Trivially Speaking: Exploring the mystery of chess in black and white


A number of decades have passed since I moved the pieces around the board — and I never played enough to get good at it.

My attention was drawn back to the game by a television miniseries that the CEO and I recently watched. “The Queen’s Gambit” was compelling watching and we empathized with the protagonist through her many tribulations.

“The Queen’s Gambit” is a recognized chess opening move but the story is about chess as much as “Hoosiers” is about basketball.

Beth Harmon’s story is based on a 1983 novel by Walter Tevis. The miniseries is a coming-of-age drama and has become Netflix’s most-watched scripted miniseries.

So, no spoiler alert, I’m switching the focus to chess.

My high school buddy Ron and I bought a chess kit, a board and the 32 required pieces; I’m certain were not the fine ivory or teakwood, but plastic (as matched our game).

The chess pieces are: King, Queen, two Bishops, two Knights, two Rooks and eight Pawns (“Mongo just pawn in game of life” from “Blazing Saddles,” to illustrate that pawns are the most limited pieces in chess).

Each piece has its own set of authorized moves, creating the complications that make chess such an intellectual game.

That said, Ron and I never got past the most elementary of openings or games. We were unaware of its rich history; we were probably just playing because we didn’t have dates.

Success at chess wouldn’t have helped meet girls as is demonstrated by “The Queen’s Gambit.”

The origins of chess are unclear. One postulate is that the game entered Iran through India.

As the legend goes, the Indian ruler at the time (some time between A.D. 531-579) sought to differentiate refinement between Indians and Persians. To do this, the Indian ruler and his court devised the game of chess and bet that the Iranians-Persians could not unravel its logic.

Well nanny nanny, the Iranian sage Wuzurgmihr (easy for him to say) accepted the challenge, solved the mystery and sent back the game of backgammon in return. Try this, he said, but the Indians were stumped.

Having trifled at both, I’d have to think that the Indians didn’t play their A Team in the backgammon competition.

This tale was told from the Persian perspective so it may be prejudiced but the first mention of chess is from a Persian source.

The Persian word for chess is “shatranj,” probably derived from the Sanskrit “chaturanga,” the name of a chesslike game played on a similar board.

The terminology of chess as we know it has Persian roots. The Persian word “rukh” (rook) means “chariot” and the term “shah mat” means, literally, “the king is frozen” or “the king is dead” (very similar in effect).

From the 14th century to the present day chess has attracted players of great minds (Jim and Ron excluded) and classic openings and approaches have been developed.

“The Queen’s Gambit” is one of the oldest known chess openings. The term is an appropriate metaphor for the actress and the miniseries, but time and space is pressing so I’ll have to say “Tune in again, same Bat Time, Same Bat Channel” for a bit more chatter on classic chess moves.

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