In this article I will discuss how Poul Anderson used the game of chess. I noticed how many times, in both stories and novels, chess is mentioned by him. This caused me to keep in the remoter recesses of my mind the wish to someday write about this author's use of the Royal Game. Chess, along with poker, seems to have been the games best liked by Anderson. I realize this essay will not interest most people, appealing only to fans of Poul Anderson who also enjoy chess. I don't claim to have tracked down every mention or use of chess by Anderson in his works--only to have collected a representative sampling of his use of that game.
Fred Saberhagen, in the Introduction he wrote for PAWN TO INFINITY (Ace Books, June 1982), made some interesting comments about how much chess and science fiction have in common. I'll quote some of what he said from page 1 of that book: "Chess and fantastic fiction (I use the term here to include science fiction) began an enthusiastic encounter with each other at least as far back as Lewis Carroll, and the mating is still in progress. Both contain strong elements of conflict--Emmanuel Lasker, one of the great players of all time, defined chess as a struggle--and both are set in worlds where time and space are subject to transformation, the ordinary rules of human existence do not apply. Therefore both tend to appeal to the same kind of mind; an interest in the fantastic is very often a sign of interest in chess, and vice versa." I used the text found in that book of Anderson's "The Immortal Game" for this essay. And what Saberhagen said about fantastic fiction fans often being interested in chess is certainly true of me!
Before getting down to a discussion of Anderson's use of chess, collected from some of his works, I shall give a general overview of how science fiction writers have used that game. I quoted the following text from the article "Games and Sports," by Bryan Stableford and Peter Nicholls (THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF SCIENCE FICTION, St. Martin's Press, 1993, page 467): "The game which has most frequently fascinated sf writers is chess, featured in Charles L. HARNESS's "The Chess Players (1953) and Poul ANDERSON's "The Immortal Game" (1954) as well as Malzberg's TACTICS OF CONQUEST. John Brunner's THE SQUARES OF THE CITY (1965) has a plot based on a real chess game, and Ian WATSON's QUEENMAGIC, KINGMAGIC (1986) includes a world structured as one (as well as worlds structured according to other games, including Snakes and Ladders!). Gerard Klein built the mystique of the game into STARMASTER'S GAMBIT (1958; trans. 1973). A version of chess crops up in the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs--in THE CHESSMEN OF MARS (1922) -- and a rather more exotic variant plays an important role in THE FAIRY CHESSMEN (1951; vt CHESSBOARD PLANET; vt THE FAR REALITY) by Lewis Padgett (Henry KUTTNER and C.L. MOORE). An anthology of chess stories is PAWN TO INFINITY (anth 1982) ed Fred SABERHAGEN."
The authors quoted immediately above also discussed how electronic arcade games and home computer games inspired many stories using such things. Stableford and Nicholls then wrote (also on page 467 of the same ENCYCLOPEDIA: "Stories of space battles whose protagonists are revealed in the last line to be icons in a computer-game "shoot 'em up" may have succeeded Shaggy God stories (---> ADAM AND EVE) as the archetypal folly perpetrated by novice writers (although Fredric Brown's similarly plotted "Recessional" , where the protagonists are chessmen has been much anthologized)."
Poul Anderson was fond of chess, so I now quote some examples of how he mentioned or used that game from his works. In Chapter I of THE LONG WAY HOME (Ace Books, 1955, as NO WORLD OF THEIR OWN. Republished in 1978 by Gregg Press as THE LONG WAY HOME), readers will find this on page 3: "Saris Hronna and Robert Matsumoto were the EXPLORER's chess fiends, they had spent many hours hunched over the board, and it was a strange thing to watch them: a human whose ancestors had left Japan for America and a creature from a planet a thousand light-years distant, caught in the trap of some ages-dead Persian. More than the gaping emptinesses he had traversed, more than the suns and planets he had seen spinning through darkness and vacuum, it gave Langley a sense of the immensity and omnipotence of time."
The game of chess is also seen in Anderson's story "Que Donn'rez Vous?" (TALES OF THE FLYING MOUNTAINS (Macmillan, 1970) on page 151:
Q-K7. "Check," said Roy Pearson.
Captain Elias ben Judah did not swear, because it was against his principles. But his comment was violent enough. "Second blinking check in a row," he added, moving the black king to refuge at Kt3."
"And the third," said his operations manager in a parched chuckle. The white queen jumped in his artificial hand to Q8.
