There is something extraordinarily satisfying about playing a good game of chess. I think this is due, at least in part, to the necessity of using so many different areas of the brain in so many different ways simultaneously. A competent player needs not only a thorough understanding of the rules and strategies, but the ability to visualize geometrically in multiple dimensions, to recognize patterns, to think ahead several moves, to consider numerous possible outcomes, and to intuit from his opponent the likelihood of playing a given piece. It is an intellectually demanding, yet stimulating, experience to be sure and the game is one that we might expect master strategists to play in their spare time.
I think the producers and writers of Star Trek realized this as well. There are at least thirty separate references to, or depictions of, the game of chess throughout the various Star Trek TV series. In fact, in several episodes of the original series (TOS as we Trekkies refer to it), chess is pivotal to the plot. Not surprisingly, Kirk and Spock are seen playing chess in the opening sequence of the pilot episode “Where No Man Has Gone Before”. This makes perfect sense in terms of the development of the two characters, both of whom are exceptionally intelligent but who are so very different in their approach to the galactic difficulties they encountered each week, as well as their approaches to the game.
Of course, like so many other things depicted in Trek, the game of chess is given a futuristic update in the form of a three-dimensional board on which pieces can be moved up or down as well as laterally. As it turns out, this isn’t really futuristic at all as many three-dimensional variants on the game of chess have existed since the 19th century. Nevertheless, the version in Star Trek is the one with which most people now seem to be familiar. One more instance of the enormous pop-culture impact of the iconic TV series.
Although many people are aware of the existence of three-dimensional chess thanks to Star Trek, they may not be aware just how “real” the game has become because of the influence exerted by Trek fans. Several sets of rules have been developed to allow for fully realized games using the board designed for TOS. The Franklin Mint manufactured and sold two different Star Trek 3D chess sets for avid collectors. Star Trek: The Next Generation and its sister series depicted 3D chess in a goodly number of episodes.
As a fanatical lover of Star Trek, I was always a bit disappointed that our heroes weren’t depicted playing the game in any of the theatrical motion pictures. It always seemed to me that Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock were better prepared to deal with whatever the galaxy might throw at them after a good chess match. Of course, they are only fictional characters. I suspect, however, the decision makers who control many aspects of our lives in the real world could benefit greatly from the occasional game of chess, too.
Interestingly, I find that I have greater clarity of mind after playing chess for a while than at almost any other time. By the same token, however, the focus required to succeed at chess, forces one to suspend (temporarily, at least) concentration on any other topic not related to the game at hand. Perhaps this is why such mental cobweb clearing is often the result. I have to wonder what the world would be like if more people approached the serious business of life as Kirk and Spock do, with the much-needed distraction of a challenging game of three-dimensional chess.