Reading Between The Lines Of Chess

My daughter has recently started a game of Dungeons and Dragons. Watching her preparations, I was reminded of how close games are to story telling. A game offers a plot outline, whether that involves buying London property, racing around the railroads of America for a bet, or fighting dragons in dungeons. A new chapter unfolds each time the game is played.

If games are stories, I wondered what would count as classic literature, the sort of thing that students might study at university? Thinking along these lines I imagined being at university, about to embark on our course in game studies. After batting away comments from mathematicians in the bar about soft subjects, we could sit down with two of our subject’s oldest texts, draughts and go, which date back at least 3000 years. They represent a simple society, where all the pieces are identical and of the same value. But times change and society grows more complex.

Chess dates back about 1500 years, and settled into a recognisable modern form in Europe by the fifteenth century. Chess, in contrast to draughts and go, describes a complex, stratified society, with the sort of extreme social inequality that could very easily cause controversy on campus. In their differing sizes, chess pieces dramatise a ladder of importance, from a giant king and queen, through middle sized castles, knights and bishops, to the poor, bloody infantry of pawns who can be sacrificed without too many qualms if the wider strategy requires it.

However, a diligent student will look beneath the surface of a story, and in doing so with chess, it doesn’t take long to pick up much subversive commentary. The pawns, for example might be the smallest and least powerful pieces, but their range of movement is actually the same as that of the king, who, in effect, is a pawn dressed up in fancy clothes. Equally interesting is the way real power lies behind the throne. The queen, with her unmatched abilities, provides a remarkable challenge to a male dominated society.

Between the pawns and the royal pieces, we have the castles, bishops and knights. Now for those of you who don’t play chess all you really need to know is that castles move in straight lines, bishops move on the diagonal, and knights move in an L shape, three squares forward and one to the side. At the start of a game, the bishops are closest to king and queen, with the knights next to the bishops, and the castles out on the edge of the board. You also need to know that maybe keen literature students have a tendency to read too much into things. But let’s continue our studies anyway.

First the castles: what would their straight up and down movements make you think of? To me the castles suggest rationality, common sense, technical expertise, and discipline. They could be said to stand for the secular part of society. If I pictured a castle receiving a promotion, it would be on the basis of a rigorous exam. As the game begins, however, I can’t help noticing that the castles’ straight up and down approach to life is kept firmly out at the edges of the board, at a distance from the centre of influence. More favoured are the knights, closer to the king. Is it a coincidence that the knights, who owe their position to an accident of aristocratic birth rather than merit, come at their enemies from the side in a sneaky L shaped movement? Is there a subtle nod at the unfairness of life in the fact that the aristocratic knights sit closer to the king at the start of the game than the castles? Keep these questions in mind as we come to the bishops, who in the initial layout of pieces sit closest to the royal house. The bishops move not on the castle’s straight lines, but on a diagonal. Isn’t there a subtle hint of cunning in that way of moving? In an unsaid sort of way, it could be significant that the two bishops cannot support each other as the castles do, because they can never back each other up on the same diagonal. They inhabit the same board, but live in different versions of it, the dark or the light squares. What does that make you think of? To me it suggests sneaky self interest, with hints of back stabbing division and closed mindedness.

Chess has long had an uneasy relationship with religious authority, suffering bans at one time or another from Muslims, Jews, Anglicans, Puritans, and most recently, the Taliban. These bans were generally related to perceived time wasting, or laws forbidding idolatrous depiction of people or animals. Perhaps the portrayal of the bishops in chess, is the game’s subtle revenge.

After student arguments about chess, even a few sit-ins, if you will, protesting at the kind of society it portrays, perhaps in the end we come to appreciate a game that is more subversive than conservative. It is ultimately also more reassuring than depressing, in the way it shows this whole ungainly, unjust mess of a society working in such intricate harmony.

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