One thing I have pondered over with some puzzlement is why Poul Anderson, when he happened to mention chess MOVES, used the English or Descriptive notation formerly used by most Anglo/American chess players for recording moves of the game. It would have been more "science fictional" if he had used the "Algebraic" notation now dominant for the recording of chess moves. After all, as long ago as H.J.R. Murray's massive A HISTORY OF CHESS (1913), wherein the author advocated and used that system, many English speaking chess players must have known of the existence of Algebraic notation. Anderson's use of English notation has caused some of his SF stories to "seem" just a bit dated. The most likely reason for this is simple enough: the English notation was what Anderson was FAMILIAR with. The rise and spread of chess computers of all kinds using only Algebraic notation after 1976 has driven Descriptive notation into extinction. (I myself used first the English notation after learning how to play chess--but switched over to Algebraic notation without difficulty after I was given my first chess computer in the early 1980's.)
In Anderson's THREE WORLDS TO CONQUER (USA, Pyramid Books, 1964), in Chapter 4, is another mention of the game: "...a chess set stood by Fraser's tobacco jar. He'd always liked chess and poker too much for his own good, he thought in the back of his brain: they could become a way of life if you didn't watch them." I think this can reasonably be understood as being Anderson's personal view of these games.
The most numerous references to chess I found in the works of Poul Anderson came from his Technic Civilization series. For example, the unnamed narrator in "The Problem of Pain" mentions chess: "...he plays chess at just about my level of skill," page 36 of THE EARTHBOOK OF STORMGATE (Berkley, 1978).
I now wish to discuss how Anderson mentioned chess in his Time Patrol story "Brave To Be A King" (THE TIME PATROL, Tor , page 53). Keith Denison, a Patrol agent Shanghaied by a powerful Median politician to pose as Cyrus the Great, was conversing with Manse Everard and said: "Kobad the Mage has some original thoughts, and he's the only man alive who dares beat me at chess." The problem is this, chess did not exist in that king's time, and would not for more than one thousand years. As H.J.R. Murray wrote on page 47 of A HISTORY OF CHESS (1913. Rpt. by Benjamin Press, Northampton, MA, undated): "The date when it occurred to some Indian to represent the chaturanga and its evolutions in a game cannot be fixed, though naturally it cannot be earlier than the organization of the army on which it is based. Chess was certainly in existence in the 7th century A.D., and it had already at that time penetrated to Persia." So it was mistaken of Anderson to say chess was being played in the Persia of Cyrus the Great (unless we are to assume Keith Denison taught the game at least to a few persons, such as Kobad the Mage).
Chess is also seen in ENSIGN FLANDRY in Chapter 2. Commander Max Abrams, the officer in charge of Terra's Naval Intelligence operations on the planet Starkad, was not only a chess player, but also, in one of those curiously respectful, half-friendly relationships which can show up even between enemies in opposing military forces, was playing a game of correspondence chess with Runei the Wanderer, the Merseian officer in command of the Roidhunate's forces on the same planet. Merseia was the great rival and enemy of the Terran Empire in the second half of Anderson's Technic Civilization stories. But even Merseia, however hostile it was to mankind, the race which had not only saved its planet (see "Day of Burning") and from whom it learned how to reach the stars, couldn't help being culturally influenced by the Terrans in some ways (such as adopting chess and the drinking of tea). Getting back to the point, in Chapter 2 we read: "Time must pass while the word seeped through channels. Abrams opened a drawer, got out his magnetic chessboard, and pondered. He hadn't actually been ready to play. However, Runei the Wanderer was too fascinated by their match to refuse an offer if he had a spare moment lying around; and damn if any Merseian son of a mother was going to win at a Terran game." We see Abrams reflecting on what move to make in the next paragraph: "Hm....promising development here, with the white bishop...no, wait, then the queen might come under attack...tempting to sic a computer onto the problem...betcha the opposition did...maybe not...ah, so." Regretfully, we see Anderson still using the antiquated Descriptive notation as Abrams gave Runei his move: "Knight to King's Bishop four."
One of the most extensive uses of chess to be found in the works of Anderson is in his novel A CIRCUS OF HELLS, on Wayland, a mineral rich moon of a Jupiter type gas giant planet. Centuries before, shortly before the complete collapse of the Polesotechnic League, a mining company had installed a self aware, conscious level computer for overseeing mining operations. Because Wayland was not a world suitable for long term occupation by humans. Knowledge of Wayland was lost during the Time of Troubles and even after the Empire arose to restore order. To help preserve its sanity during the centuries of isolation from outside contact, the self aware computer played chess and variants of chess. In Chapter VIII of A CIRCUS OF HELLS, this is what one of the robotic White Knights looked like: "A new kind of robot was approaching from within the sphere. It was about the size of a man. The skin gleamed golden. Iridescence was lovely over the great batlike wings that helped the springing of its two long hoofed and spurred legs. The body was a horizontal barrel, a balancing tail behind, a neck and head rearing in front. With its goggling optical and erect audio sensors, its muzzle that perhaps held the computer, its mane of erect antennae, that head looked eerily equine. From its forepart, swivel mounted, thrust a lance."
