A Beautiful Game

Chess is beautiful enough to waste your life for.

~Hans Ree

Believe it or not but I used to be a chess champion. When I was younger, I won two trophies and a gold medal in tournaments for Under 12s. I loved the game because it was strategic, clever and dramatic. However, once I got to secondary school, I only played for fun; it’s not cool to play chess when you’re a teenager!

So of course when The Queen’s Gambit took over Netflix I was both surprised and delighted – if more people were going to play because of this series then fantastic. Have I watched it you ask? No, I haven’t. Ironically, I don’t think it’s my sort of thing. I intend to read the book, but I have so many on my list, it probably won’t be for a while!

However, it did get me thinking about other books where chess is key to the plot.

A Battleground

People tend to get confused with how chess and Alice are connected. In the play Alice in Wonderland, the Red and White Queens are quite important characters. However, in the original book Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland Lewis Carroll makes no mention of chess.

It is not until Through the Looking Glass where chess comes into its own and the country upon which Alice stumbles is laid out in squares, just like a chessboard. Alice is offered the chance to become a Queen herself if she can move all the way to the eighth rank. On her journey she encounters Tweedledum, Tweedledee and even Humpty Dumpty!

What is interesting for chess geeks however, is that the story is a perfectly legal chess game, ending in the Queen (Alice) checkmating the Red King!

A Test of Character

Anyone who thinks chess is boring may be more excited by the game of Wizard Chess in the Harry Potter books. Ron teaches Harry how to play in the Philosopher’s Stone, unaware of how important chess will be to the trio’s survival later in the year. Hermione is disgusted by the barbaric nature of the game in the wizarding world, but knows enough of the rules not to jeopardise the most important chess game of their lives.

Before the three friends can stop You Know Who stealing the mystical stone, they have to pass through a series of enchantments. One of these is Professor McGonagall’s chess set. Life-size and faceless, the only way they make it through is due to Ron’s prowess at the game.

To me it reignited my love of chess and I played a few games after reading it; naturally I was rusty and no longer a champion, but I remembered the feeling of trying to predict my opponent’s move. Since reading the books, my godson is now keen to learn to play.

A Murder Weapon

Different from a traditional Poirot mystery, The Big Four has more similarities to a James Bond story. An international crime cartel is at work, with four key members, all of whom have murdered their enemies.

As the bodies mount up, Chess Grandmaster Gilmour Wilson dies in mysterious circumstances. He died during a chess match and the only mark upon him is a burn from the White Bishop he was clutching in his hand. Cleverly, the board and bishop had been tampered with to ensure his death based on the predictability of his first few moves, in this case the Spanish Opening, by electrocution.

As an avid Christie reader, I was slightly surprised by this one, as it was pretty farfetched and dramatic. There was less subtle cleverness and intrigue, more action and even an exploding mountain!

A Clue

The Lewis Chessmen are still somewhat of a mystery, but many believe them to have been crafted in the 12th Century. Discovered near Uig, Lewis in 1831, they can now be found in the British Museum and National Museum of Scotland.

Peter May’s Chessmen is the last book in the Lewis trilogy and we delve further into the history of the island. The three books are dark and dismal, with unspeakable horrors occurring in each (not to mention murders a-plenty), but the history elements in all three books are fascinating. The Chessmen in question are this time used to solve a murder, as the victim had been carving a replica set…

Once we are able to travel again, I’ll definitely be returning to the British Museum and checking out the Lewis Chessmen!

Have you read or watched The Queen’s Gambit?
Has it inspired you to play chess?

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