1.3: Chess as a Metaphor for Everything

By Peter Honig

“Chess is a metaphor for drug deals, Avon is the king and you’re the pawns.”–Larry Gillard Jr., reprising his role as D’Angelo Barksdale in The Wire: The Musical

The chess lesson from “The Buys” has become one of The Wire’s most iconic scenes. It is a brilliantly-scripted and -acted scene, one that actually serves as a double metaphor. D’Angelo uses the familiar world of the drug hierarchy to explain an alien and complex game to Bodie and Wallace. At the same time, Simon and Burns use this scene to explain the (presumably) alien drug game to their audience using the (presumably) familiar rules of chess. Call it a meta-metaphor.

When I teach The Wire, this scene is always the moment where the students really buy into the show. During the previous two episodes, many of them seemed to like the show, but struggle with a lack of comprehension. My mostly-suburban students feel a little disoriented by the large number of characters, the nuanced plot, and the unfamiliar setting,  not to mention the difficulty of mastering the language of both the projects and the police department. As D’Angelo’s explanation unfolds, though, the students’ enjoyment grows almost palpably. In doing this, it fulfills the very purpose of the metaphor, which is to use something familiar to explain the unfamiliar.

But if this scene is so iconic and effective, it is also ripe for parody, as in the above-quoted excerpt from The Wire: The Musical. This is because the scene really analyzes itself. There is nothing I can say about the comparison between the roles of the different chess pieces and the drug game that isn’t already said better and clearer by D’Angelo, Bodie, and Wallace. So instead of retreading familiar ground, I will step outside of the scene and take a closer at how the chess lesson reveals some important aspects of the very concept of metaphor.

When I was an English Major in college, I had a professor who said that “poetry is the study of metaphors, and their limitations.” What he meant was that a metaphor is a comparison between two similar things or concepts, and that comparison can be helpful, but just because concepts are similar, does not mean that they are the same. There is real danger in taking a metaphor too literally. The example he used was the “domino theory” that dominated cold war foreign policy. The metaphor of falling dominoes suggested an image of how nations would fall to communism, but that did not necessarily hold. Nonetheless, that metaphor ended up leading us into two wars. So when we study a metaphor, it is just as important to be mindful of the differences as it is to think of the similarities.

Or, as Robert Anton Wilson put it, “The map is not the territory.”

I got an inadvertent lesson in this a few years later, when I was getting my education degree. I was in an Educational Psychology class, when the professor began to introduce the concept of “scaffolding,” which is where a teacher introduces concepts that are one level above the students’ abilities, and supports the students as they step up to a new, more complex level of understanding. Sort of like the very concept of a metaphor. The professor began to explain how builders use scaffolds to support walls that are in construction, when a friend of mine corrected her. He spent the previous summer working as a mason’s assistant, and he informed us that scaffolds were used to allow workers to climb the wall, not to support the wall itself. The professor argued back, and an entertaining debate ensued.

Here were two people who couldn’t agree on the metaphor. From my friend’s standpoint, the professor may have been an expert in education, but she knew nothing about construction. From her standpoint, my friend’s adherence to the literal function of scaffolds was obscuring a real and significant insight into a major concept about education.

Maybe the answer is somewhere in between.

A similar debate takes place in the chess scene. Right from the beginning, Wallace and Bodie are playing the wrong game, literally. “Why y’all playing checkers on a chess set?” D’Angelo asks, laughing at their ignorance. This itself is a fitting metaphor. The boys are a part of the larger drug game, but the game they think they are playing is the more one-dimensional game of checkers. In that game, each piece starts the same, and has the same moves. Each piece has a one time chance of promotion, but there is relatively limited choice and variety, especially when compared to the staggeringly-complex game of chess. D’Angelo isn’t so much teaching them how to play chess as he is trying to help them see that the world they are in is far more complex than they realize.

But they refuse to see it, or at least Bodie does. His questions about promotion show a fundamental misunderstanding of board games, and all games. He keeps using the word “I,” as in a single piece standing in as his avatar. He is only capable of seeing the drug game as it applies to him in his limited experience in the Pit. He fails to consider the fact that a chess player has to manage an entire army of pieces with a variety of skills and abilities. The concept of both chess and the drug game are bigger than he realizes.

