Despite a plethora of cat books, cat calendars and road show versions of “Cats!,” the world fundamentally misunderstands the behavior of these often disparaged felines. Cat movements (for those cats that actually move) can be explained only by the laws governing movement of chess pieces. The rules governing no other activity – not Parcheesi, not cribbage, not even cricket (whatever its rules, if any, might be) – adequately explain this behavior.
What happens, for example, if two cats come face-to-face? Absolutely nothing. They reach an impasse which can persist for hours, perhaps days. They simply sit there, cowering a little and staring at each other. Even the players in a cricket match eventually do more than this. Would the cats just sit there for the fun of it? Of course not. They have been biologically wired to assume the roles of opposing pawns on the same vertical row of a chessboard.
Cats often avoid coming face-to-face in this manner since the resulting immobility might interfere with a mealtime. Instead, they eye each other warily and assume a position on a diagonal from one another – catty corner, in the scarcely adequate vernacular. Any number of cats can sit diagonally across from one another even though this is geometrically impossible. Once having situated themselves, they cast solemn, vaguely disapproving glances at one another and periodically nod off. They are, in chess terms, behaving as bishops. In fact, they are behaving as Episcopalian bishops.
Cats don’t always just sit there, however. Sometimes, for no apparent reason, they maniacally zig zag this way and that across a lawn, Oriental rug or closet full of shoes. Then, just as suddenly, and still for no apparent reason, they come to a complete stop. Does the cat really need to go to all this trouble to contemplate a dandelion, tear up an antique Tabriz or gnaw a running shoe? Of course not. It is simply biologically impelled at certain awkward moments to move as a knight in a chess game, just as you or I at an awkward juncture in an actual chess game feels impelled to move a knight to prove that we know how.
A cat will occasionally wake up in one corner of a room, bound across the floor, and go back to sleep in another corner of the room. Senseless behavior, you say, like counting wickets in a cricket match. Perhaps. But logical conduct indeed for one emulating a rook on a chessboard. And when the cat bounds completely out of the room and seems to disappear, only to reappear hours later with his head in the cat food dish, dandelion fuzz and all, the cat has adopted super-rook mode and is castling.
Cats are in fact playing a worldwide, multidimensional chess game with all the other cats in the world. This is a game of a complexity and scale that we humans with our non-feline brains filled with art, music and Jeopardy questions can scarcely conceive. This game is played on multiple planes, explaining cats’ proclivities for climbing things. It is played continuously, at all times of the year, in all kinds of weather. There is no time out in cat chess.
Consider the February when my cat climbed a lofty tamarack and stayed there for days on end, through ice storms and Arctic air masses – seemingly strange, self-destructive behavior for a creature generally preoccupied with its own comfort. But surely it could not have been mere coincidence that for all the time the ice-rimed cat was sitting in that tree, Bobby Fisher was playing chess against Boris Spassky in Iceland and complaining about mysterious spy rays from above.
Contrary to popular belief, cats are not sleeping when they close their eyes and remain motionless. They are concentrating. Cats cannot sleep while on every side of them, and over and above them, ceaseless cat chess activity is taking place, from the opening moves of a litter in Bombay to the end game of a dying street cat in Tangiers.
Watson, the chess and Jeopardy-playing computer, is more inert than even the most senescent, overfed house cat, and no one accuses it of sleeping on the job. We should begin thinking of cats as what they are: portable CPU’s with furry hard drives and a little odor.
I have tried many hypotheses, but none accounts for cat behavior with the consistency of cat chess. For a while I equated cat behavior with the electric football game of my youth. After all, cats do make a noise not unlike that of the game when turned to medium, and they, like the miniature electrified figures in the game, engage in periodic bursts of frenetic motion which culminate in their ending up somewhere other than where one wishes they would go.
Ultimately, however, this hypothesis did not hold. For example, the cats, unlike the football game, did not have to be plugged into a wall socket to get started (although doing so was nevertheless great fun). Also, when given the ball to punt or pass, cats performed even more abysmally than the little plastic figures do, either ignoring the ball altogether or eating it. Cat chess, however, perfectly explains this phenomenon. What bewhiskered grand master of chess could afford to be distracted by a puny ball while contemplating the possible moves, counter-moves, feints and gambits of millions of potential allies and opponents spread across a board that has no boundaries in a game that has no end?
Cat chess is as endless as the cat species itself. It will go on for hundreds of thousands of years, if not longer. Watson may founder on a virus. The little motors in the electric football games must eventually short circuit and buzz their last. Even an international cricket test match will some day reach conclusion. But long after all of these are stilled, cats will still be sitting in trees and kittens will be knocking over teacups thinking they are toppling other kittens’ kings.