The Chess Scene in The Wire

I find that in really well made movies or TV shows some of my favourite moments are the nadirs (GRE word count: 1), where nothing is happening and the characters are just talking. Sometimes it’s just because the clever and mellifluous (GRE word count: 2) dialogue is pleasing to listen to. It can be hilarious and enlightening, sometimes at the same time. Some of the greatest moments in Tarentino movies are the conversations about everyday topics. It also lets you get a feel for the characters by seeing how they act in regular situations and how they interact with others.  There is something so enjoyable about watching real characters act in a way that makes complete sense.  They might also reveal their feelings about something that happened earlier, or the entire conversation might metaphorically comment on some other aspect of the TV show or movie. One of my favourite scenes from The Wire was when D’Angelo taught Bodie and Wallace how to play chess.  Here it is.

“Y’all can’t be playing no checkers on no chess board yo.”

On a very basic level, the idea that they would use chess pieces to play checkers is brilliantly realistic. It makes perfect sense that no one would have taken the time to teach these kids how to play chess and that they would simply use chess pieces to play the simpler checkers.

On another level it also reflects the way that the drug dealers bring their own system to the chaos they are surrounded with. They create rules, hierarchies and order out of the turbulent disarray of the projects that they grow up in. They work out their own ‘game’, whether that be using chess pieces to play checkers because no one taught them how to play chess; or creating and living in the world of drugs because they weren’t provided with the means to operate in the ‘regular world’. Throughout the series drug dealing is constantly referred to as a game with rules, a system bigger than any of the people that play it.  The metaphor of a game can also be extended to the way the police go after the drug dealers.  They’re required to follow certain rules in order to legally ‘win’.  Actually the creators even thought about calling the show “The Game”.

The fact that it is D’Angelo that teaches them to properly play chess also serves as an augury (GRE word count: 3) to his teaching them how to properly play the drug game. Instead of playing the simple game of checkers which just involves killing the other person’s pieces, they learn new ways to think about what it is they do.

“The king stay the king.”

In comparing the king to Avon and the queen to Stringer, you really get an idea of what role either character plays. Avon is in charge, but he also “really ain’t gotta do shit”. He is the figurehead, and maintains order through his street rep. Other crews are afraid of who he is and what he can do. Stringer Bell is the one that really runs the organization, both in terms of strategy and economics.

You also can’t become the king. One overt theme in The Wire is that the rich stay rich and the poor stay poor. There are systems in place that involve so many people and are so multifaceted that they can’t ever really be changed. The king stay the king.

“These are the pawns, they like the soldiers.”

The way D’Angelo explains how the pawns are used is a perfect example of realistic dialogue revealing something about a character. He says that they can move one step forward, “except when they fight”. That felicitous (GRE word count: 4) choice of words reveals the kind of environment he grew up in and his mindset. He doesn’t say they move diagonally to attack or capture, he says “to fight”.

The pawns are described as the soldiers: the low level, unimportant drug dealers. They’re there to protect the king, in the same way that the low level drug dealers handle the drugs and do the selling to insulate the higher ups from trouble with the law. They’re also the ones that are actually in harms way when it comes to rival dealers.

But D’Angelo explains that if the pawns make it to the end, they get to be the queen. If the low level players stick to it, they get moved up. But like D’Angelo says, the pawns “get capped quick”. The low level players might stay in the game with a chimera (GRE word count: 5) of power and money but in reality, they’re nothing more than canon fodder for the more powerful players.

Bodie says “if I make it to the other end, I win”. This reveals a lot about his mindset, and probably the mindset of others on his level. Victory or success for them is just about becoming “top dog”; the good of the rest of their organization doesn’t matter. If he gets to be queen he wins, who cares if you capture the other player’s king. This also reflects the mindset of many of the police officers on the show. All they care about is making rank and retiring with a better pension. Police officers that actually care about making a case are few and far between.

Ending with a quote seemed like a nice, trite (GRE word count: 6) and hackneyed (GRE word count: 7) approach.  “Life is a kind of Chess, with struggle, competition, good and ill events” – Benjamin Franklin.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s