Precious Registers: a Story…or Elegy…of Chess

“You thought that everything could be expressed with figures, formulas ! But when you were compiling your precious registers, you quite forgot the wild roses in the hedges, the signs in the sky, the smiles of summer, the great voice of the sea, the moments when man rises in his wrath and scatters all before him. […] Even when you are flushed with victory, defeat is knocking at your door. For there is in man an innate power that you will never vanquish, a gay madness born of mingled fear and courage, unreasoning yet victorious through all time. One day this power will surge up and you will learn that all your glory is but dust before the wind”.

Albert Camus, The State of Siege (1948)

Just as there are two armies on the board, black and white, there are two schools of thought when it comes to the categorization of chess: there are those who think it of the heart and, indeed, art…and then there are those those who see it as a science. But which side is victorious, if either, that is for you to decide.

The two army officers sat across from each other and before an ancient set of pieces in a rundown pub in St. Petersburg. They had been cadets there just a year before at the engineering college.

The first, Dmitri, was a disgruntled and sloppy officer. But in chess the rookie was a bit more cleaned up. Always trying new things, on some days he could force a beautiful checkmate with the right blend of vodka, insanity, and heart for this new game. He sat up straight, smirking, and enjoying his cigarette.

The other, Fyodor, was a straight arrow of an officer. He had been playing for years without idealism, always committed to the books and masters. The more consistent of the two players was hunched over, resting his chin on his fist, already calculating what his fifth move would be.

They were good friends but the latter had been somewhat of a chess instructor to the former for several weeks, and they had experienced their first division over the same.

You see, Dmitri was not easy to instruct. Unlike his professor, he was far too impulsive, or perhaps was too proud or drunk, to ever be keen on calculating more than a few moves or coming up with anything other than a general plan of attack.”

“E4?” Fyodor asked with a grin as Dmitri posted his first pawn, “The start of a textbook opening, maybe?”

Dmitri paused and responded with an air of secrecy “It’s unoriginal, I know…but not in the sense you think.”

“How so?”

With the grin of a child offering some smart mouth remark, and playing D4, Dmitri retorted, “Well, if I told you I’d certainly be beat.”

But it couldn’t have been more than four moves before he had to explain his undefended pawns in the center of the board, and, indeed, before Fyodor had obviously taken the upper hand.

“Alright.” Dmitri began, seeing his plan foil before his eyes, “I’ll tell you. You see, the game is somewhat of a metaphor for life, no? At least a metaphor for war? Well, since it’s so, I figured I could apply one of sly Hannibal’s tricks from Cannae. You see here how I exaggerate the weakness of my center, ready to envelop you once you take the bait?”

Fyodor looked up from the board, confusion and disappointment on his face.

“Well, you know it’s high risk and reward. It could end well for me.”

With a deep breath, veteran Fyodor did his best not to ramble on, “You’re more the Romans in that position than the Carthaginians. It’s not a real war. It’s an algorithm and you might want to play the book moves. Most of them are even vetted by the computers. You’ve heard news of the computers abroad and what they can do? Forget about their computers, what our computers have to say. Besides, if the game’s like any war, it’s some impersonal war of the future.”

“Using precious bandwidth to test chess moves? Here? In Russia?!”

“It’s quite a piece of propaganda you know, being the winner. Even Kasparov and Karpov like to use them to test positions.”

“Well, there’s little honor or spirit in that is there?” Dmitri asked sulking.

“Well, if everyone uses them? What do you do when your opponent brings cavalry to the battle? Bring your own, no?”

“Sure, but the Romans didn’t bring elephants to Zama. They outplayed them.”

“Soon enough, there won’t be outplaying a computer” Fyodor smartly retorted as he forked Dmitri’s king and rook.

Dmitri knocked over his king and shook hands with Fyodor. They sat in silence for a moment collecting their pieces. As Dmitri finished setting up his side, he grabbed some of Fyodor’s pieces to help him and began laughing, filling the immediate area with the smell of vodka, “They’ve even found a way to take the blood out of chess have they?”

“Right, for the players to some extent. But the best nation still wins. We are the ones who program the computers aren’t we?”

“As a soldier and gentlemen,” both grinned at that, “I wouldn’t have an engineer taking my plunder or trophy.”

“Fair enough. But remember there won’t be many trophies if you don’t study up on the computers. And forget the computers. You ought to read up on some literature at least to avoid blunders like that. You can borrow some of my books or I can show you.”

“I’m good.” Dmitri replied unsurprisingly, taking a long pause afterwards. “Scipio was born out of a great blunder, you know?”


“Scipio, he was one of only a few who escaped Cannae.”

“I wasn’t aware he was in that battle. I thought all the Romans had been slaughtered.”

“No, he was one of a dozen young men who made it out and, as you well know, beat Hannibal at Zama. He beat him against insurmountable odds too. Just what Rome needed after losing some 25% of their military-aged male population at Cannae. You realize how insane that is?” Dmitri asked in awe. “The Krauts capitulated after losing 5% in the First World War? For my part, a miracle of will like that is proof enough humanity will never be completely passed up by an algorithm.”

With a smile on his face, Fyodor obliged the drunk, “And for my part, I didn’t know it was possible to sound like Vodka. Come on, give me that piece so we can play again.”

“Just one win is a testament to the human spirit!”

Fyodor laughed, putting his last piece in position for battle, “Alright Scipio, only time will tell, huh?”

Dedicated to my friend and master in chess, Hunter

5 thoughts on “Precious Registers: a Story…or Elegy…of Chess

  1. Nicely done sir! Although I’m much the “Idiot” I’d love to challenge you to a chess match. Perhaps


    1. Billy! Thanks for the comment and for being my first follower out here. My is lukedp97. I like the day games but hmu if you want to do something else.


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