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What The...: Saving the world, one move at a time

I bought a nice chess set a few years ago, an antique from the 19th century. It was beautiful: maple pieces in classic Staunton form, the white pieces actually tan from time and thousands of moves.

Just one problem: someone had absconded with the white king.

It was actually a good problem. The critically defective set didn’t cost much more than something plastic out of China.

I asked a local woodworker if he could make me a king. I gave him the black king and asked him to make one just like it. He did a pretty good job, even painting it black like the one he copied.

I repainted the king to a hue close to tan. The set served me well until a puppy and a one-year-old came along. A white rook disappeared, either chewed to unidentifiable splinters or poked into the kind of place that only a toddler can find.

I cannibalized another chess set, using its castle to substitute for the one that had disappeared. But it’s just pine or fir, light-weight, not up to the work of a rook. It hunkers like a peasant favela next door to the regal ranks of its maple compatriots.

A chess board is a vicious place. All the pieces are people, save the rooks, which are homes with a capacity to wander. The opposing peoples slaughter each other. They sacrifice others for a greater cause. And the pawns, the peons, weak, multitudinous afterthoughts, have to be dealt with — blocked or taken — lest they advance too far and become whoever they want to be.

Jorge Luis Borges characterized this MacBethesque intrigue in a poem titled “Chess”:

Frail king, angling bishop, bloody-minded

queen, single-minded rook, cunning pawn,

on the path of black and white,

seek out and wage their armed battle…

At a trade show for gifts or something I came upon a booth that offered chess sets with pieces representing scores of classic conflicts: Romans vs. Egyptians, Redcoats vs. Revolutionaries, Red Sox vs. Yankees, Russians vs. Americans, Democrats vs. Republicans, dogs vs. cats, ogres vs. trolls, Star Wars Imperials vs. Rebels, bourgeois bankers vs. proletarian slobs.

But I’m a man without gambit. I can’t muster aggression without due cause. A friend and I used to play a cooperative version of the game. We’d explain each of our moves so that the other would know our purpose and plan. If one of us was thinking three moves ahead, we revealed those moves. Thus we took the world’s most logical game and purified it of the contaminant of surprise.

Borges wrote another poem that likened two proletarian players to people who pet sleeping animals, plant gardens, search for meaning in etymology, and pause to appreciate the existence of music. “These people,” he wrote, “without knowing it, are saving the world.”

My brother-in-law did his bit to save the world by putting a soapstone chess set at the bottom of a swimming pool. He and another slacker took turns diving down to move a piece, then come up to report the move. It helped them develop memory. He developed the ability to play five games at once without seeing the boards. But he was never good at anything else in life, other than holding his breath. He wielded an excess of logic in an illogical world.

The puppy has moved on to a happier place (Uncasville), and the toddler, forgiven for his sin, is about to turn six. I’m teaching him to play the game. With our reconstructed queen and foreign rook, we grapple with the concepts of protection, sacrifice, and thinking ahead. I can still beat him every time, but he doesn’t seem to mind. Each time I corner his king, he utters a thoughtful “Oh” of discovery and understanding, and the world has been saved once again.

Glenn Alan Cheney is a writer, translator, and managing editor of New London Librarium. He can be reached at


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