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Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Books on the nightstand

     When an opponent's king is under attack in chess and cannot escape to safety, the victorious player announces "checkmate!" 
      Now that's an odd word, "checkmate." What is being checked? Who is mating?
      Nobody. "Checkmate" is a transliteration—a foreign phrase spelled out in English letters—of the Arabic shah-mat, or "the king is dead," a relic of the game's ancient Persian origins, hidden in plain sight.
      If you find that interesting, I have a book for you: It's All a Game: The History of Board Games from Monopoly to Settlers of Catan by British writer Tristan Donovan (St. Martin's: $26.99).  I noticed its attractive cover in the New Books section at the Northbrook Public Library a few weeks ago and took it home, where it came in handy after I was laid low with a bad cold over the past few days. There's nothing quite so comforting as an engaging book to distract yourself from your ailments.
     I've always loved games, from when I was cutting my teeth on Candyland—that lovely block of Neapolitan ice cream!—all the way through the usual suspects: Trouble, Mousetrap, Monopoly, Risk, Clue, chess, checkers—to more esoteric games, like 3M bookshelf games Breakthru and Twixt. One of my best friends gave me a wooden game as a wedding present—Cathedral—and its been on our coffee table for 27 years. I play Scrabble daily on Facebook, and have six or seven games going at a time. When my wife and I were discussing what we wanted to do when the boys were home from college over Thanksgiving, I said, "I wouldn't mind getting in a game of Settlers of Catan."
     Games are little frames to live in; they add significance, companionship, fun and satisfaction to life, an activity that I might not be able to win at, generally, but I sure can win at Scrabble. So I'm a soft target for this book, and Donovan delivers.
     He takes his time, starting with the games discovered in Egyptian tombs before diving into chess, a Siberia that some writers get lost in, but giving us just enough and no more, making all sorts of connections I'd never seen suggested, such as the queen becoming a powerful piece around the time that queens in England and Spain were exerting unprecedented power.  
Original Staunton knight
Elgin Marbles
     He answers questions I never thought to ask, like where the designs for the classic Staunton chess set came from: "The knight continued the neoclassical theme by echoing the straining horse that pulls the chariot of the moon goddess Selene in the Elgin Marbles, which had been removed from the Parthenon in Greece and placed in the British Museum in 1816."
     The book doesn't neglect recent history, as with the almost-too-detailed description of how Prince Alexis Obolensky revived backgammon as a game of the jet set in the 1960s and 1970s. I remember we all trotted off to college with slim backgammon briefcases in the last 1970s; but I never realized we did so because we had been indoctrinated by a Russian nobleman.
     Not that It's All a Game merely digs up entertaining minutia about games. Donovan uses each particular game to shed light on the historical contexts surrounding it.  Before we're allowed to play Risk, we get a history of war games, from the German Kriegsspiel to the unexpected role that Japanese war-gaming played in the success of their attack on Pearl Harbor. 
    The Game of Life becomes a disquisition on middle class ambition. Those who can't attain Millionaire Acres end up in a tiny house, "destitute and disgraced" and "reduced to living on Social Security." Monopoly began as The Landlord's Game,  Illinois-born activist Elizabeth Magie's effort to publicize the dangers of monopoly capitalism and promote a land value tax. Players were supposed to be horrified that only one player got all the money while the rest went broke.
    They weren't. The game morphed as players made homemade sets, many in the economics departments of schools, until the early 1930s when Charles Darrow—who contrary to received wisdom did not invent the game at all—copied a set from a friend, got an artist to improve the graphics, and sold it to Parker Brothers (I was pleased that Donovan's research agrees with mine, for my Chicago book, that Dowst Manufacturing, makers of charm bracelet figures and Cracker Jack prizes, was tapped for the original game tokens. He doesn't mention it, but the tokens were originally freebies given away to children by laundries; the flat iron in Monopoly came from a token designed for the Flat Iron Laundry on Halsted Street). 
    There's quite a bit of Chicago in the book, such as the sad tale of Marvin Glass and Associates, the toy company created by Glass, a brilliant but troubled man. 
    Donovan doesn't quite come out and say it, but The Landlord's Game languished while Monopoly became wildly popular for the same reason regular folk today shrug off programs that would help them while coddling the rich whose ranks they dream of joining.
     "If Monopoly seemed like a celebration of dog-eat-dog capitalism, that's because that is really what people wanted it to be," writes Donovan. 
     The book isn't perfect. He winds up the story of each game with their experiments in brand extension—Star Wars Risk and such—which strike traditionalists as money-grubbing and wrong, but doesn't get into the emotional heft that each game carries, the cool, wood-tiled purity of Scrabble, the time-frittering, someting-to-do-while-you-drink-beer quality to backgammon. Games are tactile, or should be. My Clue set has an actual lead pipe: real lead, soft, you could bend it. 
     Lost in all the history is something of the joy of games, the memory of being with your pals and waking up with a Risk army pressed into your cheek (I became acquainted with the game in the early 1970s and looked long and hard for an old set: I didn't want the new plastic pieces; I wanted the old, wooden pieces. It mattered). 
     The history of Scrabble is outlined, and the compiling of Scrabble dictionaries, but its strange, almost compulsive allure is hardly hinted at.  People love this stuff; Donovan seems to only find it fascinating.
     Not to complain. It's All a Game is engaging and worthwhile. I'm still racing toward the end, so can't give the book a full summation. To me, games are like breakfast cereals, one of those products interwoven with childhood, melding nostalgia and delight. Donovan gives the world of games the serious historical treatment it deserves, while offering up whimsical tidbits, like how Marvin Glass and Associates gave the world both wind-up chattering teeth and fake vomit. Or how, in 1949, when Parker Brothers brought out Clue, it refused to advertise the product in magazines because they were worried about being publicly associated with a game based on murder. 



  1. While the Japanese war gamed their attack on Pearl Harbor, they didn't know the US Army & Navy war gamed the way for the US to win a war against Japan.
    Starting in 1919, the plan predicted Japan would start a war & planned how to fight them. Every two years it was updated & eventually was known as Plan Orange. While it didn't take into effect how the carrier & its planes would be the decisive ships, it was amazingly prescient. That's where the island hopping strategy came from & MacArthur had nothing to do with it, no matter how much he took credit for it.

    1. Interesting. Had no idea there was anything like that. Reminds me of the intricate planning of both France and Germany started after France's defeat in 1871 and updated regularly up to the start of World War I.

  2. When I was a kid, we used to play a game that my dad had saved from his youth, called "Bulls and Bears" -- a Charles Darrow / Parker Brothers game about the stock market. I don't remember much about it. Monopoly was much more fun for a young boy. My dad's game is so old, it's houses and hotels are made of wood. As far as I know there's only one piece of the game missing; a "get out of jail free" card that my dad sent to our pastor, who got arrested down south at a civil rights demonstration.

  3. There was a series of Avalon Hill games such as "Gettysburg" and "D-Day". Sort of "Risk" on steroids. I have the two mentioned above if you are interested in trying it.

  4. Sounds very interesting, indeed. I kinda drifted away from board games once I got older. Love the photo of that exquisite chess set being presided over by Dante, though! Maybe you were a little too young for these, Neil, but were you familiar with the Milton Bradley American Heritage "Command Decision" series of games at all? Battle Cry, Broadside, Hit the Beach, Dogfight -- just typing those names is evocative to me...


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