Red Hen Publications

Red Hen Publications — Commentary Collection: Endgame: Definition
The Potterverse Essays

Trying to make the Potterverse make sense since 2003!


A chess reference.

Well is it?

Does the adventure of Harry Potter and the Dark Lord read as a viable chess analogy?

By the end of HBP I didn’t see a lot of evidence for it. As pervading as the association with chess might have seemed over the course of the 3-Year summer, as the series progressed, we even appeared to even be getting less and less attention drawn to games of wizard’s chess being played in the background.

And yet, by the end of HBP we’d also all realized that once something occurs in this series, it seemed to be exponentially more likely to recur than not. And we had been given a major chess moment back in year 1. (Which I think, in retrospect was no more than an indication that Rowling had fallen in love with the idea of the live chess game in PS/SS, and in order to have it, one of the kids had to be good at chess. At that point of the series she still had enough restraint not to have her little self-insert Hermione be the one to shepherd the trio all the way through the Labyrinth by herself.)

So did I expect another game of live chess in Book 7?

Well, no. I didn’t. I thought that we might get some more chess references, and possibly some chess imagery, and we quite possibly could get some overt chess strategy or tactics, but by that point, whatever game it was that we were playing, it didn’t really seem to be chess. But, then, I do not really play chess, so I might not recognize a parallel even if it is right under my nose.

• • • •

Although I did think it might not hurt for us to direct a bit of attention back to the chess game that we did get.

If there was still a chess metaphor in operation, by the end of HBP we could probably put names to some of those captured pieces on the black side (Harry’s side). Cedric, probably James and Lily were all pawns. If they had ever even been on the board at all. You can make a good argument for Sirius Black being the “other Knight” whose capture so shocked and frightened the trio and convinced them all of the seriousness of their danger.

The only one of the towering, faceless white opposing pieces whose actions we were ever told about was the Queen, who was all over the board, violent and deadly.

But, to be truthful, I cannot see that a chess metaphor works at all if one attempts to apply it literally, it’s far too labored. Nor can I really see any way to viably postulate a separate identity for the “King” and the “Queen”, in the progress of this series to that date. Even if you identify the Queen as the traditional figure of the “Vizier” given the shortage of active female characters, and the subordinate positions of the ones we do have. I could only conflate the King and Queen into “Ruler”, whereupon we would no longer be dealing with chess.

And, if that was the case, with Dumbledore’s removal from the board you would expect the game to be over — which it clearly was not.

Unless, of course, Dumbledore was not the Ruler, but the player. In which case, what was he doing on the board in the first place? (ETA: one is still inclined to ask this question.)

• • • •

The endgame of a chess match is defined as the final phase of the game, when there are few pieces left on the board. Some define this as the part of the game when the King comes out and fights. For others the main objective of this phase is to promote your pawns. It’s real purpose, of course, is to narrow the focus and bend all of your attention to capturing the enemy King. So, yes, by the opening page of Deathly Hallows we had certainly entered the endgame of the series. But from where I was standing the game was not looking anything like chess.

Besides, it is only a pawn that survives to the 8th square which gets transfigured into a Ruler. And Harry did not really seem to be a pawn, even if he acted every bit as passively as one. Rowling’s determination that the reader should see Harry as being “special in every way” got far too much in the way of that.

I also didn’t think that what happened back in the live chess game in the Labyrinth was intended as a serious prediction or a reflection for what would eventually happen in the “endgame” of the series, either. Nor was it. We should probably have all been vigorously trying to divest ourselves of any underlying expectations we might be harboring that were based upon that.

Back in the Labyrinth, HRH stepped into the positions of three of the pieces in McGonagall’s game of living chess. Named pieces, each with set roles. None of them were pawns.

They also played the black side. We have to ignore the usual symbolism of our cultural associations regarding black vs. white here. This is chess. In chess it is the white side that always initiates the conflict. The kids were the defenders.

I think that the relevant metaphor here, if any, does not concern the trio’s “fates” so much as the assigned roles by which they brought the conclusion about. Which is to say, their methods.

And just what were those methods?

Hermione = Rook. One of the “major” pieces. After the Queen, the most versatile, and visibly powerful piece on the board. It can travel any number of squares in one move, occupy light or dark squares, shift forward, back, or sideways in either direction. But it is constrained to move in only one direction per move and to move only in a straight line, to follow the grid, to cross from one square to the next across the straight lines. A Rook may move up or down rank or file, but only one or the other in any move. This is a piece with considerable power but little subtlety. You always see it coming.

