If you’ve the day off Memorial Day, or if you just have 25 minutes to spare during the course of your day, you can finally luxuriate in the nerdly delights of watching Dr. Irving Finkel, one of the world’s foremost experts in cuneiform and the man who deciphered the oldest game rulebook in the world, playing the Royal Game of Ur. His opponent is YouTuber Tom Scott, who seems a bright, capable fellow and who is, of course, completely outclassed. He’s very cheerful about it, though, and puts up a fine fight.
This is not the amazing open tournament Dr. Finkel played at the Getty on April 2nd about which I promised a glowing write-up to any reader who attended and reported on the experience. It was a private game filmed and uploaded to the British Museum’s YouTube channel, and I suspect that makes for a far more entertaining video. The asides to the camera and the dry repartee between the players are sheer joy, and they’ve added a helpful graphic to show the progress of each players’ pieces which are otherwise hard to distinguish on the board itself. There are also captions explaining the action and some of the historical context, as well as letting viewers know of coming attractions like Scott’s exploration of probability. Then there’s the slow-mo instant replay of key moments — mainly involving Finkel’s killer moves — that would otherwise have been missed.
The version of the game they’re playing is highly simplified. They’re using a replica of the beautiful lapis lazuli, shell and wood board that was unearthed by Leonard Woolley in Iraq’s Royal Cemetery of Ur in 1926-1927, and ridiculously cool tetrahedral dice. The best part, other than just seeing the game played by the man who has researched it for decades and the unsuspecting lad who found himself in Dr. Finkel’s crosshairs, is that these guys are just plain funny. The little burns never end. Finkel wins all the points for his aside to the camera in reaction to Scott’s probability thing: “I’m rather intrigued to discover that my opponent, who looks like a perfectly civilized person, is in fact mathematically capable.”
On a personal note, watching Irving Finkel be awesome makes me think of Livy’s account of the sack of Rome by the Gauls under Brennus in 390 B.C. Brennus’ men were so awestruck by the immovable dignity of the elderly patricians who had refused to leave their homes and remained seated stock-still in their chairs while the Gauls plundered the city that at first all they could do was stare at them. When one of them could no longer contain himself and stroked the beard of patrician M. Papirius, Papirius responded by striking him with his ivory staff. That broke the spell. Papirius was the first to be killed. The rest of the patricians were next. Then the Gauls killed everyone else and burned the city to the ground.
I’m not saying I would disrespect the purity and greatness of Dr. Finkel’s snowy beard by daring to put my filthy mitts upon it, but I now understand the powerful draw Brennus’ men must have felt more than I ever did.
But I digress. Watch this game. It’s a blast.