“The king stay the king.”

Note: These posts are not meant to be plot summaries, but commentaries (for a more in-depth description of what we’re aiming at, go here: The Wire). While we will make every effort to avoid including spoilers about later episodes, do not read this post unless you have watched the episode we are discussing.


As the opening quote (and the conversation from which it is taken) makes abundantly clear, the primary theme of episode three of The Wire is chess. To be more specific, the episode uses the different roles and interactions of the pieces on a chessboard as a vehicle for a deeper understanding of the inherent complexity of interaction in a system in which the players are gifted and limited in very specific ways.

In the Western world, we like to think of ourselves as free, but what we call freedom actually operates according to the rules of structured interaction. Even those who live outside of the law — as do the drug dealers in The Wire — are still restrained by their own unwritten laws, rituals and taboos.

D’Angelo Barksdale explains it succinctly:

Before we even get into the specifics of D’Angelo’s speech, it is worth noting the deep significance of the fact that Wallace and Bodie are playing checkers with chess pieces. While it might seem like nothing more than an amusing way to introduce D’Angelo’s lesson, it is, in fact, a statement on their obvious status as pawns in the drug game.

As drug dealers, they are already deeply engaged in The Game. Whether they know it or not, they are on that chess board, their lives being played out according to fairly specific strategies and rules. As faceless, disposable soldiers, however, they don’t even know the fundamental rules of the game in which they are embedded.

To put it a different way, tt is not simply that they are playing checkers because they don’t understand chess. They are playing chess. They just think they’re playing checkers.

Their simplistic understanding is both a hindrance to their own development and the reason they are effective pawns. Pawns, often used as bait or as stationary deterrents, are valuable primarily for their simplicity and abundance (disposability), not their ability to understand what else is going on on the board. Whereas we think of the king and queen (and even the knights, bishops and rooks to varying degrees) as fairly autonomous operators, the very definition of the word “pawn” carries the implication that someone else is entirely in control of their actions.

As for D’Angelo’s explanation of chess, on first viewing I saw this as a somewhat heavy-handed metaphor, lacking that certain elegance that comes with subtlety. After all, as D’Angelo describes the roles of the king and queen to Wallace and Bodie, they immediately remark on the similarities to Avon Barksdale and Stringer Bell. Those parallels are easy enough to spot, and I felt at the time that they were unnecessarily handed to the viewer. Indeed, I have heard this same sentiment expressed on a few online reviews of The Wire.

Watching this episode again, I realize that what I had thought was a blunt overstatement of a simple idea was actually just a necessary introduction to a much more intricate one. The chess metaphor runs much deeper than these obvious superficial parallels. In fact, if you view the entire episode within the framework of the chess theme, it is a veritable goldmine of nuanced metaphor. Those who criticize the blunt simplicity of D’Angelo’s explanation are not looking below the surface.


While it can be interesting to go through all the pieces trying to decide which characters represent each one (as D’Angelo, Wallace and Bodie do), such sloppily drawn parallels do not always serve us well. More important to our understanding of The Wire is a fundamental grasp of what makes the pieces what they are.

When relating chess to The Wire, I like to think of the pieces being primarily characterized by their inabilities rather than their abilities. Without the restraints placed on them by the rules of the game, any chess piece would be free to do anything it pleased. From this angle, the fundamental roles of the pieces are defined by what they can’t do. Thinking of them in these terms speaks more to the restrictive structures of bureacracy, law and tradition that operate on the players in The Wire.

In terms of the actual rules of movement in chess, the pieces are restrained in terms of both direction and range. In terms of gameplay, they can also be said to be restrained by their novelty or rarity.

For example, bishops and rooks are less valuable than the queen partly because each of them can move in only four directions where the queen can move in eight. However, they are also less valuable because both bishops and rooks come in pairs. If one dies, you still have one left, whereas the queen is nigh impossible to replace.

As mentioned earlier, it is the abundance of the pawns as much as their limited abilities that make them so disposable. Each individual pawn seems almost worthless when compared to a queen, but the pawns as a total unit are absolutely essential to success in chess.

The king is also interesting in this way. When viewed individually it is most limited piece of all, seemingly helpless due to its extremely limited movement and paramount importance.

When you look at the entire board, however, you realize that despite its fragility, the king is the essence of the game.  It is the only piece that cannot be lost. Each and every piece on the board is but an extension of the king, each taking their individual meaning from it. Nevertheless, the king would be worthless without the other pieces.

While we’ve already acknowledged that the real world far surpasses the complexities of the chessboard, it is worth bearing these symbiotic relationships in mind.