As already stated, the Wayland computer developed elaborate variants of chess to help preserve its sanity during centuries of isolation. As Flandry explained in Chapter X of A CIRCUS OF HELLS: "A thinking capability like that, with nothing but routine to handle, no new input, decade after decade--" Flandry shivered. "Br-rr! You must know what sensory deprivation does to organic sophonts. Our computer rescued itself by creating something complicated and unpredictable to watch." Almost the only criticism I would make about A CIRCUS OF HELLS is that too little is shown us of the Wayland AI (Artificial Intelligence). My view is that Anderson could have devoted a few more pages to that computer, showing us in more detail both its history and how it reacted to humans again making contact with it. Flandry did say the AI was pathetically eager to resume normal operations.
A few more examples of the widespread, ordinary playing of chess by both humans and non humans within the sphere of space covered by Technic Civilization can be found in additional stories set by Anderson in that series. In Chapter XX of A CIRCUS OF HELLS, after Dominic Flandry and his prisoner Ydwyr the Seeker had agreed on the terms and conditions of the latter's captivity and release, Ydwyr asked: "With that made clear, would you like a game of chess?" In Chapter XII of THE PLAGUE OF MASTERS, after Flandry's friends had rescued him from Biocontrol Central, we read: "Flandry bent his own head above respectfully folded hands, hoping the plumes would shadow his face enough. A couple of men, cross-legged, above a chessboard, looked up in curiosity and kept on looking." Years later, in Chapter VIII of WE CLAIM THESE STARS, as Flandry and Catherine Kittredge were traveling to the planet Vixen, readers will see: "Flandry discovered that Kit could give him a workout, when they played handball, down in the hold [of his space ship]. And her stubborn chess game defeated his swashbuckling tactics most of the time." Last, near the very end of THE GAME OF EMPIRE, in Chapter 23, we see Flandry using metaphors from chess: "We play the game move by move, and never see far ahead----the game of empire, of life, whatever you want to call it--and what the score will be when all the pieces at last go back into the box, who knows?"
But the story where we see Poul Anderson using chess most deeply came from his early years as a science fiction writer : "The Immortal Game" (THE MAGAZINE OF FANTASY AND SCIENCE FICTION, February 1954). The story was based on a game of chess played by Adolf Anderssen (White) and L.A.B.F. Kieseritzky (Black) in London, 1851. Anderson used MOSTLY the exact moves of this game around which to build a fascinating and thought provoking tale. The Immortal Game was especially interesting because of how White deliberately sacrificed the Queen and both Rooks to trap and checkmate Black. This beautiful game deserves to be included with this essay.
However, when I played through the moves of the game as given in "The Immortal Game" and wrote them out, I discovered that not all the moves were the same as the ones I listed below in "Immortal Game One" (or IG1, for short). The moves in IG1 belong to the game as recorded in the most widely accepted sources. I checked the entry for the Immortal Game on page 150 of THE OXFORD COMPANION TO CHESS, by David Hooper and Kenneth Whyld (Oxford University Press, 1984), and the moves are the same as in IG1. But the moves in "Immortal Game Two" (IG2) do not exactly match those in IG1 (see Black's third moves in both lines, for example). I hope these discrepancies came merely from Anderson using a different source for this game's moves. Because it would not have been right for an author to change what the standard sources gave as the moves for this game.
