Watch a Playthrough of the Oldest Board Game in the World, the Sumerian Royal Game of Ur, Circa 2500 BC

They may not surprise the average market analyst, but the gaming industry’s figures tell a pretty compelling story. Newzoo estimates that “2.3 billion gamers across the globe will spend $137. 9 billion on games in 2018.” VentureBeat reports that mobile games account for over 50 percent of the total. Currently, “about 91 percent of the global market is digital, meaning that $125.3 billion worth of games flows through digitally connected channels as opposed to physical retail.”

That’s a lot of virtual dough floating around in virtual worlds. But this vast and rapid growth in digital gaming does not mean physical games are going away anytime soon—and that includes cards, board games, and other tabletop games, a market that has “surged as players have grown jaded with the digital screens they toil over during the work day,” wrote Joon Ian Wong in 2016.




Venture capital is flowing into board game development. Tabletop bars and cafes are popping up all over the world, encouraging people to mingle over Scrabble and Cards Against Humanity. It seems the time is just right to revive the oldest playable board game in the world. If someone hasn’t already launched a Kickstarter to bankroll a new Royal Game of Ur, I suspect we’ll see one any day now. At least four-and-a-half-thousand years old, according to British Museum Curator Irving Finkel, the Royal Game of Ur was probably invented by the Sumerians. And it seems like it might still be a blast, and a considerable challenge, to play.

“You might think it’s so old that it’s irretrievable to us, that we’ve got no idea what it was like playing, what the rules were like,” Finkel says in the video at the top, “but all sorts of evidence has come to light so that we know how this game was played.” He promises, in no uncertain terms, to wipe the floor with YouTuber Tom Scott in a Royal Game of Ur showdown, and Scott, who has never played the game before, seems at a decided disadvantage. But watch their contest to see how the game is played and whether Finkel makes good on his threat. Along the way, he liberally shares his knowledge.

For a shorter course on the Royal Game of Ur, see Finkel’s video above. It takes him a couple minutes to get around to introducing his subject, the discovery and deciphering of the “world’s oldest rule book.” A consummate ancient history detective, Finkel describes how he decoded an ancient tablet that explained a game, but which game, no one knew. So, the dedicated curator tried the rules on every mysterious ancient game he could find, till he landed on the “game of twenty squares” from Mesopotamia. “It fitted perfectly,” he says with relish. See the original board, pieces, and dice from about 2500 BC, and learn how Finkel had been searching for its rules of play since he was 9 years old.

For more of Finkel’s passionate public scholarship, see him demonstrate how to write in cuneiform and read about how his work on cuneiform tablets led to him discovering the oldest reference to the Noah’s Ark myth.

Related Content:

How to Write in Cuneiform, the Oldest Writing System in the World: A Short, Charming Introduction

Hear the “Seikilos Epitaph,” the Oldest Complete Song in the World: An Inspiring Tune from 100 BC

The British Museum Is Now Open To Everyone: Take a Virtual Tour and See 4,737 Artifacts, Including the Rosetta Stone

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.

A Beautiful Short Documentary Takes You Inside New York City’s Last Great Chess Store

Chess Forum in Greenwich Village is, like Gramercy Typewriter and the Upper East Side’s Tender Buttons, the sort of shop New Yorkers feel protective of, even if they’ve never actually crossed the threshold.

“How can it still exist?” is a question left unanswered by "King of the Night," Lonely Leap’s lovely short profile of Chess Forum’s owner, Imad Khachan, above, but no matter. We're just glad it does.

The store, located a block and a half south of Washington Square, looks older than it is. Khachan, hung out his shingle in 1995, after five years as an employee of the now-defunct Village Chess Shop, a rift that riled the New York chess community.




Now, things are much more placid, though the film incorrectly suggests that Chess Forum is the only refuge where chess loving New Yorkers can avail themselves of an impromptu game, take lessons, and buy sets. (There are also shops in Brooklyn, Harlem, and the Upper East Side.) That said, Chess Forum might not be wrong to call itself "New York's last great chess store." It may well be the best of the last.

