When I found out that the J in J. Polgar stood for Judit, I was so excited. I didn’t even know she was a woman, just that she smashed her opponents like mashed potatoes. After that, I put her games up on my bedroom wall.
—Linda Nangwale from Zambia, in Jennifer Shahade, Chess Bitch: Women in the Ultimate Intellectual Sport
March 8th is International Women’s Day, and one women’s group in Russia is celebrating in a most interesting way:
MOSCOW, March 7 (RIA Novosti) – Russian women in the Volga region city of Nizhny Novgorod are set to play chess using men as pawns, rooks and other figures on March 8.
March 8 is International Women’s Day, celebrated as a national holiday in Russia and several ex-Soviet countries.
The young men from local universities who have volunteered to take part in the unusual chess matches will wear specially-designed masks and gowns as the women command them around the chess board. The board has been drawn out on a large ‘carpet’ which will be rolled out on a city square on Saturday.
“We had difficulties in finding men to volunteer. It was hard to convince young men to be under [women’s] control for the games,” a spokesman for the organizing committee said, adding that he hoped the event would increase young people’s interest in “intellectual pastimes.”
Those Russian women know how to have a good time!
I apologize for the lack of book-related posts lately. Chess has me by the neurons, and I don’t really mind. Here is something that covers both bases, though. I saw this poem in a fun documentary about chess by Davide Fasolo.
In their solemn corner, the players
govern the lingering pieces. The chessboard
delays them until daybreak in its severe
sphere in which colors are hateful.
Inside they radiate magical severity
the forms: Homeric tower, light
horse, armed queen, last king,
oblique bishop and attacking pawns.
When the players will have gone,
when time will have consumed them,
certainly the ritual will have not ceased.
In the Orient this war was lit
which amphitheater is today all the earth.
As the other, this game is infinite.
Fainting king, slanting bishop, fierce
queen, straightforward tower and cunning pawn
on the black and white path
searching and fighting their armed battle.
They ignore the player’s pointing hand
governs his destiny,
they ignore that a tamed severity
holds his will and day.
The player is himself a prisoner
(the sentence is Omar’s) of another board
of dark nights and light days.
God moves the player, and he, the chess piece.
Which God behind God begins the conspiracy
of dust and time and dream and agony?
Translated by Blanca Lista. Original version below.
En su grave rincón, los jugadores
rigen las lentas piezas. El tablero
los demora hasta el alba en su severo
ámbito en que se odian dos colores.
Adentro irradian mágicos rigores
las formas: torre homérica, ligero
caballo, armada reina, rey postrero,
oblicuo alfil y peones agresores.
Cuando los jugadores se hayan ido,
cuando el tiempo los haya consumido,
ciertamente no habrá cesado el rito.
En el Oriente se encendió esta guerra
cuyo anfiteatro es hoy toda la tierra.
Como el otro, este juego es infinito.
Tenue rey, sesgo alfil, encarnizada
reina, torre directa y peon ladino
sobre lo negro y blanco del camino
buscan y libran su batalla armada.
No saben que la mano señalada
del jugador gobierna su destino,
no saben que un rigor adamantino
sujeta su albedrío y su jornada.
También el jugador es prisionero
(la sentencia es de Omar) de otro tablero
de negras noches y blancos días.
Dios mueve al jugador, y éste, la pieza.
¿Qué Dios detrás de Dios la trama empieza
de polvo y tiempo y sueño y agonías?
[Source: Spanish Poems]
1.Pe4 Nh6 2.Nf3 Pd5 3.Pe5 Pg5 4.Bb5+ Pc6 5.Ba4 Ng8 6.O-O Pb6 7.Pd4 Ba6 8.Re1 Pf6 9.Pe6 Bc8 10.Pc3 Pg4 11.Nh4 Pa5 12.Pb4 Pf5 13.Nd2 Ra6 14.Pb5 Ra8 15.Pxc6 Pg3 16.Pxg3 Nh6 17.Pc7+ Pb5 18.Pd8=Q+ Kxd8 19.Bxb5 Ba6 20.Rb1 Ng4 21.Be2 Kc8 22.Pc4 Nf6 23.Pc5 Ne8 24.Nb3 Pa4 25.Na5 Bxe2 26.Rxe2 Rxa5 27.Nxf5 Na6 28.Pc6 Kd8 29.Bg5 Nf6 30.Pc7+ Kc8 31.Rc1 Ph5 32.Bd2 Rb5 33.Qxa4 Rb6 34.Qa5 Kb7 35.Pc8=Q+ Ka7 36.Qc5 Ka8 37.Qxb6 Rh6 38.Qxa6# (pwned!!!)
UPDATE: It seems the computer has a glitch. It didn’t recognize the promoted Queen on c8 so it made an illegal move, 36….Ka8. So, what really happened is that I gave stalemate with 36.Qc5. D’oh!
