"Human chess in the Sports Exhibition Munich",
a German postcard from 1899
Chess, the game of kings. I have always been intrigued by it, and not just because I took my blogging name from the mad fairy tale king of Bavaria (who, to my knowledge, was not a chess aficionado). In my teens, I used to play in a chess group in school. It is such a fascinating game. The rules are beautifully simple - anyone can learn them in a matter of five minutes, even if they have never heard of the game before. And yet, the thirty-two pieces of the two opposing sides, with six different types of pieces and on a board of eight by eight squares, make for a game of such complexity that it takes a lifetime to master. Actually, few people ever master chess even if they play their entire life. I admit that I am a semi-decent, but by no means a good chess player myself. I have not played much since my school days and am woefully out of practice. But I am still fascinated by the game.
The reason for my bringing up the subject is that I read an article about human chess the other day. It is a form of chess where people take the place of the pieces. You may have seen it as a theme in movies like Mel Brooks' History of the World, Part I (in a parody of aristocratic life) or Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone ("wizard's chess"). According to the article, human chess is first documented in the 15th century, but it may have been played during the earlier European middle ages already. Stories about Turkish sultans playing matches of human chess where every taken "piece" was executed, and of cruel Spanish inquisitors or the Russian czar Ivan the Terrible playing for the lives of real people, are probably urban legends. What is certain is that human chess was a popular pastime at the royal courts of early modern times. The absolute monarchs of the era had the money and the personnel to organize matches with enormous material effort. Gardens and parks were redecorated as giant chessboards, servants put into lavish costumes to act as the pieces. It must have been quite a sight.
It occurred to me that it would be a lot of fun to play a spanko version of human chess. I don't have to spell out to you what would happen to a piece that gets taken! The losing player would also get a proper thrashing after the match. Or both players a minor thrashing if the match ends with a draw. Of course, if you wanted to represent all the pieces with people, you would need a total of thirty-four people: thirty-two pieces plus two players. Or a total of thirty-two if the players take the place of the kings. In any case, that would be difficult to organize even at a large event like the Shadowlane party. But wouldn't it be awesome? The kings of both sides would, naturally, get a majestic implement to use, maybe a richly decorated cane. The queens, something equally painful - maybe a single tail whip? The rooks should be equipped with something blunt and bludgeoning, like a big wooden paddle. For the knights, a riding whip or crop seems the natural choice. I'm unsure about the bishops - maybe some kind of flogger would serve them well, "penitentiam agite" and all that? The pawns, as the most lowly pieces, would use their bare hands to spank the other pieces they take.
Or maybe it should be the other way around, with the lowly pieces getting the more intimidating implements, because it should sting more to be taken by a lowly piece? That would work as well. I'm sure we could come up with a nice set of rules and customs for the spanko version of human chess. Oh, and once you take unorthodox chess variants like hexagonal chess or four player chess into account, the possibilities really become limitless...