Well, that's funny.
May 14, 2010 12:40 PM   Subscribe

In Donald Westlake's "What's So Funny", the macguffin is a jeweled chess set that weighs 680 lbs. This doesn't seem possible!

I admit that my brain freezes up when hit with math. And I also am a huge Westlake fan (well, of Dortmunder anyway) and liked the book despite stumbling over this part. But seriously. This chess set, made for a Russian Czar, is made of gold set with gems (pearls and rubies). The pieces are not solid, but "gold poured into forms around wooden dowels". The kings and queens are "just under four inches tall, the others shorter". The board was ebony and ivory, the box the whole thing came in was teak.

Even if the box and board are pretty heavy, and say 32 pieces, that's giving us a standard-size chess piece that weighs close to 20 pounds! I don't have much gold to play with but I have a chunk of tungsten here the size of a stick of butter and it's about 5 pounds.

This has got to be an error. Maybe a typo? 68 pounds would make more sense and still fit with the "too heavy for one man to carry" critera. But if it's a typo, why did no one, editor, author, all the people that I've read who've reviewed this book -- catch it?

Am I missing something?

So my question is twofold:
A. Is that weight accurate for a chess set of that size and compostion? If not, what should it weigh? Or, how big would a set have to be to weigh the stated amount (680 lbs).

B. If this is an error, why wasn't it corrected?
posted by The otter lady to Writing & Language (15 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Sure, and have its own cart and set of servants to actually move it when needed. I haven't read that one yet; might be purely ornamental? That is, not a working set, but one for (ostentatious) display? And a way to stash a 'bit' of liquidable assets.
posted by tilde at 12:43 PM on May 14, 2010

MacGuffin, defined, if you stumbled on that word. If so, all the better.
posted by filthy light thief at 12:45 PM on May 14, 2010

Gold is much more dense than titanium.

A king or queen, 1" in diameter and 3.5" to 4" high, in solid gold would be roughly 1.5 pounds.

A slab of gold 1.5" square and 2-3 of inches thick would weigh 640 lbs.

It's beleivable.
posted by bonehead at 1:03 PM on May 14, 2010

Does the box count towards the weight?

Considering the value of the set, and given what little description you've furnished thus far, it's not entirely out of the question for the box to be some huge thing with individual display compartments for each of the chess pieces.

This desk, for instance, is teak and apparently 120lbs. An especially ornate box with arm thingies for servants to carry it around sedan-style could reasonably get up to maybe twice that considering that, while large ones, that desk has only 2 drawers, but you'd want 32.

That gets you down to less than a pound per piece even if you ignore the board.
posted by juv3nal at 1:04 PM on May 14, 2010

bonehead: the board and box are not made of gold.

My answer: it's a mystery novel, and he tells you how much it weighs. Probably should have thought it through better, but most readers don't sweat details like that mapping to the real world as long as they are internally consistent.
posted by rikschell at 1:08 PM on May 14, 2010

The set was originally discovered by a group of soldiers in WWI who divided the set between themselves to smuggle back home; "Sgt. Northwood took the ebony-and-ivory chessboard. One of the lads took the teak box that held the pieces. The other eight, including my father, took four chessmen each, knowing each of them could smuggle that much home."

See what I mean??
posted by The otter lady at 1:10 PM on May 14, 2010

Hmm. I'd assumed the squares were inset into a solid gold base. That's the only way the mass could be that high. Otherwise the board would be much, much lighter.
posted by bonehead at 1:10 PM on May 14, 2010

It's going to depend a great deal on how pure the gold is and what other metals are in it, but ignoring that, this site says that a standard gold bar is 7 x 3.625 x 1.75 inches and weighs about 30 pounds. If the chess pieces are about half that size (which would make them pretty wide) and have a wooden dowel core, the gold itself could weigh somewhere around 10 pounds per piece. Gems would add some more weight to that, so I could see each piece weighing 12-15 pounds or so. Add in a very heavy board and box (it would take a lot of teak to hold 32 3-4 inch tall chess pieces) and 680 pounds for everything seems within the realm of possibility.
posted by Dojie at 1:25 PM on May 14, 2010

