Chess is commonly associated with nerds and smart people, at times a bit thick at the waist line, stooping over static configurations of smalls figurines on wooden checkered boards. Eventually, after a seemingly never-ending pondering on mysterious intricate combinations, one of the players will push forward this or that piece, while keeping monastic silence all along. Here and then, you may hear someone solemnly proclaim "check". That's when the game reaches its climax.
But enough of these popular misconceptions. Aside from such commonplace appearances in movies and novels, this peaceful warlike game can reveal us some interesting things. It has been around this earth for quite some time, so there’s definitely more to the picture than meets the eye. In fact, it is one of the most popular board games ever, has been present in all five continents ever since European explorers set foot on the New World, and can boast of having a recorded history that spans more than a thousand years. Not bad for an innocent pastime, eh? Here are five tidbits about the royal game that will have you never looking at your little chess set the same way.
#1. Chess was invented in India around the 7th century CE
Thanks to the formidable research undertaken by the Oxford scholar H. J. R. Murray, we can say confidently that modern chess is the continuation in time and space of a game played in 7th century India called chaturanga ("the four members", representing the four divisions of the old Indian army: chariots, elephants, cavalry and infantry). By comparing the name of the game, its pieces and related terms across many European languages, besides learning Arabic in order to have access to medieval manuscripts from Muslim-dominated areas, Murray was able to retrace the path taken by chess in its westward march starting in India, being subsequently seized on by Sassanid Persia, then by its Muslim conquerors, going all the way through Northern Africa until finally penetrating Western Europe, being carried along with the invading Moors, by way of the Iberian Peninsula. Take, for example, the piece known as "rook". That's an odd name for a piece that looks like a castle. The reason for it being referred to like this is that "rook" entered English through Norman-French roc, which in turn derives from Arabic rukhkh, coming ultimately from Persian rukh, which meant "chariot". Indeed, the corresponding piece in the original chaturanga represented a chariot.
#2. There are more possible chess games than atoms in our universe
People tend to relate chess with math, but this? Yep. The American mathematician Claude Shannon was able to give an estimate of the number of possible different chess games as being no lower than 10^120 (ten to the one hundred and twentieth power). That means 1 followed by 120 zeros! As a comparison, the number of atoms in the observable universe would be around 10^80. That's quite decent for a game of 32 carved pieces on a 64-square board.
#3. Not even modern-day computers play perfect chess
As the Shannon number makes patent, the total possible outcomes in the game of chess are so unearthly mind-boggling that even the IBM-designed supercomputer Deep Blue, which was said to be capable of evaluating 200 million positions per second, would take, literally, an eternity to completely solve the game of chess. As a matter of fact, it took several decades for computers to be able to beat world-class chess players, until Deep Blue finally inaugurated the current era of supercomputer chess by defeating the then World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov in an encounter of 6 games by the score of 3½–2½ (2 wins, 3 draws, 1 loss) in 1997.
#4. They built chess-playing automatons in the 18th and 19th centuries
Well, kind of. The most famous chess automaton was built in 1770 by Wolfgang von Kempelen, an Hungarian inventor, who christened his machine "the Turk". It toured Europe at the time, being presented at the court of Austrian Empress Maria Theresa, and is said to have played and checkmated Napoleon! The latter story is probably apocryphal, however. The Turk was actually a hoax, with a diminutive chess master concealed in its insides. Edgar Allan Poe wrote a chronicle trying to solve the enigma of "Maelzel's Chess Player" on occasion of its exhibition in Richmond in 1836. The automaton was then in possession of his subsequent owner, Johann Nepomuk Mäelzel. The incredible story of the mechanical Turk inspired a 2007 historical novel, The Chess Machine, by the German Robert Löhr.
#5. Chess has been a central theme in world-famous novels
Long before seizing the pen of the great Allan Poe, chess was used as a moral allegory in the medieval Liber de moribus hominum et officiis nobilium ac popularium super ludo scachorum (The Book of the Morals of Men and the Duties of Nobles and Commoners, on the Game of Chess) which managed to attain considerable popularity in the Late Middle Ages, being translated into several languages across Europe. Closer to our time, chess features prominently in Stefan Zweig's The Royal Game, and Vladimir Nabokov's The Defense. In both of these novels, the main characters are chess players who fall prey to the maddening complexities of chess, eventually being driven into a state of insanity by turning into chess-playing zombies.
