Shatranj, a game in theory

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If you think about it, we humans are like chess pieces, existing in the spacetime substrate that is the chessboard, bound by our own constraining rules. And our salvation lies in the strategy we successfully deploy.

I should be working. I should be writing this article, in fact. Instead I’m on a chess server — bashing out moves in the Caro-Kann defence against a faceless opponent halfway across the planet.

Just one more game I tell myself and then I’ll get back to work. Or I make preposterous pacts with myself — I lost the last game and I have to end on a winning note; otherwise the writing will be spoiled.

This is the obsession at the heart of this ancient game. The moment humans broke free from the toil of daily subsistence, leisure was invented. Chess arrived at the same time, as if it was there all along, waiting to take over liberated Time.

From its myth-haunted origins in India to its evolution in Persia and then on to Europe, every culture has impressed its particular umwelt onto it.

Source: Wikipedia

The game of chess as we know it today, began taking shape around 1200 AD, when the rules of Shatranj were modified in southern Europe. Around 1475, several major changes were made, along with the birth of 'Queen's Chess'.

And from its birth, condemnation has also followed, as sure as black follows the white. When that fatwa of the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia banning the game made it to the global news cycle, it was merely a link in a long chain that goes back to the morning of the world.

The Manusmriti is not a fan; the Ashtapada, a prototype played on a 64-squared board is thoroughly condemned. If the Lawmaker was so down on it, probably the game had already caught fire by then. For example, in the Mahabharata, during the 13th year of exile, the Pandavas have to assume cover identities. It is no surprise that the game-loving Yudhishthira declares thus his intention to enter into King Virata’s court by, “presenting myself as a Brahmana, Kanka by name, skilled in dice and fond of play... and [by] moving upon chess-boards beautiful pawns made of ivory, of blue and yellow and red and white hue, by throws of black and red dice, I shall entertain the king [along] with his courtiers and friends”.

With every condemnation, there were those who saw the inner beauty of the struggle; in Subhandu’s 6th-Century play, Vasavadatta describes the monsoons thusly, “the rains played its game with frogs for chessmen which... leapt up on the squares of the garden”.

This beauty was born on the bloodstreams of trade routes out of India. Wherever men and women sat down to converse, to bargain, to trade, to debate, there was chess.

Chess has been all over the globe. Here's how the name of the game has morphed over time and geography...

Chaturaṅga : Literally four divisions of the military (infantry + cavalry + elephants + chariots). Not hard to guess which division took shape as which chess piece.
What the Sassanid Persians called Chatrang , evolved into...
... Shatranj since the Arabic Muslims could not pronounce the 'ch' and 'ng' sounds. You think "Checkmate!" is an English term? Well, when the king was cornered, the player would exclaim "Shāh Māt! (The King is helpless!)". Sounds close enough, right?
When the game reached Spain, "Al-Shatranj" morphed into Ajedrez
The Greeks took the name directly from the Persian Shatranj, and called it Zatrikion . That's pronounced "ζατρίκιον".
Ludus Scacchorum or Scacchi (Hmm. Still sounds like Shāhi to me...)
Senterej ... Similar enough to Shatranj. Though, slightly dyslexic...
Schach . To pronounce this right, say "Shāh" and then rasp like there's something wedged in your throat.
Shakhmaty literally means "Checkmates".

Time for a break. I log on again to the server. In a triumph of skeuomorphic design, the pieces on the screen look wooden and there is a satisfying “clack” as pieces are captured. Even the churr of clocks winding down comes through.

There is an endless stream of opponents, from lands as distant as South Sudan, the Saint Kitts Islands and Greenland. The superpowers in this online realm are Serbia and the Philippines.

A display screen shows other games underway. There are hundreds of parallel virtual contests, as we trade blows. Weaponised ideas across the globe colliding with one another.

Chess was at an unique intersection between religion, literature, and society, all fuelled by that instant attraction, which writer Tim Krabbe calls an ‘explosion of certainty’. Perhaps this was “pre-loaded”, as the game was essentially an ornate system of symbols, hinting at reincarnation, the alteration of Fate and so on.

Gradually, commentators fell into two sides: those who used the game as a model of life, and those who decried it for distracting from life.