The narrow shop’s interior triggers nostalgia without seeming calculation, an organic reminder of the Village’s Bohemian past, when beret-clad folkies, artists, and students wiled away hours at battered wooden tables in its many cheap cafes and bars. (Two blocks away, sole survivor Caffé Reggio’s ambience is intact, but the prices have kept pace with the neighborhood, and the majority of its clientele are clutching guidebooks or the digital equivalent thereof.)

Khachan, born in Lebanon to Palestinian refugees, gives a warm welcome to tourists and locals alike, especially those who might make for an uneasy fit at tonier neighborhood establishments.

In an interview with the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, he recalled a “well-dressed and highly educated doctor who would come in wearing his Harvard logo sweater, and lose repeatedly to a homeless man who was a regular at Chess Forum and a chess master.”

The game also provides common ground for strangers who share no common tongue. In Jonathan Lord’s rougher New York City chess-themed doc, Passport Play, Khachan points out how diagrams in chess books speak volumes to experienced players, regardless of the language in which the book is written.

The store’s mottos also bear witness to the value its owner places on face-to-face human interaction:

Cool in the summer, warm in the winter and fuzzy all year long.

Chess Forum: An experience not a transaction

Smart people not smart phones.  (You can play a game of chess on your phone, Khachan admits, but don't fool yourself into thinking that it's giving you a full chess experience.)

An hour of play costs about the same as a small latte in a coffeehouse chain (whose prevalence Khachan refers to as the Bostonization of NYC.) Senior citizens and children, both revered groups at Chess Forum, get an even better deal—from $1/hour to free.

Although the store’s official closing time is midnight, Khachan, single and childless, is always willing to oblige players who would stay later. His solitary musings on the neighborhood’s wee hours transformation supply the film’s title and meditative vibe, while reminding us that this gentle New York character was originally drawn to the city by the specter of a PhD in literature at nearby NYU.

Readers who would like to contribute to the health of this independently owned New York City establishment from afar can do so by purchasing a chess or backgammon set online.

Related Content:

When John Cage & Marcel Duchamp Played Chess on a Chessboard That Turned Chess Moves Into Electronic Music (1968)

Chess Grandmaster Garry Kasparov Relives His Four Most Memorable Games

Man Ray Designs a Supremely Elegant, Geometric Chess Set in 1920–and It Now Gets Re-Issued

A Human Chess Match Gets Played in Leningrad, 1924

A Free 700-Page Chess Manual Explains 1,000 Chess Tactics in Plain English

Claymation Film Recreates Historic Chess Match Immortalized in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey

Play Chess Against the Ghost of Marcel Duchamp: A Free Online Chess Game

Chess Grandmaster Maurice Ashley Plays Unsuspecting Trash Talker in Washington Square Park

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  See her onstage in New York City through December 20th in the 10th anniversary production of Greg Kotis’ apocalyptic holiday tale, The Truth About Santa. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

When Pinball Was Deemed Immoral & Outlawed in Major American Cities

I remember the early days of the video arcade, where my friends and I went to have fun and spent our parents’ cash on Galaga, Robotron 2084, or--if you were a really big spender--Dragon’s Lair. Then, when we’d get home, and we would see scare pieces on the national news about the evils of the very arcades we had just visited, dens of drugs and depravity! Where were *those* arcades, we wondered.

Nothing has changed, it seems. Let’s go back nearly 80 years to another moral panic: pinball.
As these two mini docs show, in the 1930s and ‘40s pinball was banned in cities like New York (by mayor and future airport Fiorello LaGuardia) and Chicago because of its association with organized crime, but also the appeal it had to the children of the working class.

They kind of had a point: early pinball machine were purely games of chance, which put it very close to gambling. (A modern pachinko machine is closer to these early versions.) Like a carny game, you paid your money, and you watched as the ball careened down the table, out of your control.