It’s not all bloodthirsty competition:
The two were not evenly matched. [Marcel] Duchamp was one of the best players in France, and no doubt swept [Samuel] Beckett off the board in most of their encounters. But still they enjoyed each other’s company, and continued to play…. All summer they played lengthy chess games together in a seafront café.
—David Shenk, The Immortal Game: A History of Chess
Sounds nice, doesn’t it?
Have you ever read exactly the right book at exactly the right time? That’s what The Immortal Game: A History of Chess was for me. I picked it off the shelf at the library, attracted by the subject and the beautiful cover design, and it turned out to be a real winner. It is a very well-organized book and very well-written, with a friendly, self-deprecating style. The author, David Shenk, has a fine chess pedigree (his great-great-grandfather was the illustrious Samuel Rosenthal) but acknowledges that he is little more than a “patzer” at the game. No matter—he makes up for it with his writing, and has done a wonderful job of making chess accessible and fascinating.
The Immortal Game traces the development of chess over time, from hazy myths about its invention (I posted a bit about it here), to the latest “hypermodern” style of play. He also touches on various topics related to chess, from how chess has been used to defend and critique rigid social systems, to how it is used to understand and mimic the brain.
What fascinates Shenk (and me) is how chess has been used over the last fifteen centuries to illustrate innumerable concepts and theories, from straightforward training for war to postmodern nihilism. (Samuel Beckett’s ideal game was one in which the pieces returned to their original places.) The book could have been called “The Infinite Game” because humans seem to be able to put the game to an infinite number of intellectual (and sometimes political) uses.
The title of the book actually refers to a specific game which took place in a pub in London on June 21, 1851 between Adolf Anderssen and Lionel Kieseritzky. Shenk explains the whole game in a series of sub-chapters that come between each main chapter of the book. It’s a sneaky trick to keep you reading the book so you can see what happens next, though it’s not really required since the whole thing is a pleasure to read. The game was actually just a practice game played outside of the major tournament that Anderssen and Kieseritzky were attending, but it turned into one of the most memorable games of all time. ***CHESS SPOILER ALERT!*** What made it breathtaking was the way Anderssen sacrificed major pieces (both his Rooks and his Queen) in order to establish the positions he needed for checkmate. It was his lowly Knights and a Bishop that sealed Kieseritzky’s fate.
***End of Spoiler***
I should point out that you don’t have to know anything about chess to read this book. Shenk teaches you everything you need to know in a very simple and quick manner. I found my game improving with every chapter of this book, making it as much a beginner’s manual as a history book. Right now I’m going through some other “legendary” games detailed in the appendix and learning even more. I’m playing them out on the chess board, but you can also go through them online at TheImmortalGame.com. The website also offers two options for free online play, real-time and by e-mail. Anyone interested?
This almost makes me want to bake.
Today I played chess with a human being for the first time in my adult life. This is how I did:
Of course it was a fluke, but I’ll take it.
When and how and why was chess invented? The very oldest chess myths point toward its actual origins. One story portrays two successive Indian kings, Hashran and Balhait. The first asked his sage to invent a game symbolizing man’s dependence on destiny and fate; he invented nard, the dice-based predecessor to backgammon. The subsequent monarch needed a game which would embrace his belief in free will and intelligence. “At this time chess was invented,” reads an ancient text, “which the King preferred to nard, because in this game skill always succeeds against ignorance….”
This quote from The Immortal Game: A History of Chess by David Shenk expresses exactly why I have taken up chess. Back in June I was inspired by Wil to try backgammon again. I had played it as a child and it seemed like it would be a fun pastime. Eventually, though, as I got backgammon strategy pretty well figured out, I got tired of being at the mercy of the dice. A few bad rolls and it would be game over through no fault of my own.
I suppose it’s my Western Enlightenment mindset that rebels against the notion of being controlled by fate. Though as a scientist and biologist I realize that randomness, probability, and systems determine much of our existence, I’d still rather believe that I have a say in the matter. It’s either chess or chaos, and I pick chess.
I played chess a few times as a kid but knew little more than how the pieces moved. After getting my butt kicked from here to Jupiter and back again by the computer (at its lowest setting) for several weeks now, I am getting more of an idea of how difficult the game of chess really is. This is the downside of wanting to control your destiny—relying on fate is a lot easier than making your own way in a complex and dangerous world.
I have managed to beat the computer a couple of times now, but I am under no illusions about my skill level. Shenk describes it well:
Graduating from patzer to mere competence would require untold hundreds of hours of not just playing but studying volumes of opening theory, endgame problems, and strategy. Years of obsessive attention to the game might—might—eventually gain me entry into reasonably serious tournaments, where I would no doubt be quickly dispatched by an acid-tongued, self-assured ten-year-old. Chess is an ultimately indomitable peak that gets steeper and steeper with every step.
My only excuse for playing chess is that my brain needs exercise. I don’t ever intend to compete, but it would be nice if I could eventually play well enough to at least put up a fight against a real player. If I can make it to base camp, I’ll be happy.