Seneca, the ancient Roman Stoic philosopher, in his first moral letter to his pen-friend Lucilius, urged him to make the most out of his own time and not waste it by letting others take it away from him. There is no point in looking forward to making use of time at some point in the future, "for, as [the ancient Greeks] believed, it is too late to spare when you reach the dregs of the cask. Of that which remains at the bottom, the amount is slight, and the quality is vile". After a lifetime notorious for its extravagances, old Seneca's main concern was that his younger friend didn't give time its proper value. For the philosopher, a happy life was one in which time was well spent.
Time has always been a luxury, and how much more so in modern times! Time is money, they say. With that in mind, we could argue that happiness is a most sought out commodity nowadays, and since it is thought of as a commodity, many people strive to secure it through a lifetime of stressful work. I'd say that many mistake their theoretically fundamental right for the pursuit of happiness for a frenzied chase after money.
Let's imagine this scenario: you’ve worked really hard the whole year, but still wasn’t able to grab that raise you had set your mind to. Alas, so long for that renovation on your living room! So you take a hardworking approach and decide that a good remedy for not achieving your year's goal is toiling away during vacation time to earn extra! That way, you’ll be able to have the living room of your dreams.
Some of us might take such a fellow for a hopeless money-grubber, plugging away at every opportunity just because he simply doesn't know better. Don't be so quick in judging him, though. As a matter of fact, if you give a little thought to it, you'll realize many of us do take similar – albeit not so cartoonish – courses in our own lives. There are periods in life when we choose to devote most of our time to Mammon in order to fulfill some material needs. But then what? What do we do when we finally walk into our newly-revamped commodious living room, slouch on an ample, comfortable couch in front of a 50-plus-inch TV screen, and turn on our favorite sports team's game? We get bored. Okay, maybe not on the first day or week. But the truth is that after some time, all that comfort we struggled so hard to treat ourselves to ceases to be a source of self-satisfaction and we grow immune to it. We just take all that luxury for granted, and then turn our attention to what we've been missing out on our lives.
Psychology seems to support this very impression: as our life standard becomes higher, we tend to feel gradually less and less satisfied with all the stuff we have accumulated. I'd say we start to feel less and less assured whether it is a fair price we are paying in order to afford our lifestyle.
I'm not saying, however, that money is not important, fundamental even. Nelson Rodrigues is said to have declared, very cynically, that "money buys everything, even true love". I don't take that to mean that our species is invariably one of rapacious money-diggers. Rather, what our great tragic writer recognized was our inherent frailty as humans. We are fragile creatures who depend on certain material conditions so that we can give out the best in us.
Nevertheless, being wealthy is not the end of the story. Let's consider someone born with lots of money. Affluence alone doesn't translate into knowing how to put all that dough to good use. You may be dumping cash in all directions without a meaningful purpose. And I bet this can make anyone feel like a fool, as soon as the kick you get out of acquiring things on the nail dies out. I just gave this dull example to call your attention that it is self-evident that money by and of itself does not bring anyone an inch closer to happiness if he or she doesn't know how to spend it wisely. In fact, money that is poorly spent can bring a lot of frustration. Yet another point in the aforementioned epistle from Seneca is that the richness of a man should only be deemed by himself, otherwise he will never be happy since others’ expectations about us are inevitably fuzzy and fickle. Being rich is first and foremost being able to make good use of one’s own resources at the proper time.
Aside from that, a common mistake is to have our lives too much oriented toward targets which are ultimately external to us, so that we end up getting this feeling that we are being driven by external forces. Indeed, research suggests, quite surprisingly, that our brains are equipped to be happy regardless of the outcome. In other words: what we do is worth much more than what we get.
So, focusing on your own actions and efforts, rather than caring too much about succeeding in that job interview or getting a raise, can make you feel more like you're playing a leading role instead of being just an extra in your own life story.