Friday, March 03, 2006

Chess: Battle for Musical Squares

A board, chequered black and white.

64 squares. 2 to the power of 6. Two cubed cubed. 16 pieces each.

Half the squares are taken by stylised pieces as they fall off against each other in primal colours (or non colours if you are of a mind to describe white so.)

Pawns aptly named, infantry men in Old French ultimately reaching back to Latin ‘Pes’ the foot. These footmen are the cannon fodder of the board taking timid steps forward after the likely giant leap at the start who capture in oblique, semi-ecclesiastical manner. They may be lucky enough to avoid the cowards fate of en passant – where he falls not even at the site of its own demise. They do however present a dogged determined physical line of defence only the leaping knights can overcome at the start of the game.

The angular knight with its delightful one-step two-step heartily jumps over all obstacles in its pretty polka. Its dressage can not be interrupted by a defensive cordon and needs a stout attacker to combat its showy magic. It is at once cheval and chevalier and just as likely to attack in either direction. But the knight despite his Janus headed showmanship is slow and cumbersome. Its operating range is within a handful of local squares. It cannot easily dash for safety. This fatal combination of flashy danger and easy prey means that the mortality rate for knights is high at the start of a game. The knights and the bishop can often be seen jousting for control of the centre at the start.

Like the Knight, his Eminence grise the Bishop is usually quick out of the block and into the action on the board. They are of similar value (both worth about 3:1 to the pawn under normal exchange rates) though the slick cleric moves in mysterious ways, diagonally, to be exact. The route must be unoccupied. This diagonal force has the result of always keeping the Bishop on the straight and narrow. Once a white squared Bishop, always a white squared Bishop, and once a black Bishop always a black Bishop. If there are two black Bishops on black squares then either your opponent is cheating or you are. The bishop is a crucial member of the aristocracy but not the most important.

Next up in rank is the Rook (worth roughly five pawns.) The Rook is the King’s castle both in shape and also in alternate name. He is also his castle-mate in the only swapping move allowed in chess. In a sleight of hand worthy of the Knight, the King and Rook exchange homes as long as it is the virginal move for both pieces and His Majesty is not under attack. This has the double advantage of increasing the security of the cynosure of the game and bringing the heavy artillery quickly into the middle. Like the bishop, the Rook (old French ‘rok’ from the Arabic ‘rukhkh’ meaning 'chariot') must have a clear line of sight to advance but because of his seignureal rights he does so in straightforward fashion, up and down, left and right. The Rooks patrol the rows and columns with increasingly dangerous intent especially after the early high mortality of the minor pieces and pawns settles the board. The Rooks do not like clutter and as the game progresses will become more involved in skirmish to keep their lines clean. With a rook, what you see is what you get.

That leaves their Majesties at the scene of their coronation centrepiece. King on his own coloured square, Queen on her opposite.

The Queen is the power piece of the board. She reigns supreme with the equivalent power of both the Bishop and the Rook’s move in her arsenal. She roams diagonally and straight and is to be feared. Long, tall and crowned, she flies hither and thither across the board, attacking here, defending there and always full of intent. She is the most powerful piece but not the most important. That honour goes to His Majesty, the King.

The King is far and away the most ambiguous piece on the board - timid and critical. His move is barely better than a pawn, scrabbling just one square at a time, though crucially in any direction. And yet to capture this crawling piece is to immediately end the game. Whenever the King is attacked, it is the most powerful restraint and the attackee must drop other ideas and attend to his Majesty’s safety before progressing with anything else. While the defender is so occupied, the attacker can proceed with whatever other nefarious plan he or she has in mind. God may save the King, but often his allies can be picked off while the deity is so occupied.

There is no sweeter sound in chess than the cry of ‘checkmate’ when the King can be defended no longer and all recourse to safety is at an end. Checkmate, the game is up! The word, like many other chess terms comes from the Old French ‘eschec mat’ again originating in Arabic ‘shah mat’ which means simply The King is Dead.

Finally we return to the lowly Pawn who has a venomous sting in its inconsiderable tail. Should you be silly enough to let one of your opponents pawns loose, it is capable of marching to the end square where it can undergo a metamorphosis of royal proportions. There it can be Queened and transform itself to rule the roost.

The origin of the game is still disputed but most likely to have emerged from India. where it was called Chaturanga. The earliest mention of Chaturanga, or any version of chess, appears in the Sanskrit epic Mahabharata, written 2,500 years ago.

It was Chernev and Reinfeld in their book Winning Chess that quoted the use of the word Googol or or one followed by a millions zeroes or ten duotrigintillion to describe the number of possible chess moves. That name was eventually bastardised to form the world's most pervasive Internet search engine.

Don't do harm. Play chess instead.

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