Wednesday, November 21, 2007 11/21/07-Chess

In today's encore excerpt--the game of chess:

"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. He made mathematical calculations on chess, and wrote a book on it ... The game of chess became a school of government and defense; it was consulted in time of war, when military tactics were about to be employed, to study the more or less rapid movement of troops.'

"The game, in reality, was not invented all at once in a fit of inspiration by a single king, general, philosopher, or court wizard. ... After what might have been a century of tinkering, chatrang, the first true version of what we now call chess, finally emerged in Persia (today's Iran) sometime during the fifth or sixth century. ... Each [player's] army was equipped with one King, one Minister (where the Queen now sits), two Elephants (where the Bishops now sit), two Horses, two Ruhks (Persian for Chariot), and eight Foot Soldiers. ...

"The game probably evolved along the famous Silk Road trading routes ... between Delhi, Tehran, Baghdad, Kabul, Kandahar, and China's Xinjiang Province. ... No doubt many other games were invented by the same roving merchants, but there was something different about chatrang. In a critical departure from previous board games, this game contained no dice or other instruments of chance. Skill alone determined the outcome. 'Understanding is the essential weapon' proclaims the ancient Persian poem Chatrang-namak, one of the oldest books mentioning the game. 'Victory is obtained by the intellect.'

"This was a war game, in other words, where ideas were more important and more powerful than luck or brute force. In a world that had been forever defined by chaos and violence, this seemed to be a significant turn."

David Shenk, The Immortal Game, Doubleday, 2006, pp. 16-18.


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