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Beautifully abstract as it appears to its modern admirers and practitioners, chess has its origins as a game symbolising that ugliest of pursuits: war. Its most recognisable origins were in seventh-century India, when the game Chatarunga emerged, with pieces denoting chariots, elephants, infantrymen, horsemen and, of course, a king.

The military connections with chess have persisted to the present day, though the castles and knights that we now use are utterly remote from modern warfare, even as symbols. Some of the initial funding for the Deep Thought chess computer program that eventually beat the human world champion (Garry Kasparov) came from the Pentagon's Defense Advance Projects Agency — or so I was told back in 1989 by Darpa's then head of funding for expert systems research, Lieutenant Colonel Robert Simpson. He said the Pentagon believed that "a machine like this, programmed with knowledge of the terrain a pilot is going through, can digitise all the various route choices, explore them, and choose the optimum route. That is what Deep Thought is doing."

That seemed far-fetched, but the Pentagon has always been willing to put small amounts of its vast resources into the most fanciful-sounding projects. More recently, it emerged that the Swedish national defence college had been studying how leading chess players construct their plans, to see how their methods could be applied to real situations on the battlefield. One of the Swedish military researchers, Jan Kuylenstierna, told the Guardian: "Chess resembles real war in many respects. It involves a struggle of will and it contains what has been termed the essentials of fighting — to strike, to move and to protect."

Despite all this, there has not been a notable correlation between great military leaders of the past and an interest in chess. Perhaps it is because those engaged in planning real battles with real humans would be unlikely to want to spend any spare time pummelling their brains in a symbolic version of the same endeavour.

Yet there is one military campaigner of immense significance who, according to a number of accounts, was a chess enthusiast: Napoleon Bonaparte. Recently, marking the 200th anniversary of Napoleon's ultimately disastrous Russian campaign, St Petersburg's Museum of Ethnography displayed an extraordinary chess set made by the jewellery house of Anna Nova, called "The Chess. 1812". The White king is Napoleon, the Black one Alexander I of Russia. The two armies are made of white and black jade, decorated with 6,700 diamonds, 9,400 rubies and 3,200 sapphires — a chess set fit for a billionaire Russian oligarch wishing to demonstrate his wealth and his patriotism at the same time.

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