always) act in ways that would be antithetical to the delusional ‘reality’ represented by the conspiracy theory they favor.
To really understand the nuance of playing 4D chess, we’ll need to take a deep dive into chess and understand why it’s used to represent intelligence.
Then, we’ll look at the idea of playing chess in “4D” and how the phrase is used in common speech to talk about political figures in the U.S. today.
Chess: The Immortal Game
Chess has a long history, with its most likely origins in Persia in the 5th century.
Interestingly, the history of the game is equally political, at least in its early years.
Despite a reputation as being a European or Christian game, chess had its first heyday in Islamic countries in the Middle East, where the political elite used its elements of skill to hone their ability at strategy and tactics.
Even after its introduction to Europe in the 11th century, chess remained important to those in power.
As archaeology professor Krysta Ryzewski points out, Europe’s elite nobles shaped the game further by introducing kings, queens and the power dynamics familiar to any chess player today.
Chess as a Measure of Cognitive Ability
Chess requires forethought and planning, and scientific studies have shown that a player’s skill in chess is higher when they measure higher on tests to show processing speed, planning, memory, and problem-solving.
This means that if someone is good at chess, they’re intellectually nimble. In traditional terms, we can say that the better someone is at chess the smarter they are.
Of course, it goes without saying that someone who is highly skilled at chess is going to do better in a match against someone who is not skilled at chess.
Thinking back to those studies, it’s a quick jump from chess as an indicator of intelligence to the meaning at the core of the phrase ‘playing 4D chess.”
You simply need to understand that ‘playing chess’ is just a metaphor for political ability. At that point, what this phrase means is that someone is running circles around their political opponents.
Chess in Three Dimensions
Three-dimensional (3D) chess is like chess, but instead of playing it on a flat board you use a playing board made up of several levels.
A lot of people think about the chess game played on Star Trek when they think of 3D chess, as the TV show’s “Tri-dimensional chess” game was a memorable prop from the series.
In fact, 3D chess has existed all the way back to 1907, where it was created as ‘Space Chess’ by German doctor Ferdinand Maack.
In most versions of 3D chess, multiple flat boards are used to represent the different ‘levels’ of the game, rather than an actual three-dimensional cube for a game board.
3D chess is also the origin of the phrase ‘playing 4D chess.’
The game, which adds a significant level of complexity to chess, has been used to talk about the political acumen of U.S. politicians at least since Barack Obama’s first term.
Typically, the implication is that the person under discussion is ‘playing’ politics at a higher, or deeper, level of understanding than his or her opponents.
The Fourth Dimension
The first three dimensions are length, width and height. So, what is the fourth dimension, exactly?
In mathematics, the concept of a fourth dimension invisible to us has been around since at least the 1750s, where it was published by French mathematician Jean-Baptiste le Rond d’Alembert.
In d’Alembert’s work, and those of subsequent mathematicians, the fourth dimension is usually considered to be time.
That’s kind of weird to think about, especially when compared to physical dimensions like length and height.
If you think about a lit candle, though, the actual shape of the object will change over time as more of the wax melts.
This means to describe the entire existence of the candle you would need not just length, width and height but also time.
Novels like Flatland, where the characters are only capable of conceiving of two dimensions (length and height), also play with this idea.
If we humans can see three dimensions, something the Flatlanders deem impossible, what if there are also beings who exist in four dimensions, which we deem impossible?
Playing 4D Chess: What It Means in U.S. Politics
Although it’s hard to nail down exactly what a four-dimensional anything would look like in real life, that doesn’t matter so much for the idea of playing 4D chess.
Indeed, part of the point of the expression is that the person playing 4D chess is so far advanced compared to ordinary people that they have a deep understanding of concepts we can’t even begin to conceive.
One thing worth noting, however, is that this phrase is sometimes used in a tongue-in-cheek way. Donald Trump is the classic example.
Many of his followers may absolutely believe he’s playing 4D chess with his slow-witted opponents, especially if they buy into conspiracy theories that have absolutely no bearing in reality.
Many others, though, see Trump as a buffoon and might jokingly suggest he’s playing 4D chess (which, again, is not a real thing) to show how little they think of his intelligence and political ability.
People may also use this phrase commonly in the negative, noting that someone is “not playing 4D chess” to show how simplistic their actions are.
The bottom line for this phrase, regardless, is that it suggests a high level of political ability, whether real or only imagined.
Hey fellow Linguaholics! It’s me, Marcel. I am the proud owner of linguaholic.com. Languages have always been my passion and I have studied Linguistics, Computational Linguistics and Sinology at the University of Zurich. It is my utmost pleasure to share with all of you guys what I know about languages and linguistics in general.