Monday, 1 June 2015

Chess and Social Class

I just published this post to Medium, where it looks really pretty. So I suggest you read it over there. 

I’ve recently got to thinking that chess is actually a great vehicle for talking about class structure. This is unusual for me, because I’m not actually a big fan of all the social justice “classism” stuff, but I couldn’t resist the connection.

Pawn Promotion

This is the example that gave me the idea. When a pawn makes it all the way from the first to the last rank (which in theory takes seven moves, but as there are other pieces to take care of usually takes many more), the pawn can be promoted to any of Knight, Bishop, Rook or Queen. People (including me) almost always choose Queen, because the Queen is incredibly powerful as she can move any distance up, down, left, right or diagonally as long as there aren’t any pieces in the way. 

I think this symbolises the American Dream: you start out as a peasant, and through hard work dramatically improve your status in society. Proponents of the American Dream don’t want to believe there’s luck involved, and in this move there isn’t much. So I guess it illustrates class mobility.

There’s also something interesting about how it’s a sudden transformation — I think an interesting variant would be to have the pawn transform into a knight, then bishop, then rook as it moved 3, 5, 7 squares up. That would definitely shake up the game.

Bishop movement

Another thing I find interesting is the way bishops move. This is obviously coming from a biased perspective, but the bishops move very sneakily, in my opinion, and can attack from far away when you don’t even notice they’re there (I’ve lost Queens to that before). 

I think that’s quite similar to the effect of the Catholic Church in Ireland today. Whereas in the last century, the Church might’ve been a Rook or Queen, it’s largely been pushed to the side as Ireland has become more secular. So it has to work more indirectly since it can’t just brute-force handle things anymore — once, the Church was involved in all areas of life, but now it’s been made less powerful and can only influence people through Mass. Well, and the Catholic schools. 

Feudal System

Chess is a pretty obvious model for the Feudal System (it’s been a few years since I studied this in History, so bear with me). The pawns, or peasants, are the most numerous: these are the farmers. They are given land by the Knights and pay tithes to the Bishops, representatives of the Church. The Rooks are warriors, I’d say — very powerful, and quite removed from the peasants. Or nobility. And then, of course, the real nobility at the top — the King and Queen.

Constitutional Monarchy
The Queen and King are interesting: the King is actually the least powerful piece on the board, with very restricted movement, while the Queen can do almost anything. And yet the King is most important.

I think there are definitely comparisons to be made here with a constitutional monarchy, where the King is the figurehead and the chess Queen is actually Prime Minister or President or Taoiseach, i.e. someone with actual power. 

The King can never actually be captured, but the Queen can (though it’s a heavy blow). You do see this kind of feverish loyalty to a figurehead in some countries and especially in the past, where everyone else on the board is willing to die to protect the King — because he symbolises the country. The King is just a flag. 


I want to talk a bit more about piece sacrifices. Apart from the King, there’s a clear order pieces should be sacrificed in, illustrated in this rough chart I just made:

I think that illustrates the disparity nicely. The value of pieces for chess scoring is set at:
Pawn — 1
Knight — 3
Bishop — 3
Rook — 5
Queen — 9

The King doesn’t have a set number (although I’ve seen 200) because (a) he can’t actually be captured (b) the price of losing him is the game. 

The “reluctance to lose” axis really means “value”, and for most of the pieces you can see they line up. The Queen has a power of 9, so I gave her a value of 9. The pawn had a power of 1, so I gave it a value of 1. But the king is an obvious outlier, with a power of 1 (because it can only move one square at a time) and an essentially infinite value (I plotted that arbitrarily as 18 so it wouldn’t distort the graph). 

So if two of your pieces — a Rook and a Queen — are being attacked by, say, a knight fork, you have to save your Queen at the expense of your Rook because she’s worth more. If it’s a Knight and a Bishop, it’s down to personal preference and the situation you’re in because they have equal points. I usually prefer to save the Knight because they’re great at forking (of course, if you’re being attacked by an unprotected Knight, your Knight can just take theirs). 

That was fun, but back to the point. Chess does promote the idea that some people (“pieces”) are better than others, because you’re really just seeing them as forces on a battlefield. If you’re a pawn (peasant, farmer, foot soldier), your life isn’t worth as much as the Queen’s (President, nuke bomb) and you should willingly sacrifice yourself. Of course, these pieces aren’t sentient, but it’s an interesting thought. 


I suppose it does make sense that chess is full of class politics. After all, it was designed to simulate a battle with different ranks, and these ranks represent the classes — especially those of the feudal system. It's very satisfying, in a way, to have ranks so clearly laid out, since in real life we often struggle to find our place in society (#deep). 

Also, I really enjoyed discussing that graph. 

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