All About Chess

Chess has taken many forms across space and time

While a “friend” once chided me on the oxymoronic status of my favorite magazine, Chess Life, I yet maintain that said royal game is nearly as philosophically nuanced as life itself. Or, at least it is nearly as fun. Hence, to supplement my various observations posted here at NarnianFrodo, I hereby include a category for musings on chess [and] life, as it were.

First we need an introduction to what might be called International Chess (I like, in the spirit of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings venture about “the true West”, Western Chess, though it originated in India and in Persia at different points in time; ex. “check mate” translated from the Ancient Iranian “shah” [King] “mot” [death]).

Once you google or browse wiki, and master the tricky jumping of the horse, castling and taking pawns en passant, then you are ready for this sophisticated discussion of strategery.

First of all, in the era of covid (2020 and beyond), online chess has become what one might technically call “the rage”

Secondly, though arguably of the greatest import, this ancient game of mano-a-mano battle – not even bayonets would typically appear in such over-the-board manner of dueling – provides a safe alternative for entertainment in a dangerous world

Chess a very reasonable alternative (WarGames)
Every problem would seem to contain its own solution (WarGames)

The grand game resounds throughout the annals of Western culture …

from Bobby, Marcia and Greg

to Adrian
“He’s not human, Jim”

“I finally have a handle on my idea for 3 person chess” “That is good news. Bye.”
“Do you know how I solved the unbalanced center area combat problem? Five words: transitional quadrilateral to triangular tessellation”

The 1970s and 80s saw venerable attempts to enliven the game
“If you don’t want your arms ripped off, I suggest you let the Wookie win”
“It’s Medieval, Jim”

Fully diagonal moving Bishop (‘Courier’) introduced

Modern chess piece capabilities, such as allowing the pawn to move two spaces in its opening move, bishops to move continuously diagonally (as seen in Courier chess above), and Queens to be liberated from the weakest to the most powerful piece on the board, combining the movements of the Bishop and rook) evolved between 1200 and 1475 A.D.

Chess also permeates the East, both Near

Early 4-handed Indian version, Arabic Queen moves 1 diagonally, dice determines which piece moves Pawns move 1, promote to Queen
Bishops hop 2 diagonally
“Check mate” comes from
“Shah” (King) “mot” (death)

and Far.

Chinese chess: Kings stay in palaces, Horses and Chariots (Rooks) move as in Western chess, Elephants (Bishops) hop two, and a Cannon shoots over top of (1) piece to capture.

Chinese chess, or xiangqi, has the same 2-square-diagonal-hopping Elephant (forerunner of the modern Bishop, which first appeared in Courier Chess above), and pawns move and attack straight forward only (in contrast to the Western Pawn which captures diagonally), and promote to obtain a sideways move upon crossing the central “river.”

Shogi: Chess of Japan includes a re-incarnational principle, pieces never really die!

In Japan, the game is Shogi , in which pieces simply transfer allegiance upon capture, and may be dropped onto the board on subsequent moves. Often several exchanges are made in preparation for an attack to have enough pieces to “drop” in the offensive. The King typically wanders to one corner or the other, often surrounded by Gold and Silver Generals. One Bishop and one Rook begin on the second row, while Lances (Rooks) and Horses (Knights) begin in the corners as in chess, but cannot move backwards.

In China, Japan and Korea, ‘Go chess’ or weiqi is still played, while the Vikings family of Tafl games were popular with the Scandinavians.

Go chess or weiqi of China, Japan, Korea Viking ‘Tafl’ has a similar
‘surround to capture’ theme

Whereas the objective of weiqi is to capture territory (the intersection points) by surrounding it on all four sides (pieces are simply placed, they never move), in the Viking Tafl games ordinary pieces are captured when sandwiched between two opposing pieces; the King is (the ‘Big Guy’ in the center of the white pieces) captured when surrounded on all four sides, though if he makes it to a corner, his side wins. All pieces including the King move like Rooks in chess, horizontally and vertically.

Roman Ludus Latrunculorum Indian Snakes and Ladders Medieval Rithmomachia

Ludus Latrunculorum, a Roman variant of a Greek game mentioned by Plato, operates similar to the Scandinavian Tafl games with Rook-like moves and captures by sandwiching of opponent pieces. The Indian Snakes and Ladders dates to antiquity, and as per its original title moksha patel, it reinforces the Hindu concept of moksha in which good deeds (ladders) cause one to advance in life whereas bad deeds (chutes) cause one to retreat. Rithmomachia dates from medieval times, with the completion of numerical sequences or mathematical operations by sets of pieces allowing capture of numerical opponent pieces. This “Philosopher’s Game” encouraged the contemplation of Boethian (Roman senator and philosopher, 477 – 524 A.D.) mathematical harmonies in the universe (ratios involved in musical harmonies are included) between the 12th and 16th centuries in Medieval Europe.

