Saturday, January 12, 2019

Fit for a King


Most gods throw dice, but Fate plays chess, and you don't find out til too late that he's been playing with two queens all along. - Terry Pratchett

Checkmate Box by Robert Yarger

The game of chess has been around for a long time, with early references from India as early as the 6th century when it was called “Chaturanga”.  Differences over time are most noticeable in the playing pieces, which once included elephants, chariots and visiers.  Tracing the etymology of the words reveal these are now the bishops, rooks and queens, for example.  More subtle are the changes in rules over the centuries, which drastically changed the strategy and complexity of the games.  Mastering the game is a lifelong pursuit and even profession. I’ll stick to the basic enjoyment of the novice, and of the abundant puzzles derived from the game.  It’s always fun to discover a chess game hidden somewhere, such as in a poem, a painting, a Shakespeare play or a Lewis Carol novel.  Naturally, a chess themed puzzle box would hold immense interest.

This is no ordinary chess themed box.  The Stickman No. 14 Puzzle Box, aka the Checkmate Box, represents the evolutionary development of a modern day renaissance artist in his chosen medium.  Robert Yarger’s 14th production series work, considered by some to be his finest achievement, was created a mere five years into his journey as a crafter of intricate wooden objects with hidden internal mechanisms and secret openings.  Like the artisans of old who brought mechanical objects to life via intricate internal gears, levers, springs and other devices, Rob built some magic into this chess board using only wood and magnets. The Checkmate Box is an automaton like object on which chess pieces play out a game against one another, moving by themselves as if by magic as the stage is turned.  Either side might succeed with a checkmate, which is the only way to gain access to either of the two secret drawers. You are provided with a full set of playing pieces, yet the board is not full size. Which pieces should be played on the 5x5 board? How should the game play out to achieve a victory for either side?  How do you make the pieces move to the correct positions? Rob has built many, many challenges into the piece, ranging from nearly impossible to moderately difficult (if you are a genius).  He provides clues and a number of potential starting points to allow you to tailor the solving experience to your particular level of pain tolerance. 

Beautiful relief carvings decorate the side panels

The Checkmate Box is also one of the most beautiful objects created by Robert Yarger. Crafted from solid mahogany, holly and leopard woods, it features intricately carved relief panels and pedestal feet. Rob actually won an award for this work from the company which manufactures the carving machine he employed. The internal core mechanism which drives the chess piece motion was a typically complex novelty which Rob invented, put on the shelf, and periodically added to over time, until at last he thought up a good use for it.  It creates three different types of mechanical motion, which are harnessed in different ways to produce the movement of the chess pieces on the top of the board. Watching the pieces slide and dance is mesmerizing.  Understanding that there is a master plan at work here, wherein maneuvering the pieces to a checkmate simultaneously unlocks a secret drawer, is astonishing. Rob also envisioned a coup de grace, where the defeated king piece falls over at the end, but this final flourish was not included due to practicalities of finishing the project and moving on. He was able to include that flourish in a future box, so don't despair. One can easily imagine this box under display in a museum, in the age of enlightenment when similar marvels were created by the likes of Da Vinci.

For telling time after dark

An ideal toast to this masterpiece of mechanics might be one which references another masterpiece, perhaps by a Renaissance master named Rembrandt.  Officially named “Militia Company of District II under the Command of Captain Frans Banning Cocq” (also known as “The Shooting Company of Frans Banning Cocq and Willem van Ruytenburch”) and completed in 1642 by Rembrandt van Rijn, the more commonly known “Night Watch” is one of the most famous paintings of the Dutch Golden Age.  You can see this colossal painting for yourself at the famous Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and marvel at the almost life-sized people, the use of light and shadow, and the groundbreaking (for its time) use of motion and action.  Referencing this painting to toast the Stickman Checkmate Box would clearly be ideal for a number of reasons. There is the aforementioned comparison to a Renaissance piece, by another master of his art, as the starting point. The name of this painting in particular, “Night Watch”, is also a play on words for a game of chess.  I shouldn’t have needed to spell that out, but I didn’t want you to miss it.  Finally, the two central characters in the painting are strikingly contrasted in black and white, like the two opposing sides in a chess game.  Not included in this fine list but secretly relevant to my own sense of humor is the fact that this painting is named after Captain Cocq. I wonder if his soldiers dared call him that to his face.