Immortal Game One. 1e4 e5 2f4 exf4 3Bc4 Qh4+ 4Kf1 b5 5Bxb5 Nf6 6Nf3 Qh6 7d3 Nh5 8Nh4 Qg5? 9Nf5 c6 10g4 Nf6 11Rg1 cxBb5 12h4 Qg6 13 h5 Qg5 14Qf3 Ng8 15Bxf4 Qf6 16Nc3 Bc5 17Nd5!? Qxb2 18Bd6 Bxg1 19e5 QxRa1+ 20Ke2 Na6 21Nxg7+ Kd8 22Qf6+ Nxf6 23Be7 # Mate
Immortal Game Two. 1e4 e5 2f4 exf4 3Bc4 b5 4Bxb5 Qh4+ 5Kf1 Nf6 6Nf3 Qh6 7d3 Nh5 8Nh4 c6 9Nf5 Qg5 10g4 Nf6 11Rg1 cxBb5 12h4 Qg6 13h5 Qg5 14Qf3 Ng8 15Bxf4 Qf6 16Nc3 Bc5 17Nd5 Qxb2 18Bd6 Bxg1 19e5 QxRa1+ 20Ke2 Na6 21Nxg7+ Kd8 22Qf6+ Nxf6 23Be7 # Mate
I list the moves in IG1 which differ from those given in IG2: 3,4,5,8,9, and from move 10, they are exactly the same. I twice checked and played out the moves given in "The Immortal Game" and they still came out as recorded in IG2. I don't understand why the moves in 3,4.5,8, and 9 are different from those in the most commonly accepted record of the Immortal Game (as given in the Hooper/Whyld book). I even checked online at Wikipedia, and it agrees with THE OXFORD COMPANION TO CHESS.
Poul Anderson's "The Immortal Game" has to be among the earliest (if not the earliest) of his stories touching on the themes of AIs and intelligent, self aware computers. In this story individual computers controlled its own individual chessmen, plus all the computers on a given side were linked together to form a kind of group mind programmed to obey the laws of chess and to make the best possible moves. This was part of a project studying what happens from using computers tied together in multiple linkages (PAWN TO INFINITY, "The Immortal Game," page 69).
An observer, visiting the scientist overseeing this project, wondered whether these computers shared many of the qualities of a human mind, going on to speculate the computers had become conscious and self aware, to have minds. An idea his host regarded with skepticism. His visitor argued that the feedback arrangement of these computers was analogous to the human nervous system. He then suggested that, even given that the individual computers were constrained by the group linkage, they still had individual personalities. Next he wondered if the computers interpreted the game of chess as the interplay of free will and necessity. And did these individual computers interpret the data of their moves as equivalent to the Churchillian "blood, sweat, and tears" (PAWN, pages 69-70)?
It is not my purpose in this article to give a complete commentary on Anderson's "The Immortal Game" * (despite writing about that story at greater than expected length). But a few more comments is called for. The viewpoint character of that story is the Black King's Bishop, called Rogard. As the computers were switched on, Rogard was stirred to wakefulness and gazed ahead: "Away there, across the somehow unreal red-and-black distances of the steppe, he saw sunlight flash on armor and caught the remote wild flutter of lifted banners. So it is war, he thought. So we must fight again (PAWN, page 57). Which means the man visiting the scientist was right, these computers were self aware, conscious, and thinking entities. And the computers could even feel love, as we see on pages 58-59 of PAWN TO INFINITY: "Looking beyond Flambard, the Bishop saw his Queen, Evyan the Fair, and there was something within him which stumbled and broke into fire. Very tall and lovely was the gray-eyed Queen of Cinnabar, where she stood in armor and looked out at the growing battle."
And I like this bit from the story, on page 62 of PAWN: "There had never been anything but this meaningless war, there would never be aught else, and when Rogard tried to think beyond the moment when the fight had begun, or the moment when it would end, there was only an abyss of darkness." Here we see one of the computerized chessmen groping with issues of fate and necessity. And this is more clearly brought out on page 63 of PAWN: "Rogard tried once more to get out of his square and go to Evyan's aid, but his will would not carry him. The Barrier held, invisible and uncrossable, and the Law held, the cruel and senseless Law which said a man must stand by and watch his lady be slain, and he railed at the bitterness of it, and lapsed into a gray waiting." Rogard was trying to violate the Laws of chess, which he had been programmed to obey. Even the mere intent and attempt indicates he had free will, at least in his mind. And we get a hint at Churchillian determination at move 20 when Rogard saw the White King, MIKILLATI, move into e2 to escape Evyan's check: "Peering into his face, Rogard felt a sudden coldness. There was no defeat there, it was craft and knowledge and an unbending steel will--..."
Rogard had come to realize that the wars of Cinnabar (Black) with LEUKAS (White) were senseless and of no use to either side: "No-No-you fool!" Rogard reached out, trying to break the Barrier, clawing at MIKILLATI. "Can't you see, none of us can win, it's death for us all if the war ends. Call her back!" (PAWN, page 68). And of course MIKILLATI ignored Rogard. But I would not go as far as Rogard did and say the computers died after they were switched off when Black was checkmated--they lapsed into a kind of dreamless sleep from which they would eventually be awakened, to fight again.