The king, the pawns, and all the other pieces necessitate each other. Taking it even further, the opposing team is also essential if The Game is to be played. Great and small, black and white, the pieces are all connected.


In terms of The Wire, I find the knights to be the most intriguing pieces on the chessboard. Like every other piece, they have their limitations, but they almost seem out of place amidst their brethren.

Their L-shaped movements are completely unique, as is their ability to jump over both friends and foes as if they weren’t even there. This counterintuitive and unrestricted movement is the reason why, on the rare occasions that I play chess, my doom often comes at the hands of a knight whose strange movements I had neglected to anticipate.

Despite my earlier warning against blunt parallels, I think now would be an appropriate time to say that, of all the comparisons we might draw between chess pieces and characters of The Wire, I think the similarities between McNulty and the knight is the most compelling.

Quite regularly, we witness McNulty making bold, unexpected decisions and going over peoples heads just as the knight does. Just as the knight can leap over a queen as if she wasn’t there, McNulty simply ignores the obstacle that is chain of command as he whispers in Judge Phalen’s ear.

His unique behaviour is also evident when he ignores Daniels’s orders to raid the stash house, even refusing to feign sickness to save the Lieutenant from looking as if he can’t control his squad. By contrast, Herc, who actually has a medical excuse, insists on going along on the raid, identifying himself as a far less autonomous piece than McNulty’s knight.

Wrapping up the chess:

All this is merely to say that the players in The Wire operate under a similar — albeit much more complicated and diaphanous — system of restrictions. And while it is tempting to run with the chess analogy, I have probably already taken it too far. After all, the game of chess can be banally invoked wherever and whenever any sort of strategy is at play.

Thankfully, David Simon and the other writers of the show effectively move us past chess before the episode even ends.

Just as we are warming up to this handy little analogy of black vs. white, Omar pops out of the woodwork and beats the police to the stash house, making off with Barksdale’s drugs the night before they decide to make their daylight raid.

This is a blunt reminder not to take this useful, but insufficient metaphor for more than it is worth. Black and white does not exist in the real world. There are not two well-defined sides in The Game, there are many. It is a near infinite tapestry composed entirely of varying shades of grey in constant flux. Loyalties and motivations are constantly shifting.

So if we are to get anything of value out of D’Angelo’s chess metaphor, it should not be the image of two easily identified and polarized teams hunting each other’s kings according to an agreed upon set of rules. Rather, we should focus on the effect of a series of restraining institutions as they act on individuals. For all the similarities The Game shares with chess, it is far more complicated. Black and white is a myth, even when you’re playing cops and robbers.

New Truth:

In the midst of all this chess business, Daniels sits down with his superiors to deal with Pryzblewski’s assault and finds them backing the young cop due to his relation to Major Valchek. With a casual confidence that is a little frightening, all parties agree that three separate eyewitness accounts of the assault can be ignored without worry since all three witnesses have some sort of criminal record.

Simply by virtue of the badges they wear, they create a new truth together. As far as the world is concerned, Pryzbylewski used appropriate force on a “mope” who deserved everything he got. Anyone who says otherwise is no better than him.

In case you had forgotten about Snot Boogie and his unfortunately permanent nickname, here is your reminder. These witnesses, all of them courageous enough to speak out against police brutality, have their point of view marginalized — if not wiped entirely from the page — simply because they have been identified as “less than citizens” by their respective histories. The criminal label stays for life.

Due my excessive focus on the chess aspects of this episode, there were many little things that had to be left out of this post. Hopefully some of them will show up in later posts as supporting points, but one quote in particular needs to be highlighted.

It is a speech made by Stringer Bell after D’Angelo complains that their heroin is weak:

“New package same as old. No matter what we call heroin it’s gonna get sold. Shit is strong, we gonna sell it. Shit is weak, we gonna sell twice as much. You know why ? Because a fiend is gonna chase that shit no matter what. It’s crazy, you know? We do worse and we get paid more. The government do better an it don’t mean no nevermind. This shit right here, D, is forever.”

Bell’s commentary on the heroin trade is very interesting. It seems that their success as drug dealers is tied to the illegality of their trade. The government’s attempts to fight drugs do little to elevate the government’s position, and if the police happen to shut down a few careless dealers here and there, Barksdale and Bell can expect their sales to go up. There will be much more to say on this topic as Bell’s managerial methods become more prominent in the series.

Continue to enjoy the other essays in this series here for free, or show your support by purchasing all 13 as an e-book.


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