Chess was called “chaturanga” from a Sanskrit word that meant “four.” To conduct war successfully, you had to learn strategy that would coordinate all four branches of the military: infantry, cavalry, elephants, and chariotry.
It was an all-guy thing because girls weren’t used in battle. Tiny figures were carved that were the foot soldiers, horse soldiers, elephants and chariots. Each student got an equal number of each, faced off on a square table. Each got a king figure which they had to defend. No airplanes, tanks or Improvised Explosive Devices. Each side did get one piece that was a military adviser called a vizier.
There was no queen. Europeans added her as the most powerful figure on the board in the tenth century. With only some minor changes, that’s the game we have been playing ever since, at once a game and a highly developed sport.
Over the years, I have learned to play chess and probably own a chess set, stored somewhere. I would rather watch or teach chess to young people, even when, after a week or two, some would challenge the teacher. And win.
A nice thing about chess is, when the game is over, you are tired but left with the peacefulness that comes from touching something larger than your usual world. You feel closer to whomever you played as though you played as partners, not adversaries. Winning is not everything.
My maternal grandparents played chess regularly. As a boy, I often spent the night with them, sleeping in a tiny bedroom in the upstairs of of their old Victorian house. They waited until I went to bed, and so I never got to watch, or “kibbitz” as they put it. They knew I couldn’t resist asking questions or offering advice. Still, I learned almost everything I needed to know about sportsmanship from hearing my grandparents playing chess.
The old house was my accomplice. The heating system was an old converted coal furnace in the basement, a dusty, sleeping octopus with a few tentacle-like ducts leading to grill-work in the floor above we called “registers.” Heat got upstairs through other registers directly above the first. The design was thermally only mediocre, but acoustically superb. Whatever was said or done downstairs could be heard upstairs, especially if you were willing to crouch on the floor in exactly the right place. I got to hear a lot of chess, and sometimes went to sleep on the floor.
I didn’t miss much not seeing, just two people sitting across a card table, motionless until one would reach out and move a piece on the board. A commentary on the merits of the move followed.
What I remember most clearly was that my grandparents were never opponents, They were clearly partners as they were in their lives, each playing for the spirit of the game, not to win. When they finished, there were only the small sounds of putting away the board and its pieces, folding the card table, and replacing chairs. There were never any comments about the other’s playing, in spite of the spirited comments that earlier had drifted up to me during the game.
I never learned who won, but it didn’t matter. It was the manner in which they played that will stay with me the rest of my life. As far as I’m concerned, that’s how all games should be.