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A Review of Meta-Chess

by Serge Kohl

For over two decades John William Brown has been collecting, analysing, composing and playing chess variants in an effort to combine the best ideas of the past with his own vision of a grand-unified scheme for the future. Unlike other heterodox chess writers, he is concerned primarily with establishing a system wherein variant players speak a common language and compose quality games for tournament play. Only thirteen chess variants are actually discussed (five are exceptional), yet over 150 new pieces are developed and described. The bulk of the text concerns such topics as composing new variants, creating and evaluating new pieces, building sets, storing and retrieving pieces for a specific variant, and organising tournaments.

Meta-Chess breaks some new ground and turns over some old. For example, Brown dismisses the idea of sculptured pieces and proceeds to develop flat shogi-like markers. Each individual piece displays a simple "heraldic" pattern that defines its loyalty and describes how it should move. When these colored pieces are arrayed on the system's recommended multiboard, one gets the feeling that he is viewing a serious work of art. Moreover, the book supplies patterns and instructions for actually building such a set!

As for the old ground, such topics as piece values and piece move-codes are covered in detail. All the formulas for estimating the relative values of pieces (which, incidently, change with board size) are contained in one chapter. The math may seem intimidating at first glance, but once the functions are set up on a spreadsheet, the rest is pure profit. The Meta-Chess move-coding language is a work of genius. Never have I seen the moves of complex pieces represented so clearly and succinctly. Brown even goes so far (in an appendix) to show that his language is a "ring algebra" derived from simple statements of Boolean algebra. (Actually more than I wanted to know.)

I have chosen the following definitions from the Meta-Chess glossary to help clarify some of the concepts introduced above:

Meta-Chess - 1. A practical and aesthetic system for creating, naming, documenting and storing a large number of chess pieces for use in composing and playing a variety of chess games. The system is characterised by the use of cartographic markers, multiboards, template boxes and a body of theory concerning such topics as move topologies, move-coding languages, relative values and graphic conventions. 2. The more comprehensive definition of "chess" that includes both Traditional Chess and chess variants.

("Traditional Chess" is the Meta-Chess term for the usual 8x8 game.)

cartographic marker - A flat token--for establishing the location of a chess piece on a chess board--that displays a move map of the piece's field of options and a unique color scheme specifying its side.

free-form competition - A style of chess competition wherein players compete by composing and playing their own games.

The Meta-Chess Philosophy - To expand the idea of chess to its practical limits without violating the spirit and dignity characteristic of Traditional Chess.

Brown is quite serious about the Meta-Chess Philosophy. He criticises H. R. Dawson (the creator of Fairy Chess) for allowing junk pieces and tawdry names to infiltrate his system. In Meta-Chess, all new pieces--and a number of the old--are given names that are in keeping with the spirit of the classical Middle Ages. This degree of editing may irk some, as Brown appeals only to his own judgement to determine which historical traditions are worthy of preservation. But hey!--this is his system and he can include whatever he wants. Moreover, Meta-Chess is a remarkably self-consistent system (almost to a fault) with a generous network of cross-references and hyperlinks. I would not be surprised if the chess variants community came to adopt Meta-Chess as an international standard.

Meta-Chess contains 80,000 words, includes a glossary of 400-plus terms, features over 150 b&w illustrations, three color plates, four card-stock pages of 'temporary pieces' and has resulted in two U. S. Patents.

The book is priced at $24.95 plus $4.95 S&H per shipment. Send check or money order to:

John William Brown
Kronschild Publishing
2030 Spruce St
Lewisville AR 71845

John William Brown can be reached for query or comment at (email removed contact us for address)

Serge Kohl can be reached at (email removed contact us for address)

Written by Serge Kohl. This review was written in November 1996, with a few small changes in October 1997. An update of the information of the book at the end of the review was provided by John William Brown.
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WWW page created: December 9, 1996. Last modified: March 6, 1999.