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Concerning Chess


The passion for playing chess is one of the most unaccountable in the
world. It slaps the theory of natural selection in the face. It is the
most absorbing of occupations, the least satisfying of desires, an
aimless excrescence upon life. It annihilates a man. You have, let us
say, a promising politician, a rising artist, that you wish to destroy.
Dagger or bomb are archaic, clumsy, and unreliable--but teach him,
inoculate him with chess! It is well, perhaps, that the right way of
teaching chess is so little known, that consequently in most cases the
plot fails in the performance, the dagger turns aside. Else we should
all be chess-players--there would be none left to do the business of the
world. Our statesmen would sit with pocket boards while the country went
to the devil, our army would bury itself in chequered contemplation, our
bread-winners would forget their wives in seeking after impossible
mates. The whole world would be disorganised. I can fancy this
abominable hypnotism so wrought into the constitution of men that the
cabmen would go trying to drive their horses in Knights' moves up and
down Charing Cross Road. And now and again a suicide would come to hand
with the pathetic inscription pinned to his chest: "I checked with my
Queen too soon. I cannot bear the thought of it." There is no remorse
like the remorse of chess.

Only, happily, as we say, chess is taught the wrong way round. People
put out the board before the learner with all the men in battle array,
sixteen a side, with six different kinds of moves, and the poor wretch
is simply crushed and appalled. A lot of things happen, mostly
disagreeable, and then a mate comes looming up through the haze of
pieces. So he goes away awestricken but unharmed, secretly believing
that all chess-players are humbugs, and that intelligent chess, which is
neither chancy nor rote-learned, is beyond the wit of man. But clearly
this is an unreasonable method of instruction. Before the beginner can
understand the beginning of the game he must surely understand the end;
how can he commence playing until he knows what he is playing for? It is
like starting athletes on a race, and leaving them to find out where the
winning-post is hidden.

Your true teacher of chess, your subtle chess-poisoner, your cunning
Comus who changes men to chess-players, begins quite the other way
round. He will, let us say, give you King, Queen, and Pawn placed out in
careless possible positions. So you master the militant possibilities of
Queen and Pawn without perplexing complications. Then King, Queen, and
Bishop perhaps; King, Queen, and Knight; and so on. It ensures that you
always play a winning game in these happy days of your chess childhood,
and taste the one sweet of chess-playing, the delight of having the
upper hand of a better player. Then to more complicated positions, and
at last back to the formal beginning. You begin to see now to what end
the array is made, and understand why one Gambit differeth from another
in glory and virtue. And the chess mania of your teacher cleaveth to you
thenceforth and for evermore.

It is a curse upon a man. There is no happiness in chess--Mr. St. George
Mivart, who can find happiness in the strangest places, would be at a
loss to demonstrate it upon the chess-board. The mild delight of a
pretty mate is the least unhappy phase of it. But, generally, you find
afterwards that you ought to have mated two moves before, or at the time
that an unforeseen reply takes your Queen. No chess-player sleeps well.
After the painful strategy of the day one fights one's battles over
again. You see with more than daylight clearness that it was the Rook
you should have moved, and not the Knight. No! it is impossible! no
common sinner innocent of chess knows these lower deeps of remorse. Vast
desert boards lie for the chess-player beyond the gates of horn.
Stalwart Rooks ram headlong at one, Knights hop sidelong, one's Pawns
are all tied, and a mate hangs threatening and never descends. And once
chess has been begun in the proper way, it is flesh of your flesh, bone
of your bone; you are sold, and the bargain is sealed, and the evil
spirit hath entered in.

The proper outlet for the craving is the playing of games, and there is
a class of men--shadowy, unhappy, unreal-looking men--who gather in
coffee-houses, and play with a desire that dieth not, and a fire that is
not quenched. These gather in clubs and play Tournaments, such
tournaments as he of the Table Round could never have imagined. But
there are others who have the vice who live in country places, in remote
situations--curates, schoolmasters, rate collectors--who go consumed
from day to day and meet no fit companion, and who must needs find some
artificial vent for their mental energy. No one has ever calculated how
many sound Problems are possible, and no doubt the Psychical Research
people would be glad if Professor Karl Pearson would give his mind to
the matter. All the possible dispositions of the pieces come to such a
vast number, however, that, according to the theory of probability, and
allowing a few thousand arrangements each day, the same problem ought
never to turn up more than twice in a century or so. As a matter of
fact--it is probably due to some flaw in the theory of probability--the
same problem has a way of turning up in different publications several
times in a month or so. It may be, of course, that, after all, quite
"sound" problems are limited in number, and that we keep on inventing
and reinventing them; that, if a record were kept, the whole system, up
to four or five moves, might be classified, and placed on record in the
course of a few score years. Indeed, if we were to eliminate those with
conspicuously bad moves, it may be we should find the number of
reasonable games was limited enough, and that even our brilliant Lasker
is but repeating the inspirations of some long-buried Persian, some mute
inglorious Hindoo, dead and forgotten ages since. It may be over every
game there watches the forgotten forerunners of the players, and that
chess is indeed a dead game, a haunted game, played out centuries ago,
even, as beyond all cavil, is the game of draughts.

The artistic temperament, the gay irresponsible cast of mind, does what
it can to lighten the gravity of this too intellectual game. To a mortal
there is something indescribably horrible in these champions with their
four moves an hour--the bare thought of the mental operations of the
fifteen minutes gives one a touch of headache. Compulsory quick moving
is the thing for gaiety, and that is why, though we revere Steinitz and
Lasker, it is Bird we love. His victories glitter, his errors are
magnificent. The true sweetness of chess, if it ever can be sweet, is to
see a victory snatched, by some happy impertinence, out of the shadow of
apparently irrevocable disaster. And talking of cheerfulness reminds me
of Lowson's historical game of chess. Lowson said he had been cheerful
sometimes--but, drunk! Perish the thought! Challenged, he would have
proved it by some petty tests of pronunciation, some Good Templar's
shibboleths. He offered to walk along the kerb, to work any problem in
mathematics we could devise, finally to play MacBryde at chess. The
other gentleman was appointed judge, and after putting the antimacassar
over his head ("jush wigsh") immediately went to sleep in a disorderly
heap on the sofa. The game was begun very solemnly, so I am told.
MacBryde, in describing it to me afterwards, swayed his hands about with
the fingers twiddling in a weird kind of way, and said the board went
like that. The game was fierce but brief. It was presently discovered
that both kings had been taken. Lowson was hard to convince, but this
came home to him. "Man," he is reported to have said to MacBryde, "I'm
just drunk. There's no doubt in the matter. I'm feeling very ashamed of
myself." It was accordingly decided to declare the game drawn. The
position, as I found it next morning, is an interesting one. Lowson's
Queen was at K Kt 6, his Bishop at Q B 3, he had several Pawns, and his
Knight occupied a commanding position at the intersection of four
squares. MacBryde had four Pawns, two Rooks, a Queen, a draught, and a
small mantel ornament arranged in a rough semicircle athwart the board.
I have no doubt chess exquisites will sneer at this position, but in my
opinion it is one of the cheerfulest I have ever seen. I remember I
admired it very much at the time, in spite of a slight headache, and it
is still the only game of chess that I recall with undiluted pleasure.
And yet I have played many games.

H.G. Wells