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         The History and The Culture of Chess

  Atlantic Monthly - VOL. V.  JUNE, 1860.   NO. XXXII.

March 25, 2005


This is part of an article on Chess, published in the June 1860 issue of the Atlantic Monthly


 No other games, and few other subjects, have gathered about them so rich a literature, or been intertwined with so much philological and historical lore. Not the least of this is to be found in the English classics, from which we propose to make one or two selections. We begin where English poetry begins, with Dan Chaucer; and from many beautiful conceits turning upon chess, we select one which must receive universal admiration. It is from the "Booke of the Duchesse."

My boldnesse is turned to shame,
For false Fortune hath played a game
At the Chesse with me.

At the Chesse with me she gan to play,
With her false draughts full divers
Sho stale on me, and toke my fers:1
And when I sawe my fers away,
Alas! I couth no longer play.

Therewith Fortune said,' Checke here,
And mate in the mid point of the checkere
With a paune errant.' Alas!
Full craftier to play she was
Than Athalus, that made the game
First of the Chesse, so was his name.

 1 Mediaeval name for the Queen, (originally the Counsellor,)
    --the strength of the board.

In the early part of the seventeenth century, Thomas Middleton wrote a comedy styled "A Game at Chess," which was acted at the Globe (Shakspeare's) nine times successively. It seems to have been a severe tirade on the religious aspects of the times.
The stage directions are significant: for example:
Act I., Scene 1. _Enter severally, in order of the game, the White and Black houses
Act II., Scene 1. _Enter severally White Queen's Pawnes and Black Queen's Pawnes_.
The Prologue is as follows:

What of the game called Chesse-play can be made
To make a stage-play shall this day be played.
First you shall see the men in order set,
States, and their Pawnes, when both the sides are met;
The houses well distinguished: in the game
Some men entrapt, and taken to their shame,
Bewarded by their play: and in the close
You shall see checque-mate given to Virtue's foes.
But the fair'st jewel that our hopes can decke
Is so to play our game t'avoid your checke."

The play excited indignation in the partisans of the Romish Church, and was not only suppressed by James I., but at the demand of the Queen its author was imprisoned, and was relieved only by a witty verse sent to the King.

The last which we have room to quote is anonymous, and of date near 1632. It may have been written by the celebrated divine, Thomas Jackson, of Corpus-Christi College, whose discourse comparing the visible world to a
"Devil's Chess-board" evidently suggested the familiar etching in which Satan contends with a youth for his soul. The lines are entitled:


"A lowly one I saw,
With aim fist high:
Ne to the righte,
Ne to the lefte
Veering, he marched by his Lawe,
The crested Knyghte passed by,
And haughty surplice-vest,
As onward toward his heste
With patient step he prest,
Soothfaste his eye:
Now, lo! the last doore yieldeth,
His hand a sceptre wieldeth,
A crowne his forehead shieldeth!

"So 'mergeth the true-hearted,
With aim fixt high,
From place obscure and lowly:
Veereth he nought;
His work he wroughte.
How many loyall paths be trod,
Soe many royall Crownes hath God!"

It is very clear that the pawns in chess represent the common soldiers in battle. The Germans call them "peasants" (_Bauern_); the Hindoos call them _Baul_, or "powers" (in the sense of _force_); and that each of these, if he can pursue his file to its end, should win a crown has always given to this game a popular stamp. These pawns are doubtless, next to knights, the most interesting pieces on the board: Philidor called them "the soul of chess."

At an early period Asiatic chess was divided into two branches,--known amongst players as Chinese and Indian. They are different games in many respects, and yet enough alike to show that they were at some period the same. The Chinese game maintains its place in Eastern Asia, Japan, etc.; in the islands of the Archipelago, and, with very slight modifications, throughout the civilized world, the Indian game is played. Indeed, there is no difference between Indian and European chess, except that in the former the Bishop is called Elephant,--the Rooks, Boats,--the Queen, Minister: the movements of the pieces are the same.

