Teal'c does not like chess. It does not entertain him. As battle in microcosm, it exhausts and insults him. It makes toys of warriors and absurdly constrains their movement, it trivializes the field of engagement, it turns bloody, desperate striving into a stylized diversion. It is too clean and far too slow. It is too real and not real enough. As symbolic enactment of political maneuvering, it casts him as a System Lord, manipulating lives that are significant only as they relate to his own position in the game. He has killed too many courageous pawns and honorable knights, blasted too many strongholds, tortured too many bishops, broken too many kings and queens for his Goa'uld masters. Chess does not feel like a game to him, and inasmuch as he conceives of it as a game, it is not a game he wishes to play.
Checkers, however, he relishes. The sharp crack of domination, piece pouncing to take piece. The dark diamondine shapes the black squares become when viewed as diagonal pathways. The stacks he makes of his conquered pieces, tangible proof of his supremacy, filling his hand as he strokes up their cumulative length to let them fall with a rhythmic rattle. Kings hold no sway over men in this game except in their freedom of movement under certain sets of rules; he prefers the large board and extra pieces of Canadian checkers, in which men may move forwards or backwards, and in which men can take kings.
He plays brutally, intensely. He takes special pleasure from speed checkers, in which the mind cannot take the time to examine the potential consequences of this move or that one, but must function as in battle, all the shifting, blending futures held in the mind as a shimmering skein, directing the will on a level far below and beyond conscious thought. Taking him on at checkers has become a rite of passage among the military personnel at Stargate Command, particularly the Marines and Special Operations Forces. Whole tournaments have sprung up around him. He has been given to understand that one computer technician was dismissed for attempting to load onto the mainframe a hacked version of the most advanced known checkers engine. No human being or man-made artificial intelligence has yet defeated it.
On the day that the Stargate Program is at last revealed to the Terran population, he will publicly challenge this nemesis.
As O'Neill will say when he has won: "Piece of cake."
With a distaste similar to his distaste for chess, Teal'c declines to play Monopoly, or Stratego, or any of the other board games SGC personnel have insisted he try "because you'll be great at this, you'll love it!" Such avaricious and overtly military games touch on too much that is very real for him and not remotely recreational; O'Neill calls them a busman's holiday, and once the term is explained to Teal'c he acknowledges with a nod, for it is close enough to accurate and saves him explaining the deeper reasons. But in The Game of Life, he is inordinately amused by the tiny plastic vehicles and the tiny plastic people you can put in them, blue for boys and pink for girls, so small that it takes care and focus for him to handle them with his thick fingers. He is deeply soothed by the fiction of a simple life, simple goals, marriage that endures, children who come easily. He fights hard to do well in this game, and takes pleasure in success -- and when he fails, it does not grieve him, and he lives to try again another time.
What the aficionados among the base staff call Go is the only Tau'ri tabletop game that was immediately familiar to Teal'c from his own experience. It was a pastime of the System Lords, forbidden to their slave populations, including the Jaffa.
At first he played it because for the first time in his life he could. Then because he was intrigued. After a month of extended matches, he began to understand that mastery of its subtleties would take him years. It compares to checkers as mathematical proofs compare to a cash register. It is all that chess aspires to be, but abstracted and purified, flensed of the trappings of politics and war. It is the essence of strategy and the purest manifestation of opposing forces.
Once he understood the principles of the game, he could see why the Goa'uld favored it: the goal is to increase your territory and reduce your opponent's. He also wondered if the Goa'uld forbade it to their subjects not out of whimsical elitism but out of fear of what it would teach them. Far more than an entertaining diversion, this game is also far more than an intellectual exercise: it is the study of encirclement of an opponent of equal numbers, and for millennia the System Lords have been greatly outnumbered by those they subjugate.
After a Terran decade of fighting for the freedom of his people, first to win it and then to preserve it, he has come to understand that his dedication to the game is as much emotional as it is mental. The concept of liberty is critical to this game, as it is to him. It keeps him coming back to the board even when he is frustrated, even when he feels he has reached the limits of his own intelligence and capacity for strategic thinking, even when he would rather forgo it for a battering workout in the gym or a real battle on real ground with real weapons and real death.
