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22 Games of Chess in Fantasy and Science Fiction

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The game of kings is a mainstay of science fiction and fantasy. Sometimes it’s on screen or on the page, and sometimes it’s indirect—an influencing factor in the lives of authors and filmmakers. Here are 22 famous examples of chess in fantasy and science fiction.

1. Star Wars


The only rule I really know about Dejarik holochess is that it’s best to let the Wookiee win. But this being science fiction and all, there are elaborate rules for the holographic pieces fighting on a circular board.

2. Harry Potter

Hermione Granger thinks wizard’s chess is “totally barbaric.” Thankfully for everyone involved, Ron Weasley was a pretty good player, and eventually leads giant pieces into battle while chasing down the Sorcerer’s Stone (or Philosopher’s Stone. Pick your poison).

3. Star Trek

Kirk and Spock famously spar over the tri-dimensional chessboard in the original Star Trek series. My guess is that some prop designer thought it might look neat, and that in the future we’d have all memorized the 10^50^50 number of moves possible in a standard game of chess. Star Trek fans just couldn’t leave it alone, though, and we ended up with this.

4. Fallout

Fallout wiki

Not even a nuclear apocalypse can end the madness that is chess, as evidenced in the video game Fallout. One particularly avid player is ZAX 1.2, a supercomputer.

5. WarGames

If only Matthew Broderick had listened to the computer and played a nice game of chess, a lot of headaches might have been avoided. Instead, after hacking into NORAD, he decides to play something called Global Thermonuclear War, and almost starts a global thermonuclear war.

6. 2001: A Space Odyssey


An early hint that HAL 9000 might be losing his mind is revealed during a chess game against Dr. Frank Poole. "I'm sorry Frank,” says HAL, “I think you missed it: queen to bishop three, bishop takes queen, knight takes bishop, mate." HAL is, of course, mistaken. Queen to bishop 3 is an illegal move on the board in question; the correct move would have been queen to bishop 6. A devoted chess player like Stanley Kubrick would have known that. It’s almost inconceivable that with his famous attention to detail he’d have missed it.

7. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union


In Michael Chabon’s novel The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, a chess player is murdered, with a presumably unfinished game of chess left at the scene of the crime. Or is it unfinished? Dun-dun-DUNNNNN.

8. Unsound Variations


In Dreamsongs, an anthology of short stories, George R.R. Martin writes about the repercussions of a missed sacrificing attack during a collegiate chess tournament. Martin, for his part, is a Life Member of the U.S. Chess Federation.

9. Deep Thought

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In Douglas Adams’s novel The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a powerful supercomputer named Deep Thought is built to find the ultimate answer to life, the universe, and everything. It makes perfect sense, then, that when IBM engineers built a powerful chess computer in 1989, they borrowed the name. Former world chess champion Garry Kasparov bested Deep Thought in both games of their match.

10. Through the Looking-Glass


Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass is based on a game of chess, with characters often represented as pieces, and scenes as squares on a board. Alice is, of course, a pawn; if she makes it to the eighth rank, she will become a queen.

11. Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey

After Bill and Ted are killed, the Grim Reaper promises to resurrect them if they can beat him in a game of chess. They opt for Battleship, Twister, and Clue.

12. Nightfall


In Isaac Asimov’s Nightfall, a multiplayer chess variation is played that makes tri-dimensional chess seem reserved. “The men about the table had brought out a multi-chess board and started a six-member game. Moves were made rapidly and in silence. All eyes bent in furious concentration on the board.”

13. 1984


Syme, who works for the Ministry of Truth and is helping write the next edition of the Newspeak dictionary, is on Oceania’s chess committee. Winston knows that Syme has been vaporized when the latter’s name is quietly removed from the committee roster. “It looked almost exactly as it had looked before—nothing had been crossed out—but it was one name shorter. It was enough. Syme had ceased to exist: he had never existed.”

14. The Tempest

Wikimedia Commons

In the final scene of Shakespeare’s romance The Tempest, Ferdinand is found to be playing a game of chess against Miranda. Chess is an important symbol in the play. Prospero has moved the characters around his island much like a chess player might move pieces. Likewise, Prospero is, in a way, trying to capture a king—Ferdinand’s father, Alonso.

15. The Chessmen of Mars

Encyclopedia Barsoomia

Edgar Rice Burroughs was an avid chess player, going so far as to invent his own variant, called Jetan, in his 1922 novel The Chessmen of Mars.

16. Unicorn Variations


Here’s how Unicorn Variations came about: author Roger Zelazny was asked to contribute to two different anthologies. One anthology asked for a story featuring a unicorn. The other anthology wanted a story set in a bar. Zelazny’s friend, George R.R. Martin, mentioned a third anthology with a chess theme, and suggested that he save himself a lot of work and just write a story about a unicorn playing chess at a bar. Zelazny went on to win a Hugo for the story.

17. The Seventh Seal

The Telegraph

In the 1957 Ingmar Bergman film The Seventh Seal, a knight challenges Death to a game of chess as a way of delaying his own demise. This film totally ripped off Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey.

18. X-Men


At the very end of the first X-Men movie (the only good one), Professor X and Magneto play a game of chess. The pieces are, of course, made of glass.

19. Superman II

In Superman II, Lex Luthor creates a hologram of himself playing chess, and uses it as a distraction for him to escape prison. Had Michael Bolton actually gone to a minimum-security prison in Office Space, he probably would have thought of this plot device and used it to make his own escape.

20. Jason and the Argonauts

In the 1963 film Jason and the Argonauts, the unfolding tale of Jason’s pursuit of the Golden Fleece is depicted as a chess game between Zeus and Hera.

21. Discworld


In Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, the Ankh-Morpork Assassins' Guild plays a variation of chess called Stealth Chess. Two files, one on each side, widen the chessboard and these squares—called “the Slurk”—are colored red and white (as opposed to black and white). Only one piece moves on the Slurk: the assassin.

22. Blade Runner

Tyrell and Sebastian play a game of chess in Blade Runner. It’s based on “the Immortal Game,” a very real and celebrated 1851 game between Adolf Anderssen and Lionel Kieseritzky, in which Anderssen sacrifices his major pieces in order to checkmate Kieseritzky with minor ones.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Sponsor Content: BarkBox
8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.