Valencia lectures part 1: King Alfonso's Book of Games

0 | Chess Event Coverage
Book of gamesDuring last week's Valencia, cradle of modern chess festival, the audience could not only enjoy the Kasparov-Karpov match, but also a series of lectures on the history of chess, with special attention to Valencia's role in it. As promised, we'll now return in more detail to the lectures that were most interesting in our opinion. The first is about a medieval manuscript, the amazing Book of Games by Alfonso the Wise.

Some time ago, I wrote an article about order and chaos in chess. I tried to elaborate on the question whether chess, like the universe, was ultimately governed by rules or by chaos. I thought my analogy between chess and the universe was a pretty smart one, but during the Valencia lecture of Dr. Ulrich Schaedler, director of the Musée Suisse du Jeu in Switzerland, on the Spanish manuscript Libro de los Juegos (Book of Games), I found out this analogy was anything but new. In fact, it was already old in the 13th century, when the Book of Games was written.

Dr. Schaedler's lecture was good not only because of its interesting contents, but because, contrary to some other lectures given at the Valencia symposium, it was beautifully and clearly illustrated and contained many examples that were appealing not only to people who already knew a lot about chess history; it could also easily be enjoyed by people who came here with no knowledge at all about what has happened in chess before, say, the first official World Champion. Schaedler started his lecture with a question that everyone must  have asked himself from time to time : are the things around us govered by rationality - by rules - or by chaos - i.e. chance? The Book of Games was written in order to answer this question.

Schaedler's lecture

All lectures were given in the same auditorium where Karpov and Kasparov played

The Book of Games manuscript, of which we only have one original copy - in the Escorial library in Madrid - was written over the course of several decades during the second half of the 13th century in Seville (not in Valencia) by order of King Alfonso X of Castile, also known as Alfonso the Wise, who was actually more of a kind of editor of the manuscript. It is a compendium of all sorts of games, beautifully illustrated with playing scenes from medieval life. The manuscript was probably not finished until after Alfonso's death in the year 1284. We do not know its original title, the words 'Libros del Axedrez, Dados et Tablas'  having been added to the cover page only in later years.

The book is structured around an ancient legend about an Indian king who asks his councellors the famous question whether the world is govered by fortuna (chance) or sapientia (reason). In other words: do we have a free will (symbolised in the book by the rule-govered game of chess) - or do we depend on destiny (symbolized by the game of dice)? Curiously, Alfonso comes up with a third option, as we shall see.

Alphonso dictates

King Alfonso 'el Sabio' dictating the manuscript

While listening to Schaedler's lecture, it struck me that the fact that Alfonso the Wise (or his writers) used chess in this way as a model for life or the cosmos in the first place, was a sign of wisdom already. Indeed, it's still a dominant theme in modern chess art and literature from Nabokov to James Bond. Although Schaedler restricted himself to the historical facts, I found myself constantly linking the ancient manuscript to modern themes, and I suppose this is just one of the many assets of the book.

Like much fine modern art, for instance, the Book of Games is full of 'inside knowledge', in this case numerological aspects such as the fact that the chess-part of the book contains precisely 64 pages. By the way, such numerology now seems to have made a spectacular come-back since Dan Brown's rise to fame. The actual chess problems in the Libro de los juegos were presumably inspired by Arabic chess treatises available in Andalucia in those days. However, the inspiration is less clear when it comes to the other games mentioned in the book. Schaedler explains:
I am inclined to believe that they relied at least partially on their own experience: during the 13th century a new rationalist movement revolutionized scientific work. Had authors previously completely referred to ancient authorities such as Aristotle, Boëthius and Augustine, they now started to trust their own senses.

However, there is one literary source, which offers so many parallels to the Book of Games that we may assume that it served as a possible source of inspiration: the chapter about games in the Latin epic called De Vetula, written in France between 1222 and 1266/68. Not only does the author pretend to be Ovidius, the Roman poet highly esteemed by Alfonso. But in the relevant chapter the author talks about practically the same games (Chess, dice, Backgammon, Alquerque, Merels with and without dice) and he applies a similar structure. Moreover it is in De Vetula that for the first time the possible outcomes and probabilities of playing with three dice are analysed, upon which most of Alfonso’s rules of dice games are based.
And it wasn't only the (unknown) authors' own experience that was written down in the manuscript. According to Schaedler, from time to time the personal experience of King Alfonso, too, creeps into the text, for instance in the following lively description (fol. 1v) of board and table games, which, incidentally, gives us a very interesting perspective on medieval court life, where games evidently played an important role:
Those games are played sitting and each and every day, by night and by day, so that women too, who would not ride and are confined to the house, can play them. And also old and weak men or those, who prefer to amuse themselves in seclusion, not to cause any trouble or pain. Or all those, who find themselves under someone else’s power, captured or imprisoned for example, or seafarers or generally all those who have a hard time, because they cannot ride or go hunting nor go anywhere and therefore necessarily have to stay at home (fol. 1v), all those look for all kinds of games which would amuse and comfort them so that they would not be bored to death.
(Schaedler notes that Alfonoso himself lived in exile during the last years of his life, and so the above fragment may well have been a "personal legacy" of the king.)


An old man playing chess with a courtisane

But of course the clearest perspective we can get of the way people experienced chess and other games in those days comes from the spectacular illustrations in the manuscript. Looking at the images it becomes clear that chess was played literally everywhere and by everyone: Christians, Muslims and Jews, soldiers, merchants and clergymen. Schaedler draws our attention to the fact that some chess scenes are set in an erotic setting, such as when a man visits a courtisane. Here, too, we can draw parallels to the past, such as the recent Chess Kamasutra project by Natalia Pogonina. Most interestingly, some illustrations in the Book of Games uniquely show that chess was also taught to children - a fact modern chess instructors may well use in their argument for more chess in classrooms.

Teaching to children

Teaching chess (elementary endgames it seems) to children

As the lecture progressed and Dr. Schaedler started explaining the true purpose of the Book of Games, I realized my view of order (chess) and chaos (dice) in life (as represented by chess) had been an imperfect one, because it misses out on a synthesis of both. As Schaedler put it:
The highly sophisticated structure of the book of games is in my view a didactic masterpiece. [Alfonso] starts with the well known discussion of the fortuna-sapientia problem and describes the games accordingly (chess =  ratio/thesis, dice = chance/antithesis, tables [i.e. backgammon, AWM] = best of both/synthesis). But then he surpasses the dialectic theory of that legendary Indian philosopher, and leads us to a new level of insight. This new level is characterized by the connection between microcosmos and macrocosmos, which had been demonstrated by the 'sabios antiguos'.
For me, this synthesis of chess and dice (represented in Alfonso's book as the game of backgammon) definitely has an Eastern aspect. It reminds me of the equally ambitious modern-day book Gödel, Escher, Bach in which the author, Douglas Hofstadter, talks at length not only about science but also about Zen and Buddhism. But King Alfonso doesn't stop there. After all, we're talking about the Middle Ages, so the last step of his dialectic course is a familiar one: Christian truth.

To scientifically 'prove' the superiority of Christianity, Alfonso introduced the so-called Astrological Chess. He considered this the most superior of all games, for this 'game' describes the planetary movement (the zodiac) and various deities according to specific rules. Reason leading to faith! An ingenious retorical trick indeed.

Astrological chess

The best of both worlds: astrological chess

Dr. Schaedler's conclusion that the Book of Games is a 'dialectical masterpiece'. In my view, that's the understatement of the month: King Alfonso's manuscript is one of the most fascinating chess books of all time.
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