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If a Chessman Were a Word:
A Chess~Calvino Dictionary

On a tiled foor at the feet of Kublai Khan, Marco Polo spread out trinkets and treasures from his world travels.  Still ignorant of Levantine languages, Marco used the trophies as props as he pantomimed his adventures and discoveries.  The Mongolian emperor was a keen chess player, notes Italo Calvino in Invisible Cities.  “Following Marco’s movements, he observed that certain pieces implied or excluded the vicinity of other pieces and were shifted along certain lines.  Ignoring the objects’ variety of form, he could grasp the system of arranging one with respect to the others on the majolica floor.  He thought: ‘If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.’”

Calvino notes that Marco needn’t have employed all that bric-a-brac in his speeches: “a chessboard would have sufficed, with its specific pieces.  To each piece, in turn, they could give an approximate meaning: a knight could stand for a real horseman, or for a procession of coaches, an army on the march, an equestrian monument; a queen could be a lady looking down from her balcony, a fountain, a church with a pointed dome, a quince tree.”

Calvino offers no other examples, but he has inspired this dictionary of chessman meanings.  All language herein pays homage to Invisible Cities.


“I had a music-box moment when the postman delivered a parcel containing the latest publication of one-letter-word genius Craig Conley.  If a Chessman Were a Word: A Chess~Calvino Dictionary takes the chess-paragraph from Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities as the starting point for a piece-by-piece mapping of each piece and its corresponding meaning.”  Wilfried Hou Je Bek, author of Gilgamesh for Apes

“Useful in divination and in spurring creative thought.”  Clint Marsh, author of The Mentalist's Handbook

Copyright © 2020 Craig Conley