Pawn to infinity by Fred & Joan Saberhagen

Three days later I recovered consciousness in a hospital. As the memory of that tragic night slowly evolved in my ailing brain I recognized in my attendant Moxon’s confidential workman, Haley. Responding to a look he approached, smiling.

“Tell me about it,” I managed to say, faintly—”all about it.”

“Certainly,” he said; “you were carried unconscious from a burning house—Moxon’s. Nobody knows how you came to be there. You may have to do a little explaining. The origin of the fire is a bit mysterious, too. My own notion is that the house was struck by lightning.”

“And Moxon?”

“Buried yesterday—what was left of him.”

Apparently this reticent person could unfold himself on occasion. When imparting shocking intelligence to the sick he was affable enough. After some moments of the keenest mental suffering I ventured to ask another question:

“Who rescued me?”

“Well, if that interests you—I did.”

“Thank you, Mr. Haley, and may God bless you for it. Did you rescue, also, that charming product of your skill, the automaton chess-player that murdered its inventor?”

The man was silent a long time, looking away from me. Presently he turned and gravely said:

“Do you know that?”

“I do,” I replied: “I saw it done.”

That was many years ago. If asked today I should answer less confidently.


Robert Frazier

In the season of chrysanthemum,

Players align like tiles along a great ivory wall,

Matching velocities with Halley’s,

Which ascends as an immense flaming dot

With tail as of a fighting kite

On winds from the North reaches of our solar system.

On an East wind rides a satellite shaped

Like a Chinese character.

From the West wind a souped-up shuttle

Resembling a bamboo bird.

From the South wind a U.N. solar sail,

Shining white dragon with mylar scales.

Drawing and discarding data,

The players shift hands

Until the United Nations melds.

They board the comet under the Starfaring Provisions,

And as it swings around Sol, the heart of Ma Jong

And all games of man,

They chip away the icy packing

From an ancient alien artifact…

They have played out a rare honors hand:

“A moon from the bottom of the sea”.


Fred Stewart

Almost everybody has heard of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and knows most of its characters are a deck of cards. Far fewer have read Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, which is organized around a chess puzzle. Alice’s adventures as she proceeds to the Queening square are not as memorable or exciting as those in Wonderland even though the poem “Jabberwocky” is the most famous passage of Carroll’s work. Meeting Tweedledum and Tweedledee, Humpty Dumpty, the Lion and the Unicorn, and various animals, insects and chess pieces do not seem to charm us as the earlier book did. Yet when Alice steps through the mirror in her Victorian drawing-room into the world beyond, finds the world outside the Looking-Glass house is a huge chess board, and takes her place in the game as a White Pawn, we can see that Carroll is using the chess game as a symbolic commentary on the whole of human existence.

But what an unchessic game it is! Among its many odd characteristics, the only one critically unexplained (as far as I know) is the fact that White makes 13 moves to Red’s three! I believe even this can be explained by a close look at Carroll’s puzzle and translating its chess aspects into the commentary on human life that it really is. The clearest metaphor is that Alice’s side wins; she becomes Queen, makes an important capture, and delivers mate to the Red King. Carroll shows through Alice that human beings do have a major role in shaping their (chess) game of life.


I do not believe Charles T. Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) meant his Alice books to be mere codes to be broken or logical games as so many of his non-fictional works were. However, I do believe he put his fiction together with much more left-brain activity than most literary artists; that is, the meanings in his works are far more accessible to abstract thought since they are so purposefully symbolic. The Alice books are not themselves dreams, though they are set in dream context. Carroll never lets us forget that he is controlling the march of symbolic characters and actions across the page.1 So I believe Carroll would approve of my puzzling over the chess motif that structure Through the Looking-Glass. To consider this chess situation as chess is to find he has framed his view of the deepest puzzle of all—the nature of human existence.