“Race games” similar to modern games like Parcheesi and Backgammon, originated in Egypt and across Africa with Senat, Oh-wah-ree and Mancala.

Returning to the Chess family, we see a miniature version of the Isle of Lewis Chessmen, discovered in 1831 in the Scottish Outer Hebrides Islands and considered to date from the 12th century. As Norway ruled the islands at that time, the Norwegian capital of Trondheim is considered their likely place of origin. The set also appears in Harry Potter.

Before leaving “chess as it was intended,” a more traditional version of “Chinese Chess” – an “8 Fairies Chess” is popular with my Chinese friends, though I have yet to place the fairies specifically within their stories.

“8 Fairies” chess set with Chinese characters

The same is the case with my attempts to learn Mah Jongg

Mah Jongg is popular with both my Chinese and Japanese friends

Symbolism abounds among the various suits and types of tiles in Mah Jongg. The three suits are Bam[boo]s, Dots (coins) and Craks (characters) with four tiles each of the nine members of each suit. Descriptions from Elaine Sandberg’s 2010 ebook, Beginner’s Guide to American Mah Jongg are enlightening:

  • Bams is the suit of bamboo, “the most versatile plant in /China, used for building, food, writing implements, clothing, furniture and a myriad of other things, including mah jongg tiles. Because bamboo is so important in Chinese life and culture, it’s represented in the set and is symbolic of strength, service, versatility, and usefulness.” The first tile of the suit is usually a peacock (or some other bird), perched on a bamboo branch; while “birds are emblems of beauty and grace … the image of the peacock is seen as preening” and thus “interpreted to mean vanity, or a love of one’s own image.”
  • Dots (or Circles) as a suit are associated with coins or money, with the first character considered a precious pearl. “The dot symbolizes wealth and luxury, and because of its connections to coins or money, it is also symbolic of business or commerce.””
  • Craks suit, or Wan (“the 10,000s” in Chinese, indicating that something so abundant is universal) represents qualities found in all cultures, such as truth, kindness, loyalty, fidelity, honor and the like. These have been placed in the mah jongg set since such values “are so highly esteemed in the Chinese culture,” thus “paying homage to the values of wan.”
Mah Jongg was the venue for discourse between generations in Crazy Rich Asians
(novel by Kevin Kwan 2013, film 2018)

Other sets of characters (though not entire 36 piece suits) include “Honors” suits such as Flowers, Dragons and Winds.

  • Flowers, including plants symbolic of seasons, “the delicate plum blossom with spring, the exotic orchid with summer, the beautiful chrysanthemum with fall, and the sturdy, hardy bamboo with winter; such plants are also “symbolic of death. life, fertility, heaven and earth, and so on.” Older sets use pictures of elite Mandarin classes, while modern sets use images of ordinary folk at work, such as teachers, farmers, fisherman, and scribes. Scoring with these tiles are higher than with others, a statement in itself.
  • Dragons, traditionally associated in Chinese with strength of the worthy as well as having mystical powers over such elements as water, rain, floods and typhoons, include four of each Red Dragons (associated with the Kraks suit), Green Dragons (Bamboo) and Soap Dragons (Dots, though the origin of the “soap” moniker is still an “open research project” – no one knows)
  • Winds – North, South, East and West – include 4 tiles for each wind

    We conclude our discussion of chess and its culturally related (or not) cousins with a peek into the future of the game. These typically involve chess with multiple dimensions, though two clear visionaries will emerge from the pack.
Raumschach (German for “Space Chess”) invented in 1907 by Ferdinand Maack, a much more manageable version of the full 8x8x8 setup he envisioned

While in or near the 19th century, two further honorable mentions arise

Dunsany’s Chess, invented by Edwin [John Moreton Drax] Plunkett, [Lord] 18th Baron of Dunsany, holder of the 2nd oldest peerage in Ireland (dating to 1439), and chess- and pistol- shooting champion of Ireland, in addition to authoring hundreds of short stories, invented this unbalanced form of chess in 1942. Also a symbol democratic resistance in Middle Eastern countries, it is in fat difficult to win the the massive pawn horde, so advancing two central pawns a square or adding four more in front had been attempted to balance this very unbalanced variant.

