Bishop to Queen’s Rook Seven

by Dawson Smith

Jeremy: “It’s like, we’ll be arguing, and she’ll take a position that entirely defies logic, and I’ve got a pretty healthy respect for logic, but then all she has to do is put on one of my shirts-“

Dan: “The button-down shirts.”

Jeremy: “And it’s over.”

Dan: “Over.”

Jeremy: “Like bishop to queen’s rook seven.”

Dan: “Excuse me?”

Jeremy: “In chess club in high school, I’m going up against this guy. King’s rook three, king’s rook three. Bam bam bam. All of a sudden he moves bishop to queen’s rook seven. I lost thirty-seven moves later, but I was never even in it.” – (Aaron Sorkin, SportsNight, “Shoe Money Tonight”)


In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry, Hermione, and Ron enter Minerva McGonagall’s giant, living chess board, in which they must win in order to pass through to the next challenge, and eventually find the villain, who they all believe to be Professor Severus Snape. Much has been made of the theory that each obstacle leading to — and including — the Mirror of Erised equates to the books. That may be true, and certainly has the ring of brilliant design to it, but suffers the same faults as Astrology, in that it may be read in any number of ways and then twisted to fit the outcome. Also, who is to say that the appropriate plots would be in the same order as their corresponding obstacles? I like the idea and all the intelligent discussion it has produced, but until we see the whole picture, I don’t completely buy it. For instance, Fluffy and the flying keys seem much less loaded with meaning than, say, Snape’s potion/logic test, or the aforementioned chess game.

Dumbledore tells us in HBP, “Lord Voldemort has never had a friend, nor do I believe he has ever wanted one.” He has followers, to be sure, but none of them can be considered friends. Rather, he has learned to manipulate them. He takes their fears, their desires, their prejudices, and gears them to his bidding. There is the apocryphal story (also courtesy of Aaron Sorkin) of the French politician who sees his citizens rioting. He turns to one of his aides and says, “My people are running. Tell me where they are going so that I may lead them.” If people are moving in a certain direction, they need no leader. However, if they are aimless in their obsessions, they will be easily led with promises. Voldemort doesn’t speak for his people. He uses them for his own advancement. Like pawns, you might say.

In non-wizard chess, you need have no trust in your armies. They move where you tell them to. In wizard chess, however, while the strategy of the game remains the same, you must give your pieces a reason to move, as Harry quickly learns to Ron’s advantage in SS/PS. However, forcing someone’s hand does not denote trust in that person. It just denotes power. In HBP, the point is consistently driven home that Dumbledore puts too much trust in people, to his own detriment. Some would say that this has led to his demise, reason being that Snape, whom Dumbledore “trusted completely” kills him. I agree with the general assessment, in as much as Dumbledore’s death is concerned, but for a very different reason.

Voldemort has never had a friend, nor is there any reason to believe that he has ever wanted one. He has no capacity for love, and his “loyalties” (which are strictly limited to those followers loyal to him) serve no purpose beyond the intra-political. In his mind, those who serve him do so for reasons of fear, passion, and a (decidedly twisted) sense of love. Voldemort in turn either lacks these qualities or detests them so much that he cannot see them within himself, and thus his power arises from not having those traits with which he controls his minions. But he has no trust in them. He, who has given up life in the quest to avoid death, cannot rely on those who embrace the very essence of life itself, those who fear the consequences of life’s harder decisions, and most of all those who sacrifice life for those close to them. He cannot feel it. But he can use it. That’s how Lord Voldemort wields his power.

Dumbledore is, in this political form, Voldemort’s opposite. Where Voldemort eschews passion, Dumbledore revels in it. Where Voldemort sees love as weakness, Dumbledore finds in it his greatest strength. And where Voldemort revolts at his own fears of death and darkness, Dumbledore acknowledges them enough to sensibly overcome them. On a spiritual, moral, interpersonal level, Dumbledore has Voldemort beaten hands down. But in the good-versus-evil chess game, Voldemort has the distinct advantage, because Dumbledore’s strength is in trust, whereas Voldemort’s is through coercive, intimidating power. It is not through trust that Draco is asked to kill Dumbledore. It is not through trust that Voldemort keeps Snape close at hand. It is not through trust that Snape is given Wormtail as a servant.


