Sunday, January 20, 2008

Chess in Fiction

Bobbie Fischer’s death started me thinking about the use of chess in fiction. One of my favorite anthologies of all time is Pawn to Infinity, a collection of SF tales involving chess that was edited by Fred Saberhagen. The best story in the collection was “The Immortal Game” by Poul Anderson, which was a brilliant dramatization of an actual game, called “The Immortal Game,” played in 1851 between Adolf Anderssen and Lionel Kieseritzky. Another equally famous and beautiful game is known as “The Evergreen Game,” which was played in 1852 between Anderssen and Jean Dufresne. They had no formal world chess championship in those days, but Anderssen was widely considered the best in the world at the time.

Some variation of chess appears frequently in fantasy works. The first time I remember seeing this was in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars series. Martian chess was called Jetan and was played on a black and orange board of 100 squares rather than the 64 squares of Earthly chess. ERB even included the rules for the game in, appropriately enough, The Chessmen of Mars. (You can also find the rules on Wikipedia.) Alan Burt Akers (Kenneth Bulmer) created a chess variation called Jikaida for his Dray Prescot books, a sword and planet series that had some influence on my Taleran works. Jikaida has a number of forms but Bulmer gives the rules to the most common type in an appendix to A Sword for Kregen. The game has 36 pieces and, I believe, 216 total squares. a Sword for Kregen is clearly influenced by ERB’s The Chessmen of Mars.

John Norman invented a chess variation called Kaissa for his Gor books. Kaissa is played on a 100 square board of yellow and red and involves an interesting twist called the “placing of the home stone,” the home stone being the spiritual heart of Gorean cities. Norman never gave the full rules of the game in the books, and even indicated that there were many different versions, but several versions have been formalized by fans and you can find some of them at Kaissafan. The term Kaissa is a variant spelling of Caissa, who is known as the goddess of chess. She first appeared, as far as I know, in a poem by Sir William Jones. Norman’s real name is actually John Lange, and he is a philosophy professor. One might expect him to know about classic poetry, although he doesn’t seem to know much about women.

I invented a game for my fantasy stories as well. It’s called Kyrellian, although there is a simpler version called Kyrell. The central board (battle board) for Kyrellian is 100 squares, with two smaller boards (Home boards) of 40 squares each attached to either side by a narrow, one square width, bridge. The players, known as Crystal and Obsidian, start with 20 pieces each on their home board and must move their pieces into the battle section of the board across the bridge. The object is to capture the opponent’s land (the 40 square board), and this can be accomplished in several ways. Kyrell, the simpler version, begins with the pieces already placed on the battle board. There is a longer, more convoluted version, in which four players compete from four different Home boards.

I’m considering doing an article on the issue of chess-like war games in fiction, but I need to do quite a bit more research. Maybe some of you can help. Any of you know of books that have used chess as part of the plot, or that have invented some variation on the game?


Josephine Damian said...

Ooooh, saw the news and also wondered about the kidney failure.

BF's case is similar to the guy from "A Beautiful Mind" - paranoid schizophrenia, my guess triggered by the stress/pressure of competition at that level.

Charles, did you know I played? But like you I did not start till late in life, so I'll never achieve greatness :-(

The ironic thing is I came to chess because of a novel I wanted to read and the reviews said you should have a knowledge of the game to understand the book - so I taught myself to play with one of those "dummies" books, and was so busy playing, I never got around to reading that book! And still haven't! The book?

"The Flanders Panel" by Arturo Perez-Reverte

An absolute classic chess novel (and one I highly recommend) is:
"The Defense" by Vladimir Nabokov (it's about a genius who goes crazy from the pressure of playing - my guess it's inspired by Fisher, but I'd have to check the dates).

A standout non-fiction I loved is written by a grandson (I think) of one of the players of the famous "immortal game," a guy, like us who decided to take up the game too late:

"The Immortal Game: A History of Chess" by David Shenk

It includes a move by move descrption of the famous game and it was fascinating to play out the game on my own board.

Josephine Damian said...

PS: this non-fiction looks interesting. Check out the PW review:

I just put it on my TBR list.

Inside our hands, outside our hearts said...


What an interesting thing to write about. I was thinking back and you quite right, not that I thought you weren't, that many books have some version of chess. Even the Harry Potter ooks do, Wizards Chess I elieve it is called and although I am sure that is not what you are looking at, I still found it interesting.

I also was a late chess player. My oldest son started playing when he was 6, he loved the, "Searching for Bobby Fisher" movie. He taught me and we played many games.

I do not have much to poffer you in this post ut I do appreciate this post brought ack wonderful memories and I thank you for that.