Night Watch by Jessica Gonzalez

Which brings us to the Night Watch cocktail by New York’s Jessica Gonzalez, an award winning mixologist who gained fame at Death and Company where she created this delicious and satisfying night cap.  She recounts that while many of her colleagues enjoy naming drinks they create after songs or movies, she prefers works of art. Her drink starts with a base of Old Tom gin, an old style of gin which bridges the gap between the original Dutch genever (the forerunner of modern gin, with a heavily malted composition) and dry London style gin.  This gives the drink a mellower gin flavor which lets the other components shine through.  These include the delicious East India Solera sherry and the potent Cruzan Black Strap rum.  Flavors of molasses, raisin, juniper and spice mingle for a very special sip.  The addition of some Stickman Bitters would be absolutely perfect in this drink, if you happen to have any handy.  If not, Angostura will do just fine.  Here’s to clever castling, precise promotion, and enigmatic en passant. Checkmate – cheers!

Nighty Knight

Night Watch by Jessica Gonzalez

1 ½ oz Ransom Old Tom gin
½ oz Cruzan Black Strap rum
¾ oz Lustau East India Solera sherry
1 tsp simple syrup
1 dash Angostura bitters

Stir ingredients with ice and strain into a favorite glass. Garnish with a knight watch.

For more about Robert Yarger see:

Bonus Offering! As an incredibly special added treat this week, we have some thoughts on this magnificent object from the creator himself, Robert Yarger. Rather than editorialize and place these comments into the main offering as I often do, it seemed opportune to present them exactly as they are: 

"I once pursued a career in electrical engineering, but electricity always saw me as the path of least resistance, so I went another direction.  The original concept behind this puzzle was to produce a fully mechanical version of an electrical transistor.  That is what the mechanism of this puzzle really is at its core. 

This makes it sound a lot more complex than it really is.  There is a certain mechanical component inside that produces a different result based upon the resting positions of other mechanics, much as a transistor produces a different output based upon more than one input source.  The solver is oblivious to this action, but mechanically this is cool.   (As a side note, several of my other puzzles also have at their core some mechanical representation of electrical or software components, and the puzzle later evolves around them.)

Later, this mechanism was modified into a puzzle by adding the chessboard and game pieces above it.  This was the hardest, and yet most satisfying part of its design process.  I enjoy being pressed into rigid parameters, and figuring ways around them.  For me, designing puzzles provides the same satisfaction as others get from solving puzzles.  The fun part is trying to “solve” how to make a puzzle work. 

The difficulty of designing its chess move aspects came from the insane coordination of mechanically reproducing how individual pieces actually move on the board, while also being confined by configurations that would produce a checkmate for both sides.  On top of that, some configurations I came up with just would not work, because magnets maneuvered too close to each other will disrupt other ones. 

Some configurations I tried, (but had to finally pass on) would cause chess pieces that were maneuvered too close to snap together.  I think the current configuration of the puzzle was my 5th attempt to find a game board set up that worked best.

Later though, I turned this same annoying detriment into an asset for the Knight Vs. Dragon puzzle.  That puzzle also has pieces manipulated mechanically by magnets below, but I used this magnetic interference aspect in the endgame to cause the knight to lunge towards the dragon and knock it over with the last solution move.  I would not have considered this cool feature if I had not already learned about it from my work on the checkmate.

Originally I was intimidated by how complex this mechanism was, and so I left a back door into the puzzle through its base for repairs.  Ironically, the mechanism was actually solidly built, and the only repair required on these puzzles has been the fixing of this back door, when the base plate falls off. 

The puzzle uses holly as one of its woods.  It is my favorite wood to work with, but since the checkmate, I have never been able to find substantial quantities to use on any other project.  Originally, the top board was supposed to be holly and ebony, but I could not find large enough supplies of ebony at the time.  The irony now is that I can find ebony, but not holly.

Along with the Lighthouse, the checkmate puzzlebox is the most sought after and requested puzzle by collectors." 

B&B: An extra special thanks to Rob for the wonderful insight into his puzzle!

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