In the third episode of “The Wire”, D’Angelo Barksdale, the hard but secretly soft-hearted Baltimore drug-dealer, comes across two of his narco underlings sitting at a chess board. Except they aren’t playing chess – they don’t know how. “Yo, why y’all playin’ checkers on a chess set?” he asks. “Chess is a better game, yo!”
In fact, he says, it is more familiar than they think. There is a king like the man they work for, Avon, who doesn’t do much himself because everybody “got his back”. There’s a queen who does whatever she likes, “the go-get-shit-done piece” like Avon’s sidekick, Stringer Bell. And then there are the pawns. The pawns, D’Angelo says with an emotive flare of his nostrils, are the foot soldiers, and they tend to get “capped quick”. But they are unlike the other pieces in one crucial respect: they have prospects. If a pawn stays alive long enough, and gets to the other side of the board, it gets to be queen. “And she got all the moves.”
The history of chess is a history of metaphors and moral lessons. It emerged in fifth-century India, and wherever it has gone since has been a ludic mirror-image of the world around it. Until the 19th century, when the set was standardised – becoming the Staunton version we play with today – the mirror’s reflections were preserved in pieces, which show chess’s extraordinary ability to adapt to new places and people. In ancient India there were no bishops, castles or queens, but elephants, chariots and ministers of war. In the world of early Islam there could be no images of beast or man, so the game was played with elegant cylinders and conicals in ivory or stone, the pawns lined up like a battalion of salt-shakers. And in 12th-century Norway the kings were bearded brutes with lustrous hair, flanked by crazy, shield-biting berserkers – the world of the Lewis chess set, now held in the British Museum.
Far from the go-anywhere piece of today, the queen in the Lewis chess set is a study in boredom
Adaptability has been a condition of chess’s long life, and has sometimes proved a game-changer in a deeper sense. The queen in the Lewis set is slumped on her throne, her face held idly in her hand. Far from the go-anywhere, do-anything figure of today, she is a study in boredom. When that set was made, the queen was a relative newcomer to the board, having replaced the minister in the tenth century: the moment when chess first encountered European royal courts. But, like him, she was a meek little homebody with a range of one diagonal square – “aslant only”, as a medieval chess treatise put it, “because women are so greedy that they will take nothing except by rapine and injustice”. Only in the 15th century – the age, the chess historian Marilyn Yalom has pointed out, of powerful women such as Queen Isabella of Spain – was she given the freedom to roam. Suddenly chess had more speed, more dynamism, more lines of attack and angles of defence. The game, already a thousand years old, never looked back.
Underlying all this shape-shifting is an essence, an abstract structure of rules and relative powers. Aside from ornamental beauty, it’s this that either gets you hooked or makes you feel, like Montaigne, that you “hate it and avoid it because it is not play enough”. Chess, let’s face it, is mind-boggling. To follow a professional game is to get lost in a swamp of algebraic notation. When the 13-year-old Bobby Fischer sacrificed his queen against Donald Byrne in the so-called game of the century in 1956, it was considered one of the finest moves in chess history – a greatness not quite communicated by “Be6!!”.
Then there are the numbers involved, frequently quoted and always unimaginable. When mathematicians tot up the possible positions on the board, they come up with figures like ten to the power of 120. Whether that’s greater than the number of atoms in the observable universe – currently it is – is a hostage to telescopic fortune. But the point is clear: chess is an endless pursuit, which, in the game of longevity, gives it an edge.
This abstraction, this refusal to be contained, accounts for our fascination with chess’s prodigies and lunatics. But it is also what makes the game so oddly human. By move 17 of that tussle with Byrne, Fischer’s queen was under attack from Byrne’s bishop. But Fischer got thinking. The best move, he decided, wasn’t to put his queen in a place of greater safety. The best move was to shift his own bishop two squares, to e6. It looks, on the face of it, like blindness to the danger. But chess is a game of logical consequences and sly entrapment, what Benjamin Franklin called its “vast variety of good and ill events, that are, in some degree, the effects of prudence, or the want of it”.
Another 24 moves later, Fischer won – a result, he’d worked out, that was inevitable if he let his queen go. It was sacrifice that was also attack, violence that was also composure, and about as close as chess comes to a rhyming couplet.
The set that perhaps gets closest to chess’s abstract beauties is the one designed for the Bauhaus in 1924 by Josef Hartwig. Like the old Islamic pieces, the figures are stripped of their worldly imagery. What Hartwig did instead was to capture the movement of each figure in three dimensions, their form following their function. The knight assumes the L-shape of its crosswise leap, while the bishop’s diagonals appear as an X. The queen is a cube mounted with a sphere – the embodiment of world domination – and the king a sturdy and taciturn concoction of boxes. “When a chess player looks at the board,” Arthur Koestler wrote while covering the world-championship match between Fischer and Boris Spassky in 1972, “he does not see a static mosaic, a ‘still-life’, but a magnetic field of forces, charged with energy.” Hartwig distilled this energy, and after 1,500 years of changing with the times, chess finally looked like itself.
Pictured, clockwise from top left: Bauhaus white knight, set around £490, by Naef Spiele (naefspiele.ch); Man Ray black bishop, set around £495, by IC Design (icdesign.ch); Greek Mythology white castle and white pawn, set £300, by the British Museum (britishmuseumshoponline.org); Bauhaus white queen, as before; Man Ray black knight, as before; Samarcande black pawn, set £4,210, by Hermès, (hermes.com); Bauhaus black pawn, as before