One hardly sees this with other reviews. Remarks on art exhibitions, for instance, rarely conclude: "This is one artist who won't be slicing an ear off!" And it's not typical to read of novelists: "This one, at least, seems unlikely to ECT his memory to bits - and then take a shut gun to the rest." Or if we move from the review section, then we don't find the sport pages, for instance, dominated by the question: "Does supporting a football team make you a chav?" And so on. Chess is more treated like some dangerous hallucinogenic, than the intriguing mixture of fight-art-science that it in fact is.
Why? And why is there so little public discourse point-blank in praise of chess? Why is the public discourse there is, framed in terms of stereotypes like the above? Or alternatively, when it is positive, does it semi-apologetically try to utilize chess in terms of the rest of life - for example, its educational benefits? Why so little of the intrinsic attractions of the game? Or is it just like this in the UK? Or am I unaware the public praise that does exist?
One last question. Has the praise of chess ever been common, normal? During World War I, several writerly friends wrote conversational pieces in "The Star", as an "informal diary of moods in a time of peril. They are pebbles gathered on the shore of a wild sea." Alfred George Gardiner was one such writer, and wrote one piece called "In Praise Of Chess", which appears just over a half way down this collection of his writings. Here are two excerpts:
Blessed be the memory of him who gave the world this immortal game. For the price of a taxicab ride or a visit to the cinema, you may, thanks to that unknown benefactor, possess a world of illimitable adventures. When Alice passed through the Looking Glass into Wonderland, she did not more completely leave the common day behind than when you sit down before the chessboard with a stout foe before you and pass out into this magic realm of bloodless combat. I have heard unhappy people say that it is "dull." Dull, my dear sir or madam? Why, there is no excitement on this earth comparable with this kingly game. I have had moments at Lord's, I admit, and at the Oval. But here is a game which is all such moments, where you are up to the eyes in plots and ambuscades all the time, and the fellow in front of you is up to his eyes in them, too. What agonies as you watch his glance wandering over the board. Does he suspect that trap? Does he see the full meaning of that offer of the knight which seems so tempting?A more familiar name to chess players is that of Henry Edward Bird. His 1893 book "Chess History and Reminiscences" also contains a brief note about the first recorded example of praise and censure for chess,
It is medicine for the sick mind or the anxious spirit. We need a means of escape from the infinite, from the maze of this incalculable life, from the burden and the mystery of a world where all things "go contrairy," as Mrs. Gummidge used to say. Some people find the escape in novels that move faithfully to that happy ending which the tangled skein of life denies us. Some find it in hobbies where the mind is at peace in watching processes that are controllable and results that with patience are assured. But in the midst of this infinity I know no finite world so complete and satisfying as that I enter when I take down the chessmen and marshal my knights and squires on the chequered field. It is then I am truly happy. I have closed the door on the infinite and inexplicable and have come into a kingdom where justice reigns, where cause and effect follow "as the night the day," and where, come victory or come defeat, the sky is always clear and the joy unsullied.
from one of the early Arabian manuscripts called the Yawakit ul Mawakit in the collection Baron Hammer Purgstall at Vienna.
By Ibn Ul Mutazz.
CENSURE OF CHESS.
The chess player is ever absorbed in his chess and full of care, swearing false oaths and making many vain excuses, one who careth only for himself and angereth his Maker. 'Tis the game of him who keepeth the fast only when he is hungry, of the official who is in disgrace, of the drunkard till he recovereth from his drunkenness, and in the Yatimat ul Dehr it is said, Abul Casim al Kesrawi hated chess, and constantly abused it, saying, you never see a chess player rich who is not a sordid miser, nor hear a squabbling that is not on a question of the chess board.
IN PRAISE OF CHESS
O thou whose cynic sneers express the censure of our favourite chess,
Know that its skill is science self, its play distraction from distress,
It soothes the anxious lover's care, it weans the drunkard from excess,
It counsels warriors in their art, when dangers threat and perils press,
And yields us when we need them most, companions in our loneliness.
Mmm, is that better? I don't know. Can you do better . . . ?