Learn to Play Senet, the 5,000-Year Old Ancient Egyptian Game Beloved by Queens & Pharaohs

Senet gaming board inscribed for Amenhotep III with separate sliding drawer, via Wikimedia Commons

Games don’t just pass the time, they enact battles of wits, proxy wars, training exercises…. And historically, games are correlated with, if not inseparable from, forms of divination and occult knowledge. We might point to the ancient practice of “astragalomancy,” for example: reading one’s fate in random throws of knucklebones, which were the original dice. Games played with bones or dice date back thousands of years. One of the most popular of the ancient world, the Egyptian Senet, may not be the oldest known, but it could be “the original board game of death,” Colin Barras writes at Science, predating the Ouija board by millennia.

Beginning as “a mere pastime,” Senet evolved “over nearly 2 millennia… into a game with deep links to the afterlife, played on a board that represented the underworld.” There’s no evidence the Egyptians who played around 5000 years ago believed the game’s dice rolls meant anything in particular.




Over the course of a few hundred years, however, images of Senet began appearing in tombs, showing the dead playing against surviving friends and family. “Texts from the time suggest the game had begun to be seen as a conduit through which the dead could communicate with the living” through moves over a grid of 30 squares arranged in three rows of ten.

Facsimile copy of ca. 1279–1213 B.C. painting of Queen Nefertiti playing Senet, via the Metropolitan Museum of Art

“Beloved by such luminaries as the boy pharaoh Tutankhamun and Queen Nefertari, wife of Ramesses II,” Meilan Solly notes at Smithsonian, Senet was played on “ornate game boards, examples of which still survive today.” (Four boards were found in Tut’s tomb.) “Those with fewer resources at their disposal made do with grids scratched on stone surfaces, tables or the floor.” As the game became a tool for glimpsing one’s fate, its last five spaces acquired hieroglyphics symbolizing “special playing circumstances. Pieces that landed in square 27’s ‘waters of chaos,’ for example, were sent all the way back to square 15 — or removed from the board entirely,” sort of like hitting the wrong square in Chutes and Ladders.

Senet gameplay was complicated. “Two players determined their moves by throwing casting sticks or bones,” notes the Met. The object was to get all of one’s pieces across square 30 — each move represented an obstacle to the afterlife, trials Egyptians believed the dead had to endure and pass or fail (the game’s name itself means “passing”). “Because of this connection, senet was not just a game; it was also a symbol for the struggle to obtain immortality, or endless life,” as well as a means of understanding what might get in the way of that goal.

The game’s rules likely changed with its evolving purpose, and might have been played several different ways over the course 2500 years or so. As Brandeis University professor Jim Storer notes in an explanation of possible gameplay, “the exact rules are not known; scholars have studied old drawings to speculate on the rules” — hardly the most reliable guide. If you’re interested, however, in playing Senet yourself, resurrecting, so to speak, the ancient tradition for fun or otherwise, you can easily make your own board. Storer’s presentation of what are known as Jequier’s Rules can be found here. For another version of Senet play, see the video above from Egyptology Lessons.

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

Magnus Carlsen’s Mind-Blowing Memory of Historic Chess Matches

How many historic chess games can Magnus Carlsen recognize just by looking at the placement of chess pieces on the board? It turns out a lot. And that’s partly what makes him the reigning World Chess Champion.

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via Kottke

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The Bauhaus Chess Set Where the Form of the Pieces Artfully Show Their Function (1922)

Learning to play chess first necessitates learning how each piece moves. This is hardly the labor of Hercules, to be sure, though it does come down to pure memorization, unaided by any verbal or visual cues. Does the name “pawn,” after all, sound particularly like something that can only step forward? And what about the shape of the knight suggests the shape of the knight’s move? The form of a chess piece, in other words, doesn’t follow its function — and under certain sets of aesthetic principles, there could be few greater crimes. Leave it to a member of the Bauhaus, the art school and movement that aimed to unify not just form and function but art, craft, and design — to bring them all into line.

Brought into the Bauhaus in 1921 by its founder Walter Gropius, the sculptor Josef Hartwig began work on his redesigned chess set the following year. In all its iterations, the pieces takes on forms made of simple shapes: “The sphere, double cube, and three sizes of block, singly or combined, yield pieces that, despite their highly geometric stylization, are strongly suggestive of their rank or power,” says the Metropolitan Museum of Art, owner of one of one of Hartwig’s original sets.