What happens when a chess player enters the world of art

Marcel Duchamp, French-American painter, sculptor and chess player, like the Impressionists seeking to incorporate the notion of time in his artwork, as seen in his Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2, said to combine the abstraction of Cubists with the idea of movement of Futurists. His foray into realism in art perhaps highlighted his fame, with his 1917 Fountain. Otherwise, he declared chess to be a disappointing mistress, “I am still a victim of chess, it has all the beauty of art.” He realized he could never achieve top honors in competition, but did engage in correspondence chess and problem composing; his 1911 Portrait of Chess Players, inspired by watching his brothers play chess, is on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The following problem was in included in an art exhibit, though most people conclude that White does not have a win at his disposal. Duchamp’s friendship with and influence on Irish playwright Samuel Beckett is seen in Beckett’s 1957 play, Endgame.

The original Space Chess Futuristic 8x8x8 Asimovian Hyperchess Today’s Strato Chess

Space Chess dating from the 1970s, included starred squares which allow a Dune-esque folding of space, so that such perched pieces can transfer levels automatically, otherwise pieces include multi-level navigation as part of their moves. Asimov’s inspiration arose from his Foundation series in which a futuristic galaxy of innumerable inhabited planets if not solar systems are to be guided by Psycho-Historian Harry Selden’s laws of massive statistics and event forecasting. The chief allure and achilles heel of this version consists in such features as two of the eight 64 square boards occupied entirely by pawns, and the massive numbers of pieces beginning on board levels 1 and 8. It poses a problem opposite of Space Chess, in which pieces are spread across too many squares, a bit like Bilbo Baggins’ famous declaration of feeling “thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.” My experimentation with throwing a few extra pieces for each side on the middle level of Space Chess seemed to make the game more interesting, though the ultimate, 8x8x8 implementation is afforded by cobbling together a few Strato Chess sets (they were closer to $25 ‘back in the day,’ now I see them listed at $48; it actually turned out to take 4 sets rather than my initially hoped-for 3) with 8 sets of small, affordable plastic pieces. Stability was a bit of an issue, even with the more sane combination of two sets into a 5x8x8 configuration.

World Champion Bobby Fischer’s inspiration to avoid massive rote memorization of obscure and often professionally-researched opening systems

A space-confined yet quantum leap in the evolution of chess came from the suggestion by American and World Chess Champion (1972-75) Bobby Fischer to avoid the need for massive chess openings preparation, esp. for matches between Grandmasters: Fischer Random chess. More popularly called Chess960 (for the 960 possible arrangements of pieces when pieces are randomly shuffled along the back row before beginning a game), it is available for play at online gaming sites such as Castling is still allowed, as the King must be initially placed between the two rooks; ironically, castling can actually be one’s opening move if the pieces happen to be arranged to allow it.

This brings us to our final category,

Ultimate Fantasy Chess Variants

While I have no images of these yet, at least one of our finalists has been instantiated and is available for play on one’s handheld communication device

“Get Smart” has a place in any discussion on intelligent game play

3. Holographic laser chess: I saw this once described on a chess variant page discussion:
“My ideal for of chess includes a holographically projected board with pieces held in place by lasers. I have no idea how to do this.” It does appear that a filmmaker figured out some way to approximate this

I have no idea what movie this is from

2. Infinite Globe Chess: someone from the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada came up with this

  1. Space and Time Travel Chess: I thought of this like quite a while ago, but made the simple mistake of never actually trying to implement it. However, brave and courageous programmers have done something similar to Bill S. Preston’s and Ted “Theodore” Logan’s musical compositions which brought universal harmonic convergence, and actually programmed such a marvel Time travel involves a Highlander like operation in which pieces can be sent forward or backwards in time, appearing (or ostensibly disappearing) as the game scrolls through subsequent horizons in time. Descriptions are available on wiki and on youtube
Things get complicated quickly, ex.
“he checkmated my King with a Pawn from another dimension from the past”
“you have to take into account the other player’s moves without fully comprehending them”

Such ambitious plans for the grand game parallel such adventures made in the literary world (I can’t really speak for say Physics, Einstein’s relativity notwithstanding), such as C.S. Lewis Space [travel] Trilogy, both here and basically-same-thing-here and different-here as well as his time-travel themed, and unfinished, Dark Tower.

See more chess and Lewisey and Middle Earthern Tolkien et. al. material elsewhere at!

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