Of Chinese chess some description will be more novel. Their chess-board, like ours, has sixty-four squares, which are not distinguished into alternate black and white squares. The pieces are not placed on the squares, but on the corners of the squares. The board is divided into two equal parts by an uncheckered space, which is called the River. There are nine points on each line, and forty-five on each half of the board. They have the same number of pieces with ourselves. Each player has a king, two guards, two elephants, two knights, two chariots, two cannon, and five pawns. Each player places nine pieces on the first line of the board,--the king in the centre, a guard on each side of him, two elephants next, two knights next, and then the two chariots upon the extremities of the board; the two cannons go in front of the two knights and the pawns on the fourth line.

The king moves only one square at a time, but not diagonally, and only in an _enceinte_, or court, of four squares,--to wit, his own, the queen's, queen's paw and king's pawn's. Castling is unknown. The two guards remain in the same limits, but can move only diagonally; thus we have in our king both the Chinese king and his guard. The elephants move diagonally, two squares at a time, and cannot pass the river. Their knight moves like ours, but must not pass over pieces; he can pass the river, which counts as one square. The chariots and cannon move like our castles, and can cross the river. The pawns always move one step, and may move sidewise as well as forward,--taking in the same line in which they move; they cross the river. The cannon alone can pass over any piece; indeed, a cannon can take only when there is a piece between it and the piece it takes,--which intervening piece may belong to either player. The king must not be opposite the other king without a piece between. All this certainly sounds very complex and awkward to the English or American player; and our game has the preferable tendency of increasing the power of the pieces, (as distinct from pawns,) rather than, with theirs, limiting their powers and multiplying their number. However, it is probable, whatever may be the respective merits of the two games, that neither of them will ever be altered; the Chinese, who can roast his pig only by burning the sty,
because the first historic roast-pig was so roasted, will be likely to continue his chess as nearly as possible in the same form as the celestial Tia-hoang and the terrestrial Yin-hoang played it a million years ago. In Europe and America we have all complacently concluded, that, when David said he had seen an end of all perfection, it only indicated that he was unacquainted with chess as played in accordance with Staunton's Handbook.

But it is only the Indian game which has had a development equal to the development of the civilized arts. This has been chiefly through what are called by the Italian-French name of _gambits_. There is much prejudice, amongst a certain class of chess-players, against what is called "book-chess," but it rarely exists with players of the first rank. These gambits are as necessary to the first-rate player as are classifications to the naturalist. They are the venerable results of experience; and he who tries to excel without an acquaintance with them will find that it is much as if he should ignore the results of the past and put his hand into the  fire to prove that fire would burn. If he should try every method of answering a special attack, he would be sure to find in the end that the method laid down in the gambit was the true one. An acquaintance, therefore, with these approved openings puts a player at an advanced starting-point in a game, inexhaustible enough in any case, and where he need not take time in doing what others have already done. Although we design in this article to refrain, as much as possible, from technical chess, it may be well enough to give a list of the usual openings, and their key-moves.

(_Philidor_, 1749.)

White. Black.
1. P. to K. 4th. 1. P. to K. 4th.
2. Kt. to K.B. 3d. 2. P. to Q. 3d.


1. P. to K. 4th 1. P. to K. 4th.
2. Kt. to K.B. 3d. 2. Kt. to Q.B. 3d.
3. B. to Q.B. 4th. 3. B. to Q.B. 4th.
4. P. to Q. 3d or Q.B. 3d.

(_Lopez_, 1584.)

1. P. to K. 4th. 1. P. to K. 4th.
2. Kt. to K.B. 3d. 2. Kt. to Q.B. 3d.
3. B. to Q.Kt. 5th.


1. P. to K. 4th. 1. P. to K. 4th.
2. Kt. to K.B. 3d. 2. Kt. to K.B. 3d.

(_So named from the great match between London
and Edinburgh in_ 1826, _but first analyzed
as a gambit by Ghulam Xassitrt, Madras,_

1. P. to K. 4th. 1. P. to K. 4th.
2. Kt. to K.B. 3d. 2. Kt. to Q.B. 3d.
3. P. to Q. 4th.

(_Ancient Italian MS_.)

1. P. to K. 4th. 1. P. to Q.B. 4th.

(_Captain Evans_, 1833.)

1. P. to K. 4th. 1. P. to K. 4th.
2. Kt. to K.B. 3d. 2. Kt. to Q.B. 3d.
3. B. to Q.B. 4th. 3. B. to Q.B. 4th.
4. P. to Q.Kt. 4th.


