Two Views of Chess

Feb 23, 2008, 9:54 PM |

The following are two interesting literary views of chess. The first view is taken from Dykstra’s War by Jeffrey D. Kooistra, an interesting look at mankind’s first war with spider-like space aliens known as the Phinons. The following quote is from a character by the name of Colonel Knoedler, the man who is responsible for planning our first engagement with the beasties from beyond….


“Whenever Colonel Knoedler needed to think real hard, he found it necessary to put himself in the proper mood, and this was most easily accomplished by reading the right book. Since most of the things his position demanded he think about involved strategy and tactics, the two books he most often turned to were Herman Kahn’s On Thermonuclear War, a classic from the middle of the last century, and Potapov’s Kasparov vs. the Computers: The Complete Games….

Knoedler put down the Kahn book and picked up the chess one.

The colonel’s rooms at the High Command were efficiently furnished….The only genuine decorations he had were his chess sets. Three out of his collection of more than a hundred were on display: one of gold and silver on a shelf; one of precious stones on a side table; one of pewter spaceship pieces on a gaming table, the only one that he’d actually play games with. Dykstra had had a collection of chess sets, until the Belt blew up his house.

The Phinons had him in one hell of a chess match right now. The raids happening on the trans-Hague Limit assets were little pawn thrusts. The ships congregating out in deep space, leaving hyperspace but not reentering---that had to be where the real strategy was shaping up….

What kind of chess game is this? They can see my pieces, but theirs are invisible. They can see my possible moves, but theirs I can’t consider until after they made them.

Colonel Knoedler was a marvelous chess player. Against weaker opponents, he’d readily exchange pieces, simplifying things until he could put together an elegant checkmate. The few times he played someone of equal caliber…he’d play for complications, trusting that his wit and skill would ultimately carry him through if he just had time enough to pick away at his competiton.

In this situation, I most definitely need to play for complications….”

Knoedler put down the chess book finally and went to his bookshelf. He took an old Bible out....And then, several times, he read the story of David and Goliath.”

Chess has often been, and continues to be, used as a metaphor for war. It is always an entertaining experience to read how authors weave the Royal Game into their tales of martial contests.

The next passage is from a non-fiction piece by The National Review’s John Derbyshire. His essay, entitled War Games, is, at first, a tribute to the classic game of Stratego. However, as is often the case with articles that deal with a specific board game, chess is inevitably drawn into the discussion.


“Most of these strategy games (I am not sure about Go) were originally spin-offs from the military arts. You can, in fact, graduate from them to full-scale war games. I have an acquaintance whose hobby is the re-fighting of great naval engagements on a large table in his basement. However, he has a great deal more spare time than I have. Stratego will do for me.

The essence of Stratego is, of course, strategy. As an introduction to those aspects of life that involve the weighing of strategies, the game is excellent. I have always thought chess unsatisfactory in this regard, being devoid of the element of chance. Meritocracy is a very fine thing, but not much of the world is meritocratic, and a child may as well get acquainted with the Fickle Finger of Fate early on in life. In any case, I am a duffer at chess, being too lazy-minded and insufficiently competitive. For a while, in my teens, I gave the game some serious attention, working through championship contests that I found in books or newspapers. Time and again, though, I would have the very disconcerting experience of following the logic of the moves quite happily until, right in the middle of what seemed to me like a promising development — “White resigns.” Why had he resigned? I had no clue. White had been looking just fine to me.

I left chess for other people to play. I had grasped, in any case, that skill at playing chess correlates with nothing else at all — certainly not with geniality, as is illustrated by the personalities of numerous great chess champions. (Nor even with the ability to design chess-playing computers. Taiwanese genius Feng-hsiung Hsu, co-designer of the ‘Deep Blue’ machine that defeated Gary Kasparov in 1997, confesses wryly in his book Behind Deep Blue that he is himself a mediocre chess player, and that Kasparov gave up trying to talk chess with him after a few minutes ‘sensing that I was not seeing the game on the same level as he and Deep Blue...’)”

Quite unlike our sage colonel, Mr. Derbyshire has a far lower opinion of the Royal Game, even going so far as to suggest that to be skilled at chess is to be skilled at nothing; chess is so removed from the real world that mastery of the game has no practical real-world benefits. Rising to dear Caissa’s defense, I would argue that much of Mr. Derbyshire’s complaints are little more than the venting of a frustrated patzer who has since sought easier pastures. After all, did not the great Benjamin Franklin himself argue that:

“The Game of Chess is not merely an idle amusement; several very valuable qualities of the mind, useful in the course of human life, are to be acquired and strengthened by it, so as to become habits ready on all occasions; for life is a kind of Chess, in which we have often points to gain, and competitors or adversaries to contend with, and in which there is a vast variety of good and ill events, that are, in some degree, the effect of prudence, or the want of it.”

Alas, I suppose we will have to leave this dispute for another time and another essay because I want to make a more important point. What might that be, you ask? This: that despite the fact that chess is some 1500 years old, it still continues to captivate both supporters and detractors alike. Needless to say, any game which can do that is truly a special game, a game well worth a reserved spot on even the most crowded game shelf. If you play chess, keep on playing. And if you do not, start today. I do not promise you will love it, or even like it, but I do promise that you will not soon forget it. As Donald McLean once remarked:

“Take these pieces, set them in their rank and file upon an 8 x 8 magic square and you have the recipe for endless centuries of romance and intrigue.”

There is no arguing with that!


Books mentioned in this posting:

Dykstra's War by Jeffery D. Kooistra
ISBN: 0671319582

Thinking about the Unthinkable by Herman Kahn
ISBN: 067160449X

Kasparov Versus Deep Blue: Computer Chess Comes of Age by Monroe Newborn
ISBN: 0387948201