The politics and passions of three-dimensional chess – The Boston Globe


Vladimir Putin, president of the country where chess is considered a sport, not a game, seems to spend every waking hour in front of the 3-D chessboard. In 2015, Nikolai Sokov of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, wrote a convoluted op-ed in The Washington Post headlined How the Ukrainian crisis is like three-dimensional chess. A few years later, 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, bemoaning reports of Russian interference in the election, averred that her opponent, Trump, had been playing checkers and Putin is playing three-dimensional chess.

You get the point. This is a lazy, meaningless phrase that conveniently ignores that chess, like life itself, already takes place in three dimensions. Normal chess is exceedingly complex. For instance, IBMs computer Deep Blue had to calculate 200 million positions per second to beat world champion Garry Kasparov in 1997. Chess doesnt need a fake invocation of extra-dimensionality to be more complicated.

Im not the only one tired of this rhetorical nonsense. In a 2017 interview with Politico, Kasparov said he couldnt envision Trump or Putin playing chess, three-dimensional or any other kind, according to interviewer Edward Isaac-Dovere. Both of them despise playing by the rules, Kasparov said, so in a hypothetical game its who will cheat first.

Noting that cable news references to three-dimensional chess skyrocketed with the onset of the Trump presidency, Vice News decided to ask: What the hell is 3-D chess? Vice unearthed numerous variants of 3-D chess; by far the most famous was the version first played on a 1966 episode of Star Trek. Vice even tracked down former US Chess Federation president Leroy Dubeck, who was hired as a consultant to codify the rules for Star Trek chess.

I have never had a passion then or now for 3-D chess, Dubeck told Vice. I got my check and I put away the Star Trek board and set, where it sat in a closet for decades. He further opined: I dont think you need to be a genius to play 3-D chess, and if youre really smart, youre too smart to play 3-D chess, because you see its a waste.

Not surprisingly, 3-DC, as I call it, spiraled out of Star Trek. Tony Joe Britton told me a little bit about his Facebook group, the Amateur Tri-Dimensional Chess League. He also pointed me to a couple of websites that may or may not launch you into the glamorous world of 3-DC.

At this moment, 3-DC is not necessarily ready for prime time. A few of the rules first appeared in the Star Trek Star Fleet Technical Manual, a work of fiction that appeared in 1975. Britton has since published his own 395-page Complete and Official Guide to Tri-Dimensional Chess, which you can download from the Facebook site.

Uncertainty about the rules has limited the number of players in the United States to about a dozen, Britton told me. None of them are named Trump, Putin, or Pelosi.

Alex Beams column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @imalexbeamyrnot.

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The politics and passions of three-dimensional chess - The Boston Globe

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