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I have a scene in a upcoming novel where two people play a game of chess, and I realized how difficult it was to describe it. The problem is due to the fact that there are many pieces and you can't really tell your readers where every pieces are at a certain point, and you also need to make sure that the location of the piece is possible.

Anyway, here's an excerpt:

Due to the exchange in the centre, Black was in a difficult situation. White had a comfortable situation against the isolated pawn. White placed his rook on c1, the usual in this situation, waiting for the opponent to make a move with his queen. Was this the right move? White thought for a moment. He realized he would need to move the rook to b1 in case he would need to revert back to the Carlsbad structure.

The problem is it's very hard to understand where the pieces are exactly, and I can't just describe where every pieces are in a particular situation. It would take way too long, so I will probably lose my reader. It's a sort of lose-lose situation and I can't think of any good way to get out of this situation.

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    If you want to be evocative, try using the older notation. R to QB1 is still meaningful. – Rasdashan Mar 16 at 13:10
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    Would including a diagram showing the position be an option? In any case, do you expect all your readers to be familiar with chess, so is it an important plot point? – Thorbjørn Ravn Andersen Mar 16 at 14:51
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    I know a certain Harry Potter book has a chess game scene, you could maybe get inspired from that. But that's all I know, maybe this could help you. – stackzebra Mar 16 at 15:47
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    2001 A Space Oddessy has chess in it, as well as the novel Forrest Gump. But, to your point, this is probably as much description of a chess game as you'd need. It's enough to convey the strategic nature of chess, but not to much to become boring and distracting to the reader. Don't fall into the trap of trying to show off how smart you want everyone to think you are. – Issel Mar 17 at 1:40
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    Have a look at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Royal_Game (not just the website, the book is quite excellent). Even though there is one chess party that it is quite essential, and it is very well described, it's not to the point where you could reconstruct the game. – gnasher729 Mar 17 at 14:14

11 Answers 11

32

I'm finding your use of "Black" and "White" as character names to be distracting. I realize that it's meant to be more straight-forward to use the chess sides as names, but it throws me off.

Give them names, give them genders (different genders is helpful for following things if it otherwise doesn't matter). Why? Because your reader cares about the emotional investment in the game and not the details, unless it's a reader who happens to be a chess expert. I know how to play chess in the casual way many do and I couldn't follow those details.

I suggest you intersperse the exchange with dialogue that describes the positions. "Rook to C1." If it's a formal game where the moves are called out, show it as actual quotes (from the player or a commentator). If it's an informal game, show the moves in italics as a description of the action. Then leave the narrative to describe the characters' emotions and strategy and so forth. This allows the reader to become invested in the moves and to understand them, even if they don't understand them.

(Note: I don't know chess notation and some moves may make no sense, just replace with accurate moves.)

After the last exchange, Hugo's position was a lot more comfortable, and his opponent's more difficult.

White: Rook to C1.

This was the usual move in situations like this and Hugo expected Lida to move her queen in response. Had he made the right move?

Black: Castle to A5.

Hugo bit his lip. He should have moved the rook to B1. He could do it now, it set him up to revert to the Carlsbad structure if he had to, but he'd lose a chance to move his knight into a more protective position.

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    Nice idea! Didn't think about this format. – repomonster Mar 16 at 15:51
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    @Cyn Do you mean castle as the maneuver to get the king away from potential danger (king side castle or queen side castle) or as a less formal name for rook? – Rasdashan Mar 16 at 18:31
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    @Rasdashan I mean: "substitute actual chess moves for my examples." I was using Repomonster's wording but I don't know enough about chess to know if I messed them up. But I thought rook was the same as bishop...the tall pointy one that goes diagonal. Castle is more stout with a castle tower shape. – Cyn says make Monica whole Mar 16 at 20:27
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    This was a great answer, interesting to read the conversion of the text and I think offers the best way to solve the problem. Great stuff. – raddevus Mar 16 at 21:29
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    @Rasdashan Nodding. I am familiar with the castle move, but I meant "move the castle." It doesn't really matter, I was just showing formatting. OP can fix the details. – Cyn says make Monica whole Mar 16 at 21:46
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It depends on if you want to be precise or abstract.

If you want to be precise, proper notation (abc, 123) is the way to go, but this may lose your readers if they are unfamiliar with the notation. If you want to be abstract, describe it like the events aren't happening on a board, but as an actual battle that is happening around your players. This can still give the same feeling without being as constrained by the notation restrictions.

That said, it just really depends on what you want to go for.

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The game should say something about the characters playing it.

What are you trying to convey through this scene? The decision-making process of one or both actors? The actual action of the game? How they perceive the struggle?

