The Chess Master and the Boy

The Chess Master and the Boy


“Are you the famous chess master?” the young student reverently inquired.

The portly Chess Master smiled indulgently, “Yes.  And you have arrived on time for your first lesson, I see.”

“Yes, sir”, the boy remarked in a quiet voice.  “But I have heard it is so very difficult to learn chess.”

The Chess Master gazed into the lad’s eager eyes.  “Chess is the simplest of games to learn, but the hardest to learn well.  Are you ready to begin?” the sage Master inquired.

“Oh, yes sir!” the boy answered quickly.  “If you would be so kind as to teach me the moves, I will practice every day!”

The benevolent Chess Master motioned for the boy to sit on the white side of an inlaid maple board with handcrafted pieces; the dark pieces stained a deep charcoal.  The boy’s pupils grew large as his eyes comprehended the magnificence of such an exquisite set while the Chess Master proceeded to describe the nomenclature of the board’s squares, files and ranks.

 “What is the object of this game chess, if I might inquire, sir?”

“The object of the game is the same as that between warring nations”, the Chess Master proclaimed, his deep voice resonating with gravity.  “You must vanquish the opponent’s King,” he said, pointing to his own majestic sire. 

“Can you teach me how the King moves, sir?”

“The King’s moves define simplicity itself,” said the Chess Master while placing the boy’s King in the center of the board.  “His Majesty may move one square in any direction as long as that square is not occupied, save by a member of the opposing army,” demonstrating each of the eight moves individually. 

“Do you see how easy that is?”

“Yes,” the boy answered happily, his nervousness easing somewhat.


“Except?” the boy echoed.

“Except,” the Chess Master nodded.  “Except when the King castles,” he intoned, replacing the King back onto e1 and removing all His companion pieces but for the rooks.  “On this move and this move only, the King may traverse the board laterally two squares whether He moves to His own or His Wife’s side of the board, and He may only do so if all intervening squares are not otherwise occupied, and even then only when none of those squares nor the King Himself is under attack and also with the condition that the rook to the side of the King’s movement remains on his original square and also given that His Majesty has never before moved during the game.  When the King so moves, then His rook companion is placed to the King’s adjacent square opposite the flank where the rook originally resided,” and deftly demonstrated the maneuver first on the King’s and then on the Queen’s side of the board.

“As you can see, it is very simple”, opined the Chess Master, satisfied with his own explanation.

The boy said nothing.

“Returning now to the King’s general moves, I should add that, as with all of the movements of His army, if an enemy shall occupy His destination square then He captures it, and it falls from the board, except …”

“Another exception?”  The boy’s eye twitched.

“Except,” the Chess Master continued, “the King may not capture his opponent if that opponent is guarded by one of his brethren, nor may He move to any square at all if that square be attacked by an enemy, for the King is not allowed to expose Himself to danger.” 

The boy’s eyes widened at the thought of His Royal Majesty in peril.

“Now then,” the Chess Master continued, “let us continue with the King’s constant and faithful companion, the Queen!”

“The Queen, like the magnificent and courageous Joan d’Arc of historical fame, is also a mighty warrior and wields the greatest of power on the battlefield of the board.  She may move any number of open squares in any straight line of a rank, file or diagonal until she arrives at the final open square or she captures a member of the opposing army at the end of her journey,” demonstrating upon the board.

“The rook,” he continued, “is the next most powerful for it, like the Royal Queen, may attack any square on the board.  The rook moves any distance along any straight line like the Queen so long as that line be not on the diagonal.  The diagonals are reserved for the movement of the bishops, the King’s bishop along the Queen’s color diagonals and the Queen’s bishop along the King’s colors,” pointing to the colors of the d1 and e1 squares for the boy to observe and take note.

The boy’s eyes jumped from square to square as he tried to keep up with the explanation.  His mouth was open slightly as he tried to supply his lungs with air.

“Do you notice anything?” demanded the mighty Chess Master.

The boy could not speak for the fear.  His eye twitched again twice in succession.

The Chess Master paused before answering his own question.  “The Queen’s power combines that of the rook and bishop.”

“Yes, I see,” the boy whispered.

“Next we jump to the knight,” uttered the Chess Master.  “And I use the word ‘jump’ for that is how the knight moves, not being hindered in his path by any others be they friend or foe.  His motion is two squares in either direction along the file, followed by one square at either right angle along the resulting rank.  You may equivalently think of this as being two squares along the rank in either direction, followed by one square at either right angle on the resulting file.  Or you may prefer to conceive of this as constituting one square North or South on the file, followed by two squares East or West on the resulting rank; or – and I am sure you now see that this is obvious – one square on East or West on the rank, followed by two squares North or South on the resulting file.  Please select your manner of thinking according to your preference, whichever way simplifies the process in your mind.”

