Monday, July 09, 2007

Miracle Mongers

I’ve heard it said that 35 years after Reykjavik, Bobby Fischer is still the most famous chess player in the world.

I mention that for two reasons.

Firstly I wanted to start with a mention of our favourite game because the chess content of today’s blog is going to be a little while coming. Stay with me dear reader, we’ll get there in the end.

Secondly, it’s a similar situation with magic. The mostly widely recognised name of any magical entertainer is not Paul Daniels or David Blaine - it’s Harry Houdini.

The difference there, I suppose, is that while most people will have heard of Houdini, he’s invariably remembered as an escape artist. That he both started and finished his performing career as a magician is largely forgotten nowadays. What’s even less widely know, even amongst conjurers, is Houdini was an avid historian of magic and compulsive collector of memorabilia related to the performers who came before him.

I mention that because I’ve just finished reading Houdini’s book Miracle Mongers. He wrote it, he said, to,

“… commemorate some forms of entertainment over which oblivion threatens to stretch her darkening wings.”

These were acts on the fringes of what might be considered magic – even more obscure today than they were back when Houdini was writing.

Houdini spends the early chapters of his book recording the history of fire eaters and heat resisters. These were men who entertained their audiences with feats such as walking on burning coals, dipping their arms in molten lead, licking white hot metal and drinking boiling tar.

The leading performer of this kind was a Frenchman called Ivan Ivanitz Chabert (“the only Really Incombustible Phenomenon” as he billed himself) who found fame during the first half of the 19th century. Chabert’s signature piece was walking into an oven heated to 220 degrees holding a quantity of raw steak then emerging several minutes later with perfectly cooked meat in his hands.

Chabert, like any other successful performer, spawned any number of imitators all of whom tried to create their own gimmick or angle. Each one of them tried to add something different to the 'heat resistance' act in order to separate themselves from the crowd. Houdini records one such man to be a W. C. Houghton who performed in Philadelphia in 1832.

I mention that because, and I’m finally getting to the point here, Houdini reproduces a piece of Houghton’s publicity material on page 19 of his book:-

“W.C. Houghton has the honor to announce to the ladies and gentlemen of Philadelphia, that his BENEFIT will take place at the ARCH STREET THEATRE, on Saturday evening next, 4th February, when will be presented a variety of entertainments aided by the whole strength of the company.

Mr. H. in addition to his former experiments will exhibit several fiery feats pronounced by Mons. Chabert an IMPOSSIBILITY. He will give a COMPLETE explanation by illustrations of the PRINCIPLES of the EUROPEAN and the AMERICAN CHESS PLAYERS. He will also (unless prevented by indisposition) swallow a sufficient quantity of phosphorous, (presented by either chemist or druggist of this city) to destroy THE LIFE OF ANY INDIVIDUAL.”

Now that’s what I call a variety act. Unfortunately, though, no clue is given as to precisely what these principles were - nor why they might alter as one crosses the Atlantic!

In any event, it certainly sounds like a fun night. Think of W. C. Houghton next time you attend a chess lecture or simultaneous display. Taking on 30 players at once is all very well but can our current crop of IMs and GMs after setting themselves on fire? Sadly, I rather think not.

Miracle Mongers. Truly, as Houdini says, a dying breed.

15 comments:

Tom Chivers said...

I did read somewhere of a July 4th chess set, where each time you captured a piece, you lit it and it zoomed off into the sky. Risky, but not in the same league as these guys.

I wonder what that fellows reference to chess even meant to imply?

Jonathan B said...

God knows.

All sorts of weird and wonderful things went on in those days in the name of entertainment.

ejh said...

That's before people had Big Brother of course.

Anonymous said...

How was your game against Ulf Andersson ejh? I saw that u lost unfortunately
Andrew

Tom Chivers said...

Big Brother is the weird without the wonderful. The current season seems to be bombing, though.

ejh said...

The Andersson game began as follows:

1.Nf3 c5 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 Bg7 4.g3 Nf6 5.Bg2 O-O 6.O-O

By this stage both players had used more than fifteen minutes, yet nobody has threatened anything, no check has been made or has been possible and no capture has been made or (with one brief and unlikely excpetion) even threatened.

Marvellous stuff.*



(* = until I got checkmated 21 moves later).

Tom Chivers said...

According to wikipedia, Ulf Andersson has been playing correspondence games in a highly tactical way. I wonder if this has shifted his OTB style? 6...d5 - ?

Anonymous said...

Wow more than 15 minutes on those standard non-complicated first 5 moves. Now that's what I call respect from your GM opponent (unless he was 20 minutes late!). Usually when I play a GM my first aim is not to lose with him using up a ridiculously small amount of time and 2. not to lose in say under 18 moves or so. I am not sure that this is a good attitude to have as it can result in you playing too passively and losing a "respectable" game in 50 moves after 4 hours play BUT you never had a sniff of a chance and were always going to lose.
It is also quite an egocentric attitude to have as are people really that bothered about your game? There are loads of quick wins (time and moves) by GMs over weaker opponents.
I do think however the tactic of playing very quickly against a lower rated opponent can be very intimidating. I played someone about 150 FIDE points lower than me once and blitzed out the theory moves resulting in having spent under a minute to his hour plus after about 12 moves or so. Aside from the time benefit, it intimidated him to going into a simplified but inferior line. Victory followed.
Andrew

Tom Chivers said...

I've never gotten to play a GM in a serious game. I'd love to though.

Jonathan B said...

I once played IM Colin Crouch in a 10-minute tournament at Golders Green. That's the only time I've ever played a titled player 1 on 1. I've played a few in simuls but that hardly counts.

Jonathan B said...

I once played IM Colin Crouch in a 10-minute tournament at Golders Green. That's the only time I've ever played a titled player 1 on 1. I've played a few in simuls but that hardly counts.

Jonathan B said...

oops: double post. sorry.

btw:

Big Brother contestants setting themselves on fire... now that I would pay to see.

Anonymous said...

You need to play more tournaments then Tom. You are not going to play many if you just play league chess.
Andrew

Tom Chivers said...

And on the continent too I suspect...

Anonymous said...

Possibly although it is quite possible to come up against Cherniaev , Hebden or others in weekend tourneys. Isle of Man is stuffed full of GMs so you would have a good chance of playing one there.
Andrew