Shelby Lyman on Chess: Instrument of Survival
Sunday, August 16, 2015
(Published in print: Sunday, August 16, 2015)
Yuri Averbach, a former Soviet champion and the world’s oldest grandmaster at 93, is also a chess historian.
Assuming that chess originated in India because its pieces — chariots, elephants, cavalry and infantry — mirrored the four-part Indian army, he offered a real-life rationale for the game in a 2012 interview for Chess in Translation: In the first centuries AD, he said, “a flood of savages from Central Asia rushed through the passes in the Hindu Kush to reach northern India. They had to learn how to fight off the attacks. The result was the emergence of chess.”
Be that as it may, there is little doubt of the utilitarian value of chess. As Averbach told Chess in Translation,there is a saying attributed to Ardashir I, the founder of the Sassanid Dynasty, that goes like this: “I don’t understand a sultan who’s incapable of playing chess. How can he rule his kingdom?”
According to Averbach: “(I)t really is true that in Iran, chess was used to train young princes.”
There have been other leaders, especially the Russian revolutionaries, who placed a priority on popularization of the game. Ten years after the inception of a massive chess program, which for some had an explicit military rationale, the number of expert Russian players had increased from 300,000 to 5 million.
If chess is seen as a mirror of life for personages as disparate as Benjamin Franklin and Garry Kasparov, it is because of the practical demands made on it by centuries of its advocates.