The Pharaoh’s Gambit by Joanna Kavenna

Joanna Kavenna

The Pharaoh’s Gambit


I was in Luxor, playing a game without rules. I don’t mean life. The ancient Egyptian game of Senet is one of the oldest in the world. It was played for thousands of years, from around 3000 BC until it fell out of fashion sometime around AD 400. Senet boards were liberally placed in Pharaonic tombs: Tutankhamun was buried with no fewer than four sets to allay the boredom of eternity. The word Senet means ‘passing’. There were two players and a board of thirty squares. Some of the pieces look like pawns, others like cotton reels. The boards survived but the rules were lost. Theories on these abound, as well as on the ontological nature of the game. For if a game has no rules, then is it really a game at all? Or is it just a box?

In Homo Ludens, Johan Huizinga says that in order for a game to be a game, it must be fun. I thought about this as I walked along the banks of the Nile. A work trip to Egypt had been coronised, so now I was in virtual reality:

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