The Priest’s Gambit

A brief story of the remote clergyman who played chess

“Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates life”. Oscar Wilde’s The Decay of Lying: An Observation.

Cover of The Queen’s Gambit novel.

The excellent Netflix series The Queen’s Gambit produced in the USA (2020) is a successful TV adaption. About a novel with the same title (1983) by Walter Tevis (1928–1984).

The series has brought public opinion an ancient game. It is chess, a popular game worldwide. People with above-average brainpower practice it. Chess is like many great mass sports. It gathers a minority of select professionals: many champions, masters, and super masters. And also a large uncountable majority of fans or “normal” players. Or spectators.

It is a good occasion to analyze the relations between reality and fiction. Or, in the words of Oscar Wilde, about Life and Art.

The origin of the word chess

The voice chess origin goes back to the ancient Sanskrit language. Its voice chaturanga means “of four members.” In classical Arabic, it exists the voice šiṭranğ derived from Spanish Arabic in aššaṭranğ or aššiṭranğ. In the VIII Century, North African tribes invaded Spain and Portugal (Iberian Peninsula). So, the game arrived with them.

Hence the voice axedrez (in old Spanish), today ajedrez (in present Spanish). In English, it is chess. The game is usually between two people that compete on a board with 64 squares. There are 16 pieces for each player (a half of white color and a half of blacks). They are unequal in importance and value. Players moved the pieces on the board following many strategies.

The different game’s pieces move according to the players’ strategy. A player’s goal is to capture the opponent’s pieces following complex rules or laws. Many chess rules are ancient. But continuous reviews and adaptations are depending on masters’ contributions.

A Spanish XVI Century priest was a chess master

There are many players’ significant names in chess history. Among the most ancient and prestigious ones is Rodrigo López de Segura (from now on, Ruy López).

Ruy was a typical man of the XVI Century’s Spain (at his time, the Spanish Empire). Despite its notoriety in history, Rodrigo López de Segura is unknown to many persons. It is not the case with Beth Harmon, the red-haired Netflix star. Let us do historical justice!

Ruy López was born in the cattle town of Zafra (Çafra in his time), placed in the center of Badajoz province (Extremadura).

The exact date of Ruy López’s birth is unknown. He came into the world in the first decades of the 16th century, around 1530. He was a member of a merchant family with three brothers and two sisters. The family’s economic situation was excellent.

Ruy was a catholic priest. But his field of action was much more extensive. It was usual among people with intellectual and cultural concerns. Of note is that he was living in the full Renaissance period.

Ruy López exercised his priesthood in Zafra. That happened until King Philip II called him a royal confessor and personal advisor. He lived in Seville between 1570 and 1572. The last was the probable year when he went to Perú. In Lima (the capital of Peru), Ruy López died around 1590.

The teacher’s learning

Pedro Damião, Italianized Damiano (1480–1544), was a Portuguese pharmacist. And also, he was a chess player. It was the author of an influential book: Libro da Imparare Giocare A Scacchi(Rome, 1512). It was a bilingual treatise (in Spanish and Italian).

Damiano wrote with strategic details about the chess game. Openings, moves, problems, and everything that interests the excellent chess player. Damiano’s book had a significant influence on Ruy López’s learning. In his book (next section), Ruy López cites Damiano, whom he names Damian, many times.

Cover of Pedro Damiano’s book. Image credits: Wikimedia Commons

Damiano might have been the first chess player to use the named blindfold technique. Or blindness chess. Years after him, Ruy López also was a master in this intricate technique. This technique requires great mental strength and memorizing the pieces. The prayer moves without seeing or touching the pieces or the board. It is the battleground where blacks and whites are fighting. As in real-life happens. All human beings’ lives matter.

Ruy López as a chess player

It is unknown when he started in the chess world, but he practiced this activity in King Philip II’s court. The severe King organized in 1575 a tournament in his house in El Escorial monastery (in Madrid).

El Escorial (Madrid). Image credits: ThousandWonders.

The historical chess match confronted the best players. Two were Spanish and two Italian. Ruy López de Segura and Alfonso Cerón de Granada were the Spaniard’s team. Alfonso Cerón was also a priest, chess player, and author of a book. The book entitled De Iatrunculorum Judo (The Game of Chess) disappeared.

