Game of Thrones and Bobby Fischer

by Priyadarshan Banjan
4/24/2016 – The Game of Thrones is a wildly popular TV series watched by young and old alike across the world with unmatched devotion and it has achieved near cult status. It is based on the equally popular series of books named 'A Song of Ice and Fire'. Did you know that George RR Martin, the author of the books and TV series, was a chess player and organizer?

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Whether you watch it or not, it is nearly impossible to not have heard of the insanely popular
Game of Thrones series, now in its sixth season on HBO.

Before the book series of the A Song of Ice and Fire came by, we hardly knew anything about Geroge R.R. Martin. Now, following his popularity, we feel like we have a pretty decent idea on who George R.R. Martin is these days. It is well-known that he is very generous to fans, who both love him and attack him regularly to complete the A Song of Ice and Fire series, who frequently worry that he may die before he is able to complete the book series, which may leave the television show in a limbo as well.

Thus far seven books have been published, with five comprising the main plot line. Game of Thrones
is not the name of the series but rather the first novel in the series.

The concern of dying before he finishes his series might seem a strange
one, a nerd concern taken to extremes, but fantasy readers do have a
basis on reality feeding that worry. The incredibly popular (in the genre)
"Wheel of Time" series was unfinished at the time of Robert Jordan's death
in 2007. Fortunately the excellent Brandon Sanderson was brought in to
finish it, based on notes by Jordan, but it is still not Jordan.

What most people do not know is that he was heavily involved in the CBS series Beauty and the Beast. Also, what most people didn’t know is that chess — and Bobby Fischer — basically helped Martin become the celebrated writer he is today!

Yes, it is true! We have the American world champion Bobby Fischer to credit for Martin's rise as a writer

In his books, besides the obvious complexities in the story itself, chess has a glaring presence. In the books, Martin has consistently made the game of Cyvasse a setting for important scenes. Cyvasse is a game which originates from Volantis, a fictional city in the storyline. The game is played by two players and features ten pieces, each with different powers and attributes.

Here are some excerpts of the dialogues in the books where the game is a part of the setting, and note its obvious relationship with chess:

"Cyvasse , the game was called. It had come to the Planky Town on a trading galley from Volantis, and the orphans had spread it up and down the Greenblood. TheDornish court was mad for it. Ser Arys just found it maddening." — Thoughts of Arys Oakheart

"I hope Your Grace will pardon me. Your king is trapped. Death in four." — Tyrion Lannister

"You have other pieces besides the dragon, princess. Try moving them sometime." — Daemon Sand

You can read more about the fictional game, a cousin of chess, here.

In an exclusive chat with Geoffrey Macnab for the British news agency The Independent, the legendary writer revealed that he had been a player with a USCF rating of 1905 in 1990-91. Here are excerpts from the piece where Martin describes his association with chess:

"I started playing chess when I was quite young, in grade school. I played it through high school. In college, I founded the chess club. I was captain of the chess team." In the American chess rating system, Martin was categorised at his peak as "expert," one rank below "master".

"The importance of chess to me was not as a player but as a tournament director. In my early 20s, I was writing. I sold a few short stories. My big dream was to be a full-time writer and support myself with my fiction but I wasn't making enough money to pay my rent and pay the phone bill – so I had to have a day job."

In 1972, Bobby Fischer did Martin a huge favour by winning the world chess championship. "Bobby Fischer played Boris Spassky in Reykjavík and won – and the entire American chess community went nuts!"

On the back of Fischer's success, the game became hugely popular. Martin was hired to direct the Midwestern circuit for a national organisation that ran chess tournaments. "For two or three years, I had a pretty good situation. Most writers who have to have a day job work five days a week and then they have the weekend off to write. These chess tournaments were all on the weekend so I had to work on Saturday and Sunday – but then I had five days off to write. The chess generated enough money for me to pay my bills."

George R.R. Martin

After a year or two, the American chess bubble burst. All those enthusiasts who had taken up the game after Fischer's victory over Spassky stopped playing. There was no longer much money in setting up tournaments. "But, by then, I was much better established as a writer," he reflects. "The chess really did mark a crucial turning point in my career."

Martin himself long ago gave up chess. He decided that he didn't have the dedication or love of the game to treat it as a full-time job. "You have to study the books and memorise the openings and play constantly, play games every day, over and over again," he sighs. "I wasn't willing to do that. I enjoyed chess, it was fun playing it and doing the tournaments but I didn't want to make it my job. Writing gave me much more satisfaction."

I ask Martin if all the tactical thinking and preparation involved in his chess career helped him later when he turned to constructing something as complex as A Song of Ice and Fire, the epic series of fantasy novels of which Game of Thrones was the first. Given the size of the enterprise, the vast cast of characters and a huge array of subplots, how does he work out what fits where?

The author laughs ruefully. "I don't have an easy answer to that. I just do. It is in my mind. I have charts of course. Most of it is on the computer. I have files on the computer. I have lists of chronologies and family trees. I consult those from time to time but less than you would think. Most of it is just in my head."

You can read the complete interview with other interesting stories in the full article.


The sixth season of the Game of Thrones series will be aired on HBO starting on April 24, 2016. Above
is the trailer. One curiosity worth noting is that George RR Martin, who is working closely with HBO on
the series, has deliberately begun deviating from the books, thus creating a sort of alternate reality in his
very same Game of Thrones universe.

Priyadarshan Banjan is a 23-year-old club player from India. He works as an editor for ChessBase News and ChessBase India. He is a chess fanatic and an avid fan of Vishy Anand. He also maintains a blog on a variety of topics.


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