Why Leonard Loses at Chess on 3 Levels Against Sheldon in The Big Bang Theory
The real pop-cultural story and hidden symbolic meaning of Sheldon Cooper’s (Jim Parsons) 3D chess set that can be spotted in at least three The Big Bang Theory episodes (1x11, 5x23, 7x1). This is actually the same Star Trek tri-dimensional chess game – but with a slightly different grey base and without the remarkable original USS Enterprise (NCC-1701) logo – that Sheldon and Leonard (Johnny Galecki) are playing for the first time in the episode
The Pancake Batter Anomaly (S01E11) and that Sheldon wins – of course.
DVD Screencap, © 2009 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved
In fact, this 3-d chess model from collectible manufacturer The Franklin Mint is a modified reproduction of the legendary chess game Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner) are playing in the first original Star Trek TV series in the late 1960s.
Later on, Sheldon also plays a round of 3D chess with Penny in the episode
The Hofstadter Insufficiency (S07E01).
And while this seems like an unfair match, the interesting details lay in the circumstances.
As it happens, Sheldon plays with Penny because he feels lonely and misses Leonard, but he pretends to be emotionless like a robot or, rather, like Mr. Spock, about Leonard’s absence.
Actually, to understand the full Star Trek reference in this particular scene, it’s important to know the origins of this three-dimensional chess set – at least the following basics:
The first 3D chess game for the original Star Trek TV series was created by the props department. They simply assembled it from available 3D checkers, several 3D
Tic-tac-toe sets and chess pieces from a futuristic classic chess set that Peter Ganine designed in 1961.
The custom made chess set was then firstly introduced in the opening scene of the Star Trek episode
Where No Man Has Gone Before (1966), where Kirk plays and wins the game of 3D chess against Spock because he confuses him with an illogical move that the pure logic thinking Spock doesn‘t expect.
While this seems like rare luck, it actually wasn‘t. In fact, Captain Kirk was the first one who played tri-d chess at the Starfleet Academy in the StarTrek comic book series with the title
Star-Crossed and beat Spock actually with his human cleverness many times in this game.
Later in the Star Trek TV episode
Court Martial (S01E20), Spock can be spotted beating the chess computer he has programmed when McCoy enters the room and remarks that Spock is the most cold-blooded man he has ever known.
Spock misinterprets it as a compliment and says he has beat the computer four times, which he thought was impossible because he programmed it with his own intelligence. Later Spock found out that someone changed the code with the logic of Captain Kirk and therefore Spock was able to win.
Knowing the pop-cultural reference story of the 3D chess in Star Trek, the game becomes even more meaningful for several reasons – and here is why:
While this 3D chess game is strongly associated with Mr. Spock, it’s actually the human Kirk with his logical and illogical moves, who was better at this game.
Therefore, the chess is a great metaphor for the constant fight between the pure logical thinking Sheldon and the emotional human Leonard.
The tricky part is that Leonard didn’t win the 3D chess game against Sheldon because he tried to play with logic; he played in fact like the chess computer, which lost against Mr Spock several times, and actually not like Kirk who used his irrational human cleverness to beat Spock.
DVD Screencap, © 2013 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved
But when Sheldon plays with Penny, Sheldon gets in fact too emotional because Penny tells him she’s going to call Leonard. This makes Sheldon excited and defuses his evil logic, even when he says
he is cold as a rock.
Sure, Penny didn’t win the game of chess, but she evoked a human touch in Sheldon that weakened his mind and taught him a lesson in human emotions – like Kirk did with Spock when playing chess and demonstrating that often illogic wins over logic.
A similar situation happens in the episode
The Launch Acceleration (S05E23), when Leonard is able to beat Sheldon’s chess queen, because Sheldon is diverted about his feelings for Amy, who stirred his emotions with a tricky dinner date, that touched his human side.
DVD Screencap, © 2012 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved
Finally, when considering all these indicators, the 3D chess game becomes a great metaphor for the relationship between the pure logical acting Sheldon and Leonard who often tries to beat him with his logic but fails, while he actually wins in other situations ‘against’ Sheldon when he uses his human emotions. For instance, when when Leonard makes a face on Sheldon’s toaster waffle with syrup or fixes the zipper on his jacket when it gets stuck.
On a deeper level the 3D chess game even symbolizes that mankind can win over the pure logic of the machines when they act irrational and use emotions, like when Leonard and Penny finally win over Sheldon with their humanity.
Sure, this might be a total over-interpretation because it’s not at all documented that the TBBT producers really had all these associations in mind, but it sounds like an interesting theory and comprehensible assumption.
Click here to re-watch the scene with Penny and Sheldon playing 3d chess and here for the 3-d chess match, Leonard against Sheldon.