The best Italian opponent was the famous champion, Leonardo da Cutri. His real name was Giovanni Leonardo di Bona, aka Il Puttino. The nickname was due to his very short physical stature). The second Italian prayer was Paolo Boi, aka Il Siracusani.

According to some chess historians, the match was the first international chess competition. The Italian masters won the battle. The defeat was a significant blow to imperial Spain.

Philip the Second rewarded the winners with great sportsmanship. Above all, much money. It was the revenge desired by Leonardo da Cutri because Ruy López had beaten him twice before in Rome. It is worth remembering an ancient Spanish saying: “Revenge is a dish served cold.” To revenge, no matter when, where, and how.

Luigi Mussini’s oil painting Sfida scacchistica alla Corte di Spagna. Ruy López is sitting on the left, dressed with a red habit. King Phillip II is sitting in front of him, dressed in black. Between both, opening the arms, it is Leonardo da Cutri. Back is Paolo Boi (left) and the clergyman Alfonso Cerón (right). Image credit: Wikidata.

Ruy López’s chess treatise

The student, like his master, also wrote a chess book. Ruy López de Segura’s book was not the first, but it is one of the best in chess history, despite many printing errors. The original title in old Spanish is very long (see the cover). In abbreviated: Libro de la Invencion Liberal y Arte del Juego del Axedrez. In my personal and free English translation: Book of the Liberal Invention and Chess Game Art.

Cover of Ruy Lopez’s book

Ruy publish his book in Alcalá de Henares (Madrid), at Andrés de Angulo’s printing house, in 1561. It has 317 pages distributed in four parts, each with 27, 29, 24, and 15 chapters. Also, there is a nuncupatory (dedicatory) letter. Of note is the plenty of Latin quotes from classical authors (Homer, Ovid, Martial, Seneca, and so on). The book, in old Spanish, is available on-line. You can find it in several libraries (i.e., The Historical Library of Valencia’s University, Spain). This copy has many former proprietary’ annotations.

Some Italian chess masters from the XVIIth century criticized Ruy López’s book. We could name them, with humor and absolute respect, Il Divo di Modena. They were Domenico Lorenzo Ponziani, Ercole del Rio, and Giambattista Lolli. Why do these disputes occur among colleagues? It is the ordinary action-reaction law — a constant among geniuses. Anticipating the future, Ruy López reflects on envy in the dedicatory letter.

Ruy López contributed to enlarge the chess world for both amateurs and professionals. For example, he invented an opening that put its name in chess history: Ruy Lopez’s or Spanish aperture (the moves 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5).

May I re-name it the Priest’s Gambit?

What does the hell Gambit mean?

Gambit is a word of Italian origin (gambetto) with several meanings. One of them is Gambit, an opening move. It means the sacrifice of some pawn, or another piece, or both, to achieve a favorable position. The Oxford Companion to Chess is a kind of reference encyclopedia. It recompiles a list of 1.327 openings and their variants.

One of the most ancients openings is the King’s Gambit that begins with the moves 1. e4 e5 2. f4. was valid for three centuries. It lost value after the final years of the 19th century. But, some great current masters still use this classical opening or some of its variants. Remember Walter Tevis’s novel title and the Netflix series entitled The Queen’s Gambit, nor The King’s. Each crown on the corresponding head!

Checkmate to the priest’ story

It is impressive to note how invisible threads can connect a real history with the fiction world. Oscar Wilde’s quote, “Life (reality) imitates Art (fiction) far more than Art imitates Life,” is right. Even if both — life and art, or reality and invention — join centuries later.

A long time after a real fact, chance’s hand wrote a fictional work. It is a different kind of encounter between Old and New World talents. The work from a European priest, an XVI Century humanist, and an XX Century novel. A story later dramatized by an XXI Century TV platform, these last ones from the USA.

What a beautiful thing! Today’s American continent was a land great and unknown. It was home to hundreds of different Natives tribes living at Ruy López de Segura’s time. They only could play life’s chess to survive, nor by diversion.

We have gathered here reality and fiction. Thanks to the magic of the i-magin-action from a poor brain that does not play chess. It is Life and Art. Ruy López’s opening, a real historical chess master, and the Queen’s Gambit from Beth Harmon, a fictional one. Wonderful!

God save all the Gambits! And the Brexit’s Queen, of course. And The Crown!

Postscript. A friendly warning to people like me: The Crown is a different Netflix series.

Medical Doctor (Infectious Diseases specialist/Professor of Medicine) and writer (narrative, theater).