He has an intrinsic need to engage in the struggle for liberty. When he moves chess pieces, he identifies too strongly with the pieces themselves, and is discomfited by the sense of assuming his former masters' role; when he places stones on a Go board, his position outside the board feels appropriately analogous to his position outside his people. Doing his best to understand the lay of the stones, doing his best to move what stones he can to capitalize on their liberties, but ultimately insufficient to the task, the scope of his mind still too limited to foresee the most effective deployment of forces -- and knowing that, unlike the stones, the Jaffa will not move where he wills them to, and they will deliberately assume positions where they have no liberties left.
He will keep playing. He will keep learning.
4. Trivial Pursuit
The first few months of his participation in the Stargate Program, Teal'c acquired not a single segment of pie. By the second year, he continued to lose, but with a more respectable accumulation of colored wedges, and his improvement was taken to indicate his increasing familiarity with his new environs. By the third year, his victories had become frequent enough to draw scrutiny, and key SGC personnel exposed his technique: he never forgot the correct answer to any question. Amid dubious accusations of cheating, he soothed their outrage by thanking them for this most pleasant education in Terran history, culture, and geography, and graciously agreed to the creation of what they termed The Jaffa Edition -- a set of cards from which each question read out during the course of play with him was purged with a thick black Sharpie.
(His own team had already been playing for some time under what O'Neill termed Daniel Rules, wherein the correct answer was not revealed aloud when a player had supplied the wrong one. Teal'c had never determined whether these modified rules had been instituted by Daniel Jackson or because of him. He wholeheartedly approved, however, of the stipulation that only Captain Carter be allowed to read the questions. Daniel Jackson had a tendency to flip the card over and look at the answer, frown and say "No, wait, that can't be right," and proceed to argue with the card or himself or both until it was wrested from his grip in order that game play might continue. O'Neill had a penchant for substituting questions of his own invention -- and answers which frequently sounded so plausible that they passed without challenge.)
He took great pleasure in stunning them all by achieving immediate supremacy in the newly released Trivial Pursuit Millennium Edition (Jaffa Sub-Edition, Daniel Rules).
"Right out of the damn box," O'Neill grumbled. "Where's that Baby Boomers one? We have one of those, right? Bet he's never played that one either, and I'll kick his ass."
"I kick your ass at that one, Jack, and I'm Gen X," Daniel Jackson said.
O'Neill had never been a good loser. Teal'c had always admired that in him.
Now Teal'c sits across the table from the young lieutenant colonel who not two hours ago slapped the SG-1 patch back on his shoulder. Word of their showdown has spread quickly, but the commissary is so deadly quiet that Teal'c almost believes he can hear the crowd around them inhale and exhale. He listens to Lieutenant Colonel Carter's ceremonial removal of the packaging from the brand-new box, hears the low whirr as she inserts the data disk into her notebook computer, perceives a small smile on Daniel Jackson's face as he meets her eyes across the table. He considers what he will learn about their new teammate as he and Colonel Mitchell engage, one on one, in Stargate Command's first game of Trivial Pursuit DVD Star Wars Saga Edition.
5. Chutes and Ladders
Late in the first year of his service to the Tau'ri, certain SGC personnel were authorized to take him on jaunts outside the Cheyenne Mountain Facility. O'Neill seemed most determined to initiate him into the recreational culture of the males of the North American continent; Daniel Jackson guided him on tours of regional museums and historical sites; Captain Carter and Doctor Fraiser introduced him to a variety of marketplaces. He was particularly taken with small residential-area offerings in which the local inhabitants sold off unwanted goods. He would browse slowly through the chaotic displays of strange objects, fascinated with the items the Tau'ri acquired and then cast off. At one such market his attention was captured by a colorfully printed box, in good condition although apparently some years old. "Oh my god," Captain Carter exclaimed when she found him engrossed in it. "That looks just like the one I had when I was a kid. I loved that game."
A children's board game, she and the doctor explained to him -- and, they estimated, a vintage specimen that had somehow remained intact through quite a bit of use. It pleased him to think of the pleasure the game had provided; it had done its duty to the young, it seemed to him, and so he purchased it for himself without compunction, serenely enduring his companions' bemusement.
Coming upon him playing a test round of the game in the commissary that evening, Daniel Jackson evinced puzzlement, then surprise, and then cocked his head and looked across the table at Teal'c with a glint of something indefinable in his eyes.
"What drew you to this?" he asked.
Teal'c found that he could not make himself give the honest answer "the bright colors and the happy faces of the children." He said instead, "Its simplicity."
