Can Harry count?

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Can Harry count?

Close observers of the Spare saga will have observed Prince Harry’s claim to have terminated twenty-five Taliban fighters during his tour of duty in Afghanistan. Furthermore, his controversial justification that he saw his victims as hostile chess pieces to be swept from the board, rather than genuine human beings.

The reaction to the Princely assertion has not been overwhelmingly favourable. Security spooks have pointed out the potential of this provocation for attracting Talibanic reprisals, not only against Harry himself, but also against the entire royal family.

Military types have huffed that this is not the sort of thing that real soldiers boast about, killing with humility being far more the order of the day.

The reaction of the Taliban itself has, surprisingly, been somewhat restrained, emphasising that they too are human beings with feelings and families. Hurt, rather than vengeful, seems to be their message. It reminds me of a song from Gilbert and Sullivan:

When a felon’s not engaged in his employment
Or maturing his felonious little plans ,
His capacity for innocent enjoyment
Is just as great as any honest man’s.

When the enterprising burglar’s not a’burgling
When the cut throat isn’t occupied in crime
He loves to hear the little brook a’gurgling
And listen to the merry village chime.  

When the coster’s finished jumping on his mother
He loves to lie a’basking in the sun
Ah, take one consideration with another
A policeman’s lot is not a happy one.

(“Burglar’s song”, The Pirates of Penzance)

The implication, of course, being that the Taliban are a sweetly benign group of inter-faith activists who — after a hard day’s work flogging apostates, closing down female educational institutions, firing all women from any professional posts and issuing the regulation number of bloodcurdling fatwas — enjoy nothing more than sitting down with their families for a meal of roast camel flesh garnished with sautéed sheep’s eyes, followed by the singing of some appropriately peaceful Suras.

No, the real problem with Harry’s claim is his arithmetic. In chess, as we know it, there simply aren’t twenty-five enemy units to terminate, each army being composed of 16 pieces. You can only get to 25 by scoring a few own-goals, which I am sure is discouraged by the British army, and illegal in the royal game.

Here is a modest reminder that in chess, each side has sixteen units: eight pawns, two rooks, two knights, two bishops, one king and one queen.

The elephant, apart from being the world’s largest land-dwelling mammal), is also a chess piece. In the course of its long history it has undergone an interesting transformation from pachyderm to prelate. Alexander the Great and his troops encountered Indian war elephants on their campaigns, and the Greeks, seeing elephants for the first time, and observing their key role, in both oriental warfare and agriculture, named them “aleph-hind”, the “Indian ox”. (The Spanish Conquistadores of the 16th century committed a similar error with llamas, calling them “native sheep”.) The elephant, in due course, appeared as a unit on the primitive Indian chessboard, the symbol of warfare in miniature.

Only in Russia and in some Slav countries now, does the word “elephant” (“slon”) persist in chess. Elsewhere, as chess progressed westward it was the “l” and “f” sounds of “aleph-hind” which survived. One sees traces of this in the Arabic term, fil; in the Middle English, aufin; in the Spanish, alfil; in the Italian, alfiere; in the German, ufer; Dutch, loper; the Serbo-Croatian, lovac; and perhaps even in the French, le fou.

It is evident that the various incarnations of the bishop in the European culture have laid greater stress on preserving the ancient and original sound than the meaning. The Dutch and Germans see this diagonal piece as a “runner”; the Yugoslavs as a “hunter”; the French as a “jester”; while the Spanish and Italian words, closest of all to the “aleph-hind”, mean only the chess piece and nothing more. The English bishop is furthest, indeed, quite remote from its elephantine original. Nevertheless, when one construes a medieval court and its most powerful figures as the respective sides of a chessboard battle, then inclusion of the clergy makes perfect sense. More so, indeed, than jesters, runners, hunters and so on.

English also has an exception in its word “rook”, where most European languages go for “tower” or “castle” (tour, Turm, torre). Doubtless, a key derivation here is from the alternative Italian word for tower, “rocco”. In other European languages one sees the roots of “rook” in the word for castling (roque, arrocco, enroque).

Returning to Harry’s infelicitous metaphor, in a piece for TheMailOnline, Andrew Neil opines,

It’s not just that there’s something unsavoury about being proud of kills made from the world’s most advanced and sophisticated attack helicopter against an enemy, however barbaric, armed largely with Soviet-era AK47 rifles. It’s the way he compounded this folly, as only Harry could, by saying he regarded the targets as pieces on a chessboard.

All of that would be bad enough. But he’s also breached the   long-standing convention among British military veterans of all ranks that they don’t talk much about the wars they waged, and never about ‘ kills ’.

Perhaps Harry was thinking of the Great chess of the Uzbek world conqueror, Tamburlaine, or the Grant chess of the Iberian monarch Alfonso el Sabio (the Wise)In both of these variants there is a superabundance of imaginative extra pieces to reach the desired tally of twenty five.

Far more likely, though, is it that we are once again entering the topsy-turvy universe of Gilbert and Sullivan, specifically the song by Don Alhambra, the Grand Inquisitor of Barataria. If Harry returns for the coronation of King Charles III (my old landing mate from Trinity College, Cambridge), he is liable to find, with again, Gilbert and Sullivan providing an apt background:

Prime Ministers and such as they,   Grew like asparagus in May,   And Dukes were three a penny.And Party Leaders you might meet in   twos and threes in every street   Maintaining, with no little heat,Their various opinions. ”  

(Cameron, May, Johnson, Truss, Sunak, Corbyn, Starmer, Miliband, Davey, Lucas, Sturgeon, Drakeford….to name but a few).

(‘There lived a King’, The Gondoliers)

Of course, the punchline for Harry and his insatiable craving for celebrity status and wealth comes with Don Alhambra’s conclusion: When every one is somebodee, then no ones anybody!” 

Our game of the week features a famous victory from the tournament at St Petersburg in 1896 by a real chessplaying Harry against the reigning World Champion of the day: Pillsbury vs. Lasker.

Raymond Keene s latest book Fifty Shades of Ray: Chess in the year of the Coronavirus , containing some of his best pieces from TheArticle, is now available from   Blackwell s His 206th book, Chess in the Year of the King, with a foreword   by The Article contributor Patrick Heren, and written in collaboration with former Reuters chess correspondent, Adam Black, is in preparation.   It will be published   later this   year.  


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Member ratings
  • Well argued: 57%
  • Interesting points: 59%
  • Agree with arguments: 57%
75 ratings - view all

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