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Jottings 3: Espionage on the chess board

[ by Charles Cameron -- playing the two great games, from Caxton to Le Carré ]
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Karla, the Russian spymaster in John Le Carré‘s Smiley novels, is represented as the white queen in the 2011 Tomas Alfredson / Gary Oldman film of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (lower panel, above).

In chess terms, that’s quite a step up for spies — pawn promoted to queen.

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Before the digital age, in the early years of printing, way back in 1474, Thomas Caxton‘s press issued the second book ever printed in England — his Game and Playe of the Chesse — and things were subtly different. The eight pawns, for instance, differed one from another, each representing a different human type or craft, and named accordingly: “Labourer, Smith, Clerk, Merchant, Physician, Taverner, Guard and Ribald.”

It’s the Ribald (in the upper panel, above) who interests us here — for he’s the spy on the chessboard, as surely as Joshua the son of Nun and Caleb the son of Jephunneh were spies in the land of milk and honey. Caxton describes the Ribald, stationing him in front of the Rook, thus:

The rybaulders, players of dyse and of messagers and corrours ought to be sette to fore the rook/ For hit apperteyneth to the rook whiche is vicayre & lieutenant of the kynge to haue men couenable for to renne here and there for tenquyre & espie the place and cytees that myght be contrarye to the kynge/ And thys pawn that representeth thys peple ought to be formed in this maner/ he must haue the forme of a man that hath longe heeris and black and holdeth in his ryght hand a lityll monoye And in his lyfte hande thre Dyse And aboute hym a corde in stede of a gyrdell/ and ought to haue a boxe full o lettres

And what should be the appearance of such a one?

And thys pawn that representeth thys peple ought to be formed in this maner/ he must haue the forme of a man that hath longe heeris and black and holdeth in his ryght hand a lityll monoye And in his lyfte hande thre Dyse And aboute hym a corde in stede of a gyrdell/ and ought to haue a boxe full o lettres

Let’s go over that first part one more time, and make sure we understand it:

It pertains to the Rook, which is vicar and lieutenant of the King, to have men available to run hither and yon to make inquiries and spy out the place and cities that might be contrary to the King.

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And isn’t that precisely what Moses sent Joshua and Caleb out to do, when he instructed them in Numbers 13.17-20:

Get you up this way southward, and go up into the mountain: And see the land, what it is, and the people that dwelleth therein, whether they be strong or weak, few or many; And what the land is that they dwell in, whether it be good or bad; and what cities they be that they dwell in, whether in tents, or in strong holds; And what the land is, whether it be fat or lean, whether there be wood therein, or not. And be ye of good courage, and bring of the fruit of the land.

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Espionage has been around longer than chess: some things never change — and some things have changed significantly.

Today, you can’t tell one pawn from the next…

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