Gold's density is 19.3 g⋅cm3; a solid cylinder 6 cm across by 9 cm tall (just under 4") has a volume of 254.5 cm3, and if that's solid gold, it weighs 4912 g, or 10.83 lbs. So, there would have to be a lot of bejeweling going on for the set to weigh 680 lbs.
posted by The Michael The at 1:41 PM on May 14, 2010

It's an error. If each piece were solid gold and averaged a pint (think a Ben & Jerry's container) in volume, that'd be 642.8 lbs. total. If an author errs (or never bothered trying to get it right) this ends up being the copy editor's job to find. In this case, maybe he or she did find it but the editor and/or Westlake concluded fixing it would screw up the story too much (it sounds like parts of the story revolve around the set being intractably heavy -- is this so?) and readers wouldn't care enough for it to be worth it.

And copy editors are magnificent human beings, but not all of them are attuned to the sort of errors math and science nerds would find glaring.

(Or maybe Westlake's overcompensating for 1976's Dancing Aztecs in which a bunch of statuettes are passed around and no one notices that one of them isn't a cheap replica painted gold, but is solid gold and really heavy.)
posted by Zed at 1:49 PM on May 14, 2010

Gold is much more dense than titanium.

The otter lady said she had a chunk of tungsten, not titanium. And tungsten is about as dense as gold.

My back-of-the-envelope calculations give somewhere around 20-25 pounds as an upper limit for the weight of the pieces (that's all 32 together, not each piece), if they were made of solid gold. A standard chess king 4 inches tall has maybe a 1-inch diameter base, and with the actual design, I'm going for a volume for the king and queen in the range of 1/2 to 1/3 of a cylinder 4 inches tall and 1 inch in diameter, with the other pieces correspondingly smaller. Gems are considerably less dense than gold (e.g., 3.5 g/cm3 for diamond vs. 19.3 g/cm3 for gold), so unless you're sticking a diamond the size of a baseball on top of each and every piece, I'm not seeing it.

The board? I own a high-quality chessboard made of hardwoods, about 30 inches on a side and maybe 1/2 inch thick. I'd guess it weighs under 10 pounds. Having ivory will up that a bit (1.7 g/cm3, vs. about 1.0 g/cm3 for hardwoods such as ebony), but not that much. If you had a very thick board, maybe you could get it up to 30 pounds or so, if you're going to not have any metals in the board.

So unless you have a teak "box" that's the size of a car and weighs upwards of 600 pounds (note the teak freakin' desk juv3nal links to weighs only a fifth of that), I'd say it's an error. (And if the box alone does weigh 600+ pounds, that obviously raises the question of how one person carries that.)
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 2:55 PM on May 14, 2010

...and of course my arithmetic is off by like an order of magnitude anyways. what was I thinking?!
posted by juv3nal at 3:36 PM on May 14, 2010

Re-reading again I see the pieces are said to weigh well over 3 lbs each (because one rook is 'short' by 3lbs, indicating someone nicked some gold at one point) and the "nearly seven hundred pounds" is reiterated again, so that's not a typo. But then later one of the characters tucks one of the chess pieces in his pocket. So I think Zed's right and Westlake just didn't much know or care what gold is like other than shiny and valuable.
posted by The otter lady at 3:52 PM on May 14, 2010

This block of gold, which was stolen from a museum, weighs about 220lbs. Its 100% solid gold. Its about the size of a box that could hold those chess pieces. 680lbs for a hollow box with non-solid gold pieces? No way.
posted by damn dirty ape at 4:40 PM on May 14, 2010

68 pounds would make more sense and still fit with the "too heavy for one man to carry" critera.

68 pounds can be carried for miles in a backpack, even if one is unpracticed carrying that amount of weight. If you are talking about picking up and carrying with the hands, many men would be strong enough to carry that a fair distance by themselves.
posted by yohko at 2:49 PM on May 15, 2010

« Older Solar path lights   |   Obnoxious loud drunk teen neighbors Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.