Beyond the trapdoor, Ron, by far the strongest chess player, leads Harry and Hermione as a knight. Ron is the greatest strategist, and is able to move the pieces on his side to the greatest advantage, as well as force the pieces on the opposing side into corners where they can be taken advantage of. On a side-note, this is worth remembering when Ron bumbles around like an idiot; a good corollary to the “Weasley is our King” episodes is that Ron is brilliant when he has confidence in himself. He may get enough crap from Fred and George on one side and Ginny on the other, which can paralyze him, but he has the respect of the chess pieces, and can lead them better than anyone in the school.

Dumbledore and Voldemort have never been lacking in any confidence as long as we’ve known them. They too, know how to place their pieces, which until endgame, is what chess is really about. It doesn’t matter how many pieces you capture along the way if you are not in place to take the King at game’s end. This is the beauty of Half-Blood Prince — it’s not about the end game, which is why we never see Voldemort outside of a memory within it’s formidable page-count. We watch as the pieces move into place.

The Ministry – Fudge is fine by Voldemort during Harry’s fifth year. Better than fine, he not only spreads propaganda refuting Voldemort’s existence — “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled…” — but he spends equal energy in discrediting Dumbledore and Harry. This allows the Dark Lord and his Death Eaters free reign to operate without interference, and arguably with indirect Ministry support. But as soon as Fudge sees Volemort in the lobby, he is of no use. While Fudge might be a bumbler, he has enough sense to enlist the advice and support of people powerful enough to handle what he can’t. As soon as Fudge and Dumbledore work together again, Voldemort is now at a disadvantage. So what does he do? He makes his actions devastating and very, very public, forcing the people to oust Fudge and replace him with the next best thing: a careerist blowhard intent on selling the magic community amulets of false security in order to protect his own image. Voldemort is now safe to return to quiet maneuvers — more his forte anyway — knowing that Scrimgeour will spin it as a positive for his own record that the public tragedies have ended.

Hogwarts – Dumbledore, meanwhile, is busy behind the scenes setting the pieces in his own camp. We see very little of Dumbledore in OOTP, as he is actively ignoring Harry. We might note that the less we see these two foes (Dumbledore and Voldemort), the more they are doing in the background. On the other hand, Aberforth, Dumbledore’s brother, witnesses the formation of the DA at the Hog’s Head, which is is how Umbridge finds out about it. Does this seem at all odd? Granted, Aberforth has a thing for goats, but it is hard for me to imagine him going to anyone but Dumbledore with the news of this gathering. This means Dumbledore not only knows, and keeps his knowledge a secret, but has Aberforth go to the Ministry with it as well. Why would Dumbledore do this? When the group is first formed, it is a cheeky gesture against Umbridge, populated mostly by students who just want to hear Harry’s story. But after it is out-lawed under Educational Decree #24, it becomes an instrument against a fascist government. The students suddenly become serious, recognizing immediately that the decree refers directly to them. They redouble their efforts, and a few members (Ginny, Neville, and Luna) become well-trained and hold their own against Death Eaters. They say the quickest way to disable a protest is to freely permit it. By this logic, Dumbledore has strengthened his greatest resource ten-fold.

The Malfoys – Lucius is not exactly in Voldemort’s best books upon his return at the graveyard. The elder Malfoy has denied Voldemort publicly after the fall and uses his money and power to cozy in with the Ministry. Also, remember that Malfoy, who is with the group of Death Eaters at the World Cup, all flee when they see the Dark Mark. Voldemort puts him in place to retrieve the prophesy in OOTP, no doubt using Lucius’s desire to regain favor as the primary motive. When Malfoy fails, it seals Draco’s fate. Meanwhile, Narcissa is put into an almost impossible situation between OOTP and HBP. If Draco refuses his assignment, the family is certainly dead. If Draco accepts and fails, the same outcome occurs. Finally, if Draco accepts and succeeds, Draco will be a fugitive at sixteen, any lingering Ministry support the family gold bought them will be severed, and Draco and Narcissa will have to find protection under the Dark Lord, who will presumably give it to them. As far as Narcissa is concerned, she has only one choice, but that doesn’t preclude her from enlisting support of her own.