In the first camp, we have the Kar-Namag i Ardashir, written by sometime in the 6th Century in Sassanian Iran, where the hero Ardashir, “by God’s help, … became doughtier and more skillful than them all in ball-playing, in horsemanship, in shatranj, in hunting, and in other accomplishments”. Jumpcut to the Disciplina Clericalis, written 500 years later in Spain, where its author Peter Alfonsi lists chess-playing among the “seven skills that every knight must acquire”.

Others dissented, the Domostroi, a 16th-Century document that is one of the founding documents of the Tsardom of Russia, advises its readers to abjure from chess, classifying them amidst “those who take pleasure in the doings of buffoons” and “those who sing diabolic songs”. Ivan the Terrible also issued a civil code where chess features prominently in the chapter headed “Pastimes of Hellenic Devilry”. However, all this had no effect and Ivan himself actually died at the board, while setting up the pieces.

Source: Wikipedia

Core Domostroi values tended to reinforce obedience and submission to God, Tsar and Church. Key obligations were fasting, prayer, icon veneration and the giving of alms.

No time for games. Nyet!

Religious figures, who were anyway involved in intellectual labours, who liked the cut and thrust of theological debate, were natural vectors for the spread, and the chess contagion soon began infecting entire cultures. It was natural that as they delved deeper into the game, they began finding what seemed like universal truths.

Jacobus de Cessolis, a Dominican friar cashed in on this with his blockbuster Liber de moribus hominum et officiis nobilium super ludo scacchorum (Book of the customs of men and the duties of nobles) — which has been described as “A moral treatise that uses the game of chess as its frame; an allegory of society, the different pieces [of which] and their movements have a moral or military meaning”. It came out sometime in the late 13th Century and was the first “bestseller”. Indeed, historians note that its only rival at that time was the Bible.

The very first book published in English, by William Caxton, was an adaptation of this work.

While Cessoli tried to illumine morality through the game, others dropped that pretense completely. Sulapani, for example, inverts the order. In his 12th-Century Chaturanga Dipika, Yama, the God of Death says, “If anyone, O king, puts an elephant before another elephant he incurs thereby the sin of killing a Brahmana”.

After all this research, surely I’ve earned myself a break? Plus the mental stimulus will no doubt add zest to the writing. Back to the server. Small coloured dots represent “challenges” — I accept and am soon engaged in a grim struggle with an Albanian.

We are playing in blitz mode, with each player given 3 minutes to complete the entire game. A pocket universe, constructed and then upheld by our combined thoughts, with a lifespan of 6 minutes. If your clock runs out, regardless of the position, you lose. Time is the god here.

I’ve built up a winning position but even as I shepherd my pieces the display winds down towards zero-zero. Fast as my fingers are, darting over the touchpad, I lose. Zeitnot.

Utterly disgusted, I resign and close the program. I feel guilty, as if those pawns and pieces are looking at me in silent reproach, creations disappointed with the Creator.

As the centuries progressed, Religion began to fall away and Science began to insinuate itself into the workings of the world.

And with scientists as the new clergy, chess continued in its schizophrenic career.

As far back as 1859, the Scientific American strove to educate the public about this “pernicious excitement”. The American Paul Morphy had stormed the chess world and the young country was enjoying its moment in the sun, fuelling a chess boom of sorts.

The magazine declared unequivocally, “Those who are engaged in mental pursuits should avoid a chess-board as they would an adder’s nest, because chess misdirects and exhausts their intellectual energies”, going on to say, “A game of chess does not add a single new fact to the mind; it does not excite a single beautiful thought; nor does it serve a single purpose for polishing and improving the nobler faculties”.

Source: Wikipedia

Emanuel Lasker (1868-1941) was a German mathematician and philosopher who is held among the greatest chess players ever. A wily contender, Lasker was known employ a "psyhological" method to bamboozle his opponents, with insidious moves that appeared mediocre on the surface. Einstein once wrote of him: "(t)here are few men who have had a warm interest in all the great human problems and at the same time kept their personality so uniquely independent."

Lasker contributed to making chess a lucrative full-time professional career, by charging high match fees.

Emanuel Lasker, the second world-champion, didn’t get the memo. In his 20s, Lasker came to the notice of renowned mathematician David Hilbert, who encouraged him to publish his groundbreaking paper on the Lasker Theorem. Lasker’s close friend and neighbour was Albert Einstein.

