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Once Upon a Chess Game

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When most people look at a chess game, they see ... a chess game. Two players, thirty two lumps of wood or plastic, 64 squares, a clock. Don't get me wrong. There is nothing wrong with this. Chess is one of the best games invented by mankind. It's an endlessly fascinating interplay of logic and imagination. A struggle of human achievement and fallibility. But ... When I look at chess, I see stories. The pieces come alive. They talk to each other, fight personal battles with deadly enemies, fall in love. The games spin off into fantasies of superheroes, Hollywood films and sport shop assistants with unfeasibly pretty eyes. It's a curse, I tell you. A curse.

Excerpt: Once upon a chess game

by Will Once

Do You Have This in Blue?

The Skittles Room
[FEN "4rr1k/ppb4p/4b2Q/6p1/P1BRp3/
1PP1N2n/5qP1/5R1K b - - 0 31"]

Black to play


Never wear a red shirt on Star Trek.

How many pieces does it take to force mate? You might think that this is one of those "how long is a piece of string" questions. You can mate with just one piece or you can sometimes throw your entire army at your opponent. But, on average, how many pieces does it take to mate a king in the middle game? I haven't done any scientific analysis of this, but I think the answer would be around three.

Incidentally, I have a theory that three is something of a magic hidden number in chess, a sort of chess pi. But that is a story for another time. Today we need to talk about Star Trek's infamous red shirts, and how they help us to give mate in the middle game.

The makers of Star Trek had a problem. The show is supposed to be about a star ship with a crew of several hundreds, but they had to make it with a regular cast of fewer than 10 actors. And nearly all of those were command officers, because most of the action takes place on the bridge.

So how exactly do you shoot a scene away from the bridge, say when they need to beam down to a planet to meet an alien race? The answer, somewhat unconvincingly, was to take most of the senior staff down to the planet, leaving only Scotty in charge of the Enterprise. And that was dangerous, as Scotty's main role in life was to increase the tension at key moments by saying in his Canadian/Scottish accent: "the engines cannae take it". Not exactly what you would call command material. If all of the away team were killed, the USS Enterprise would spend the rest of its five year mission boldly making repairs. Slowly.

And that's also where the red shirts come in. If the away team is made up almost entirely of senior officers, who gets killed when the plot calls for a death ray or ravenous beast to reduce the crew complement by one? You can't kill off your main characters (not until the movies, and then they had an annoying habit of coming back to life). So you need to bring along an unnamed crewman, nearly always in a red shirt, to take one for the team. Then Bones could wave a glowing lipstick over him and say "he's dead, Jim" or "I'm a doctor, not a miracle worker."

Most middle game mating combinations seem to fall into a similar pattern. We usually need two main pieces to deliver the mate - in today's puzzle a knight and bishop - and a third red-shirted piece (today, that's the queen) to give up its life in order to demolish or distract the defending pieces.

And that also helps us to build up our mating attacks. I am not saying that you can't mate with just one piece or two. But it is certainly much harder to break down a half-decent defence. In most instances, you need to train at least three pieces on the squares around the enemy king. For long range pieces (bishops, queen, rooks) that means open lines, but the knight needs to be launched up the board, preferably to find an outpost.

If you want to be a better player and launch mating attacks, remember the rule of three and always bring along a red shirt or two. And if you ever find yourself on board a star ship as a new crewman, crew-woman or crew-being of indeterminate gender, and the quartermaster offers you a red shirt to wear, take my advice ... smile sweetly and ask: "Many thanks, but do you have this one in blue? Red clashes with my eyes."

Live long and prosper.


James Moore Hanham v Wilhelm Steinitz, 1894

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Bc5 4.c3 Nf6 5.d3 d6 6.Nbd2 Bb6 7.Bb3 Ne7 8.Nc4 Ng6 9.h3 c6 10.0-0 Bc7 11.a4 Qe7 12.Re1 0-0 13.d4 Kh8 14.Qd3 Nh5 15.Nh2 Nhf4 16.Bxf4 Nxf4 17.Qg3 Be6 18.Rad1 f6 19.Nf1 Qf7 20.Nfe3 d5 21.exd5 cxd5 22.dxe5 dxc4 23.Bxc4 fxe5 24.b3 e4 25.Qh4 Rae8 26.Rd4 g5 27.Qh6 Nxh3+ 28.Kh1 Nxf2+ 29.Kg1 Nh3+ 30.Kh1 Qf2 31.Rf1

31...Qg1+! A pretty mating combination. 32.Rxg1 Nf2#

The Skittles Room
[FEN "4rr1k/ppb4p/4b2Q/6p1/P1BRp3/
1PP1N3/5nP1/6RK w - - 0 33"]


Once upon a chess game is available as an ebook from Amazon and offers forty similar stories.


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