My grandmother taught me to play chess with a special set of pieces that had their names printed on them. If you picked them up they had words on the bottom that described their legal moves. “Bishop: can go diagonally as far as he wants”, “Knight: can go over 2 and diagonally 1, or over 1 and diagonally 2” Most of the rules were simple and just required memorization to retain but one rule confused me: The King cannot be removed from the board.
I asked my grandmother what happens when the king is captured. “The King cannot be captured”. No, see, I can capture him with even a pawn if it’s in the right position. “No, you can be about to capture him, but the game ends right before you do.”
This seemed pretty weird to me. Why not let the king be captured and immediately after call the game for the winner? Why stop one step before?
The best book I’ve read on domestic violence is Why does he do that?. It breaks apart so many myths about domestic abusers: That they’re always physically violent, that they can’t control their emotions, that they’re crazy, that the woman “just needs to leave him”, and many more. Most of all this book on the psychology of abusers reveals the nature of patriarchy. Patriarchy is not a system that prefers men to women, it’s a system designed to meet the needs of specific men at the expense of the needs of all other men, women, boys, and girls. These men are always at the top of a clear hierarchy. It’s the father in a family, the CEO in a company, the king in a nation, the pastor in a church. Other people can have their needs met – but only after his are satisfied.
Many pieces on a chess board are important. Sure, the pawns are obviously worthless but the bishops and rooks get to throw their weight around. Even more, the most powerful piece is the queen! Surely this game is progressive if the female character can do whatever she likes in whatever direction. But in testing a social system it’s not enough to ask “who has power?” You have to go one step further and ask “whose needs are being served?” Is the queen powerful? Oh yes. When she dies does the game continue uninterrupted? Yes, in fact most end-game scenarios assume she’s gone. But not so with the king. When the king is about to be captured the rules suddenly change.
One common habit of an abuser is that when they are threatened they manage to change the rules of the game. When the woman has a bad day she has to deal with it. But when he has a bad day it’s the whole house’s problem to fix it. When she gets injured the vacation still continues as planned but when he sprains an ankle the whole world gets rearranged to deal with his new situation. An abuser will even attempt to change reality itself to suit his needs. If he’s winning an argument against his woman but then she is able to score a point then he can switch positions in the argument and try to make the woman think she’s stupid and crazy if she notices the change.
When the king is threatened on a chess board the rules change. Suddenly the fighting isn’t worth it anymore and a new strategy appears. The king cannot be captured in a struggle for the kingdom because the purpose of the kingdom is to support the king. This is what I didn’t understand when my grandmother taught me the game. I didn’t get that the king isn’t just a piece; the king is the game. The game is played through the eyes of the king pieces.
This same pattern exists in every Hollywood movie and most TV shows. When the action moves away from the man the camera does not follow. When the man is removed from the story the story ends. When a chess king knows that he has lost then the game ends. You must stop playing because his role is finished and he sees no point in letting you continue the script.
I’m glad my grandmother taught me this game (and bought me such beginner-friendly pieces). But I wish she’d helped me to better understand the pattern encoded inside the rules. She’s also the one who introduced me to James Bond films and she set the expectations perfectly for that: She told me “They’re just movies about sex and death but boy are they fun.” One day if I have the privilege of teaching a child or grandchild the ancient game of chess I’ll jump at the chance but I’ll clarify the rules a bit. I’ll say “This game has one character that doesn’t pull his weight. The King pretends to be weak and makes everybody else do his work for him. Some people do this in real life and you should watch out for them. And don’t be like this yourself or you’ll hurt people. Okay, you’re white so you go first.”