Snape – Here, Snape is truly backed into a corner, no matter where his true loyalties lie. He cannot refuse the vow (do not think that Bella’s presence in Spinners End is an accident), and if he accepts it, he must assist in killing Dumbledore, commit the murder himself, or die. He takes the only sensible (from his perspective) path. Cissy and Bella have, by the nature of the vow, taken away his option of saying, “This is Draco’s task to complete.” Snape must perform the murder if Draco cannot. He’s cornered. Cornered because Voldemort had forced his hand, as he has forced Narcissa’s, as he has forced Draco’s, as he has forced Lucius’. (Not that I am abdicating any of the Malfoy’s of their sins, but after Voldemort’s return, those sins are committed under a very limited definition of “free will.”)


In the end, Ronald Weasley, the chief strategist leading the game, comes to a point where he must call for his own sacrifice. Harry and Hermione plead with him, begging him to find a way, but Ron insists, giving them instructions on how to continue after his capture. Ron is taken down, and Harry and Hermione, shaken for sure, win the game on his orders.

Snape’s vow is surely overheard by Wormtail, who just as surely relays it to Voldemort. If the Dark Lord weren’t hairless, he surely would have stroked his beard. Dumbledore is going to die, one way or another, and it doesn’t much matter to Voldemort how it occurs, as both Snape and the Malfoys are useless beyond this task anyway. Voldemort has no trust in either party, but he can be assured in his control over them nonetheless. I personally believe that there is no chance that Dumbledore does not know about the vow around the same time that Voldemort does, nor does he fail to understand its consequences. Here we move into the thickets of wildest guesswork, but I can assume what has taken place anyway, because Dumbledore has castled early on and knows one thing that Voldemort is well aware of, and one thing that he probably isn’t.

Voldemort knows that Snape is a supremely powerful wizard. Snape is probably the most powerful wizard (or witch) inside the walls behind Hogwarts, and Dumbledore who trusts him completely. Do you think Book Seven will give us an answer as to why?

What Voldemort probably does not know is that Snape has already made an Unbreakable Vow to Dumbledore. Snape comes to Dumbledore as a former Death Eater before Voldemort’s fall, and Dumbledore gives him a position as the Head of House to the most corruptible students in Hogwarts, a position that is denied to Voldemort himself. This means that either Snape is far superior at Occlumency/Legilimency than Voldemort (and Dumbledore), or Snape is generally telling the truth with Dumbledore, as well as the Order. I believe the latter.

By Chapter 3 of HBP, Snape is now the servant of two masters, and unlikely by his own design. I personally believe that even if Snape has not known for sure what exactly Draco’s assignment is, he has an idea of what it is, and thus he turns to Dumbledore, the only man who has ever trusted him, and in turn, the only person that Snape could trust as well. Dumbledore has acted as a father to Snape for as long as we have known them. Dumbledore has protected Snape in ways that Snape’s own, implicitly abusive dad, never did — vouching for him at the Ministry, granting him home and status within Hogwarts, siding with him over Harry’s accusations, etc. I picture a scene in which Snape goes to Dumbledore, the most powerful, knowledgeable wizard alive, if not ever, and said, “Listen, I was forced to make this vow in order to maintain my cover,” and just expects that Dumbledore will know a way out of it.

And Dumbledore does, but it isn’t in a way that has pleased anyone. Dumbledore tells us in the first book that “to the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.” He doesn’t make this statement in passing, nor in jest. Dumbledore has known since Harry’s downfall that Voldemort would rise again. He has known since his resurrection that Voldemort would come gunning for him, Harry’s mentor, before doing anything else. He has known since the showdown in the Ministry that Voldemort would find a way to use his love for Harry against them both. And he has known, as soon as Snape comes to him that his days are limited, and that he needs to give out instructions and set Harry and his other pieces along the path while he still has the chance.

