Monday, April 23, 2007

In Praise of Chess?

Whilst it was nice to see chess books given a medium-length review in the normal books section of a serious national paper this Saturday, it seemed rather a shame to me the review was framed in terms of madness - and only just daring to venture towards a limp and obvious punchline: "Just because there are some mad chess players doesn't mean all chess players are mad."

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?


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.
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,
from one of the early Arabian manuscripts called the Yawakit ul Mawakit in the collection Baron Hammer Purgstall at Vienna.

By Ibn Ul Mutazz.

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.


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 . . . ?


ejh said...

Hmm. As some people on here know, I had a proposal for a chess book rejected - at least by those publishers who could be bothered to reply - a few months ago. I'd been thinking of working on another one and I'm not sure whether this encourages or discourages me. The latter, probably. If these books don't sell, publishers will say "look, chess books don't sell" and reject things without even looking at them (this happened when I tried to write a book about football prior to Fever Pitch). If they do sell then it'll be flavour of the month and lots of people rather closer to North London and the world of publishing than I am will want to have a go.

Tom Chivers said...

Intriguing comment . . . care to spill the beans as to the second book's idea?

I hope it's not more chess poetry, however :)

ejh said...

I'll keep this further comment terse:
I'll write of chess but not in verse.

Anonymous said...

Exit EJH stage left...

ejh said...

Pursued by an agent.


Anonymous said...

viz positive images of chess...

I'm sure there were plenty in the Soviet Union.

I've recently spent a little time studying crime reports in the news and contrasting the media representation of crime with the reality. It seems clear to me that most journalists are perfectly happy to spew out stereotype filled pap and most newspapers are perfectly happy to encourage them to continue.

I don't think there's any reason that a journo's comments on chess will be any different - hence that Sunday Telegraph reporter's fixation with cardigans worn at a London League match when anybody who actually plays at Golden Lane regularly knows they are in fact rarely seen.

Anonymous said...

re: publishers' choices.

It's not too suprising, I suppose, that people want to publish a book that sells (or is likely too). What I've always found odd, however, is the apparently widespread assumption that something that is more or less a carbon copy of something that is already popular will also sell well.

Tom Chivers said...

My retrospective cardigan count, from that night at Golden Lane the Telegraph 'reviewed', now totals two. Robin's opponent was wearing one as well, Robin told me the other night. That's at least 2/38 then: more or less than the average population?!

Anonymous said...

Certainly more than the average cardigan count at Golden Lane - and considerably less than the number of suits usually on show.

Ryan said...

I think the intrinsic attractions of chess are not obvious to anyone with just a casual acquaintance with the game. It takes time to see the beauty underneath the rules and most people never get to see that. :(

Tom Chivers said...

Very good point Ryan. This indeed is a difference between chess and the visual arts - you have to learn to see chess; paintings you just look at and like, or otherwise.

Still - there is no need for chess journalists to be apologetic and stereotypical about the game, just because their article appears in a non-specialist arena like the Guardian supplement.

ejh said...

This indeed is a difference between chess and the visual arts - you have to learn to see chess; paintings you just look at and like, or otherwise.

Hmmm. I think this is wrong. You do learn to see paintings, and indeed you have to.

Tom Chivers said...

Philosophically, yes, only a few 'ways of seeing' are inate. Most instead are inflected by a process of cultural osmosis, and it's that case with art to an extent. However, it's nothing comparable to chess imo: in chess it takes years to really start to even see a fraction of what's going on on the board, let alone get an overall effect; and it requies far more direct learning along the way to get there. Also what you see in chess is in some sense an abstraction from the position: and the more abstract the better, as per Rowson in Zebra. There's no comparable cognitive strangeness you have to learn in art, imo.