Chess is a continuation of war by other means, according to this debut history of the popular board game.
Greenberg, a chess historian, wanders back to the year 2,500 BCE in his review of the game’s historiography (the period in the subtitle, 1989-90, appears to refer to when academic conferences were held). He locates its origins in India’s Gupta Empire in the fourth century, and embellishes on the historical consensus that it was inspired by the four branches of ancient Indian armies—pawns, knights, bishops, and rooks symbolize infantry, cavalry, war elephants, and chariots—by styling the game as an actual war game invented by King Chandragupta II’s staff to teach principles of their military academies. (Paradoxically, he also asserts that the king believed the game would keep peace in his realm by distracting young men from fighting—hence, it was the “The Anti-war Wargame.”) From there, Greenberg’s theory becomes more literal-minded, portraying changes in the game’s rules not as the idle brainstorms of aristocratic players, but as deterministic outgrowths of battlefield advances; thus, for example, “The innovation of the pawn’s double-step initial move was an attempt to represent the role of the infantry pikemen of the Crusades.” It often seems to mistake analogy for causality, as when the author writes that in a 1922 game “played against [Efim] Bogolyubov…the Queening of pawns by [Alexander] Alekhine symbolically represents the training and mobilization of tank corps by the Russians in 1942.” He also insists that Leonardo da Vinci “invented the modern moves of the Queen and Bishop” in order “to represent Leonardo’s innovative ideas regarding artillery” and “to represent Leonardo’s forerunner of the modern tank,” although he presents no evidence for this assertion. Such ill-supported, wildly overstated suppositions feel strained and unconvincing, and they’re presented in a confused, repetitive jumble with slabs of tiresome bibliography dropped into the main text. The book does reprint some historic games that aficionados can have fun playing through. However, those interested in the topic of chess history are best advised to seek a more polished, judicious account.
A haphazard, overwrought, sometimes-eccentric treatise on chess history that forgets that it’s just a game.