But with the invention of user-controlled flippers that sent the ball back in play, these games of chance became games of skill. But that didn’t stop some moral crusaders.

And, as several pinball fans have found out--like the gentleman in the VICE doc below who wanted to open a pinball museum--antiquated laws remained on the books from those early years and had never been changed for modern times.

Roger Sharpe, known as “The Man Who Saved Pinball,” even went to a Chicago court in 1976 to prove that pinball was a game of skill. In a scene that sounds perfect for a final act in a movie, Sharpe, with his barbershop quartet mustache and groovy outfit, played pinball in front of legislators. Calling shots like a pool player might, he soon convinced the court that skill was everything. Sharpe would go on to become a star witness in similar hearings in Ohio, West Virginia, and Texas over their pinball laws.

Ironically, while video games replaced pinball in most arcades, home systems and computers replaced the need for arcades. It’s now a perfect time for these purely analog and tactile machines to make a comeback. Hell, a rock band might even make a musical about it one day.

Related Content:

Orson Welles Teaches Baccarat, Craps, Blackjack, Roulette, and Keno at Caesars Palace (1978)

Sad 7-Foot Tall Clown Sings “Pinball Wizard” in the Style of Johnny Cash, and Other Hits by Roy Orbison, Cheap Trick & More

Play a Collection of Classic Handheld Video Games at the Internet Archive: Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, Tron and MC Hammer

Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the artist interview-based FunkZone Podcast and is the producer of KCRW's Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.

Chess Grandmaster Garry Kasparov Relives His Four Most Memorable Games

FYI: If you sign up for a MasterClass course by clicking on the affiliate links in this post, Open Culture will receive a small fee that helps support our operation.

Many consider Garry Kasparov one of the greatest chess players of all time. And for good reason. In 1985, at the age of 22, Kasparov defeated the reigning champion Anatoly Karpov. From that moment, until his retirement in 2005, he dominated. For the next 225 out of 228 months, he was the #1 ranked player in the game. Above, in a video created by The New Yorker, Kasparov "replays some of his most unforgettable games," and "relives the happiest and the most painful moments of his career," including:

  • Garry Kasparov vs. Anatoly Karpov: World Championship Match 1985
  • Garry Kasparov vs. Anatoly Karpov: World Championship Match 1987
  • Garry Kasparov vs. Viswanathan Anand: PCA-GP Credit Suisse Rapid Final Blitz Playoff 1996
  • Garry Kasparov vs. Deep Blue: I.B.M. Man vs. Machine 1997

In recent months, Kasparov has also created an online course for Masterclass, Garry Kasparov Teaches Chess, which--in 29 video lessons--offers a deeper exploration of his chess theory, tactics, and strategy.

Follow Open Culture on Facebook and Twitter and share intelligent media with your friends. Or better yet, sign up for our daily email and get a daily dose of Open Culture in your inbox. 

If you'd like to support Open Culture and our mission, please consider making a donation to our site. It's hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us provide the best free cultural and educational materials.

Related Content:

A Free 700-Page Chess Manual Explains 1,000 Chess Tactics in Plain English

Claymation Film Recreates Historic Chess Match Immortalized in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey

A Human Chess Match Gets Played in Leningrad, 1924

Man Ray Designs a Supremely Elegant, Geometric Chess Set in 1920 (and It’s Now Re-Issued for the Rest of Us)

Play Chess Against the Ghost of Marcel Duchamp: A Free Online Chess Game

Watch Bill Gates Lose a Chess Match in 79 Seconds to the New World Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen

Professional Scrabble Players Replay Their Greatest Moves: Their Most Improbable, Patient & Strategic Moves of All Time

If ever the creators of the musical The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee are casting about for sequel-worthy source material, we suggest they look no further than The New Yorker’s video above, in which professional Scrabble players replay their greatest moves.

The bingo—a move in which a player uses all seven tiles on their rack, earning a bonus 50 points—figures prominently.