For example, if the main character is supposed to be seen as experienced, but perhaps not an expert in chess:

[Char one] didn't expect that move -- the King's Gambit. He had thought [char two] was the slow, strategic sort. This move, though, opened up risks for everyone. [Char one] glanced at the clock. There was no time to ponder -- he moved his queen's pawn to the center, as was his habit.

If a character is supposed to be seen as highly knowledgeable:

He opened with his favorite, the Queen's Gambit. If [char two] took the hanging pawn, he'd control the center of the board. From there, it would be easy. [Char two] declined, defending the center instead of taking the bait. "The Tarrasch defense," thought [Char one], "This will be a long game..."

In neither case am I describing the moves in detail.

If you want to describe an entire game through an extended scene, in detail, you should explore some completed games and base your scene on it. As long as you're basing your descriptions on a real game, you should have no problem sticking to what's possible.

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    This. Don't describe the game itself, describe the game being played. – Thomo Mar 18 at 1:25
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Your story must be perfectly readable and understandable by people who do not play chess, do not know the rules, and only know through pop-culture osmosis that there are pieces called 'rook', 'knight', etc. Write with that in mind.

With that in mind, I probably wouldn't use chess notation at all. Somebody who has never played chess wouldn't be able to read it. Instead, I'd describe the situation, in broad strokes. A player might be forced to sacrifice a piece, or they might suddenly realise their careful plan has a fatal flaw, the opponent might find a way to escape a trap laid for them, or they might be playing an aggressive game, forcing the MC to do nothing but react. Those are all evocative descriptions that do not require the specifics of what's happening on the board, to be understood.

@Stackzebra mentions in a comment the chess game from Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. It's a good example. The scene is engaging, it's fun, the reader experiences the tension of it, it works. Only trouble is, if you put the titbits of information about the game together, it turns out that not only is there no actual position in the author's mind that she's describing on the page, but she appears not to know the chess rules at all.

If I take one step forward

says Ron, the knight.

This example is great because the chess fails: the scene works despite the chess failure. Exemplifying what is important (the character dynamics, the sense of danger, etc.) and what isn't important (the chess).

For a different example, I would point you to the videogame Dragon Age Inquisition. While your player-character is walking around doing things, some of your companions banter in the background. And two of them start a chess game. Here's a link to the full dialogue, with added animation, and added overlay of the actual game being played. Incidentally, here the chess does work - they are playing the Immortal Game.

An example of dialogue from their game:

Solas: So, where were we? Ah, yes. Mage to C4.
Iron Bull: Little aggressive. Arishok to H4. Check.
Solas: Speaking of aggressive. I assume Arishok is your term for the Queen?

The two characters come from different cultures, their names for the pieces are different. It's a titbit of worldbuilding information that's interesting whether you're following the game or not. Also, note the commentary about a move being aggressive. Again, that clues in the non-chess-player audience. The game proceeds in the same way: it's all audio that you hear while playing, no board before you, so the dialogue must engage you in other ways, similar to how a novel would have to do it. In order to achieve that, every move is commented on, in a way that one doesn't need to understand chess in order to understand what's going on.

Iron Bull: You've got no Towers. You're down to a single Mage. Too bad you wasted time moving that Pawn to... to... You sneaky son of a bitch.

  • Great examples. But I would disagree in that naming the pieces and board locations might add a feeling of expertise to the game, even for readers who don't know them. It makes us see the characters as skilled and intelligent. As long as the relative impact is described ("an aggressive move..."), we will follow along, having gained respect for the characters and their knowledge. – icanfathom Mar 18 at 21:48
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If your reader plays chess, you have no need to describe every piece. They will assume, unless otherwise stated, that most of the pieces are still in their original position.

Using the names of particular gambits and positions might be distracting. Remember, it is a game between two players and at certain levels, playing the player is important too.

The pawn exchange in the centre of the board opened him up to an attack, his black knight sacrificed for position. Might have been a blunder, his opponent seemed more confident. He saw a possible check and decided to take it - moving his rook into position at KB8 - he liked the old notation. Protected obliquely by his bishop, might just pull a win out of this situation and flip it. Unless there was something he didn’t see. Reluctantly, he removed his fingers from the rook, committing to the move. Why was he smiling?

  • Really good description! – repomonster Mar 16 at 13:47
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I'll answer this question from a chess perspective (I'm a National Master of chess). I don't think the description makes much sense. You indicated there is an isolated pawn in the center and that white is thinking of transitioning to a Carlsbad structure. The only way this could happen is if black has a pawn on d5, pawn on b7, and white can make an exchange on c6 where black could capture back with the pawn. In that case, it's hard to think of a reasonable situation where white would want his rook on b1 (unless I'm missing something). Your reader probably isn't going to notice but it bothers me when I see inaccurate descriptions of chess in media, though this isn't nearly as bad as most!

