Ménage à Chess

A cabinetmaker and would be inventor has spent the last 15 years obsessing over his three-way game. He expects to make millions.

Check. My king is cornered, surrounded on all sides by knights and rooks and pawns. There is one way out, a diagonal move across the board, but it's only a temporary escape from the firing line. Pondering the prospects for long-term survival, I reach for the king. "Hey, it's not your turn yet." A voice from across the table reminds me to be patient. My black opponent has put me in this compromising position, and now it's time for the green player to make his move. Will he join forces with black to wipe me off the board or turn around and bite him where it hurts?

Sitting at an outdoor table at News Cafe in South Beach, I am playing my first ever game of three-man chess, a strategic nightmare of a game the three fronts of which mimic the uncertainty of modern warfare. "If normal chess is World WarI, then this game is Vietnam," says my green opponent, a jovial British bloke named Steve Kettle. "You never know when some Vietcong splinter group might sneak up on you from behind."

Around us a small number of onlookers are craning their necks, staring in bewilderment at the green and silver and black chess pieces scattered across 192 hexagons on the large six-sided board. "People are fascinated by this game," says Kettle's old friend Jeff Jones, a Hollywood cabinetmaker and would-be inventor who has spent the last 15 years obsessing over it. "This is the most perfect three-man chess game ever invented."

Conceived in the early '80s at a wild South Florida party in which he was the odd man out at a normal game of chess, Jones' version takes the basic rules of chess and rejiggers them for three. The spaces and pieces are in three colors instead of two. The pieces are mostly the same as those in normal chess except that they move in six directions instead of four. In addition, Jones created an extra piece to adequately cover the entire board. Wedged between the king and queen, his "champion" acts as both a knight and a bishop. To create a prototype version of it, Jones sliced off the top of a plastic bishop and glued it onto a knight's horse head.

Jones has come to find that his creation was not nearly as groundbreaking as he first imagined. It wasn't until he launched the research leading up to his now pending patent application that he discovered the existence of more than a dozen other three-person chess games already with patents and many more versions that have never been registered. Still, Tom Hamill, his northern Virginia patent attorney, believes the game is different enough from every other version to warrant a place among the almost sixmillion inventions currently on file with the U.S. government. "The others are very complex and don't have symmetry and parity," says former patent agent Hamill. "I'm fairly confident it will be approved."

Even if the application goes through, many obstacles to the market viability of this new version of the classic strategy game still must be overcome, not the least of which is the very limited success of its predecessors. The first three-person chess game on record dates all the way back to 1722, and the first hexagonal board was created in 1912. In this century inventors of three-man chess have included Brits, Americans, Germans, and Canadians. They have been chess fanatics, mathematicians, amateur inventors, and even a 12-year-old boy. The boards they have created include triangles, octagons, hexagons, and three-merged squares. Some versions have had whole new sets of rules and new pieces while others, like Jones' version, have tried to mimic classic chess as closely as possible. None of the games, however, has ever made its inventor rich or famous -- which hasn't stopped Jones from dreaming.

"I'm going to make $50million off this thing," Jones told me one night at the Kings Head Pub, a Dania Beach watering hole where he spends most evenings getting soused with his pal Kettle and where everyone knows him by his barroom moniker, Cat Weasel. Jones, who has a spiked shock of blond hair, really does resemble a weasel. When I first met him though, Jones told me the name didn't come from his looks. "The name's from Nam," he had said, lifting a pint to his lips and flashing a devilish grin. "Over there I was the goto guy; like a weasel I was into everything. Whatever you needed you came to me." I leaned in and asked him if he still has his fingers in everything, and he smiled and said, "You know I've never really been to Vietnam."

That explains why I was somewhat skeptical upon first learning of the invention that is his most consuming passion. "You want a story?" he asked, casting a searching glance over at his pal Kettle.

"Go ahead tell him about the game," said Kettle. "The game is bloody brilliant."

The game, though not as original as it first appeared, turns out, in fact, to be somewhat "brilliant." When he first described it to me, though, I was inclined to write it off as the barroom rambling of another South Florida barfly. That was before he fished the board out from the back of his truck and lugged it into the pub and before I visited his Hollywood cabinetmaking workshop and discovered just how serious he is about bringing the game to the American public.

Covered with sawdust and surrounded by clamps, vices, buzz saws, drills, and plenty of unstained wood, Jones fishes through large stacks of paperwork -- corporation papers, articles on chess, conceptual drawings of the board, and sleek new game pieces he hopes to manufacture. "I have too much work," he tells me. "I don't have enough time to focus on my chess game. There's a lot to do if I want it in toy stores by Christmas2000." The normally goofball pub character couldn't be more serious; even at the bar, his tall tales give way to a quiet intensity when he starts talking about his invention. "I've run into a lot of people who are all talk. I need serious investors." So far, though, the money has been tight. But Jones and his partner in the venture, his Colorado cousin J.C. Davis, are confident the game will be a success.

"Every person I have ever showed this game to has been mesmerized by it," says Davis, who owns a construction company and sometimes moonlights as a ski instructor. "I was surprised to find out there were other versions that hadn't been successful, but then I found out how complicated they were. Ours is by far the simplest and most elegant."

Jones already has big plans for turning the game into a cash cow and has imagined the television commercials and marketing ploys that will be used to sell it. "I need to talk to George Lucas about getting the game into the next Star Wars movie," he says in all seriousness, pointing out how a 3D chess game that once appeared on the old Star Trek launched a brief craze for the game when it was packaged and sold in toy stores.

Already the cousins have begun work on the Website on which they will announce the game, and they have convinced a well-known graphic artist to help them design the interface for an online version that they hope will debut before the end of the year. Then in February the pair intend to bring a prototype, with a foldable neoprene board and the new piece designs, to the American Toy Show in New York City. Even if the big boys -- Milton Bradley, Parker Brothers -- show interest, Jones and Davis hope the buzz from the Website will help them launch the non-computer version without selling out to a large game company. First, however, they need to get chess fanatics to give the game a whirl.

My South Beach foray into the game left me wishing for a less boisterous setting in which to concentrate on its extra dimensions. After nearly two hours of play, I was still in the game -- barely. An opponent on whom I hadn't kept a close eye had swiped my queen out from under me, and my king was still vulnerable. Neither of my novice opponents was in much better shape though, so we packed it in and called it a draw. Chess for three is not exactly a beer-drinking game.

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