By Howard Shirley, Teen Department
The game of chess reaches back to at least the 6th Century AD, but its origins remain unclear. Though generally thought to have arisen in India, both China and Persia lay claim to the game, and other cultures have some variation of chess-like games (some still played today). Even the Vikings had a chess-like game by the nearly unpronounceable name “hnefatafl.” (Say that three times fast, if you can say it at all.)
Regardless of their differences, all these games have one thing in common: they’re all flat.
This is hardly surprising. Chess in many ways derives from concepts of ancient warfare, which, for tens of thousands of years, was mostly a (violent) meeting on roughly flat open areas. Even if there were hills or walls or fortresses or towers involved, for the most part nobody could move over (or under) the enemy. Chess did allow one piece—the knight—to leap over intervening pieces as part of its move, but for every other piece the world of chess remained solidly flat (Christopher Columbus not withstanding).
Moving Up (and Down)
During the 19th century an attempt was made to extend chess into three dimensions by stacking eight boards on top of each other (yes, 8). Well, chess wasn’t flat any more. But one can question whether it was playable!
As the 20th century arrived, and brought with it both the airplane and the submarine, the idea that chess should move into the third dimension again came out. This time, the design was restricted to 5 stacked boards, and added an unusual piece (the “unicorn”) which could make triangular movements (no, I don’t know what that means, either). The creator started a club for fans (in 1919 Germany), which lasted until World War II, when, apparently, Germany itself decided to try it all out in Real Life. And that pretty much ended that version of Germany, as well as that version of 3D chess.
Where No Chess Game Has Gone Before
Fast forward twenty some-odd years to the creation of a new American science fiction show named Star Trek. Set in the 23rd century, the show featured the now famous starship Enterprise, filled with amazing advanced technology, like automatic sliding doors that went “whoosh,” wall slots that cooked food in an instant, a talking computer, and more. (Hey, in the 1960s, all that stuff was futuristic and cool.) The show also included an unusually-shaped chess set, consisting of three quarter-sized chess boards in three staggered levels on an unusual crescent-shaped support, and four smaller boards on posts at the corners of these boards. The smaller boards were additional levels, halfway between the larger boards, and were often in different positions on the show, indicating that they could be moved (though this action was never shown on the show). The chess set was unusual-looking, implied a high level of complexity, and the open design clearly allowed the pieces to be easily moved (which the early 3D attempts mentioned above did not).
This three-dimensional chess set made prominent appearances in several episodes from the very beginning of the show. In three episodes, the chess game would be a pivotal plot element in the story’s resolution.* (How many television shows and movies, not about chess itself, have gone so far as to make chess central to the story?) Twenty years later, the show jumped from TV to film, and so did the chess set (at least as an idea). In Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, during a grand duel between battling starships, the heroes arrive at a crucial realization—namely that the villain’s tactics “reveal two-dimensional thinking.” Tellingly, early in the film the villain’s home was shown to have a crude, handmade two-dimensional checkers board game present—intentionally invoking memories of the three-dimensional chess set fans knew Spock and Kirk played. The implication? Had Khan played the same game as Kirk, he would have thought more broadly in his tactics. Without even showing the three-dimensional set, the movie made its existence again pivotal to the plot!
So, what does this game have to do with the Williamson County Public Library?
Well, thanks to yours truly, with assistance and advice from fellow staffer Lon Maxwell, the Teen Room now has one of these sets, completely homemade (except for the pieces; I’m not that skilled). The design is a bit different, but I humbly think it looks just as cool (if not cooler) as the original set crafted for the show.
How Do You Play?
Very Well, Thank You.
Okay, this is the kicker, actually. The answer to “How do you play Three Dimensional Chess?” is quite simply “How do you want to play it?”
You see, the original chess set was merely a prop. The design had nothing to do with creating an actual, playable game, but with creating an interesting, visual set object on which the actors could move the pieces about to create the appearance of a complicated game—a game “from the future,” as it were! Indeed, if you pay attention to the scenes in which characters play the game (and if you know about chess), you can quickly discern that there doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to the movement or the declared progress of the game in the dialog. In one of the earliest episodes to feature the game—“Charlie X,” the second episode ever aired—Kirk and Spock play chess, with Spock moving a knight and declaring “check,” when in fact Kirk’s king couldn’t possibly be in check from the knight’s movement. Actor Leonard Nimoy is clearly just moving pieces around in a visually interesting manner, but he’s not simulating any relationship to chess, 3D or otherwise. By contrast, William Shatner’s moves in this sequence can reasonably be assigned to the pieces being used, as well as his declaration of “checkmate,” representing a logically valid position (though really only for “check,” but still…).** So there was a prop, but not really a game.
But in 1975 artist and writer Joseph Franz contacted Paramount Studios, who held the rights to Star Trek, about a book he called “The Star Trek Technical Manual: Training Command Starfleet Academy.” The book would be a collection of detailed plans and drawings of Star Trek ships and equipment (even uniforms), all presented as if these were actual designs of futuristic devices, inadvertently downloaded into a 20th century USAF mainframe during the events of the episode “Tomorrow is Yesterday.” Paramount agreed, the book was published and snapped up by Trekkies around the globe. One of the schematics included in the book were the blueprints for a “tri-dimensional chess set,” as Franz dubbed it. He even included a cursory (yet incomplete) set of rules, as well as diagrams of how the smaller post boards might be moved over the course of the game. It was now possible for Trek and chess fans to at least build a set themselves, and even attempt to turn the simple rules into a playable reality.
Around this same time, Paramount also licensed the Franklin Mint to create and sell a high-end gold and silver official Star Trek Three Dimensional Chess set, complete with “official” rules. The “official” rules were reportedly borrowed from a 1977 magazine, The Star Trek Giant Poster Book, Voyage #14, who supposedly themselves borrowed the rules from an unattributed fan author. (This author may be Andrew Bartmeiss, who currently sells “The Federation Standard Rules” online. According to Bartmeiss, he contacted Joseph Franz about the set design, and Franz encouraged him to create the rules.) The Franklin Mint licensed set is still sold—for about $300 a pop!
(The set in the Teen Room cost the maker (yours truly) $20 (in materials). You can read about that here: https://parzivalsplace.blogspot.com/2018/05/queen-to-queens-level-two-mr-spock.html )
There are a number of other rules around the Internet, including “Tournament” Rules, a number of themed variants, and even a computer game version named “Parmen,” after a Star Trek villain (who, oddly, never played the game).
All the versions tend to share distinct similarities:
- Pieces move horizontally as in standard chess.
- Pieces can move between levels vertically, but only when also moving horizontally.
- Pieces can move above or below pieces on other levels.
- The smaller “attack boards”*** can be moved to new positions, potentially carrying a piece with them.
- The game may have as many as seven levels, or as few as four, depending on the position of the smaller boards.
StarChess, or, The Way We Play It
But truth be told, none of these rules are “official.” You can pretty much find the set you like the most, and play those. In the Teen Room, we offer StarChess, created by yours truly. (You can find a link to these rules on my blog: https://parzivalsplace.blogspot.com/2018/05/queen-to-queens-level-two-mr-spock.html ) I think they work rather well, but try for yourself.
And if you are a teen (or have one), you’re welcome to come try the game in the Teen Room. The set is generally available Saturday-Tuesday. Mr. Howard (yours truly) will be happy to teach you, or the rules are available if your prefer. (Note that due to Teen Room age policies, the set is restricted to use by teens ages 12-18, though adults who accompany teens can play for a short time, if the room is not busy. Check with the Teen Staff!)
Live long and prosper—and enjoy the future of chess!