1. P. to K. 4th. 1. P. to K. 4th.
2. B. to Q.B. 4th. 2. B. to Q.B. 4th.


1. P. to K. 4th. 1. P. to K. 4th.
2. P. to K.B. 4th. 2. P. takes P.
3. Kt. to K.B. 3d. 3. P. to K.Kt. 4th.
4. B. to Q.B. 4th. 4. B. to K.Kt. 2d.

_(Johann Allgaier_, 1795.)

1. P. to K. 4th. 1. P. to K. 4th.
2. P. to K.B. 4th. 2. P. takes P.
3. Kt. to K.B. 3d. 3. P. to K.Kt. 4th,
4. P. to K.B. 4th.

(_Preserved by Salvio_, 1604.)

1. P. to K. 4th. 1. P. to K. 4th.
2. P. to K.B. 4th. 2. P. takes P.
3. Kt. to K.B. 3d. 3. P. to K.Kt. 4th.
4. B. to K.B. 4th. 4. P. to K.Kt. 5th.
5. Castles. 5. P. takes Kt.

(_Preserved from the Portuguese by Salvio_, 1604.)

1. P. to K. 4th. 1. P. to K. 4th.
2. P. to K.B. 4th. 2. P. takes P.
3. K.Kt. to B. 3d. 3. P. to K.Kt. 4th.
4. K.B. to Q.B. 4th. 4. P. to K.Kt. 5th.
5. Kt. to K. 5th. 5. K.R.'s 5th. (ch.)
6. K. to B. Sq. 6. K.Kt. to B. 3d.


1. P. to K. 4th. 1. P. to K. 3d.

These gambits may be classed under what are, in common phrase, termed "open" or "close" games; an open game being where the pieces are brought out into more immediate engagement,--a close game where the pawns
interlock, and the pieces can less easily issue to the attack. An instance of the former may be found in the Allgaier,--of the latter in Philidor's Defence. These two kinds of games are found in chess-play because they are
found in human temperament; as there are brilliant and daring Napoleons, and cautious, pertinacious Washingtons in war, so are there in chess Philidor and La Bourdonnais, Staunton and Morphy. In examining Mr. Staunton's play, for example, one is struck with the French tact of M. St. Amant's remark, made many years ago:
"M. Staunton has the solidity of iron, but neither the purity of gold nor the brilliancy of the diamond."
However much Mr. Staunton's ignoble evasion of the match with Morphy--after bringing him, by his letter, all the way from New Orleans to London, a voyage which would scarcely have been taken otherwise--may have stained his reputation as a courageous and honorable chess-player, we cannot be blind to the fact, that he is the strongest master of the game in Europe. With a fine mathematical head, (more at home, however, in the Calculus than in Algebra,)--with an immense power of reserve and masterly repose,--able to hold an almost incredible number of threads without getting them entangled,--he has all the qualities which bear that glorious flower, success. But he is never brilliant; he has outwearied many a deeper man by his indefatigable evenness and persistance; he is Giant Despair to the brilliant young men. Mr. Morphy is just the otherest from Staunton. Like
him only in sustained and quiet power, he brings to the board that demon of his, Memory,--such a memory, too, as no other chess-player has ever possessed: add to this wonderful analytic power and you have the secret of
this Chess-King. Patient practice, ambition, and leisure have done the rest. He has thus the lustre du diamant, which St. Amant missed in Mr. Staunton; and we know that the brilliant diamond is hard enough also to make its mark upon the "solid iron."

Amongst other great living players who incline to the "close game," we may mention Mr. Harrwitz, whose match with Morphy furnished not one brilliant game; also Messrs. Slous, Horwitz, Bledow, Szen, and others. But the
tendency has been, ever since the celebrated and magnificent matches of the two greatest chess geniuses which England and France have ever known, McDonnel and De la Bourdonnais, to cultivate the bolder and more exciting open gambits. And under the lead of Paul Morphy this tendency is likely to be inaugurated as the rule of modern chess. Professor Anderssen, Mayet, Lange, and Von der Lasa, in Germany,--Dubois and Centurini, at
Rome,-St. Amant, Laroche, and Lecrivain, of Paris,--Loewenthal, Perigal, Kipping, Owen, Mengredien, etc., of London,-are all players of the heroic sort, and the games recently played by some of them with Morphy are per- haps the finest on record. And certainly, whatever may be said of their tendency to promote careless and reck-less play, the open and daring games are at once more interesting, more brief, and more conducive to the mental drill which has been claimed as a sufficient compensation for the outlay of thought and time demanded by chess.