Apocryphally, Einstein is supposed to have considered Lasker as one of the 12 men on the planet who truly understood Relativity. Einstein himself was a keen enough player — one of his surviving games from 1913 shows him winning a swashbuckling Giuco Piano.

Though both men got along well, Einstein never quite understood what possessed his friend. In a preface to a book on Lasker’s life, he says, “the enormous psychological tension, without which nobody can be a chess master, was so deeply interwoven… that he could never entirely rid himself of the spirit of the game, even when he was occupied with philosophic and human problems”.

To Lasker this was simple. “In mathematics, if I find a new approach to a problem, another mathematician might claim that he has a better, more elegant solution. In chess, if anybody claims he is better, I checkmate him.” The numbers don’t fight back.

Einstein, who both played chess and had read the “handwriting of God”, perhaps understood in the end. After Lasker’s death, he said that the champion yearned after “the beauty inherent only in logical creation, a beauty so enchanting that nobody who has once caught a glimpse of it can ever escape it”.

It is this inexorableness that has frightened religious and scientific minds alike. One common metaphor is that chess totally colonises the mind. It’s a virus and chessplayers will kill to prevent a cure. I like to think of it as a new way of seeing the world. A way that forces you to renounce consensus reality, a hint of what lies beyond the veil of matter.

Nabokov probably described the magic of the struggle the best in his 1930 novel The Defense. Speaking of his protagonist, Luzhin, a mentally tormented chess player, he wrote: “He saw then neither the Knight’s carved mane nor the glossy heads of the Pawns — but he felt quite clearly that this or that imaginary square was occupied by a definite, concentrated force, so that he envisioned the movement of a piece as a discharge, a shock, a stroke of lightning — and the whole chess field quivered with tension, and over this tension he was sovereign, here gathering in and there releasing electric power”.

When you play, Time and memory is abolished. The gross world of the senses is replaced by something far deeper, far more beautiful. We catch glimpses of the grid that underlies reality, a labyrinth of impersonal forces and energies. It’s only then that you realise — chess is not an escape from the world. The world is a distraction from the game. Reality is merely a shadow cast by the game onto our world. All chess-players, at some level, feel this deeply. There are 64 squares and every square imprisons an infinity.

Source: Wikipedia

Thomas Eatkins' The Chess Players (1876) is is a small oil on wood panel depicting Eakins' father Benjamin observing a chess match. The game is well in progress, as many pieces have been removed from the board. Holmes, the younger player, seems to be winning the match, as he has taken the queen of his opponent (the top of which pokes out of the table's drawer), and his own black queen is well-positioned in the centre of the board. Eakins painted The Chess Players for his father. A quaint Victorian setting brimming with psychological tension.

The painter Marcel Duchamp shocked his friends by giving up his career to focus on chess. “Everything around me takes the shape of the knight or the queen,” he said, “and the exterior world has no interest for me other than its transformation to winning or losing positions”.

The game only endures. Caissa, the Goddess of Chess demands absolutely from her devotees.

Dawn is here. I’ve been up all night. A last game I think. I accept a challenge from a Spaniard. “FM” precedes his handle. This means he is a Master, as certified by FIDE (the Fédération Internationale des Échecs). Two steps away from Grandmaster, he is the lowest rung of the ladder, but still above me.

Wary of his knowledge I essay an offbeat opening predicated on “fianchettoing” my bishop very early. He swiftly achieves domination in the centre and soon my pieces are stuck on the rim, unable to exert any influence on the course of events. I have to resign.

I hit the “rematch” button. After my earlier debacle I go for the Sveshnikov variation of the Sicilian Defence. This time he avoids theory and we enter unchartered waters.

For a long time, neither of us gain the upper hand, constantly manoeuvring. He pushes a pawn to attack my bishop. I suddenly see a potential speculative sacrifice, i.e. there will be no immediate returns on investment but long-term play.

He snaps up the prelate, but now my knight swings close to the enemy king and forces him to defend. A wild melee ensues with both queens again, perishing in a suicide pact.

After the dust of battle clears, he is left with an extra knight but in compensation I have an armada of unstoppable pawns sweeping down the board. Marching towards towards reincarnation, that old dream of a better life to follow this.

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