“The bishops are clearly implied by the cross outline, and the rooks by the simple stability of a cube. Most ingenious of all are the knights, formed of three double cubes joined in such a fashion that each face of the resulting form shows two cubes one above the other and a third on the side, an embodiment of the knight’s move.”

Like many Bauhaus works, Hartwig’s chess set found a dual existence as both a piece of art and a consumer good. The artist himself also “made a poster to talk about his product” and “a box to package it,” says cuator Anne Monier in the video above, “so we really are in a total creation around a game of chess.” In addition to making the game’s movements easier to learn, it also constitutes a visual demonstration of what it means for form to follow function. The idea, says Monier, is “to spread the ideas of the Bauhaus in people’s everyday life, to be able in fact to change the living environment, to take part in creating a new society.” The video comes from Bauhaus Movement, an online shop where you can invite the spread into your home by ordering a replica Hartwig chess set. It’ll set you back €495, but ideals, now as in the heyday of the Bauhaus, don’t come cheap.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

The Renewed Popularity of Chess and The Queen’s Gambit: Pretty Much Pop Culture Podcast Discussion #78 with Chess Expert J.J. Lang

The high level of interest in Netflix’s adaptation of the 1984 Walter Tevis novel, The Queen’s Gambit has brought this most popular game back to the forefront of pop culture. Chess expert/teacher J.J. (who’s also a grad student in philosophy) joins your hosts Mark Linsenmayer, Erica Spyres, and Brian Hirt to consider chess culture, what gives this game its edge on other contenders (why not Terra Mystica?), player personality characteristics, and the effect of chess media.

We consider gender, genius, and other issues in Gambit, plus Pawn SacrificeSearching for Bobby FisherThe Luzhin Defense, and The Coldest Game.

A few articles and lists:

Watch J.J. on stream on Twitch. Other interviews he’s done: Perpetual ChessFriends and EnemiesAakaash

Hear more of this podcast at prettymuchpop.com. This episode includes bonus discussion about more chess films and other topics that you can access by supporting the podcast at patreon.com/prettymuchpop. This podcast is part of the Partially Examined Life podcast network.

Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast is the first podcast curated by Open Culture. Browse all Pretty Much Pop posts.

The David Bowie Monopoly Game Is Here: Advance to GO and Collect 200 Hunky Dorys!

Another way to pass the time while we’re snuggled in, awaiting the arrival of a vaccine: David Bowie Monopoly.

Gone are the thimble, the top hat, the old boot and other iconic game pieces you may remember from your childhood or rainy days in seaside holiday rentals.

This special edition replaces them with 6 major Bowie signifiers: a star, a skull, a Pierrot hat, a rolled up tie, a space helmet, and a lightning bolt.

Monopoly has previously catered to music fans with sets devoted to AC/DC, Beatles, Metallica and the Rolling Stones, but Bowie’s chameleonic quality and highly developed aesthetic sense ensures that this one’s ephemera will appeal to all factions of the Bowieligious, not just those with the patience for a long board game.




Forget about Boardwalk and Marvin Gardens. Instead of real estate, the perimeters of the board feature albums from Bowie’s enormous catalog.

Secure albums to begin erecting stages and stadiums that other players will have to “rent” when they roll into town.

The Chance and Community Chest decks have also undergone some ch-ch-changes. Players now draw Sound and Vision cards which have the capacity to “open doors, pull some strings or bring the stars crashing down.”

Collectors will find that this set‘s paper money pairs nicely with the souvenir Metrocards from Bowie’s posthumous 2018 takeover of a New York City subway station.

The four cornerstones of Monopoly—GO, Free Parking, JAIL, and Go to Jail—remain faithful to the original, leaving some fans opining that an opportunity was missed:


When you weary of David Bowie Monopoly, you can play a couple hands of Bowie, a free downloadable card game that can be printed at home:

Each player will play David Bowie, or more accurately, a persona of David Bowie. The object of the game is to achieve the greatest legacy of any Bowie and survive the 1970’s. Legacy is judged by points earned from cutting records (flat, black, round- oh, nevermind). There is one slight problem. The Bowies are endangered by various threats, dark princes, and figures of the occult (which is in no way related to the copious amount of cocaine being inhaled by our hero). If any Bowie dies, all Bowies are dead and the game is lost.