We have already given some specimens of the Poetry of Chess. The Chess Philosophy itself has penetrated every direction of literature. From the time that Miranda is "discovered playing chess with Ferdinand" in Prospero's cell, (an early instance of "discovered mate,") the numberless Mirandas of Romance have played for and been played for mates. Chess has even its Mythology,--Caissa being now, we believe, generally received at
the Olympian Feasts. True, some one has been wicked enough to observe that all chess-stories are divisible into two classes,--in one a man plays for his own soul with the Devil, in the other the hero plays and wins a wife,--and to beg for a chess-story minus wives and devils; but such grumblers are worthless baggage, and ought to be checked. The Chess Library has now become an important collection. Time was, when, if one man had Staunton's "Handbook," Sarratt, Philidor, Walker's "Thousand Games," and Lewis on "The Game of Chess," he was regarded as uniting the character of a chess-scholar with that of the antiquary. But now we hear of Bledow of Berlin with eight hundred volumes on chess; and Professor George Allen, of the University of Pennsylvania, with more than a thousand! Such a literature has Chess collected about it since Paolo Boi, "the great Syracusan," as he was called, wrote what perhaps was the first work on chess, in the middle of the sixteenth century.

But such numbers of works on chess are very rare, and when the reader hears of an enormous chess library, he may be safe in recalling the story of Walker, whose friend turned chess author; seven years after, he boasted to
Walker of the extent of his chess library, which, he affirmed consisted of one thousand volumes minus eighteen! It turned out that eighteen copies of his work had been sold, the rest of the edition remaining on his hands.

Though these old works are like galleries of old and valuable pictures to the chess enthusiast, they contain very little that is valuable to the general reader. Their terms and signs are to the uninitiated suggestive of a doctor's prescription. But the anecdotes of the game are, many of them, remarkable; and we believe they are known to have less of the mythical about them than those told in other departments. One who knows the game will feel that it is sufficiently absorbing to be woven in with the textures of government, of history, and of biography. It is of the nature of chess gradually to gather up all the senses and faculties of the player, so that for the time being he is an automaton chess-player, to whom life and death are abstractions.

How seriously, even religiously, the game has always been regarded by both Church and State may be judged by the account given by old Carrera of one whom we have already named as probably the earliest chess author, as he certainly is one of the greatest players known to fame. "In the time of our fathers," says this ancient enthusiast, "we had many famous players, of whom Paolo Boi, Sicilian, of the city of Syracuse, and commonly called the Syracusan, was considered the best. He was born in Syracuse of a rich and good family. When a boy, he made considerable progress in literature, for he had a very quick apprehension. He had a wonderful talent for the game of Chess; and having in a short time beaten all the players of the city, he resolved to go to Spain, where he heard there were famous players, honored and rewarded not only by noblemen, but also by Philip II., who took no small delight in the game. He first beat with ease all the players of Sicily, and was very superior in playing without seeing the board; for, playing at once three games blindfold, he conversed with others on different subjects. Before going into Spain, he travelled over all Italy, playing with the best players, amongst others with the Puttino, who was of equal force; they are therefore called by Salvio the light and glory of chess. He was the favorite of many Italian Princes, and particularly of the Duke of Urbino, and of several Cardinals, and even of Pope Pius V. himself, who would have given him a considerable benefice, if he would have become a clergyman; but this he declined, that he might follow his own inclinations. He afterward went to Venice, where a circumstance happened which had never occurred before: he played with a person and lost. Having afterward by himself examined the games with great care, and finding that he ought to have won, he was astonished that his adversary should have gained contrary to all reason, and suspected that he had used some secret art whereby he was prevented from seeing clearly; and as he was very devout, and was possessed of a rosary rich with many relics of saints, he resolved to play again with his antagonist, armed not only with the rosary, but strengthened by having previously received the sacrament: by these means he conquered his adversary, who, after his defeat, said to him these words,--'Thine is more potent than mine.'"

