By Jake Rossen
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Martinis. Swing dancing. Etiquette. Opera. These days, grownups are having a ball tasting the substantive pleasures of bygone times. So what's the family-friendly counterpart? Consider slow cozy nights with everybody gathered around the kitchen table practicing focus, strategy, patience, and manners. Consider a winter-long family affair with the game of chess.
The Story of Chess by Horacio Cardo is the perfect way to start. Author and illustrator Cardo drapes an enchanting, myth-colored gossamer around the practical directives of the game. The story begins (with an oversized, stylized red-green-gold "T," the sure sign of a fairy tale): "This is the story of the game of chess, or at least the story as it was told to me when I was a child. They say it began a long time ago, before there were books or even the written word. It is the story of two nations, one black and the other white, that lived on and fought over a great island that has since disappeared." Cardo tells of two kings who call for a peacetime tribute to war and post a kingdom-wide reward for "the person who could tell the story in an original and memorable way." Enter a stranger named Sissa who plunks down a box, a playing board, and a fantastically simple explanation of a complex, sophisticated game.
Forget what you've read on the inside of your Parker Brothers box. This storyteller tethers the chess board to earth, sky, light, and space, explaining that it is "a replica of this island, divided by seven parallels and seven meridians, just like this map, and makes equal numbers of light and dark squares, sixty-four in all." Such precision. Such balance. Through Sissa, Cardo cups the essence of chess.
Sissa moves on to the pieces, beginning with the kings--"the most important figures in the game," he says, and the ones most dependent on others. This is more than a starting point for your family's working knowledge of chess. It's a foray into discussions on politics and leadership. And if you can handle that kind of weighty material on Family Night, move on to the next page. "The Queens," Sissa says, are "the most powerful . . . when confronted with the extraordinary powers assigned to their queens, the consternation of the kings made them fidget nervously in their thrones." Yikes. Talk about glass ceilings. All the more reason to teach our daughters to play the game, to get them feeling comfortable around strategy and power and fidgety kings.
Each member of the court--bishop, rook, knight, and pawn--is treated in kind, with equal parts myth and need-to-know information about the game. The text is concise. After the "king" and "queen" explanations, Sissa eases up on the politics of each piece--save for the pawns, who "always proceed straight ahead, loyal to their King, never choosing to turn back." Sissa acknowledges that pawns suffer the most casualties, and explains that "any pawn that reaches the last enemy defense will be instantly converted into a piece of higher value." It's bleak. It's politics! It's good material for a long winter's night of experiential learning.
Cardo packs the same rich mix of fact and fantasy into his illustrations, all forty-eight of them, many of them full-page. The court characters are surreal and expressive. The flat parchment and marble-looking backgrounds are a dramatic contrast to the characters' cartoon liveliness, malice, and downright eerie glee.
Among the very best is Cardo's depiction of the move "check" (the closest a piece can come to capturing the king). The rook, an angry medieval curly-moustached combatant, peers out the top of a tilting castle sketched in intricate grays. From between the attacker's head and one of the rook's turrets, an enormous red arm swells out toward the king. Splatters of paint suggest blood and fury, and an ornate, delicate hatchet shivers above the king's doomed, silly-looking head. The illustration looks like an oil painting, a pencil sketch, a photograph, and assemblage all in one. It's stunning. It jumps off the page right onto your own plastic monochrome chess board, and it will haunt you every time you're fortunate enough to whisper across the kitchen table, "check."
The hatchet and the blood are worth noting before Family Time begins, as is the definite truth that this is a story about battle. Not diplomacy, not mere strategy. It raises tough questions, cultivates powerful skills, and tests the true capacities of any family for courtesy and clear-headedness under pressure. There are tremendous rewards in meeting such challenges. As Sissa so aptly says in closing, "There is no treasure that can compare with the riches within this game."
Horacio Cardo's The Story of Chess was chosen as a Spring 1998 Pick of the List by American Bookseller.
Ann Rosenquist Fee is a regular reviewer of books forMinnesota Parent.