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International Chess

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By Robert McTeigue

What’s the right way to answer this question:  “Do you play Chess?”  You might say “Yes” or “No”, but you would be likely to have a more interesting conversation if you replied with, “What do you mean by ‘Chess’?”
For most folks from the West, when you say “Chess” you mean what is now commonly called “International Chess”—the game of 64 squares, a king, a queen, knights, rooks, bishops and pawns.  And if you are about my age, you might also mention something about “Bobby Fischer.”  Nonetheless, you would not really be obtuse or pedantic if asked, “What do you mean by ‘Chess’?”

If you take the matter seriously, then you can do no better than to turn to “A World of Chess: Its Development and Variations through Centuries and Civilizations” by Jean-Louis Cazaux and Rick Knowlton, published in 2017.  Cazaux has worked for years as a scholar of Chess history, publishing in 2010 “L’Odyssee des Jeuxd’Echecs.”  Knowlton has worked for decades in promoting the actual playing of countless forms of Chess and Chess variants.  His efforts to make all forms of Chess known and enjoyed can be seen at AncientChess.com.

In my previous two columns for “Eurasian Perspectives” regarding board games as a form of cultural encounter (Part One HERE; Part Two HERE), we saw that board games both absorb and form local culture.  Transmitted across cultures, a board game can disclose aspects of its native culture to the uninitiated, while taking on new life and forms in cultures into which they are transplanted.  There’s something universally human about playing games; and there seems to be something nearly universal about playing Chess.  Looking at how Chess has emerged, spread, mutated, revived (and, sadly, in some forms, more or less died), we can find opportunities for peoples of East and West to teach each other unexpected lessons about what it means to be human—and maybe even have a lot of fun while doing so.

I had the good fortune of a long phone conversation recently with Rick Knowlton.  We talked about “A World of Chess”, his passion for all things Chess, and viewing games as vehicles for transmitting, transforming and sustaining culture.  What follows is a summary of our conversation.

A perennial question for students of Chess is the origin of the game.  The “received wisdom” for many years was that Chess emerged from India some time before the seventh century.  The current status of the question is a bit more complex.  Depending upon the evidence examined, and one’s presuppositions about what is “really” Chess, strong arguments could be made, he said, for attributing the origin of Chess to India, China, or Persia.

As we talked, I suggested that asking, “When and where did Chess come from?” is analogous to asking, “Who was Homer and when did he write the ‘Odyssey’?”    The working hypothesis of modern ethnographers is that an oral tradition emerged, spread and developed over time, solidified, and eventually coalesced into an identifiable and more or less stable substrate that we now called the “Odyssey” that we attribute to “Homer.”

Knowlton accepted the analogy, suggesting that there is a core of Chess that many Eastern cultures found so appealing that it spread and took root across Asia.  That same core grew and moved into the West, where it evolved into what is now commonly called “International Chess.”  There may never be a simple answer to “Where did Chess come from” any more than there could be a simple answer to “Who was Homer and when did he write the ‘Odyssey’?”

Besides, if you ask, “When and where did Chess begin?”, we have to come back to our earlier question, “What do you mean by ‘Chess’?”  Does the question refer to the Chess of China (Xiangqi), Japan (Shogi), Korea (jianggi), Thailand (Makruk) or Burma (Sit-Tu-Yin)?  Or to the countless sub-variations within those families of Chess?  It seems that when it comes to the study of Chess, the only straight lines are on the board.

Consequently, it is almost impossible to answer the question, “What is the basic difference between the Chess of the East and the Chess of the West?”, because even though a common core of “Chess-essence” may be found in all forms of Chess, it seems exceedingly difficult to formulate a univocal definition of “Chess.” Knowlton and I focused on just one obvious difference between the Chess of the East and that of the West—the pieces.

Specifically, the Chess of the West deploys pieces represented in three-dimensional form.  The Chess of many large sections of Asia depicts Chess pieces on flat discs with ideograms.    That fact can present a significant learning curve for Western players, Knowlton noted, one that unfortunately keeps many Westerners from taking the trouble to learn (and thence enjoy), say, Xiangqi or Shogi.  Knowlton agreed that’s regrettable.  Such a reluctance keeps a Westerner from enjoying several rich and delightful forms of Chess.  It also keeps the Westerner from entering into the vast and beguiling world of Asian ideograms and calligraphy.  That observation reinforces my conviction that board games can be inviting portals into the worlds of other cultures.

Continuing with linguistic comparisons, I suggested to Knowlton that the rise and fall of various forms of Chess can be likened to the rise of and fall of languages.  A language is a way of having the world; a language is a way of inhabiting human life.  Humanity is impoverished when a language dies out.  Might the same be said of forms of Chess?  He agreed, and said that already innumerable forms of Chess languages and dialects (so to speak) have died out.  One reason he promotes the study and playing of various forms of Chess is to keep some wonderful forms of human living alive.  I would very much like to see him succeed in those efforts.

What might we conclude from this series on board games as a means of facilitating encounters between East and West?  First, our common humanity is affirmed by our shared delight in board games in general, and by the persistence and pervasiveness of Chess in particular.  Second, a friendly way of affording entrée into a culture is through its board games.  Chess provides an especially effective and friendly medium for engaging cultures, as draws upon the contrasts of many similarities and differences.  Third, this series of reflections on board games raises the question:  “Where else might we turn to facilitate the encounter between East and West?”  Addressing that question will be the topic of my next columns.

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