There’s also Bowie’s appearance in the 1999 video game, Omikron: The Nomad Soul:

David Bowie Monopoly is available for purchase here.

via Dangerous Minds

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. She most recently appeared as a French Canadian bear who travels to New York City in search of food and meaning in Greg Kotis’ short film, L’Ourse.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Learn How to Play Chess Online: Free Chess Lessons for Beginners, Intermediate Players & Beyond

The most desired Christmas gift of 2020? A chess set. It’s certainly desired, at any rate, by the rapt viewers of The Queen’s Gambit, the acclaimed Netflix miniseries that debuted in October. Created by screenwriter-producers Scott Frank and Allan Scott, its seven episodes tell the story of Beth Harmon, an orphan in 1950s Kentucky who turns out to be a chess prodigy, then goes on to become a world-class player. During the Cold War, the intellectual and geopolitical prospect of American and Soviet masters going head to head stoked public interest in chess; over the past month, the surprise success of The Queen’s Gambit has had a similar effect.

Whether or not you feel a sense of kinship with the series’ unrelentingly chess-obsessed young protagonist, you may well feel an urge to learn, or re-learn, to play the game. If so, all the resources you need are online, and today we’ve rounded them up for you.




To get started, Chess.com has produced “Everything You Need to Know About Chess,” a series of Youtube videos “designed to give every aspiring chess player the ‘one chess lesson of their life’ if they were only to get one.” Watch them, or explore these web-based tutorials. And even if you don’t have a chess set of your own, you can get started playing immediately thereafter: create an account at Chess.com and you can play against the computer or real players around the world matched to your skill level, all for free.

To shore up your knowledge of the game’s fundamentals, watch this five-video series by instructor John Bartholomew on topics like undefended pieces, coordination, and typical mistakes. The Chess Website’s Youtube channel covers even more, and its basics playlist teaches everything from opening principles to the nature of individual pieces, pawn, rook, knight, and beyond.

But nobody with a taste for chess can stop at the basics, and the supply of instruction has grown to meet the demand. The St. Louis Chess Club offers a series of lectures from national masters and grandmasters geared toward beginning, intermediate, and advanced players.

At Chess School, you’ll find videos on”the greatest chess games ever played, the immortal chess games, the best games from the latest tournaments, world champion’s games, instructive chess games, famous players games and much more.” Among serious players you’ll find many fans of Agadmator, whose extensive playlists examine current masters like Magnus Carlsen, past masters like Garry Kasparov, and examples of techniques like the English Opening and the Sicilian Defense, the later of which enjoyed quite a moment in the era of The Queen’s Gambit.  The series has hardly gone unnoticed in the chess world: on channels like Chess Network, you’ll even find videos about the strategies employed by Beth Harmon, whose style has been programmed into chess-playing AI “bots.” They also have a “Beginner to Chess Master” playlist that will continually build your understanding of the game in a step by step manner.

The character’s personality, however, remains a creation of Walter Tevis, author of the eponymous novel The Queen’s Gambit. Tevis’ other works famously brought to the screen include The Hustler and The Man Who Fell to Earth: works of literature concerned, respectively, with mastery of a deceptively complex game and the condition of the social outsider. These themes come together in The Queen’s Gambit, whose author also described it as “a tribute to brainy women.” Perhaps you plan to give such a person in your life a chess set this year. If so, you know which book to wrap up with it — apart, of course, from  Ward Farnsworth’s 700-page Predator at The Chessboard: A Field Guide To Chess Tactics. Or Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess. If you have other favorite resources, please feel free to add them to the list below…

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

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

Image by Michael Maggs, via Wikimedia Commons

FYI: In 2011, Ward Farnsworth published a two-volume collection called Predator at The Chessboard: A Field Guide To Chess Tactics (Volume 1Volume 2where he explains countless chess tactics in plain English. In this 700-page collection, “there are 20 chapters, about 200 topics within them, and over 1,000 [chess] positions discussed.” Now for the even better part: Farnsworth has also made these volumes available free online. Just visit chesstactics.org and scroll down the page. There you will find the content that’s otherwise available in Farnsworth’s books. With this free resource, you can start making yourself a better chess player whenever you have the urge, or especially as you watch The Queen’s Gambit on Netflix.

Would you like to support the mission of Open Culture? Please consider making a donation to our site. It’s hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us continue providing the best free cultural and educational materials to learners everywhere.

Also consider following Open Culture on Facebook and Twitter and sharing intelligent media with your friends. Or sign up for our daily email and get a daily dose of Open Culture in your inbox. 

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Watch it go. And thank Simon Anthony when it’s done. And, oh, check out his YouTube Channel, Cracking the Cryptic

Would you like to support the mission of Open Culture? Please consider making a donation to our site. It’s hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us continue providing the best free cultural and educational materials to learners everywhere.

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