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David Cowles

May 16, 2023

“A recent headline in the 'New York Post' read: King Castles!”

Since its emergence in India c. 600 CE and its arrival in Europe c. 1000 CE, chess has strangely resonated with life in the minds of its masters. And why not? It has all the elements:

  • Itinerant Knights

  • Scheming Bishops

  • Hard charging Rooks

  • An idle King and his pompous, profligate Queen

Then, of course, there’s a mess of Pawns, always a mess of Pawns – serfs, wage slaves, cattle fodder, grunts – pieces with little power to impact events and even less control over their own fate. Sound familiar? This could well be the pilot for a new series on PBS or BBC. 

You’re skeptical. How could our vast, complex and multi-dimensional world be meaningfully mapped onto a flat, square board with just 64 potential values? Don’t forget the incredible power of 64: (2³)². A millennia earlier, the Chinese completed a similar Mappa Mundi called I Ching. It records the essential character of all 64 possible states of affairs, i.e., the various combinations of Yin and Yang: (2³)²

Nor forget the advisor to the Sultan who asked his employer to pay him his wages in grains of rice. One grain on day one, two grains on day two, four on three, eight on four… You get the picture. Long before day 64, our ambitious acolyte had cornered the world’s supply of rice. 

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Of course, our enterprising entrepreneur is well out of the ‘grain grind’ now. He spends his time lecturing and promoting his two bestsellers: 60 Days from Rags to Riches and, of course, The Power of 64. Rumor has it, he’s currently negotiating film rights. But back to chess:

Knights are the mischievous miscreants, young Turks, corner cutters, disruptors, and change agents of the chess board. Their photos regularly make the cover of Barron’s 40 at 40. They are the nouvelle riche. Their patron saint is Loki (Norse mythology). One such Knight, bewildered by ESPN’s request for an interview, summed up the plight of his class: “Game? We’re in some sort of game? Nobody told me!” 

Rooks (from the Persian word for ‘chariot’) represent the military-industrial complex. Masters of War, Captains of Industry, they have the royal couple’s backs. They patrol the perimeter, but they can project their military and economic power with lightning speed anywhere on the board. Rooks are the status quo’s first and last line of defense. They crush upstart Knights as they go about their work with an air of grim determination.

Bishops are sly boots. Superficially less powerful than their secular peers, they get things done quietly, unobtrusively. Like Knights, the Bishops have their own agenda – an agenda only obliquely related to the interests of their royal patrons. 

And the King? Well, as you would expect, the King is in his counting house, counting out his money. If he leaves his palace at all, he does not go far. From earliest childhood, he has been told that his only really important function is to stay alive. Accordingly, in desperate circumstances, he will occasionally leave the palace and take refuge behind his Rooks. Word of such an event usually spreads; a recent headline in the New York Post read: “King Castles!”

The Queen, of course, is in her parlor, eating bread and honey. At least she’s supposed to be; but don’t let the semblance of domestic tranquility fool you! This Queen gets around…if you know what I mean. She travels. Sometimes, she even teams up with a Rook or a Bishop or even an errant Knight to attack another King’s stronghold.

The Queen is the quintessential existential hero: she knows who she is, and she knows that she can be whoever she wants to be…well, not quite whoever; she can’t be a Knight. But be a Rook? Or a Bishop? Or even a lowly Pawn (if she’s playing Princess and Pauper)? Easy-peasy! She could even play at being King…but who would want to? Heavy the head and all that…

She parades around the board with nary a care for her own safety; yet her slightest move instantly rallies minions to her defense. Once I overheard her lecturing a young Knight, “I’ll go wherever I want, whenever I want; it’s your job to keep me safe. If you fail, it’s curtains for me, but news flash:  it’s almost certainly curtains for you too. Think about that!”

The game we call Chess was first played in India some 1,500 years ago. Will the game still be played 1,500 years from now, in 3500 CE? That depends. Will there still be life in the universe? If so, will there be life in our solar system? If so, will it be on Earth? If so, will that life be recognizably human…or otherwise intelligent (‘intelligence’ defined as having the ability to learn and play the game of chess)? Finally, and most importantly, will society still have a social structure that resonates with the pieces and moves of the game? 

If so, it is entirely possible that our descendants will still be playing a game recognizable to a denizen of our own era as chess. But it is unlikely that they’ll still be playing it on a square, cardboard board manufactured by Parker Brothers.


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