Sunday April 11, 2021’s Smile of the Day: Chess

On this Day:

In 1831, the 12th century Lewis chess pieces were exhibited at the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, shortly after their rediscovery in a sand bank on the Scottish Isle of Lewis.

The Lewis chessmen or Uig chessmen, named after the island or the bay where they were found, are a group of distinctive 12th-century chess pieces, along with other game pieces, most of which are carved from walrus ivory. Discovered in 1831 on Lewis in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland, they may constitute some of the few complete, surviving medieval chess sets, although it is not clear if a set as originally made can be assembled from the pieces. When found, the hoard contained 93 artifacts: 78 chess pieces, 14 tablemen and one belt buckle. Today, 82 pieces are owned and usually exhibited by the British Museum in London, and the remaining 11 are at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.

Additionally, a newly identified piece, a “warder”, the equivalent of a castle or rook, was sold for £735,000 in July 2019. Four other major pieces, and many pawns, remain missing from the chess sets.

The hoard was divided and sold in the 19th century; the British Museum (BM) holds eighty-two pieces, and National Museums Scotland has the other eleven pieces.

At the British Museum, it was Sir Frederic Madden, Assistant Keeper of Manuscripts, who persuaded the trustees to purchase for 80 guineas (£84) the eighty-two pieces which he had been misled into believing was the entire hoard. Madden was a palaeographer, a scholar of early vernacular literature, but he was especially intrigued by these artifacts because he was a chess enthusiast. Madden immediately set about writing a monumental research paper about the collection, titled “Historical remarks on the introduction of the game of chess into Europe and on the ancient chessmen discovered in the Isle of Lewis”, published in Archaeologia XXIV (1832), one that remains informative and impressive today.

The British Museum claims the chessmen were probably made in Trondheim, the medieval capital of Norway, in the 12th century, although some scholars have suggested other Nordic countries. During that period, the Outer Hebrides, along with other major groups of Scottish islands, were ruled by Norway.

According to Alex Woolf, director of the University of St Andrews Institute for Medieval Studies, there are reasons for believing the pieces came from Trondheim:

  • A broken queen piece in a similar style was found in an excavation of the archbishop’s palace – it appeared the piece was broken as it was being made.
  • The presence of wealthy people in Trondheim able to pay craftsmen for high-quality chess pieces.
  • Similar carving in Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim.
  • The excavation in Trondheim of a kite-shaped shield similar to shields on some of the pieces and a king piece of similar design found on Hitra Island, near the mouth of Trondheim Fjord. Woolf has said that the armour worn by the chess figures includes “perfect” reproductions of armour worn at the time in Norway. (from Wikipedia).

Chess is a recreational and competitive board game played between two players. It is sometimes called Western or international chess to distinguish it from related games such as xiangqi. The current form of the game emerged in Southern Europe during the second half of the 15th century after evolving from similar, much older games of Indian and Persian origin. Today, chess is one of the world’s most popular games, played by millions of people worldwide at home, in clubs, online, by correspondence, and in tournaments.

Chess is an abstract strategy game and involves no hidden information. It is played on a square chessboard with 64 squares arranged in an eight-by-eight grid. At the start, each player (one controlling the white pieces, the other controlling the black pieces) controls sixteen pieces: one king, one queen, two rooks, two knights, two bishops, and eight pawns. The object of the game is to checkmate the opponent’s king, whereby the king is under immediate attack (in “check”) and there is no way to remove it from attack on the next move. There are also several ways a game can end in a draw.

Organized chess arose in the 19th century. Chess competition today is governed internationally by FIDE (International Chess Federation). The first universally recognized World Chess Champion, Wilhelm Steinitz, claimed his title in 1886; Magnus Carlsen is the current World Champion. A huge body of chess theory has developed since the game’s inception. Aspects of art are found in chess composition; and chess in its turn influenced Western culture and art and has connections with other fields such as mathematics, computer science, and psychology.

One of the goals of early computer scientists was to create a chess-playing machine. In 1997, Deep Blue became the first computer to beat the reigning World Champion in a match when it defeated Garry Kasparov. Today’s chess engines are significantly stronger than even the best human players, and have deeply influenced the development of chess theory.

