Life in the palm of your hand

By Nazar Kostiv

| 2022-04-12

Life in the palm of your hand

Infinity is a human concept created for the sole purpose of capturing that we can not comprehend. How mesmerising it is to think about the endless possibilities. How fascinating is our inability to contemplate the complexity even of fractions of our lives.

From as early as our species obtained the ability to question and reason, and to this day, we have yearned to understand the world around us. Yet such a complicated task proved to be impossible.

In attempts to at the very least get nearer to the ultimate truth, ultimate understanding, we employed our favourite tactic. Divide and conquer. Take a subset of the problem and divide it again. And while the struggles were mostly futile, some things that came of it could be considered in every sense of the word — beautiful.

One such unintended consequence is the game of chess. An ancient game believed to have roamed this land for over a millennium. Never would I believe that drowning in a puddle was actually possible had I not learned it.

How could an idea for a board game capture the individual so accurately? It almost feels as if you could see into the soul of the player moving the pieces with their fingers. How they move, how they sit, how they speak. And most importantly how they think over the board tells you as much about the person as sharing a cup of tea with them, or even more.

How could a seemingly insignificant board game determine the future of entire nations as it did in 1972 in the midst of the Cold War?

How could a set of straightforward rules a child can understand forever bind the soul of those playing?

How could an objectively finite recreational game imitate our lives?

I’ll let you find out for yourself.

While all artists are not chess players, all chess players are artists — Marcel Duchamp

Legend as old as day “What a lovely day today, is it not?” the king addressed his servants.

“Truly marvellous.” quickly replied those around him, waiting to see how the king would entertain himself this day.

“Such a day requires something special, doesn’t it?” the king started pondering. “Ah yes. I know what would make this day ever more enjoyable. You, you, and you” he said pointing at the first bunch he could see. “Go out there and find me the most fascinating, the most interesting, the most … the most … the best game you can find. Bring it to me. Go. Now.”

And so the three ventured into the city to commence their search. Not having much time to spare they began asking every man, woman, and child they encountered about a game that would satisfy the king.

To their surprise, luck was on their side that day as they met a wandering traveller, who just happened to have recently invented a never-heard-before game. Furthermore, the traveller seemed rather interested in presenting his little invention to the king and agreed to come without much convincing.

The horses got saddled. The traveller got escorted to the palace. The heavy doors got opened and the king greeted the new guest in anticipation of what he had prepared for him.

The game that the traveller presented had a peculiar name — Chess. A small board of eight times eight squares. Two armies on each side. And a single objective — The scalp of the enemy king.

The king was no stranger to battle and quickly learned the rules although his play was rather aggressive and oftentimes reckless. Nonetheless, he fell in love with the game. Such a simple idea yet it leads to endless possibilities.

Under the influence of the game, the king decided to award the traveller for his invention. “What do you want, my friend? Anything. Just say the word.”

“I would like some rice if you don’t mind.” the traveller replied. “And in the tradition of the game, I would like a grain of rice for the first square on the chessboard. Two grains for the second. Four for the third. And double for each following square on the board until the last square has been reached.”

Slightly puzzled, yet prepared to fulfil his promise, the king waved his hand to get the rice bags and count exactly the amount requested. Minutes later, however, it became clear that the task of counting the rice grains was out of their hands. There simply wasn’t enough rice in the world.

Satisfied with his clever demonstration, the traveller smiled, accepted several bags full of gold, and carried on with his journey leaving it to the king to spread the word of chess.

View other essays by Nazar Kostiv