Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Why does it always have to be chess?

Literary Pet Peeve #2: Chess as the marker of intelligence

You know that thing where authors try to write realistic teenagers? Yeah, so despite the fact that almost every author in existence was, at one point, a teenager (I have my doubts about a very specific few...), most authors seem incapable of capturing the true essence of the teenage years. Part of it may have to do with the fact that the teen brain is almost like that of an adult, but with a bunch of obvious childish flaws (forgive me - I speak as someone only starting to get over this serious and potentially harmful affliction...). Whatever the cause may be, some authors use a few "handy" tricks to bridge the gap between their teenage reader and the adult mind. This typically comes in the form of intelligence. Think about it. How many less-than-average teenagers have you encountered in literature (young adult or otherwise)? They're almost always just a bit cleverer than your average kid, just a bit more intelligent.

And all too often they play chess.

Chess. I mean, seriously, why does it always have to be chess? The amount of books I've read that use chess as symbolism for the cleverness and talent of their young protagonist is... high. Very high. It's frustrating, if only because it's a cheap trick: a writer who has to elevate their character to above-average intelligence just to make them sound "realistic" is a bad writer. And chess is pretty much the cheapest way to accomplish this.

In general, the use of chess in literature is to indicate growth and intelligence. I mean, I get it. Chess is a logical game. It can be wonderful symbolism for certain thought-processes, for how certain characters think. But it's not the only way. You know what else works? Computer strategy games. Risk. In fact, I want someone to write a book in which a character is analyzed and developed throughout a game of Risk. Seriously. That would be awesome. Chess may have once been wonderful symbolism, but use of it today feels trite and inappropriate. Such a shame - I actually always liked the game...


  1. Risk! Yes! I love that game and I agree it takes real skill to play it. I used to play it all the time as a teenager and my boyfriend (now husband) always used to win. Now noone will play with us :-( I need to find someone who loves it as much as I do.

    I'm afraid I have disagree with you on your other point - I have read about a lot of below average intelligence teenagers recently - they make me want to scream!! Give me the intelligent ones every time :-)

  2. *giggles* I am terrible at chess, and I think I was smart as a teenager. They should make it Latin instead, once in a while. Teenagers who take Latin. I was awesome at Latin.

  3. This is a really good point! I have actually thought about this authorial cop-out in a different genre- fantasy. Though instead of using chess to signify intelligence, fantasy authors use incest to signify villainy or cruelty or just a twisted mind. I have much the same reaction to that trope showing up in fantasy as you have to the chess thing in fiction about teenagers. Come on, be more creative, authors!

  4. Exactly. Too easy to stick with a stereotype.

    And I know several young adults (Oh, why not identify them? My sons and their friends who spent many hours at my house growing up!) who would fervently agree with you about using Risk as a new marker of intelligence.

  5. When I was a teenager, a group of kids at school got a chess group together. They made up characters and costumes, and staged chess matches in the style of pro-wrestling. Every time I read a book about a teenager playing chess, I flash back to those times and laugh.

    I think Risk, or any strategy game, could be used as an indicator of intelligence. However, I think that I would rather be impressed by a character's cleverness simply through the way they act and react to events in the story.

  6. Chess symbolism, gah. Risk symbolism? Well, that would be my kind of novel. :D

    In answer to your comment on the FF post (so many comments that I'm not replying on the post itself! :P ) I completely agree about the concept of villains - except in lighter reads. That's probably why I love ASoIaF so much, in fact! Tigana, as I mentioned, is also rather good for that - in Brandin and the protagonists' cases, anyway, one of the tyrants was simply a complete monster...

  7. I had never thought of this, but I do have to concede that you are right. I don't happen to think that just because you play chess that you are uber intelligent, and I think it's silly for an author to infer that playing chess equals brilliance in teenagers. I do think that it's sort of lazy writing to suggest this. I also agree with Aarti about the incest thing. I think there really need to be more sophisticated and thoughtful ways to explore both intelligence and evil than the shortcuts that a lot of authors take. I must say that your posts are always very mentally stimulating and always make me consider ideas that were previously unexamined. Nice piece today!

  8. Haha, I love this! It's definitely true too. Oh, you're a smart teen? Please take out your chess board and prove it to me RIGHT NOW. Oh the cliche. The only anti-cleverness cliche I've seen using chess is in Harry Potter.

    Ron is really great at wizard chess, and we know he's not the brightest bulb in the box... :)

    Great perspective!

  9. I'm reading Half Brother by Kenneth Oppel at the moment and was just thinking how well developed the teenage characters were - then they all settled down to a game of risk and I remembered your post! Proof that in the best books they don't all play chess.


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