If we have to put a face on the “other Rook”, that face could well be Hagrid’s. He was expected to have some part yet to play. (ETA: As if. Rowling kept him around purely to play “Potter’s porter”, carrying his supposedly lifeless body out of the forest, weeping. Much as he had carried Albus’s body out of the castle, weeping, at the end of the previous book.)

I might have said that the other Rook was Minerva herself, but this whole “challenge” was hers. She was the player of that game, not one of the pieces. And she was playing the other side; the opposition. Indeed, if Minerva was a piece on that board, she was the terrifying white Queen! (Which is about as close as you are going to get to the Ever-So-Evil!Minerva of various fanon theories, here.)

Ron = Knight. A “minor” piece. The piece that leaps around corners. The Knight’s move appears erratic, impulsive and unpredictable, and you don’t always see it coming. It is the only piece that can leap over other pieces with impunity; but for all of its apparent eccentricity it is tightly constrained by its traditions. Two squares forward or back, plus one over, in either direction, or, two squares over to either side and one square forward or back. From the Knight’s starting point there is a maximum of only 8 squares that it can land, the path to each as crooked as a spider’s leg.

Harry = Bishop. The other “minor” piece. The piece that always starts the game positioned closest to a Ruler. Able to travel an unlimited number of squares in every move. Constrained always to follow an oblique path crossing squares only at the corners. This is the piece that “walks through walls”. Easily overlooked. The Bishop is further constrained to travel forever only on the same color of square from which it begins the game. Each side has both a “white Bishop” and a “black Bishop”. Between them they cover the whole board.

If Harry was Albus’s “white Bishop” (“No Unforgivable Curses from you, Potter!”**) I don’t think that we need to ask who was his black one.

(**ETA: and don’t we all wish that Rowling had kept to that premise, instead of going out of her way to demonstrate that the “Unforgivables” are anything but, and only unforgivable depending upon who is casting them?)

• • • •

And so long as we are directing our attention to chess, it is far from impossible to reflect that we may have been dealing with various bits of chess metaphor in the series all along. Which we, from our position in the middle of the board have not been able to recognize, and that Rowling has not chosen to call to our attention.

It’s a bit of a stretch. But it’s possible. I won’t labor the issue here, but I will direct you to the Wikipedia site if you want to go and explore the options.

But the basics are:

In chess; strategy refers to the overall, long range plans for the game.

Tactics are the plans and sets of moves designed to gain the advantage in the short term.

The Wikipedia entry on “tactics” reads:

In chess, a tactic refers to a short sequence of moves which limits the opponent’s options and which results in tangible gain. Tactics are usually contrasted to strategy, in which advantages take longer to be realized, and the opponent is less constrained in responding.

A single chess move considered in isolation is below the level of tactics. To take an enemy piece or deliver check may be useful, but unless it is part of a plan, a (single) move is usually not classified as a tactic.

The fundamental building blocks of tactics are two-move sequences in which the first move poses a double threat. The opponent is unable to respond to both threats in one move, so the first player realizes an advantage on the second move. This class of tactic includes forks, skewers, discovered attacks, undermining, overloading , and interference. Pins also fall into this category to some extent, although it is common for a defending player to relieve neither of the two threats posed by a pin, in which case the attacking player commonly maintains the pin for a longer period of time. A pin is therefore sometimes more strategic than tactical.

Often tactics of several types are conjoined in a combination. A combination, while still constraining the opponent’s responses, takes several moves to obtain advantage, and thus is considered deeper and more spectacular than the basic tactics listed above.

The concept of zwischenzug is often listed as a tactic, but might properly be called a counter-tactic instead. During the execution of a tactic one focuses on only a few pieces as relevant, but a zwischenzug complicates the situation by making a more urgent threat with another piece. The effect of a zwischenzug is to change the status quo before a tactic can come to fruition. The near ubiquity of the zwischenzug makes long combinations all the more rare and impressive.

Chess instructors usually steer beginners away from any detailed study of openings, focusing instead on tactics and endgames, which serve as the basis for later strategic understanding. One should not suppose, however, that one’s understanding of tactics is ever completed. It is not the case that all master players know everything there is to know about tactics, and differ only in depth of strategic understanding. On the contrary, as Garry Kasparov famously asserted, a grandmaster (GM) can often tactically overwhelm a mere international master (IM)

Chess computers are considered superhuman at tactics and rather weak at strategy. The fact that computers can play on a par with the best humans suggests that chess is primarily a tactical game. On the other hand, it must be noted that computers don’t think about tactics in human terms (fork, skewer, etc.); the nuances of human understanding of chess, both tactical and strategic, have not been imitated by computers, only matched in effective playing strength.