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The number of moves in the game of chess is practically limitless.

While almost nothing looks more orderly than chess pieces before a match starts, the first move begins a spiral into chaos. After both players move, 400 possible board setups exist. After the second pair of turns, there are 197,742 possible games, and after three moves, there are 121 million.

Don’t ask. These are not my numbers, but according to Frederic Friedell, a chess expert, there are more combinations of moves in the game of chess than there are atoms in the universe.

Friedell was a guest on the NPR program Radiolab. He described a library in the Moscow Central Chess Club whose shelves are filled with boxes containing little index cards; each card documents a particular game’s moves and countermoves. These recorded games go back to the 16th century. It is a treasure trove of brilliantly played chess.

Very few people have had access to this library until in the 1980s, when Friedell convinced the Russian Chess Federation to allow him to put all these recorded games online. Now everyone has access to them. Not only are more games added to the database, but players use it to study and memorize thousands of moves and even whole games of past masters.

There are those who accuse Friedell of ruining the game. He disagrees and argues that, instead, the game has been brought to a whole new level. Due to the availability of his database, named “Fritzy”, with 8 million games, players know just how many times a particular board setup has appeared in the entire recorded history of chess. On rare occasions, the game they are watching moves ‘out of book.’ It becomes a novelty.

Absolutely exhilarating!

Friedell observes that this happens in other games as well. He mentions hockey and describes Wayne Gretzky whacking a flying puck in midair to score a goal, and he refers to basketball and an impossible basket in the last second of a game by Larry Johnson. Out of book.

His host then asks Friedell whether he has an all-time favorite ‘out of book’ chess game. He says he does. It occurred in New York, on October 17, 1956. It was the game between Bobby Fischer and Donald Byrne. Bobby was a 13 year old kid. He came to this elite gathering wearing a T-shirt. Donald Byrne, an International Master, was urbane, played holding his cigarette between 2 fingers; he was put-off having to play ‘the kid’.

A few moves into the game Bobby moves his knight to the rim of the board. It’s not a smart move. He’s obviously a beginner, a kid who doesn’t belong here. But then, on Bobby’s seventeenth move, he takes the game ‘out of book.’ He exposes his queen. You don’t win by losing your queen this early in the game.

A crowd gathers to watch the kid being taught a lesson. Byrne takes the queen. But then four moves later, when everyone is sure Byrne would have the kid in a stranglehold, it is the kid chasing Byrne’s king all over the board–Check! Check! Check! People are astonished, baffled, wondering what elaborate game plan is at play here. Twenty moves after sacrificing his queen, Bobby tells Byrne, “Checkmate!”

Today, when people analyze the game, they realize that when Bobby Fischer gave up his queen, the game was pretty much over. Even if Byrne had not taken the queen, he was doomed to lose. There was an essential checkmate twenty moves before the end. It was unstoppable. The game is referred to as the game of the century. It was ‘out of book,’ a novelty.

To make sense of Advent and to draw glory and exaltation from all the High Holy Days of the Christian year, it is necessary to see that when God gave his Son, he made a move that was ‘out of book’, and clinched the game. In that move Evil, Death and the Devil were essentially put in checkmate.

An angel analyzing the move declared to all the world: “Do not be afraid, I am bringing you good news. Born to you is a Savior!”

No matter how long the game continues, the coming of God’s Son was the decisive turning point in the game of the ages. Of course, there were and are those looking on who scoff and say it is an absolutely foolish move, and there were and are others who see it as a sign of fundamental weakness. But we celebrate the move as a marvelous sign of wisdom and power.

God’s move was ‘out of book’…Checkmate!

Jack Roeda

Jack Roeda is a retired minister in the Christian Reformed Church. He served as pastor of Church of the Servant in Grand Rapids, Michigan for the last 33 years of his ministry.


  • Checkmate! This blog is wonderful. I well remember when Fischer played Spassky for the world title. Thank you for this blog. Have a blessed Advent and Christmas.

  • Jessica A Groen says:

    Lovely essay, Jack! The best story plots, like the best out of book sporting matches, have this “essential checkmate twenty moves before the end” quality. Joseph applied it in his reunion with brothers, Esther played it to save her kin, and Tamar turned its tricks to rescue herself. It’s how Shakespeare’s Duke of Vienna bested Lord Angelo, and how Orczy’s Scarlet Pimpernel got the upper hand on Chauvelin.

    I love this snippet about Fischer from Time Magazine, Monday, Mar. 24, 1958
    “In the cosmopolitan cant of chess players, it is legend that masters of the game are all meshuga–Yiddish for a little batty.
    But when they talk of Brooklyn’s Bobby Fischer, the newly crowned U.S. champion, the kibitzers are moved to uncommon awe.
    Bobby, they declare, is ganz meshuga, which is to say that he is quite addled. Though he celebrated his 15th birthday only last week, he already shows all the marks of the great grand masters of one of the oldest, most intricate games known to man. . . .

    A floppy, abrupt young gangle-shanks, he stumbles through the physical world of school and subways and summer vacations in a tangle of arms and legs not quite under control. But in the neatly ordered empire of the chessboard, he moves with vast precision. Swiftly he picks his way among the possibilities; haughtily he sidesteps the traps. . . .”

    • jack roeda says:

      I really like your observation how the ‘Out of Book’ appears in literature. Last night after watching the movie, “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”. Carol, my wife, said, “Mr. Rogers lived a life ‘Out of Book’.

  • Gloria Stronks says:

    This is is beautiful. I appreciate the writings on The Twelve so very much. Yes, I am a donor and I think of it as paying for a subscription as I do for any paper journal to which I subscribe. I am more than grateful to these writers.

  • Rodger Rice says:

    Brilliant! Around the middle I scoffed. But it turned out “out of the box”! Checkmate. Thanks for making your move.

  • RLG says:

    Interesting comparison, Jack, but not sure that it flies. I’m a little hesitant to make this comment. I don’t mean to be hurtful, but I imagine honest questions, even doubts, are welcome. Reading the Bible’s narrative, it might seem as though Satan is one step ahead of God in the course of history. Who really got checkmated? It seems that Satan, the demigod, has always stood head to head with God. Shortly after God’s good creation, Satan stepped in and reeked havoc on creation and humanity. Apparently, still is reeking havoc. Later, when God initiated his experiment with Israel, as his promised people, his plan went south when his chosen nation turned their backs on God. So God initiated a new plan to include a broader range of people. But such plan got off to a bad start when the death of Jesus added another notch to Satan’s belt.

    Of course Christians tie their hopes to the resurrection of Jesus, and see it as a victory for God, not Satan. But both the Jews and Muslims, close kin to the Christian narrative, dispute the resurrection of Jesus. Both deny the divinity of Jesus, as well as the resurrection. And certainly the proof of such resurrection would be Christ’s ascension and reign over the earth and church, but life and history has continued on the same trajectory as before the advent of Jesus, giving no evidence of a supposed reign. Even (especially) Christians lament the sad state of our world and the power of Satan. Also missing, as evidence of Jesus’ victory, is his soon return.

    So Jack, I wonder some, if God’s promised victory at the creation/fall account is the checkmate you and other Christians propose. I guess a lot depends on what one chooses to believe, rather than any objective evidence. Maybe it’s not the character of God that should be doubted, but rather the narrative. Of course Christianity, like other religions, is dependent on the faith of its followers. Wishing you well.

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