Wednesday, March 01, 2006

I've Got Japanese Chess on My Mind

japanese chess
Okay, you already know I'm a major fanatic about classical board games and card games. That includes the game of Shogi, or Japanese chess, which I first ran across when I was in high school, age 14 or 15— which is to say, back when Nixon was still in the White House.

I went nuts over Japanese chess. I think I may first have encountered it in a Dover reprint of Edward Falkener's Games Ancient and Oriental, and How to Play Them. I spent hours salivating over the brief Shogi article in the 1970 Encyclopedia Britannica in our high school library. I have memories even of methodically meditating on every minute detail of the rules of Shogi, while shooting baskets by our garage out back.

You understand, back in the early 70s we did not live in a "global" world. If you happened to live in a small town in Wisconsin, as I did, it was next to impossible to find anything much about some obscure board game from Japan. I managed to make my own Shogi set, board with lines woodburned into tan leather, five-sided pieces painstakingly cut from a length of lattice wood, by hand, with hacksaw and mitre box. I played Shogi against myself, I played Shogi against any poor soul I could collar. Usually I won.

By the time I was a senior in high school, I managed by mail order to latch onto the two or three books about Shogi in English which were then in print and available. In those days this meant ordering from the Charles E. Tuttle Company in Rutland, Vermont. I also obtained through Tuttle a genuine Japanese Shogi set: it was nothing much, a tiny portable set, but it was from Japan and the pieces were labeled with Japanese characters, unlike my homemade set where I had labeled the pieces with iconic glyphs of my own invention, which indicated how the pieces moved.

Well. Fast forward to our present era and our 21st century "global" world. Nowadays you can find more stuff online about Shogi than you can shake a stick at. Only, as I discovered several months ago, look around online for a real Shogi set from Japan, and you've got two choices. One, sites in English aimed at Shogi aficionados, which however offer for sale only sets of mediocre quality, on a par with the cheap plastic chess sets you see in your local discount store. Or two, sites which offer beautiful, exquisite, high-quality Shogi pieces, Japanese characters carved right into the wood, only the entire dang site is in Japanese, and if you and the Infoseek translation site can't decipher the Shogi folks' Japanese, fergit it.

Until yesterday. When I had the joy of discovering a site, in English, which offers beautiful, high-quality, hand-crafted Shogi pieces. I broke down. I gave in. As a last Mardi Gras fling before Lent, I ordered their thickest Shogi board, plus one of their more expensive sets of Shogi pieces.

After 35 years, at last....



Blogger hirohurl said...

Thanks for the link, Paul. I have been checking out your site and found a lot of stuff beyond Shogi of interest...


1. Is your invented language a subject-based language like English? If not, did working it out change the way you thought about stuff? Nietzsche : "It is highly probable that philosophers within the domain of the Ural-Altaic languages (where the conception of the subject is least developed) look otherwise "into the world," and will be found on paths of thought different from those of the Indo-Germans and Mussulmans, the spell of certain grammatical functions is ultimately also the spell of PHYSIOLOGICAL valuations and racial conditions.

2. Shogi: Whereas chess works itself gradually towards the endgame, might it not be that a game of Shogi could go on ad infinitum because of the facility of being able to use captured pieces? Or is there some sort of entropic process by which the flow of a game will eventually and necessarily give way to an unavoidable checkmate?

3. By a coincidence of cyberspace I found myself looking up the historian Toynbee only to find that you make mention of him on your website.

That's it for now!

Friday, March 10, 2006 12:48:00 PM  
Blogger Paul Burgess said...

1. Yes, Hermetic is a subject-based language. It makes a somewhat more widespread use of impersonal verbs than English: for instance, savlis, "the sun is shining," lit. something like "it suns"; and there are formations such as thalas mna mrasoth, "the sack was picked up," lit. "picked up the sack [accusative]" with no subject expressed or implied. And sometimes subject and/or object pronouns have a tendency to drop out, in which case subject and object may or may not be clear from context: ochw'advais vago, "he moves it," which might sometimes be expressed simply as advais, which in turn might be interpreted (in or out of context) as "they move it," "she moves it," "you move them," etc., etc.

But the basic structure is subject and predicate— with much more flexible sentence order than English, due to the greater use of inflections in Hermetic.

Working Hermetic out very definitely changed the way I thought about stuff. Terms and concepts emerged which I could not readily express in English. An entire Hermetic "culture" emerged in my head, which came to feel to me (and still feels to me today) to have just as distinctive and vivid a "character" to it as any actual culture you're going to encounter. At age 17 I concocted a Hermetic religion, "Hermetic Dualism" (Mna Dviliso Vananthaa), and wrote its scriptures in Hermetic. If you haven't already run across them, a Roman-alphabet transliteration of the complete Hermetic text is here, and an MP3 file of me reading chapter 25 aloud is here. Afterwards I made an English translation, but it's not very satisfactory— so densely shot through with native Hermetic concepts, that even in translation it sounds like it's written in some sort of code: "Unto thee [I give] the octahedron of Sitavisa, the form of the divine golden one, mortal matter not of the blood; nothing created may turn its orientation from the east of Tistrya and from the west of Sitavisa."

It was odd to be a teenager and turning out things like this. On the one hand, I was (and always have been) very much at home in the culture of the small-town and rural American Midwest, where I've spent most of my life. On the other hand, I was carrying around inside of me a self-generated Hermetic world which was almost as alien and remote from small-town Wisconsin as, say, the culture of the ancient Maya.

2. Interesting question. In Chess, a pawn moves forward and does not move back; a piece is captured and it does not return to the board; and (under modern rules) either a pawn must be moved or a piece must be captured every 50 moves, or else the game ends in a draw. The figure that comes to me, can't remember where I once heard it, is that a Chess game could in theory continue for a maximum of something like 5000 moves. Of course, usually a game would continue for nowhere near that many moves.

Under "folk rules" that prevailed in Chess in some locales up until at least 1900 (eh, it's somewhere in H.J.R. Murray), without any "50-move rule," I'm not sure there's a predictable, hard and fast maximum, though still clearly entropy takes its toll, and usually somewhat sooner rather than far later, in most games of Chess. Actually I've encountered one such folk rule myself, over and over again: the idea that, once one player is reduced to a bare king, the game ends in a draw unless he is mated in 21 moves or less. The effect of this is to shorten a potentially longer game, but I suppose one might imagine a folk rule in Chess which had the opposite effect.

Shogi? I'm not as sure, and I'm not the Shogi player I once was; not that I was ever such a wizard of a player. What immediately pops into my mind is, once the "castle" around a King starts getting breached, either it's not going to be easily shored up, or else reentering captured pieces will result in structures that, shall we say, are more likely to result from reentering captured pieces than from play from an initial position. That looks to me like entropy of a sort— but entropy of a "softer" sort, and entropy that might not necessarily lead to "choking the game off" in the same way as the irreversible advance and attrition in a game of Chess.

However, at that point, I'm soaring aloft on the wings of intuition, and whether I'm talking sense or nonsense, I really can't say.

3. Ah yes, Toynbee. Toynbee and Spengler. I just tried it out, and I find that I'm still #1 in a Google search for "Toynbee Spengler." :-)

Friday, March 10, 2006 9:11:00 PM  

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