The origin of chess is a controversial matter. India, Persia, Central Asia and China, all of them, have good reasons to claim to be the cradle of chess. The earliest texts mentioning this game are from the beginning of the 7th century A.D.; three are written in Pahlavi (Middle Persian) and one is in Sanskrit, the Harshacharita. In one of their texts, which is a tale, the Persian narrator explained that Chatrang (their word for chess) had been sent to them by an Indian King. This is why several experts believe that Chess had originated in northwest India, by about the early 7th century. Its early form was known as chaturaṅga (Sanskrit: चतुरङ्ग), literally four divisions [of the military] – infantry, cavalry, elephants, and chariotry, represented by the pieces that would evolve into the modern pawn, knight, bishop, and rook, respectively. Chaturanga was played on an 8×8 uncheckered board, called ashtāpada. Thence it spread eastward and westward along the Silk Road. The earliest evidence of chess is found in the nearby Sasanian Persia around 600, where the game came to be known by the name chatrang. Chatrang was taken up by the Muslim world after the Islamic conquest of Persia (633–51), where it was then named shatranj, with the pieces largely retaining their Persian names. In Spanish “shatranj” was rendered as ajedrez (“al-shatranj”), in Portuguese as xadrez, and in Greek as ζατρίκιον (zatrikion, which comes directly from the Persian chatrang), but in the rest of Europe it was replaced by versions of the Persian shāh (“king”), which was familiar as an exclamation and became the English words “check” and “chess”. The word “checkmate” is derived from the Persian shāh māt (“the king is helpless”).

The oldest archaeological chess artifacts, ivory pieces, were excavated in ancient Afrasiab, today’s Samarkand, in Uzbekistan, Central Asia, and date to about 760, with some of them possibly older. Remarkably, almost all findings of the oldest pieces come from along the Silk Road, from the former regions of the Tarim Basin (today Xinjiang in China), Transoxiana, Sogdiana, Bactria, Gandhara, to Iran in one end and to India through Kashmir on another end…

The oldest known chess manual was in Arabic and dates to about 840, written by al-Adli ar-Rumi (800–870), a renowned Arab chess player, titled Kitab ash-shatranj (Book of the chess). This is a lost manuscript, but referenced in later works.

Xiangqi is the form of chess known in China. The eastern migration of chess, into China and Southeast Asia, has even less documentation than its migration west, making it largely conjectured. The word xiàngqí 象棋, was used in China to designate a game at least from 569 A.D. but it is not proved that this game was, or was not, directly connected with chess. The first reference to Chinese chess appears in a book entitled Xuán guaì lù 玄怪錄 (“Record of the Mysterious and Strange”), dating to about 800. Alternatively, some contend that chess arose from Chinese chess or one of its predecessors, although this has been contested. Nevertheless, it remains that xiangqi presents some intrinsic characters that makes easier to explain an evolution from China to India/Persia than the opposite direction.

The game reached Western Europe and Russia by at least three routes, the earliest being in the 9th century. By the year 1000, it had spread throughout both Muslim Iberia and Latin Europe. A Latin poem de scachis dated to the late 10th century has been preserved in Einsiedeln Abbey.

The game of chess was then played and known in all European countries. A famous 13th-century manuscript covering chess, backgammon, and dice is known as the Libro de los juegos. The rules were essentially similar to those of the Arabic shatranj. The differences were mostly the use of a checkered board (the Arabs used a plain monochrome board) and the habit of allowing some or all pawns to make an initial double step. In some regions, the Queen (who has replaced the Vizier) and/or the King could also make an initial leap of two squares with some conditions.

Around 1200, the rules of shatranj started to be modified in southern Europe, and later, several major changes made the game essentially as it is known today. These modern rules for the basic moves appeared in intellectual circles of Valencia, Spain around 1475 and then have been quickly adopted in Italy and south of France before diffusing in all Europe. Pawns gained the option of advancing two squares on their first move, while bishops and queens acquired their modern abilities. The queen replaced the earlier vizier chess piece towards the end of the 10th century and by the 15th century had become the most powerful piece; consequently, modern chess was referred to as “Queen’s Chess” or “Mad Queen Chess”. Castling, derived from the “kings leap” usually in combination with a pawn or rook move to bring the king to safety, was introduced. These new rules quickly spread throughout western Europe.

Writings about chess theory began to appear in the 15th century. The Repetición de Amores y Arte de Ajedrez (Repetition of Love and the Art of Playing Chess) by Spanish churchman Luis Ramírez de Lucena was published in Salamanca in 1497. Lucena and later masters like Portuguese Pedro Damiano, Italians Giovanni Leonardo Di Bona, Giulio Cesare Polerio and Gioachino Greco, and Spanish bishop Ruy López de Segura developed elements of openings and started to analyze simple endgames.

The game structure and nature of chess are related to several branches of mathematics. Many combinatorial and topological problems connected to chess, such as the knight’s tour and the eight queens puzzle, have been known for hundreds of years.

