Chess has its roots in the Indian game of chaturanga, a Sanskrit word meaning "four members", which refers to the four parts of the Indian army that support a king and his vizier: infantry, elephants, cavalry and chariots. Interestingly, from a communications perspective, chaturanga absorbed the Oriental war model, which included the aforementioned viziers and elephants, before migrating to medieval Europe (as a Persian variant called shatranj), whence it became the game of chess and absorbed the feudal-political model of those cultures over the next 300 or so years — most notably by obsolescing the vizier and elephant in favour of the queen and bishop, respectively.
Raymond Keene, in Chess: An Illustrated History, notes an increased mobility in chess in the late fifteenth-century, which he suggests is caused by three factors: 1. castling was introduced; 2. pawns became able to move two squares on the opening move rather than one; 3. and the queen, as mentioned earlier, emerged from the earlier Persian vizier and became the most powerful piece on the board, able to move an unlimited number of squares horizontally, vertically or diagonally. Keene views this last as "mirroring the contemporary introduction of artillery, as a long-range means of molesting the opposition, in the sphere of battlefield technology" (p.24).
Marilyn Yalom, in Birth of the Chess Queen: A History, has a different explanation, however. She suggests that the emergence of the queen piece in chess as the most powerful piece on the board today paralleled the rise of powerful women in myriad royal courts of medieval Europe. In contemporary times, she asserts, the chess queen has become "the quintessential metaphor for female power in the Western world".
Keene disagrees. According to him, these sudden shifts "must be explicable in terms of the overall Renaissance dynamic — the increasingly urgent perception of distance, space and perspective which distinguished that period of human intellectual development". The queen's new power specifically reflected the introduction of siege artillery at Constantinople in 1453 and "had nothing to do with the example of powerful, warlike females such as Joan of Arc or Elizabeth I" (p.32).
Yalom's argument is perhaps more compelling. Even if siege artillery was an important factor to be absorbed in this war model, why was it the queen that was granted the additional powers? Put another way, why was the most fearsome war technology in history gendered female when introduced into chess?
Dennis Hemphill recently published an article in the Journal of the Philosophy of Sport (2005) entitled "Cybersport". His purpose was to explore the possibility that computer-based simulations, videogames, and other virtual worlds might constitute new vectors of experience that may be considered as forms of sport.
While Hemphill's goal is to critique some of the underlying philosophical assumptions underpinning the idea of "sport" to determine if there are, in fact, theoretical opportunities for a "cybersport," I plan to play the foil and critique parts of his argument in a series of posts here at sB.
Critique No.1: The Cybersporting Opponent
Obviously, not every sport involves the competition of one human being against another. We may consider mountain climbing, surfing, or bullfighting as sporting practices that involve a human "competing" against an immovable object, flowing weather, or animal, respectively.
Do we extend this possibility to human versus machine?
Put another way, who is one playing against when participating in a virtual sports simulation (Hemphill's cybersport)? Is it:
- versus another human opponent, temporally synchronous, via a layer of technological mediation?
- versus another human opponent's digital construct, which was created from an archive of that individual's previous embodied performances (ie. temporally asynchronous)?
- versus an abstraction of many performances by many individuals (ie. temporally asynchronous), which forms a simulation that we currently refer to as "artificial intelligence" in today's sports videogames?
I would argue that #1 most closely approximates my definition of virtual sport. But what of the other two scenarios?
Hemphill spends a great deal of time discussing the notion of embodiment as it relates to sport and cybersport. What also seems clear is that there is room for spatiality to be negotiated — virtual sporting spaces are definitely possible and consistent with a definition of sport. However, if that is the case, then temporality becomes a key consideration: can sport (versus another human being) be asynchronously contested?
Or, on the other hand, do we consider human versus machine sporting practice possible?
Donna Haraway would certainly endorse the latter, given her thesis that the boundaries between human, animal and machine are "leaky" at best. And if she is "right" then we must acknowledge that cockfighting and robot wars constitute sporting practices, as do any pugilistic/sporting combination pitting human against animal or machine, as in the bullfighting example above or versus digital constructs.
All of which is to say that the way we currently understand sport is about to change dramatically. Perhaps it all ends in a ritualistic Flesh Fair? More to come.
A few notes on the dohyo, the space in which the Japanese sport of sumo is practised:
The word "do-hyo" means "soil" (or "earth") and "bale" (of straw). Which is what the dohyo is made up of: a good 30 tons of special clay and sand (from the Ibaraki prefecture, northeast of Tokyo), and bales of rice straw. It is built from scratch for every tournament by the yobidashi (the ushers or stewards), a 60cm high platform, slightly wider at the bottom. The area on top of the platform measures approximately 540×540cm, and this is where most of the action happens.
When it has been properly purified and blessed the dohyo is a sacred place. Which, among other things, means that women may not stand upon it! On the Saturday before opening day of Hon Basho (the bi-monthly, 15-day tournaments) a ritual is performed by the highest ranking gyoji (referees) and gyoji from makuuchi and juryo. In the middle of the dohyo six items are buried: salt, washed rice, Torreya nuts, squid, kelp, and chestnuts. From this moment the dohyo is pure.
. . .
On the sides of the dohyo there are built-in steps — fumidawara. Three on each of the sides facing east, south, and west, and one on the northern side (only the north side shimpan (judge) is supposed to climb the dohyo from this side). On the SE and the SW corners are placed the salt boxes and water buckets. The wrestlers use the water to rinse their mouth, and the salt to purify the ring (by throwing it on the ground).
My final snippet (for now) from Eduardo Galeano's Soccer in Sun and Shadow:
The goal is soccer's orgasm. And like orgasms, goals have become an ever less frequent occurrence in modern life.
With the NCAA Men's Basketball tournament — March Madness — right around the corner, I'll offer a quick observation:
It is illustrative of modern society that the tournament bracket features the same architectural form as the organizational chart in the industrial corporation.
The Organization Man faces the same challenges in working up the hierarchy as the Cinderella Team, or, put another way, attaining a senior management position is akin to reaching the end of the Road to the Final Four, particularly if a competitor has a bye (buy?) into a later round of the bracket.
But every now and again, somebody lives the American Dream and makes it from the mail room to the top. So perhaps we just merge the two, then, and wait for the industrial-entertainment complex to manufacture our next hero — our next Cinderella Man?