Written by Deeya Nambiar
Freedom. The word hung in the air as I walked out of the Dachau Memorial Site, one of the first concentration camps, built in Germany. There was no will or wish to click photographs, except an anxious heart attempting to unburden the pains described in the many documents preserved in the museum.
Curiosity should never be overcome. Floating memories of the pictures from the memorial site replayed. The memorised image of a chess board returned as a piece of information, and I was on my arm-chair research.
The simple squares, not sure if it totalled the visible number of 64, or black and white, but the hand-drawing, probably etched with a metal or glass piece behind what looked like a plate/bowl meant for food, could have been a deviation from the hard facts of less hopeful times.
There was also a chess set, hand-carved from wood by an “unknown prisoner”. The chess board had two colours for the squares, one appeared off-white and the other a faded shade of black to my eyes. The English description provided at the memorial museum confirmed that the game of chess was popular in the camp, and tournaments were held time-to-time was common knowledge.
Common! To me, it was new information.
Game of Communication
According to Daniel Logemann’s article, Playing Chess in Concentration Camps, many prisoners who came to the camp had a “history” and “meaning” for chess from their life experiences. The game was part of their social practice, which involved family, friends, and colleagues. Hence, chess was a medium to interact with “other inmates on an already known ground” and “develop a foundation to communicate.”
Chess, possibly, could have been a balm beyond language barriers, a temporary distraction from hunger and conditions of the camp, and an interactional tool to maintain their morale.
Face the Fact
Absolutely a medium of communication, verbal and non-verbal, and deep-seated in the shared stories of locality, society, and country – chess has had a long history – tracing its roots (chaturanga) from India to its branching world-over.
Playing chess through the years since its origin has stabilised the “transmission and interpretation of different cultures” during its evolutionary journey. Further, the game has been altered to the “specificities and tastes of its new locality”, particularly the shape or form of the pieces of the chess set. However, the variation of the game retained the similarities, as has been explained in the article Did You Know? Traditional Strategy Games along the Silk Roads.
Chess and Mind
I should say, variation in the thinking process of chess players is also an established truth because cognitive abilities become active for one cannot predict the opponent player’s next move.
In other words, along with a cultural influence, chess has a way with our minds. In one line: it is one of the best games to help build concentration and a solution to keep one’s mind active.
Summarising from the newspaper articles: an ideal game for a full brain exercise. From decision-making, problem-solving and critical thinking, to focus and concentration, to raising the IQ level and reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, playing chess has its benefits.
Chess-mate in Pandemic
Apparently, interest in chess has seen a rise during the coronavirus pandemic. It was a period most people like to associate with restricted freedom, and health challenges at the mental, emotional, psychological, and cumulative physical paradox. A stage where confusion crept into our lives having been left to discover self-understanding, and methods of surviving the unchained chains of suffering and helplessness.
It was only a matter of wading the ways and the digital world had some respite for the unforeseen. The survival tactics led many to learning and upskilling, and the art of mastering online chess games offered a recourse.
A chess lover needs no special day or reason to celebrate. Nevertheless, the game is celebrated internationally on July 20, the day marked by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).
Whether it is a board game played by two players with 16 pieces strategically or logically, we have our subconscious association and fascination for the game. Once again, I am drawn to Logemann’s article about chess and concentration camps. “…. chess players often tried to describe their real life as combinations of chess manoeuvres or understood the game as a metaphor for life.”
A metaphor for life it is then; on that note I signed off my Dachau Diary.
1.Logemann, Daniel; Playing Chess in Concentration Camps
- 2. Wallach, Nancy; King and Pawns: Playing Chess in a Fascist Concentration Camp 83 Years Ago
3.UNESCO Website, Did You Know? Traditional Strategy Games along the Silk Roads
- Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site, Website
5.An assortment of random newspaper articles online on the World Chess Day, July 20, 2022.
Text © Deeya Nambiar
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