The number of legal positions in chess is estimated to be about 10**43 [Editor: 10 to the power of 43], and has been proven to be fewer than 10**47, with a game-tree complexity of approximately 10**123. The game-tree complexity of chess was first calculated by Claude Shannon as 10**120, a number known as the Shannon number. An average position typically has thirty to forty possible moves, but there may be as few as zero (in the case of checkmate or stalemate) or (in a constructed position) as many as 218.

In 1913, Ernst Zermelo used chess as a basis for his theory of game strategies, which is considered as one of the predecessors of game theory. Zermelo’s theorem states that it is possible to solve chess, i.e. to determine with certainty the outcome of a perfectly played game (either White can force a win, or Black can force a win, or both sides can force at least a draw). Of course with 10**43 legal positions in chess, it will take an impossibly long time to compute a perfect strategy with any feasible technology (per Wikipedia).

First, a Story:

There was a chess convention at a local hotel.  After the convention broke up, a bunch of chess nerds were overheard bragging about their games in the hotel lobby.  It was a case of chess-nuts boasting in an open foyer.

Second, a Song:

“One Night in Bangkok” is a song from the concept album and subsequent musical Chess by Tim Rice, Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus. British actor and singer Murray Head raps the verses, while the chorus is sung by Anders Glenmark, a Swedish singer, songwriter and producer.

The release topped the charts in many countries, including South Africa, West Germany, Switzerland, Denmark and Australia. It peaked at No. 3 in both Canada and the United States in May 1985, and at No. 12 in the United Kingdom.

The full version of the song begins with an orchestral introduction, entitled “Bangkok”, of Oriental style. This serves as the introduction to Act 2 in the original musical album, feeding into the first verse of “One Night in Bangkok” itself with an abrupt change in musical style.

The main song has a pop styling, whose lyrics describe the Thai capital city and its nightlife in the context of a chess match. In the original concept album for the musical, Swedish artist Anders Glenmark sang in the chorus, whereas the verses are a rap originally performed by Murray Head as the American chess grandmaster, a character known as Frederick “Freddie” Trumper in the staged versions. In the staged versions, a musical ensemble performs the choruses. Whereas the choruses extol Bangkok’s reputation and exciting atmosphere, the American’s verses ridicule the city, describing its attractions—the red-light district (Soi Cowboy), Chao Phraya River (“muddy old river”), Wat Pho (“reclining Buddha”)—as less interesting to him than a game of chess. These sarcastic denunciations led to Thailand’s Mass Communications Organisation issuing a ban on the song in 1985, saying its lyrics “cause misunderstanding about Thai society and show disrespect towards Buddhism”.

The lyrics mention actor Yul Brynner, about six months before his death, who had famously played the King of Siam in the Broadway musical and the 1956 film The King and I (also banned in Thailand). Other Thai-related references in the lyrics include ones to Thailand’s former name (“Siam”), kathoeys (“You’ll find a god in every golden cloister — And if you’re lucky then the god’s a she”), and the Oriental Hotel (girls “are set up in the Somerset Maugham suite”, to which the verse replies “I get my kicks above the waistline, sunshine”).

The “Tyrolean spa” mentioned early in the song refers to Merano in the South Tyrol region of Italy, the site of Act 1 of the musical. It also mentions three places where chess tournaments were previously held: Iceland; the Philippines; and Hastings, UK.

In the original London production of Chess, the setting for the song is an interview by Freddie, who is in Bangkok to serve as a TV analyst for a match involving his rival, world champion and Russian defector Anatoly Sergievsky. In the original Broadway production of the musical, the song appears not at the start of Act 2, but rather in the middle of Act 1, whereas in this version, the world championship of Freddie vs. Anatoly takes place in Bangkok.

Murray Seafield St George Head (born 5 March 1946) is an English actor and singer. Head has appeared in a number of films, including a starring role as the character Bob Elkin in the Oscar-nominated 1971 film Sunday Bloody Sunday. As a musician, he is most recognised for his international hit songs “Superstar” (from the 1970 rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar) and “One Night in Bangkok” (the 1984 single from the musical Chess, which topped the charts in various countries), and for his 1975 album Say It Ain’t So. He has been involved in several projects since the 1960s and continues to record music, perform concerts, and make appearances on television either as himself or as a character actor.

Here is Murray Head performing “One Night in Bangkok” from the musical Chess.  I hope you enjoy this!


Thought for the Day:

A to’fer for today.  Consider this one quote for the Black pieces and one quote for the White ones:

“I failed to make the chess team because of my height.” – Woody Allen


“In life, as in chess, forethought wins.” – Charles Buxton


Have a great day!

Dave & Colleen

© 2021 David J. Bilinsky and Colleen E. Bilinsky

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