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Leisure: Chess, the royal game

January 19, 2013

Many children are familiar with the name of this game, and probably even with the pieces that come into play on the chequered board because it is tucked away safe and snug in the ‘games’ folder of every computer in the market.

However, one cannot help but feel that programming chess will have little incentive for young beginners to learn it and the strategic appeal of this game will remain elusive for the new generation, unless they stumble upon its many charms away from the impressive, unyielding invulnerability of a computer application.

The game of chess can be traced back to an ancient version called Chatrang, popular in Persia during the 600BCs. The name ‘chess’ is a variant of the Persian ‘shah’ (king) that replaced the original ‘shatranj’ and ‘ajedrez’ and came to be modified through dialect across Europe as ‘check’ and later ‘chess’. Being a game of warfare strategy, it was chiefly played in royal courts and among high army ranks, and the history of its geographical spread is appropriately scattered with its acquisition and learning through cross-cultural conquests and migrations.

The rules of this logical board game continued to be modified from the 13th century onward until the mid-fifteenth century, when it finally took the form that we are familiar with today. From then onward, chess became more than just a board game; it became a popular pastime, a field of theoretical and practical study.

Many books were written and published on how to play chess, and many intellectuals quickly emerged as professional chess players, chess ‘masters’ who were the epitome of chess activity and celebrities in this international sensation. Their learning and insights continued to be a source of new strategy development and their theories created stepping stones for new players to come.

Chess rules are pretty easy to learn, and likewise they only take you so far. Knowing how to play each piece will only help the game move forward, knowing when to play what is a lot more important if you want to experience the thrill of a heated battle of wits. Each player starts with six kinds of pieces: king, queen, bishop, knight, rook and pawn. There’s only one of both the king and the queen, and the king is central in game play. Each player aims to capture the opposing player’s king, which thereby signifies the defeat of the opposing player and a victory for the conqueror.

The king is a stately fellow and is only permitted to move one measly square at a time in any direction. He is obviously incapable of fleeing from the enemy, or playing any part in an aggressive attack, so wasting moves on him will only help the enemy strengthen its positioning and potential mobility.

The queen on the other hand is a powerful and intimidating figure with a far-reaching aura of authority and domination. She can move any number of squares in all directions — up, down, left, right and diagonally. In other words, she combines the movements of the rook and the bishop.

The rook resembles the parapet of a castle and for this reason is also known as ‘castle’. There are two to each player and they are placed on the far-most ends of the first row. The rook can move any number of squares vertically and horizontally (up, down, right and left). The bishop on the other hand, the religious figurehead of the state often resembling a cloaked bishop, is found on either side of the king and the queen, who are both placed in the centre of the first row. The bishop has the power to move diagonally in any direction.

The knight, placed between the rook and the bishop on both sides of the royal couple, is perhaps the most interesting piece because it does not move in a straight line. Horse-shaped and meant to depict the knights riding on their trusty steeds, it moves in an L-shape in any direction, which means from a point in the centre of the board it can move two squares up and one right, two squares up and one left, two squares right and one up, two squares right and one down and so on. And yes, bemused readers, that is of particular interest and relevance to all players because it makes the knight a key figure in forming successful winning strategies. Position the knight correctly and it will be able to threaten a number of pieces at the same time without being exposed to immediate danger. Its unique L-shaped moves give it the benefit of shielded play. It is also the only piece that possesses the capability of jumping over other pieces while moving.

You are given eight pawns to begin with and they are lined up in the second row, actively defending their superiors in rank. The most striking thing about a pawn is that it hurts least to lose one to the enemy, but the tiny critters have a very influential impact on gameplay in their own little way. Francois-Andre Philidor was the first to discover the importance of pawns for chess strategy back in the 18th century, and since then, many revolutionary findings in the theory of opening of the game have strengthened the role of pawns for all players. While previously it was a norm to expose active attackers and immediately launch an assault, players slowly realised the importance of building a frontal structure and started to position pawns and other pieces so as to defend and attack simultaneously. With the pawns actively mobilised, the pieces no longer move as individual assailants, but are united and interdependent for their wellbeing and the protection of their king.

Gameplay in chess is of two kinds: tactical and strategic. Tactics is concerned with the immediate action taken by each player, as in the advancing and positioning of a piece, while strategy is focused on achieving long-term positioning advantages. Strategies develop as the game progresses and the players are able to assess each other’s current tactics, thereby predicting their future modes of action. These allow them to define their own defences for each integral piece and plan their attacks accordingly. Chess, therefore, requires a good deal of planning ahead for successful structure formation.

Chess may not be as interactive as the multiplayer board games that are swarming the market now, but who’s to say it’s not more fun? Chess will make you realise that it’s possible to have a blast when your brain is in full steam. Every school and college should have a chess club so that no child is deprived of the chance to excel at this prestigious sport.

The first chess tournament was held as early as 1851 and it continues to be a highly regarded competition to this date. The widely acclaimed success of these tournaments is a testament to the artistic complexity of chess and the distinctive, ever transforming strategies of its players. Yes, chess has been hailed as an ‘art’ by many; it crosses scientific and logical boundaries, and borders on the discovery of the innate genius of man — not simply the ability to predict the future but to reshape it.