The boy’s face showed the strains of fear as his mind struggled to understand.

“Simplifies the process?” he could only repeat in order to mask his rising confusion.

“Yes, of course,” the Chess Master answered. “Whichever manner of thinking simplifies the process in your mind is the manner that I recommend.”

“And now we arrive at the pawns which are the very soul of the game itself,” the Chess Master said with a wink, picking up one of the boy’s white infantrymen.

“But before I explain its manner of movement I should like to ask you the value of a pawn.”  He paused as the room filled with his expectation.

The boy stared at him mute.  The Chess Master smiled wryly and continued, “The pawn is worth…a pawn!” and he tipped his head back in a roar of gleeful laughter.

“Now then, I shall explain something of great value to you which will assist you in deciding when and for what you may capture or recapture your opponent’s men.  A knight”, he said picking up one of the brave steeds, “is worth three of your pawns as is the bishop.  The rook’s value is five pawns and the Queen’s value is nine!”

“But,” asked the boy, his curiosity overcoming his fear and confusion, “the Queen’s power is the combination of the rook and bishop.  If they are worth five pawns and three, why is not the Queen worth only eight instead of nine?”

The Chess Master’s visage displayed the offense that this question inflicted upon his honor and wisdom.  “My young student, mathematics is for simpletons.  Chess is for thinkers.  Make not the mistake of thinking chess must abide by the laws of mathematics.  Chess has its own laws of a higher nature.  They are the laws of battle, strategy, tactics and of human strength and weakness!”

The boy’s fear returned, but yet he ventured one more timid question.  “Do I win if my prisoners have more combined value than those of my opponent?”

The Chess Master’s mirth returned as he smiled broadly.  “In chess the value of the pieces and pawns is ultimately irrelevant.  You may lose your Royal Queen, her entire entourage of officers and all but one of her brave pawns while your opponent has lost but a trifle, and yet you may emerge victorious, such is the beauty and mystery of this magnificent game!”

“Oh, I understand!” the boy cried in the fleeting joy of ignorant conviction.  “I can still win if I capture my opponent’s King!”

The Chess Master’s disapproving scowl struck down the boy’s temporary triumph.  “The game shall end when the King is attacked and cannot evade capture, but His Majesty is never to suffer the indignity of actual capture.”

The boy’s face screwed up in renewed confusion.

“The game may also end in the absence of victory for either side under the following circumstances.  First, if the same board position be arrived at three times with the same player to move and no other rules of the move have changed, such as the right to castle.  Second, if both players have made fifty moves with the exception of any pawn and without any man having been captured.  Third, the side to move has no legal move and his King be not under attack by the opposition.”

“Now listen, boy, as I explain the final few and simple rules of this wondrous game.  If you touch a piece, you are required to move it, assuming there is a legal move unless, of course, you are adjusting its position for aesthetic effect, in which case you are required to utter J’adoube.”


“J’adoube,” the Chess Master nodded in solemn confirmation.  “Furthermore, you may not move any pawn or piece if that move should expose your own King to the attack of the enemy.”

“And now we arrive at the movement of the pawn.  Pay attention, boy, and in another brief moment you shall know how to play chess.”

“The pawn can never move backward, only forward one square at a time, except at his first move, when he has the choice of advancing one or two squares and also excepting when he captures any enemy, which is done by moving diagonally one square when his opponent’s piece or pawn occupies one of those two squares on the forward diagonal from his square.  There is, of course, an exception to this latter rule when the opponent’s pawn has decided to advance for the first time two squares, coming to rest on an adjacent square next to your friendly pawn on his fourth or your fifth rank, whereupon your man has not the requirement but the option to capture the enemy pawn by moving diagonally to the vacant square behind that enemy pawn, in which case you may remove that captured pawn from the board for you have taken it en passant!” the Chess Master shouted gleefully.

“And that is how the pawn moves…” the Chess Master said with lingering intonation.

The boy responded, “Except?”

“Except,” the Chess Master cried triumphantly, “if and when the pawn has advanced himself to the 8th and final rank, he is transformed like a butterfly emerging from the cocoon, and assumes henceforth, at his discretion, the character of a knight, bishop, rook, or even a royal Queen!” 

The boy stared at the Chess Master, his body quivering.

Finished with his pedagogical task, the Chess Master returned all pieces to their original squares, motioned to the boy and uttered gravely, “And now you know how to play chess."

"Remember—chess is the simplest of games to learn, but the hardest to learn well.  You have the honor and advantage of the first move, my lad.”

The Chess Master waited patiently for boy to fulfill his destiny. 

The boy stared at the creased face of the aging Chess Master, hesitated during a moment of self-control, and then burst loudly into tears, running from the room in search of his mother’s comfort, never to return to the Chess Master’s door.