Friday, 5 June 2015

Chessmen Of Four Worlds

On Earth, when a red chess piece is moved onto a square already occupied by a white piece, the white piece is "taken," i.e. removed from the board.

On Wayland, in Poul Anderson's A Circus Of Hells, when an intelligent computer plays chess against itself, the large, robotic pieces fight for possession of squares.

On Barsoom, in ERB's The Chessmen Of Mars, jetan pieces (with 100, not 64, squares) take each other, except when the game is played with armed men who fight to the death.

On Zho'da, in SM Stirling's In The Courts Of The Crimson Kings, dice determine which atanj piece wins the fight for a square.

Thus, atanj combines skill with chance. Players can agree to throw dice on whether a Coercive piece will defect but we are also told that not exercising Coercives increases the odds of their defection - as if they had a mind of their own? Atanj also seems to include some role play. Three threes on the dice give the paratroops in a Flier Transport time to emerge and capture the Chief Coercive whose square they have invaded. Three ones mean that the paratroops have persuaded the Chief Coercive to turn against his Despot.

By moving together to another square, the Flier Transport and the defected Chief Coercive confront the Despot who must therefore either restore Sh'u Maz or abdicate. In the game described, he abdicates. Thus, the other Despot has proved his superior fitness both to perpetuate his lineage and to establish Sustained Harmony. Atanj pieces include Coercives, Clandestines, Blockade, Boycott, Flier Transport and Despot.

Barsoom and Zho'da are two fictional versions of Mars.

1 comment:

Sean M. Brooks said...

Kaor, Paul!

Interesting, I think early forms of Terran chess, before it spread west from India, also had dice being used. But I would need to check Murray's classic HISTORY OF CHESS to be sure.

My view is that "atanj" is in several ways fundamentally different from Terran chess. Atanj, as a game of conflict, seems to prefer avoiding desperate struggles to the bitter end if you were losing, or a determination to win, no matter how high the costs. The Despot abdicates instead of being relentlessly attacked and trapped, Coercives defect rather than being slain in ruthless or relentless struggles. In other words, atanj shows wars as being fought for limited ends with limited weapons, which was how the hominids of Mars preferred to fight their wars.

Terran chess, by contrast, seems a far more RUTHLESS game than atanj. Human chess players, at all levels of skill, are often willing to be as ruthless in playing the game as the laws of chess allows. They will pitilessly sacrifice most of their own "armies," including queens and rooks, if that was what it took to either checkmate the hostile King or force it to resign. And it's not unknown for even a losing player to desperately play on far beyond the point where a sensible Martian would have his Despot abdicate. Such players will use their utmost wiles to snatch a draw or stalemate from a lost chess game. I've done that myself! And even escaped total defeat by a stalemate by obstinately refusing to concede defeat!

And Poul Anderson also wrote a short story based on the moves of a famous game of chess: "The Immortal Game." The original game was played by Karl Anderssen (White) with L.A.B.F. Kieseritzky (Black) in London, 1851. The game shows how Anderssen, with cunning and skill, deliberately sacrificed his Queen and Rooks to trap and checkmate Black. A perfect example both of how very different Terran chess is from atanj and Terran willingness to pay HEAVILY to win, at both chess and in wars.

I would also argue that "The Immortal Game" is an early experiment by Anderson in using the theme of AI in his works. The story shows the chess pieces of both colors thinking, speaking, and acting.