Soft love,

Charles Gramlich said...

Josephine, I didn't know you played. I love the game, though I wish I was better. I actually have "The Flanders Panel" but haven't read it. I'll have to keep an eye open for the others, Particularly "the Immortal game" book. I have seen the annotations for that game and have played it. Quite beautiful.

Tara, those must benice memories. I've had some fun games with my son as well.

cs harris said...

Dorothy Dunnett's historical Lymond series--Game of Kings, Queen's Play, The Ringed Castle, etc, all the way to the final Checkmate--is full of chess images. The climax of the fourth book, Pawn in Frankincense, is a chess game played with characters who are killed when they are "captured," and ends with one of the most haunting choices and resulting images I've ever read.

Lana Gramlich said...

Star Trek has that multi-level chess game, of course, but that's TV (do TV novelizations count?)
Chess evolved from a Celtic game called "fidchell" in Irish or "yr gwydbwyll" in Welsh. One of the recent books I got seems to give a fair bit of detail on the Welsh version (which is a rare treat, since so little information remains from those days!)
Chess figures prominently in many of the earliest surviving Welsh myths as well, from "The Dream of Rhonabwy" to "Geraint, the Son of Erbin" (among one of the earliest Arthurian tales in existence.) The chessboard & pieces were considered magical extensions of the very land & its people & I don't think it'd be a big stretch to say that games were probably played to settle some disputes between rival clan leaders &/or Kings.

Travis Cody said...

In one of my favorite fantasy series - The Fionnavar Tapestry by Guy Gavriel Kay - two characters play a variant of chess as one wrestles with a failing and the other comes to a monumental decision that will cost his life but safe a realm.

The game is the commonality between the two men who are from different worlds yet share the same codes of honor in conduct.

Erik Donald France said...

Good topic, Charles. Kyrellian sounds very cool -- perhaps you can post an image of the playing field?

Movies: The Seventh Seal, Knight plays Death to prolong his life during plague times in Sweden.

Steve Malley said...

I'm more a GO man, m'self.

Loved The Seventh Seal, loved Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey even more - where they challenge Dath to games of Twister, Connect Four and Yahtzee!

SzélsőFa said...

How cool it is that you have invented your own game, Charles!
DH also invented a game of strategy, it uses ants :)
We are trying to sell it sometimes....until that, we are playing with the proto-type :)

Josephine Damian said...

CS: that Dorothy Dunnett series in on my TBR pile for after I finish grad school, just I just may dive in now based on your rave.

Charles: If I were your fairy godmother and with a wave of my magic wand could transform you into a best selling author or a grandmaster chess player, which would you chose?

Angie said...

Getting back to Star Trek for a moment, John M. Ford wrote an excellent Trek novel (back in the old days when the novelizations were either fantastic or putrid, nothing in between) called The Final Reflection. It's told from a Klingon's POV and has some really wonderful worldbuilding.

A central part of the book is a Klingon version of chess. I'd have to dig my copy out to see what it was called, since I have a memory like a steele sieve, but it's played with living "pieces" on a multi-level playing field, which IIRC was pyramidal, with each higher level having fewer spaces than the one below. Pieces actually fight and can be killed during the game, which struck me as appropriately ruthless for a warrior culture.

Highly recommended, along with all of Ford's other books, which are brilliant.

Sphinx Ink said...

Cool post, Charles. Did you know New Orleans has its own historical connection to the chess world, as the home of early chess great Paul Morphy? Morphy (1837-1884) is considered to have been the greatest chess master of his era and an unofficial World Chess Champion, as well as one of the first chess prodigies in the era of modern chess rules. (Info from Wikipedia, My own connection with chess is one of my uncles, now deceased, who was a chess buff, to the extent that he named his son after Paul Morphy. That uncle tried to teach me to play chess, but alas! my feeble brain cannot seem to hold the rules in it. I was a disaster as a player and haven't tried it again in many years. (A big problem is my inability to visualize and hold in memory potential moves and placement of pieces on the board using alternative gambits.)...I'm no good at card games, either. Somehow I relate ability to play chess to the ability to play poker, etc.

I enjoyed the comments on your post, too, especially Steve Malley's ("Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey ... where they challenge Dath to games of Twister, Connect Four and Yahtzee").

Shauna Roberts said...

The 1988 novel The Eight: A Novel of Suspense by Katherine Neville (recently reissued as Eight) is about a computer expert searching for a chess set that belonged to Charlesmagne.

The 2003 novel The Emperor of Ocean Park by Stephen L. Carter is a mystery in which a professor tries to track down something hidden by his father, and the clues somehow (I don't remember how) involve chess strategy.

