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Mostly because Lyndsay asked, and because in my youth, I was slightly obsessed with chess. I am not very good at it—you can’t be if you learn it at an age in double digits, unless you have a truly exceptional mind—but it fascinates me.
Chess in AGOS. Are you ready?
There are many variants of speed chess. Moriarty states that they were playing a version of it known as blitz chess. In speed chess (and these days, in chess generally, because tournament games are time-limited), you have chess clocks to time your moves. Once you finish your move, you push the button on your side and your opponent’s clock starts running.
In modern blitz chess, each player gets three to five minutes for the entire game. The individual moves aren’t timed, but you have to finish the game within ten minutes, so you have very little time to make each move. In AGOS, Moriarty asks Holmes if he can “manage a five-minute game”, which was the standard for Blitz chess games before digital chess clocks were invented in the 1950s. So we start out with a game of blitz chess.
Blindfold chess or sans voir is exactly what it says on the tin: a chess game wherein one of the players is blindfolded. Simultaneous blindfold chess, where the blindfolded player plays against several people with individual boards at once, was banned in 1930 in the USSR because of the health risks involved (yes, really). These days, there are many tournaments throughout the year, the biggest one being the Melody Amber tournament in Monte Carlo. The current World Record for simultaneous blindfold chess is 46 games at once, achieved in November.
Double-blindfold chess is what Holmes and Moriarty end up doing at the very end of AGOS: Chess wherein neither of the players has a board. Usually, when it’s played, players have an intermediary/referee to relay the moves or play them out on an actual board.
Right, now I have talked enough about chess. So, what has all this to do with AGOS?
Well, in the context of A Game of Shadows, I saw the chess game as a display of the extraordinary mental powers of both these characters.
Look at this:
To play a normal game of chess at any kind of level, you have to be able to see “into” the game for at least three or four moves ahead. If you’re a Grand Master, you can perhaps even “see”—or rather, calculate—six or seven moves ahead. So that’s some mental faculty you need in the first place.
To play blitz chess, you have to be able to make these calculations faster than in a normal game of chess.
For blindfold chess, you need to be able to do that and remember the positions of the pieces on the board after each move. All the pieces—your own and your opponent’s.
And for double-blindfold chess, you need two people who can do this.
So, dear Messrs Holmes and Moriarty. If, during a game of blitz chess, you decide to just do away with the board and carry on a conversation whilst still playing a game of chess in your mind’s eye… I kind of covet your skulls. That is to say, if you have the ability to do that, your mental faculties for memory and visuo-spatial awareness are seriously badass.
I love when versions of Holmes actually show this, because, from what we know from the Canon, Holmes’ visuo-spatial abilities must have been almost superhuman. I mean, “It is a hobby of mine to have an exact knowledge of London,” anyone? (And yeah, I love that bit in Dust and Shadow as well. And on the BBC show. And in BEEK.) And as for memory… well, we all know that he doesn’t really delete thigns from his hard-drive or clear them out of his brain-attic. He has an impeccable memory of criminal cases and that helps him solve new crimes because he recognises the patterns.
Moriarty, on the other hand, “sits motionless, like a spider at the centre of its web, but that web has a thousand radiations, and he knows well every quiver of each of them.” He clearly has a brain for strategy and also incredible faculties of memory (or at least a very good filing system) that enable him to head his criminal organisation and protect himself from ever being discovered as its main puppetmaster.
To sum it up: the chess metaphor while Europe is hanging in the balance is the one thing, but that game of chess said a lot about these characters as well, and it does draw on characteristics of them that we find in the Canon. I liked how it parallelled the “physical” fight between Holmes and Moriarty, which also happened only in their minds, and in which they also tried to anticipate each other’s moves.
ALSO, get this, from Reti’s 1920 book Modern Ideas In Chess:
“Those chess lovers who ask me how many moves I usually calculate in advance, when making a combination, are always astonished when I reply, quite truthfully, ‘as a rule not a single one.’ … the power of accurately calculating moves in advance has no greater place in chess than, perhaps, skilful calculation has in mathematics.”
Maybe it’s just me, but I hear an echo of “It is dangerous to theorise before one has data.”
My source, as ever, is my own memory, and Wikipedia: start here —> Blindfold chess and take it from there. I hope this post is of some use/interest to you :D