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    Welcome to Writing.SE! Please take our tour, if you haven't already. Our site is focused on the craft of writing, not so much on chess. How would you want a chess game to be described in a story you're reading? Note: story, not professional chess literature. A National Master's perspective on that would actually be very interesting. – Galastel supports GoFundMonica Mar 17 at 22:58
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    +1 for the great details about chess. While it may not matter in this (or another specific) story, I am with you about getting details right. For example, one of my very favorite novels has a huge blemish on it as far as I'm concerned because it propagates one of the worst myths within genealogy (that Ellis Island officials changed people's names). Any serious genealogist, whether hobbyist or professional, bristles at the very idea, fiction or not. So I get it about you wanting the chess to be right. If I ever include a chess scene in a book, I know who I want to be my sensitivity reader! – Cyn says make Monica whole Mar 18 at 2:12
  • I play chess sometimes, and this scene is already going over my head. I wonder how a reader without knowledge or interest in chess would fee reading it. – iamtowrite Mar 18 at 18:44
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As a novelist myself, who writes fiction about the game of checkers, I find the critical question is this:

Who is your intended and expected audience?

Makes a lot of difference in how you handle it.

We're looking for long answers that provide some explanation and context. Don't just give a one-line answer; explain why your answer is right, ideally with citations. Answers that don't include explanations may be removed.

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    Hi Bob! Welcome to Writing.SE! Your answer would be better if you could expand it: give some examples of how writing for different audiences would affect the way one writes, for this specific question. You say it "makes a lot of difference", but you don't explain how. Also, take a look at our tour and How to Answer pages, if you haven't already. :) – Galastel supports GoFundMonica Mar 17 at 22:01
  • This comes across to me as a request for clarification rather than an actual answer, and should have been a comment. I appreciate that you don't have enough reputation to comment yet, but in the meantime, please don't post comments as answers. – F1Krazy Mar 19 at 19:47
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What is the purpose of this scene? I think that's the main question.

Is this a story for chess enthusiasts where the readers must follow every move and understand the strategic / tactical thoughts that went into it?

If the moves are integral to the story, I would say invest more words to describe the board and the scenario.

I am not an expert chess player by any means, but I play the game. And frankly, I can't follow the plot at all.

But if the chess game is not the point of the story, I would zoom out, gloss over the moves, and tell the actual story.

In all my experience as a reader, I have only seen ONE highly detailed description of an actual board game.... But that was because.. the game was integral to the story.

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Let me give you an idea as a chessplayer myself. First off though, it was a good suggestion to use names instead of white and black. You can tell the reader who was white and who was black on the start of the game. Do not describe a game. Describe the feelings. For example. The determination on the first moves on the opening part. The tension of a position in the middle game. The rush, the will to defeat one another, the whole battle of minds that is going on. A surprising move that shocks the losing opponent. A suprprising comeback after a few moves. I mean, you can set up a chess game by describing feelings and not describing anything that happens on the chessboard. Chess players will appreciate it, because they can relate to the agony, stress of a losing postion, the relief of a comeback, stuff like that. The rest of the readers don't have to know anything about chess to follow.

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You either have to be precise, and include diagrams, or be "vaguely dramatic". There is no "middle ground" here.

Literature has many examples of chess matches and chess players. Other answers have already mentioned a number of them. What I think is common between them is that they are capturing the drama of the game, but not the game itself, not in enough detail that the reader is able to recreate it. You can mention the opening, and some individual moves, but the focus is on dramatic effect, not the moves themselves.

I know of only one example of "precise" chess fiction. Classic Russian Sci-Fi author Alexander Kazantsev had a book "Caissa's gift", in which fictional stories were revolving around chess games, complete with diagrams and move-by-move descriptions. I don't think this book was ever translated into English. The book, imho, was very interesting for both chess players and casual readers because one could either put the pieces on board and follow the story move by move, or ignore the exact moves and just follow the plot as it's written. It needs to be mentioned that Kazantsev was a master chess study composer.

Trying to provide some, but not all exact moves, and no diagrams I think would be a mistake. For a non-player, that would be simply a distraction. For a reader who is a chess player and would want to recreate the exact position, but that would prove to be very taxing, if possible at all.

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Weave the position in the game into the larger theme of the novel. Don't use square locations like c1 and b1. Instead say something like "I moved my bishop one square and occupied the longest diagonal." or "My King couldn't move; I was checkmated." or "The rook made a lateral move; a blindspot I didn't notice."

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