Charles Gramlich said...

Candice, thanks for that info. Both Burroughs and Bulmer used the idea of living chess pieces way back in their books. It's a fascinating concept.

Lana, I would probably include the Star Trek chess game in any article I did. I think there are still some debates as to the origin of chess. Some writers think it originated in India, although elements of the modern game may have been borrowed from many sources.

Travis, this is the second time today I've come upon Kay's writings. I'll have to check it out.

Erik, more good info. Thanks. I'll have to see what I can come up with for a Kyrellian image.

Steve Malley, I've never played Go, although I've heard much about it.

Josephine, if you'd asked me that when I was 28 I'd have chosen chess. Today I would choose writing hands down.

Angie, wow, that sounds cool. I haven't read that book, although I have read other stuff by Ford. I'll have to check it out.

Sphinxy, yes, I did know about Paul Morphy, a personal hero of mine still. He played some beautiful games and was certainly the most memorable American to ever play the game, at least until the time of Fischer.

Charles Gramlich said...

Szelsofa, oops, missed your comment when I was making my last post. Sorry about that. It was fun inventing the game, although I haven't done much with it lately. Good luck in getting ya'll's game produced.

Charles Gramlich said...

Shauna, your post came up just after I posted my comments on the previous comments. Thanks for this info. I've obviously got some reading ahead of me before I can do justice to this topic.

Josephine Damian said...

Oooh, Charles - I was certain you'd have said chessmaster (I guess I have to get to know you better). Lots of good chess books talked up - the "Emperor" book got mixed reviews, but I just might give it a try.

BTW, I'd chose the chess grandmaster over bestsellerdom every time.

Charles Gramlich said...

Josephine, then I'm not sure I'd ever want to play you in a game. Sounds like you have the killer instinct. ;)

The main reason I'd want to have a bestseller in writing, though, is not for the fame but to assure me of money so that I could continue writing. Plus, I just think I have greater strengths in writing than in chess.

Cheri said...

I was to learn chess but my grandfather died far too soon, having already taught me a lot but still had a lot to go. I can play tennis, golf, billiards, darts, croquet and poker but he was leaving chess for last because it was the most difficult. It makes me sad and I wonder if I'll ever learn or much less have the urge to learn.

Ello - Ellen Oh said...

Interesting. But you know what is also interesting? The ancient Asian game of Go. It is actually fascinating and I've been doing research for it for my current WIP. Chess is all about tactics while Go is a highly strategic game. The best computer programs for chess have defeated the best chess players in the world, however, the best computer programs for go can barely get past amateur status.

writtenwyrdd said...

I don't have the mind for chess, but you got me thinking that poker as well as chess have been renovated for use in various sf novels.

Tyhitia Green said...

Very interesting topic, Charles. I have thought about chess, but not how to incorporate it into fiction. Great post! :*)

Charles Gramlich said...

Cheri, I'm sorry about your grandfather. I only got to meet one of my grandparents, one grandfather, and he died when I was about 4. I don't remember much about him at all and always kind of wished I'd known my grandparents a bit more.

Ello, I don't know anything about Go, although I've heard of it. Is there any luck involved with it? I can't play games that require any bit of luck. Because I don't have any for games.

Writtenwyrd, yes, I've seen poker used in various forms. I can see a whole series of articles about games in fiction.

Demon Hunter, there's something about the game that lends itself to fantasy fiction in particular.

Scott Oden said...

In 'The Lion of Cairo' two of my villains are introduced over a game of Shatranj, which was an early version of Chess. It started like a normal Chess game except, like a general on the field, the early moves were about getting your forces into proper formation before crossing the line to confront your enemy. Some formations were more effective than others. The game ended when one side's shah was compromised.

I found some good basic info on Shatranj on Wikipedia, and Googled it to find some more in-depth resources (including a pic of a 10th century Shatranj set from India).

Miladysa said...

Amazing that you invented your own game!

I was going to say Harry Potter, but was beaten to it :)

ivan said...

The truly great Argentine short-story writer Jorge Luis Borges
has "Zeno's Puzzle" in one of his stories, where it seems that a god controls the game and not the players...I can't think of the exact story right now, though it might be in a hard-to-find collection titled Ficciones (in English).

Charles Gramlich said...

Scott, yes, I remember reading about Shatranj in my early days in chess. Quite a lovely game.

Miladysa, I loved the Wizard's chess idea in Harry Potter. Was great imagery.

Ivan, I think I've read that story, or something very much like it. But I can't remember the specific title.

Bernita said...

Kristen Britain's heroic fantasy, "Green Rider" mentions a gameboard and game. I haven't read it for some time so I don't remeber the details.