It seems that top ranked players not only eye their racks for potential bingos, they’re constantly calculating the odds of drawing a next-turn bingo by getting rid of existing tiles on a three or four letter word.




And what words!

The desire to win at all costs leads top seated players to throw down such ignoble words as “barf” and “mayo” in an arena where rarified vocabulary is the norm.

How many of us can define “stopbanks," 2017 North American champion Will Anderson’s winning word?

For the record, they're continuous mounds of earth built near rivers to stop water from the river flooding nearby land….

The pros’ game boards yield a vocabulary lesson that is perhaps more useful in Scrabble (or Banangrams) than in life. Look ‘em up!

aerugo

capeskin

celom

enginous

gox

horal

jupon

kex

mura

oxeye

pya

uredele

varve

zincate

Don’t neglect the two-letter words. They can make a one-point difference between a major win and total and unmitigated defeat.

ag

al

da

ef

mo

od

oe

qi

xi

yo

Careful, though—“ir” is  not a word, as Top 40 player Jesse Day discovered when attempting to rack up multiple horizontal and vertical points.

Bear in mind that challenging a word can also bite you in the butt. Busting an opponent’s fake word play costs them a turn. If the word in question turns out to be valid, you sacrifice a turn, as top 100 player, Princeton University’s Director of Health Professions Advising, Kate Fukawa-Connelly, found out in a match against David Gibson, a previous North American champ. Had she let it go, she would’ve bested him by one point.

Appear even more in the know by boning up on a glossary of Scrabble terms, though you’ll have to look far and wide for such deep cuts as youngest North American champion and food truck manager, Conrad Bassett-Bouchard’s “forking the board,” i.e. opening two separate quadrants, thus preventing the opposing player from blocking.

Reader Content:

With Or Without U: Promoting a Scrabble Book to the Tune of U2

A Free 700-Page Chess Manual Explains 1,000 Chess Tactics in Plain English

Garry Kasparov Now Teaching an Online Course on Chess

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in NYC on March 20 for the second installment of Necromancers of the Public Domain at The Tank. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

David Lynch Teaches Typing: A New Interactive Comedy Game

Typing programs demand some patience on the part of the student, and David Lynch Teaches Typing is no exception.

You’ve got 90 seconds to get acclimated to the cruddy floppy disc-era graphics and the cacophonous voice of your instructor, a dead ringer for FBI Deputy Director Gordon Cole, the hard-of-hearing character director David Lynch played on his seminal early 90s series, Twin Peaks.

Things perk up about a minute and a half in, when students are instructed to place their left ring fingers in an undulating bug to the left of their keyboards.

That second "in"? Not a typo (though you'll notice plenty of no doubt intentional boo-boos in the teacher's pre-programmed responses...)




The bug in question may well put you in mind of the mysterious baby in Lynch’s first feature length film, 1977’s Eraserhead.

On the other hand, it might not.

David Lynch Teaches Typing is actually a short interactive comedy game, and many of the millennial reviewers covering that beat have had to play catch-up in order to catch the many nods to the director’s work contained therein.

One of our favorites is the Apple-esque name of the program’s retro computer, and we'll wager that frequent Lynch collaborator, actor Kyle MacLachlan, would agree.

Another reference that has thus far eluded online gaming enthusiasts in their 20s is Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing. Take a peek below at what the virtual typing tutor’s graphics looked like around the time the original Twin Peaks aired to discover the creators of David Lynch Teaches Typing’s other inspiration.

David Lynch Teaches Typing is available for free download here. If you’re anxious that doing so might open you up to a technical bug of nightmarish proportions, stick with watching the play through at the top of the page.

Related Content:

The Big Lebowski Reimagined as a Classic 8-Bit Video Game

What Makes a David Lynch Film Lynchian: A Video Essay

“The Art of David Lynch”— How Rene Magritte, Edward Hopper & Francis Bacon Influenced David Lynch’s Cinematic Vision

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her March 20 in New York City for the second edition of Necromancers of the Public Domain, a low budget variety show born of a 1920 manual for Girl Scout Camp Directors. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Cult Director John Waters Hosts a Summer Camp for Naughty Adult Campers: Enrollment for the 2018 Edition Opens Today

I hated sports at camp, so at this camp I think we should reward every team that loses. This would be the camp where the fat people get picked first in dodge ball. 