"Huh," Daniel Jackson said. "You know, this is an Americanized version of a British game called Snakes and Ladders."
The care with which he chose his words made Teal'c look up from the game. Snakes, he thought. The term with which O'Neill refers to the Goa'uld symbiotes. "Interesting."
"If you land on a square with a chute -- or a snake -- you slide back down to a lower level," Daniel Jackson said, as if to gauge Teal'c's response to the information.
Teal'c inclined his head; he had been playing the game, and knew that. "Not an inappropriate metaphor, perhaps," he said, with equal care. "The moral lessons the game intends to impart are clear, as landing on a square depicting a child behaving well sends your gamepiece up the ladder, and landing on a square depicting misbehavior sends you down the chute. Or the snake, as the case may be." He did not add his further observations: that the only child he knew well would pay no attention to the pictures, but correctly attribute each rise to good fortune and fight his way back up from every unlucky fall; that the one-track design of the game precluded a choice of paths, making good and evil the product of chance unaffected by will; and that on the cover of the box, the children on the exhilarating downward ride looked happiest of all. He had not yet told his Tau'ri comrades that he had a child; he himself had been the arrow whose chance pointing had caused the fall of Daniel Jackson's wife; and that fall was neither exhilarating, nor happy, nor over, and he did not believe there would be any rising from it.
"There's some dispute about the origins of the game," Daniel Jackson said, perhaps deliberately shifting the subject. "Some claim it's a descendant of a second-century Hindu game called dasapada. Others claim that it's adapted from a much older Egyptian game called hounds-and-jackals."
At those words, the underlying pattern in the playing board came into strange and stark relief. "A'nu hejaf," Teal'c murmured.
"Dog ... and guard?" Daniel Jackson translated, frowning.
"Indeed. One of several games played with wooden board and pegs in the barracks and ready rooms of the Jaffa. Some warriors bring miniature versions with them to pass the time on transport ships between battles. This game bears a strong resemblance to that one."
"Wow, really?" Daniel Jackson's gaze brightened and cleared as his metaphorical uneasiness was swept aside by his interest in historical connections. "You know, I've got a hounds-and-jackals set back at my place, and a reproduction senet board -- senet's another related game, also ancient Egyptian but from a different period, no one's completely certain what the rules were, they were deduced from symbols on the -- "
Teal'c said, "If I can contribute to your understanding of them by appraising them for similarity to games of the Jaffa and Goa'uld, I shall do so most willingly." He frequently found an excess of graciousness to be his best defense against Daniel Jackson's verbose enthusiasms, though he was becoming almost fond of their expression.
Captain Carter, also working late, had come in to procure a container of yogurt and was now approaching their table. "Chutes and Ladders, huh?" she said with half a grin. "Having fun?"
"More a cultural compare-and-contrast," Daniel Jackson said, omitting entirely the moral discussion they had skirted. "Would you believe this game might be a several-times-removed adaptation of a Jaffa peg game? Crap, you know we're really going to need a specialist to study Jaffa culture and history, there's no way I can even scratch the surface as long as we're actively -- "
"Hey, look, it's us!" Captain Carter said, lining up the players' gamepieces side by side. They were cartoon depictions of excited children, two boys and two girls, each printed on cardboard that was then coated in plastic and mounted to stand on a small base. "That one's me with a non-regulation haircut, and that one's Teal'c, and that one'll be you if we draw glasses on it, Daniel ... "
Daniel Jackson picked up the remaining piece, which depicted a little girl with a tuft of hair sticking straight up from the middle of her head. "Making this, um ... "
"Oh yeah," Captain Carter said with a grin.
Daniel Jackson gave only a hint of smile as he said, "So when do we get Jack in here to play?"
As it turned out, Teal'c was the only adult of his own acquaintance who did not find the game a stupefying bore. He plays it to this day, when he is at his weariest, when neither meditation nor the less accustomed relaxation of sleep can lift the fatigue from his mind and spirit, softly mesmerized by the twirling spinner, the unknown fate awaiting him in the number of squares he will be directed to move, the exhilaration of being lifted up a bright green ladder, the equal exhilaration of a slide down a bright red chute. The game requires no choices, no strategy, merely persistence, slow march after slow march around the board. Twirl the spinner enough times and you always reach the top -- always land, eventually, on the last square, with its blue-ribbon prize. He plays for all four players, and there is no failure, only the journey, with its fallings and risings; all four of them, always, reach the end intact.