The Millions

Plunging Into the Infinite: How Literature Captures the Essence of Chess

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If stories teach us what it means to be human, then it’s no surprise that chess crops up again and again in literature. After all, people from all over the world have been playing this game for thousands of years. The game has a profound hold on our collective imagination? What about chess commands our respect as “the immortal game” or “the royal game,” whereas most of its peers are seen as harmless time-wasters?

The most obvious explanation why fiction is so replete with chess players is that, at their core, chess and stories are about the same thing—conflict. And it is a particular kind of conflict that is utterly devoid of chance. Whether a king is playing against a beggar or a nuclear physicist against a kindergartener, all that matters are the choices you make.

Chess is somewhat underserved by artistic mediums outside of literature. Often, it is used as a blunt metaphor for a literal conflict, like when Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty discuss the moves they’ve made in the battle on and off the board, or when , where a man plays a game of chess in which his life is on the line, and his opponent is Death.

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