The White House's handling of the politics of Syria has looked so clumsy that many people have said facetiously that President Obama is playing "12-dimensional chess." Obama is thinking so many steps ahead, contemplating all possible outcomes, that his moves are inscrutable to the rest of us dummies — the joke being that no such lofty thinking is actually happening. So many smart writers have used the term that it got us wondering, What is 12-dimensional chess? Humans experience three dimensions. Spacetime is the fourth dimension. Even string theorists only say there could be up to 11 dimensions. Is it an obscure political reference? A literary term non-nerds missed out on in high school? A long-lost piece of pop culture? Few people know.
On Wednesday, The Washington Post's Ezra Klein reported, "Privately, Hill aides joke that everything is going exactly to President Obama’s plan. It’s just that that plan is to stay far, far away from Syria. This is the (tongue-in-cheek) 12-dimensional chess interpretation of the Obama administration’s Syria strategy." Last Friday, The Atlantic's James Fallows wrote that Obama needed to ask Congress for authorization to use military force, even if it risked losing the vote. (Obama later surprised everyone, including his own advisers, by deciding to do just that.) Fallows wrote:
I write the list above in full confidence that Barack Obama, 12-dimensional chess player, has already thought through every move far more quickly and thoroughly than I have. Thus I am left with this puzzle. Why is he doing this? The leaking of the counter-attack plans, the hemming himself in with the "red line," the "who cares about the Congress, I'm going ahead!" all suggest a recklessness and, frankly, a foolishness that I don't associate with Barack Obama even in his least effective phases...
This is not the first time the term has been applied to Obama. In July, Talking Points Memo editor Josh Marshall tweeted, "So Obama 2009 visit, 12 dimensional chess, #winning right?" (By the timing, this appears to be a reference to his Cairo speech and the post-coup violence there.) A Huffington Post blogger used it to describe Obama's budget strategy in April. Liberal tweeters used it to describe fiscal cliff negotiations in December — except this time it was true! A gay-rights blogger used it to describe Don't Ask Don't Tell repeal negotiations in 2010. That year, Shakesville defined it as "A reference to what political operatives are said to be playing when they assert a strategy is too sophisticated for critics, feminist or otherwise, to understand." During Obamacare negotiations in 2009, Melissa McEwan wrote for The Guardian that "progressives are meant to trust in the ubiquitously referenced 12-dimensional chess game they're allegedly playing, to which they've given none of their supporters the playbook or rules." Commenters on both liberal and conservative blogs use it.
So where does it come from? I asked our colleague James Fallows, who replied, "I can't remember when I first heard this, or what its existence was before Obama." Though he was "never a Star Trek guy," he thought it could be a reference to Dr. Spock's playing three-dimensional chess. I asked the Post's Klein, too. "There's some joking quote from an early admin profile but it'd take some time to track down," Klein said. We asked other reporters at Gawker and The Atlantic and The New Yorker. They had "no clue," as one emailed.
I turned to Klein's colleague Brad Plumer, who noted that TalkLeft claimed credit for coining "11-dimensional chess" in reference to Obama's negotiations over the public option in 2009. The liberal blog said in September 2009 that it was being used incorrectly. 11D chess did not mean Obama was without strategy. Instead, it meant that there was nothing deeper than what we could see:
Indeed, those of us who use the phrase mean something entirely different - to wit, the rhyme or reason of Obama's actions are the evident ones, not the secret coded ones attributed to them by true believers. In the health care reform context, we use the phrase to refer to the unthinking acceptance that Obama's political strategy is what will get us a public option. This is best captured by that irritating picture we always used to see of Obama with the caption "Don't Worry, He's Got it." The reality is that Obama has not "got it" at all on the public option.
But the idea was around long before 2009. In fact, the first reference in Nexis is dated November 28, 1991, in The Guardian. British Prime Minister John Major was in negotiations over the treaty that created the European Union. The Germans wanted a clear timetable for the U.K. to join.
[Major's] officials echoed the upbeat mood, saying they were optimistic that a settlement was possible, although they admitted they were playing in 'a game of 12-dimensional chess'.
The comment appears to have gone viral in the British press, or as viral as things could go before the Internet. On December 8, 1991, The Observer referenced "what a Downing Street source memorably described as 12-dimensional chess." At least 11 newspaper articles referenced the quote. It had sticking power: "Last year the metaphor of choice was 12-dimensional chess," The Independent said on December 11, 1992.
But even that had to come from somewhere. Slate's Dave Weigel also suggested it came from Star Trek. In the original show, which ran from 1966 to 1969, Dr. Spock and Captain Kirk can be seen playing on a chessboard with multiple levels. Most references online come after that. The Christian Science Monitor said world politics was like "three-dimensional chess" in 1969. In 1970, Miami's police chief said planning security for the Democratic and Republican conventions was like "three-dimensional chess." In 1975, syndicated columnist John P. Roche said the politics of the European Economic Community was like "five-dimensional chess." None of these mentioned Star Trek, however.
Perhaps that's because 3D "Space Chess" was invented in Germany in 1907. The St. Petersburg Times reported students would present a "three-dimensional chess board, composed of eight plastic levels held in a vertical stack by brass reds and spacers" at the Florida state science fair in 1958. And in 1936, The New York Times reported that it was a myth that Albert Einstein was a 3D chess player. The scientist did not play multi-dimensional chess, or any kind of chess. "I have seen pictures of the game in rotogravures," Einstein said, "but as yet I have not played it." Further, he said, " I do not play any games, you see… When I relax I want something that does not tax the mind. When the reporter described Monopoly to him, Einstein chucked and said, "A very American game."
(Top right photo of "A 3D projection of a four-dimensional hypercube performing a simple rotation about a plane which bisects the figure from front-left to back-right and top to bottom" via Wikimedia Commons, middle right and middle left GIF via YouTube.)