- Filmmaker-cum-Camp Director John Waters

I can think of many children who would scramble toward the refuge of the compassionate statement above, but Camp John Waters is a decidedly adult activity.

The Pope of Trash shares actor Bill Murray’s relish for oddball settings in which he can meet the public as something close to a peer. But whereas Murray specializes in surprise drop-in appearances—reciting poetry to construction workers, crashing parties—Waters favors more immersive experiences, such as hitchhiking coast to coast.

His latest stunt brought him and 300 fellow travelers to a rustic Connecticut facility (from Sept 22-24) that normally hosts corporate team building events, family camps, and weekend getaways for playful 20-to-30-somethings keen to make new friends while zip lining, playing pingpong, and partying in the main lodge.

ARTnews pegged the inaugural session thusly:

 The Waters camp combines two of the more absurd developments in contemporary leisure: the celebrity-based getaway (see also: the Gronk Cruise) and a certain recreational aesthetic that seems to advocate for a sort of developmental purgatory.

Here,  there were no reluctant, homesick campers, weeping into their Sloppy Joes. This was a self-selecting bunch, eager to break out their wigs and leopard print, weave enemy bracelets at the arts and crafts station, and bypass anything smacking of official outdoor recreation, save the lake, where inflatable pink flamingos were available for aquatic lollygagging.

“Who really wants to go wall climbing?” the founder himself snorted in his welcoming speech, adding that he would if Joe Dallesandro, the Warhol superstar who according to Waters "forever changed male sexuality in cinema," waited up top.

Naughty references to water sports aside, certain aspects of the camp were downright wholesome. Pine trees and s’mores. Canoes and cabins. Presumably there was a camp nurse. (In Waters' ideal world, this position would be filled by Cry Baby's Traci Lords.)

Waters’ recollections of his own stint at Maryland’s Camp Happy Hollow seem primarily fond. It makes sense. Anyone who truly loathed summer camp would be unlikely to recreate the experience for themselves and their fellow adults.

Camp Waters harkens back to the 1950s transgressions its director merrily fesses up to having participated in: unfiltered cigarettes and short sheeted beds, circle jerks and panty raids. From here on out the subversion will be taking place in the sunlight.

Another special camp memory for Waters is regaling his cabin mates with an original, serialized horror story. He retells it on Celebrity Ghost Stories, above:

At the end there was this hideous gory thing and then all the kids had nightmares and their parents called the camp and complained — and I’m still doing that! It was the beginning of my career…. It was a wonderful lesson for me as a 10-year-old kid that I think helped me become whatever I am today. It gave me the confidence to go ahead, to believe in things, to believe in behavior I couldn’t understand, to be drawn to subject matter I couldn’t understand.

Registration for Camp John Waters 2018 opens today at noon, so grab the bug spray and get ready to sing along:

There is a camp in a place called Kent

It’s name is Camp John Waters

For here we come to spend the night

For we all love to fuck and fight

Camp John Waters - rah rah rah!

Camp John Waters - sisboombah!

Camp John Waters - rah rah rah!

Three cheers for Camp John Waters!

Could Waters’ own contribution to such camp classics as Meatballs, Little Darlings and Wet Hot American Summer be far behind?

Related Content:

John Waters’ RISD Graduation Speech: Real Wealth is Never Having to Spend Time with A-Holes

John Waters Narrates Offbeat Documentary on an Environmental Catastrophe, the Salton Sea

The Philosophy of Bill Murray: The Intellectual Foundations of His Comedic Persona

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. She attended Gnawbone Camp in Gnawbone, Indiana, recapturing that happy experience three decades later as the Mail Lady of Beam Camp.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

More in this category... »
Quantcast