But that may also be a part of the problem with the chess metaphor. After all, as interesting as the connections between King, Queen, Rook, and Pawn are, there are a lot of missing pieces. What part of the drug game is the Bishop? Who is the Knight? What would be the equivalent of castling or putting somebody in check? D’Angelo never explains that, and as much as he teaches Bodie and Wallace, they could never play a full, legal game of chess with the rules D’Angelo imparts. Like my professor, D’Angelo understands the concepts of the drug trade more than he understands the concepts of chess.

Sure, the metaphor fails to teach Bodie and Wallace about the unfamiliar game of chess, but maybe that is not really the purpose. Look again at Bodie’s response, and his inability to grasp the game. The episode’s epigraph, “the king stay the king,” is D’Angelo’s response to Bodie’s insistence that a pawn can become a king. Sure, that is not possible in the rules of chess, but according to D’Angelo, it is also impossible in the drug game. If Bodie were really paying attention to D’Angelo’s lesson, he would realize that the game he thinks he knows, the game he thinks he can conquer if only he is enough of a “smart-ass pawn,” is really far more complicated than he ever gave it credit for.

Similarly, my friend’s insistence aside, the metaphor of the scaffold is still an important image to guide the way a teacher slowly brings their students up to a new level of understanding. A metaphor doesn’t have to be exact to be meaningful. The metaphor doesn’t just explain the unfamiliar by comparing it to something familiar. It also makes the the familiar deeper and more complex, and therefore, unfamiliar.

Or maybe the answer is somewhere in between. After all, nothing is ever wholly familiar or unfamiliar. The power of a metaphor is to create new meaning in the space between familiar and unfamiliar. A metaphor can be useful, especially if we know how to look at it carefully, while not getting too literal. But in the end, we must also remember that the drug game both is and is not a game of chess and vice versa. Avon is the king and he is also justAvon. And a scaffold is both a scaffold and not a scaffold, no matter what metaphor or teacher is explaining it.

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3 thoughts on “1.3: Chess as a Metaphor for Everything

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  3. This is easily one of the best/most iconic scenes in all of The Wire. And perhaps maybe THE scene, in the sense that it explains the Modus Operandi of the show: to peel back the layers of the onion and show the stratifications and hidden hierarchies of the system.

    What I think separates The Wire from so many others is its willingness to show us so many different “layers” of Baltimore, from the bottom rungs, thru middle management, up to the top.
    Most drama only functions on a single layer at one time: only the lawyers, or only the police, etc etc. Never pawns “and” rooks “and” queens “and” kings.

    In a sense, it is similar to the very underrated gangster film Layer Cake, which makes us aware that most players in the system are only aware of their OWN layer, and too ignorant often of the layers above them – they never get to see.

    I’ve always found it fascinating how often Americans are so ignorant of the real class distinctions that capitalism creates and perpetuates, and how unaware they are of actual upward mobility (or lack theoreof) in our country, nor how difficult, or nay impossible it is? to appreciate unfamiliar layers, both above and below us. This is totally unlike the case in England for example. We prefer to ignore it, imagining another kind of history. They cannot.

    Another interesting “layer” reference is to Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, where the Tom Cruise character is a “successful” doctor, is treated as an elite, lives in the Upper West Side apartment, etc. But in attending the fancy party, and eventually crashing the famous orgy in the Long Island mansion, realizes, how, for all of his fanciness, how he is so “lower class” to the REAL masked magnates and true elites that form that Upper layer of the cake. As his patient tells him what gave him away? he showed up to the mansion in a taxi . . . not a limo. As in Layer Cake, u always think yer at the top rung of the icing till u run into someone even more scary and rich and powerful….

    Much like The Greek, you only are AWARE of his presence if you are powerful or connected enough to be MADE aware of it, something, interestingly, Marlo is eventually able to do. In a sense, he is the one (if only) actual example of an upward mobility in The Wire. This is ironically appreciated by The Greek, actually, who does not show loyalty to Prop Joe. In a sense, its almost like he seems to think Marlo has “earned” his mobility. If he has been able to find him, why not deal with him then?

    And, that in the end, Marlo chooses not to “take” that final mobility that is offered to him, denying Stringer Bell’s dream, preferring to return instead to fight it out with the pawns in the street….. It would just be like that pawn at the end of the board refusing to take that final exchange for royalty. I yam what I yam, as Popeye might say….

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