When Alice climbs through the mirror, she finds herself operating within a chessboard world. At first the chess pieces she encounters, in her normal size, apprehend her existence only as “a volcano” which can pick them up and toss them about.2 Soon after, she enters the garden of the Looking-Glass house and saw “in all directions” a countryside broken into squares, hedges lining each file and brooks each rank; ” ‘just like a large chessboard,’ ” she declares (207). When she assumes her place on the board as a White Pawn, her perspective is from then on limited to the squares immediately to her left and right; “she sweeps a narrow track,” as A. L. Taylor puts it.3

Carroll sets his chessboard situation before us as a frontispiece, together with the moves of the pieces:

Diagram #1 RED


White Pawn (Alice) to play, and win in eleven moves,

In his “Preface” Carroll addresses the problems that would immediately occur to anyone even vaguely familiar with the game of chess:

As the chess-problem, given on the next page, has puzzled some of my readers, it may be well to explain that it is correctly worked out, so far as the moves are concerned. The alternation of Red and White is perhaps not so strictly observed as it might be, and the “castling” of the three Queens is merely a way of saying that they entered the palace: but the “check” of the White King at move 6, the capture of the Red Knight at move 7, and the final “checkmate” of the Red King, will be found, by any one who will take the trouble to set the pieces and play the moves as directed, to be strictly in accordance with the laws of the game. (p. 171)

Some of Carroll’s “moves” are not chess moves at all—”Queens Castle” (9th move for Red) requires two pieces to move on the same turn and merely indicates that both Queens enter their castle though staying within the same square each had been on the move before. On her 10th move Alice also enters the castle. Her 9th move (“Alice becomes Queen”) takes place a move after she reaches the eighth rank—clearly some’ ‘moves” are essential to the narrative plot rather than to chess rules and strategy. Carroll clearly shows that there is more to his chess situation than chess, but setting the real chess moves will help separate plot from chess:

Three things will be noticed immediately by the chess aficionado—there are more real chess moves than the eleven indicated by Carroll; White moves 13 times to Red’s 3 (including one string of 8 straight!); and the original White Queen makes real move 13 even though her White King is in check from the Red Queen:

Diagram #2

The first problem has an easy solution. As Carroll’s notes to his “moves” show, the eleven “moves” refer to portions of the narrative plot of the book—21 separate occurrences that happen to Alice as she moves across the board. There are only 16 separate real chess moves (13 by White, 3 by Red) by the pieces themselves.

The second problem proved to have an historical solution. Ivor Davies found that, at his death, Carroll owned a copy of George Walker’s book The Art of Chess-Playing: A New Treatise on the Game (1846). Law XX in Walker states, “When you give check, you must apprize your adversary, by saying aloud ‘Check’; or he need not notice it, but may move as though check were not given.” Davies notes that chess rules, as Walker sets them forth, “are the Rules of St. George’s Chess Club, London, drawn up in 1841 and still in force in England when Through the Looking-Glass was written in 1871.” Davies notes that the Red Queen does not say “Check”:

Her silence was entirely logical because, at the moment of her arrival at King one, she said to Alice, who had been crowned Queen eight, “Speak when you are spoken to!” Since no one had spoken to her she would have been breaking her own rule had she said, “Check.”4

There is no doubt that the Looking-Glass characters are consistent, and those in Alice in Wonderland are not; and I accept Davies’ analysis why the Red Queen did not announce check. Still, there remains a light problem—one of point-of-view: chess pieces give check, but they do not announce check, in the real game. The Red Knight does gallop up to Alice and yell “check!” on Red’s second move (Carroll’s 6th plot-move, chess move 9). But, as Marlin Gardner, editor of The Annotated Alice, points out, when the White Knight captures the Red Knight, he “absentmindedly shouts, ‘Check!’; actually he checks only his own King” (294). The strange puzzle as to why and how the chess pieces are responsible for their own moves and strategy can be resolved in considering the third problem—White’s having ten more moves than Red.

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