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The politics and passions of three-dimensional chess

This is a lazy, meaningless phrase that conveniently ignores that chess, like life itself, already takes place in three dimensions. ‘Normal’ chess is exceedingly complex.

Heather Hopp-Bruce/gearstd/Adobe

I love the phrase “three-dimensional chess.” NPR used it this week to describe US-Russian relations, meaning “complicated.” Podcasters Robert Wright and Mickey Kaus recently speculated that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was “playing three-dimensional chess” by impeaching former president Donald Trump. The more exposure Trump gets, this 3-D variant of the queen’s — sorry, speaker’s — gambit goes, the more the Republican Party suffers.

A sportswriter recently alluded to the “three-dimensional chess match” pitting Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ defense. Checkmate, Tampa Bay. Rodgers watched the end of the game from the sidelines, like a helpless king pinned in the corner of the chessboard.


Vladimir Putin, president of the country where chess is considered a sport, not a game, seems to spend every waking hour in front of the 3-D chessboard. In 2015, Nikolai Sokov of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, wrote a convoluted op-ed in The Washington Post headlined “How the Ukrainian crisis is like three-dimensional chess.” A few years later, 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, bemoaning reports of Russian interference in the election, averred that her opponent, Trump, had been “playing checkers and Putin is playing three-dimensional chess.”

You get the point. This is a lazy, meaningless phrase that conveniently ignores that chess, like life itself, already takes place in three dimensions. “Normal” chess is exceedingly complex. For instance, IBM’s computer Deep Blue had to calculate 200 million positions per second to beat world champion Garry Kasparov in 1997. Chess doesn’t need a fake invocation of extra-dimensionality to be more complicated.

I’m not the only one tired of this rhetorical nonsense. In a 2017 interview with Politico, Kasparov said he couldn’t envision Trump or Putin playing chess, “three-dimensional or any other kind,” according to interviewer Edward Isaac-Dovere. “Both of them despise playing by the rules,” Kasparov said, so in a hypothetical game “it’s who will cheat first.”


Noting that cable news references to “three-dimensional chess” skyrocketed with the onset of the Trump presidency, Vice News decided to ask: What the hell is 3-D chess? Vice unearthed numerous variants of 3-D chess; by far the most famous was the version first played on a 1966 episode of “Star Trek.” Vice even tracked down former US Chess Federation president Leroy Dubeck, who was hired as a consultant to codify the rules for “Star Trek chess.”

“I have never had a passion then or now for 3-D chess,” Dubeck told Vice. “I got my check and I put away the ‘Star Trek’ board and set, where it sat in a closet for decades.” He further opined: “I don’t think you need to be a genius to play 3-D chess, and if you’re really smart, you’re too smart to play 3-D chess, because you see it’s a waste.”

Not surprisingly, 3-DC, as I call it, spiraled out of “Star Trek.” Tony Joe Britton told me a little bit about his Facebook group, the Amateur Tri-Dimensional Chess League. He also pointed me to a couple of websites that may or may not launch you into the glamorous world of 3-DC.

At this moment, 3-DC is not necessarily ready for prime time. A few of the rules first appeared in the “Star Trek Star Fleet Technical Manual,” a work of fiction that appeared in 1975. Britton has since published his own 395-page “Complete and Official Guide to Tri-Dimensional Chess,” which you can download from the Facebook site.


Uncertainty about the rules has limited the number of players in the United States to about a dozen, Britton told me. None of them are named Trump, Putin, or Pelosi.

Alex Beam’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @imalexbeamyrnot.