Some of the earliest writers on chess have given their idea of the all-absorbing nature of the game in the pleasant legend, that it was invented by the two Grecian brothers Ledo and Tyrrheno to alleviate the pangs of hunger with which they were pressed, and that, whilst playing it, they lived weeks without considering that they had eaten nothing.

But we need not any mythical proof of its competency in this direction. Hyde, in his History of the Saracens, relates with authenticity, that Al Amin, the Caliph of Bagdad, was engaged at chess with his freedman Kuthar, at the time when Al Mamun's forces were carrying on the siege of the city with a vigor which promised him success. When one rushed in to inform the Caliph of his danger, he cried,--"Let me alone, for I see checkmate against Kuthar!" Charles I. was at chess when he was informed of the decision of the Scots to sell him to the English, but only paused from his game long enough to receive the intelligence. King John was at chess when the deputies from Rouen came to inform him that Philip Augustus had besieged their city; but he would not hear them until he had finished the game. An old English MS. gives in the following sentence no very handsome picture of the chess-play of King John of England:--"John, son of King Henry, and Fulco felle at variance at Chestes, and John brake Fulco's head with the Chest-borde; and then Fulco gave him such a blow that he almost killed him." The laws of chess do not now permit the king such free range of the board. Dr. Robertson, in his History of Charles V., relates that John Frederic, Elector of Saxony, whilst he was playing with Ernest, Duke of Brunswick, was told that the Emperor had sentenced him to be beheaded before the gate of Wittenberg; he with great composure proceeded with the game, and, having beaten, expressed the usual satisfaction of a victor. He
was not executed, however, but set at liberty, after five years' confinement, on petition of Mauritius. Sir Walter Raleigh said, "I wish to live no longer than I can play at chess." Rousseau speaks of himself as forcene des echecs, "mad after chess." Voltaire called it "the one, of all games, which does most honor to the human mind."

When an Eastern guest was asked if he knew anything in the universe more beautiful than the gardens of his host, which lay, an ocean of green, broad, brilliant, enchanting, upon the flowery margin of the Euphrates, he
replied, "Yes, the chess-playing of El-Zuli." Surely, the compliment,  though Oriental, is not without its strict truth. When Nature rises up to her culmination, the human brain, and there reveals her potencies of insight, foresight, analysis, memory, we are touched with a mystic beauty; the profile on the mountain-top is sublimer than the mountain. But we must heed well Mr. Morphy's advice, and not suffer this fascinating game to be more than a porter at the gate of the fairer garden. Only when it secures, not when it usurps the day, can it be regarded as a friend. There is a myriad-move problem, of which Society is the Sphinx, given us to solve.

He who masters chess without being mastered by it will find that it discovers essential principles. In the world he will see a larger chess-field, and one also shaped by the severest mathematics: the world is so because the brain of man is so,--motive and move, motive and move: they sum up life, all life,--from the aspen-leaf turning its back to the wind, to the ecstasy of a saint. See the array of pawns (forces, as the Hindoo calls them): the bodily presence and abilities, power of persistence, endurance, nerve, the eye, the larynx, the tongue, the senses. Do they not exist in life as on the board, to cut the way for royal or nobler pieces? Does not the Imperial Mind win its experiences, its insight, through the wear and tear of its physical twin? Is not the perfect soul "perfect through sufferings" for evermore? For every coin reason gets from Nature, the heart must leave a red drop impawned, the face must bear its scar. See, then, the powers of the human arena: here Castle, Knight, Bishop are Passion, Love, Hope; and above all, the sacred Queen of each man, his specialty, his strength, by which he must win the day, if he win at all. Here is the Idea with reference to which each man is planned; it preexisted in the universe, and was born when he was born; it is King on the board,--that lost, life's game is lost. By his side stands the special Strength into whose keeping it is given, making, in Goethe's words, "every man strong enough to enforce his conviction,"--his conviction, mark! Pawns and pieces form themselves about that Queen; they are all to perish, to perish one by one,--even the specialty,--that the King may triumph. Over our largest, sublimest individualities the eternal tide flows on, and the grandest personal strides are merged in the general success. The old author dreamed that the heroes of the Trojan War were changed by Zeus into the warriors of the mimic strife in order that such renowned exploits should be perpetuated among men forever: rather must we reverse the dream, and apotheosize the powers of the board, that they may appear in the sieges, heroisms, and victories of life.


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