Upon hearing from Hermione that the castle is under attack, Snape runs off without harming any of the kids. Then he runs into Flitwick who is trying to help, but is ultimately an obstacle in Snape’s plan. What does Snape do? Stun him. Under the “evil Snape” theory, he is on his way to deliberately dispatch Dumbledore, the only man who has ever loved or trusted him, but he chooses the least harmful way to handle a lesser, though formidable character along the way. That makes sense. Snape then rushes through the fray, sees the Death Eaters go up the tower, and McGonagall’s inability to do so herself, rushes up there, having the necessary mark to get through the enchantment. On top of the tower, Snape finds a weakened Dumbledore surrounded by Draco and a slew of vicious Death Eaters debating who should kill him. Dumbledore calls him over and whispers, Severus, please.

Snape is no more anxious to do this on the tower. Here he is, a former Death Eater who has betrayed Voldemort before his downfall, now treading through enough danger as it is in order to return to the Dark Lord’s fold. By killing Dumbledore, in Draco’s place, Snape will have nothing. He can’t go to Voldemort, as he has not acted on Voldemort’s orders. He can’t return to Spinner’s End, as the Dark Lord would surely find him there, and he definitely can’t stay at Hogwarts. Snape has nothing in his life. His existence is decrepit and disrespected outside the castle walls. He is racked with calloused guilt over his previous actions, and has never known love except for that of his employer. However, if he chooses not to kill Dumbledore, he dies. But he dies as a hero, at least kind of. He shows his love for Dumbledore and dies in the process, and no one can ever again doubt his devotion or loyalty.

Dumbledore doesn’t allow Snape his martyrdom, however, because there’s something bigger at stake. Bigger than the fate of Draco’s soul. Maybe even bigger than the threat of Harry’s well-being. Hogwarts. Hogwarts is overrun with Death Eaters attacking children and faculty. Snape kills Dumbledore, yes. He does so with a look of hatred upon his face, but here’s what’s interesting: Snape’s hatred comes from love and respect. Snape kills Dumbledore in short order, with no protest from the greatest wizard of his time, who stands against Voldemort himself. Then, Snape rushes the Death Eaters out of the building. Why? They’ve got no reason to leave at this point. With a combined effort, the castle is theirs but Snape manages to make them run off as if the cops are coming, which they aren’t. As Harry chases him (and Malfoy) Snape repels his curses, but does nothing to harm him. Instead, Snape takes his final opportunity to coach Harry in what he will need in the coming confrontation. Snape says that Harry is “for the Dark Lord,” but Snape knows as well as anyone that he isn’t in Voldemort’s trust.

Why would Snape act this way, if he were truly evil, if he were truly on Voldemort’s side, when he finally has the chance to do all the damage he could have desired? Because Snape hasn’t been working for Voldemort. He has been working for Dumbledore. And Dumbledore forces him to do the unforgivable in order to save Hogwarts. If Snape fulfills his reluctant vow, lets himself die, then the Death Eaters would’ve overpowered him, and then murdered students within the school largely unabated. Instead, Snape leads them out and keeps them from harming any student, even Harry, along the way. Of course Snape has a look of hatred. For one, he has to draw on that emotion in order to pull off the curse, and for another, Dumbledore has just begged him to take a life of imperiled exile and infamy, instead of letting him die a hero for the one man he loved. Snape could have refused and died there on the spot, a martyr, but he understands Dumbledore’s reasoning, and while he hates Dumbledore for the position they are both set in, he respects him enough to carry out his wishes.

And Snape knows what Dumbledore and Ron knew… that even though he might have led the game, he is not the most important piece. This is what Voldemort doesn’t, and by nature, cannot know. Dumbledore does die because of his trust in his followers, but that trust has not been betrayed. Voldemort can create all the Horcruxes he wants in order to preserve his wretched life. They aren’t really pieces in the game. The game, in this case, is bigger than that, and involves people. People who love, fear, desire, and live. Voldemort can do none of these things, and as such, he has set himself up as both the leader of the game and its most important piece. Both Ron and Dumbledore knew better than to make that mistake, but Voldemort has no agenda that could outlive him. He could give a damn if pure-blood-mania keeps moving forth past his demise, because it only matters if he leads it. His cause is himself. And that’s how Harry’s going to beat him — through loyalty and trust.