Tuesday, January 31, 2006

The Uselessness of Chess?

From Edward Winter's Chess Notes (4141):

The harmlessness of chess was a theme taken up again by Lord Dunsany the following year in what is perhaps the finest chess poem ever written in English. It marked the death of R.H.S. Stevenson and was published on page 74 of the April 1943 BCM:

One art they say is of no use;
The mellow evenings spent at chess,
The thrill, the triumph, and the truce
To every care, are valueless.

And yet, if all whose hopes were set
On harming man played chess instead,
We should have cities standing yet
Which now are dust upon the dead.

I couldn't agree more. And I encourage you to visit the rest of Winter's superb site, the finest chess history archive on the web


Dr. Thursday said...

Of course since I found you over here, with poetry in the 8x8 world of kings and queens, I had to bring some Chess-terton to visit.

The first may not an uplifting excerpt, but it has to go in because of the reference to both chess and poetry...

"Poets do not go mad; but chess-players do. Mathematicians go mad, and cashiers; but creative artists very seldom. I am not, as will
be seen, in any sense attacking logic: I only say that this danger does lie in logic, not in imagination. Artistic paternity is as wholesome as physical paternity. Moreover, it is worthy of remark that when a poet really was morbid it was commonly because he had some weak spot of rationality on his brain. Poe, for instance, really was morbid; not because he was poetical, but because he was specially analytical. Even chess was too poetical for him; he disliked chess because it was full of knights and castles, like a poem." [GKC, Orthodoxy CW1:219]

GKC definitely knew the game: "I can play chess; I cannot play bridge" he states in his Miscellany of Men. He mentions it from time to time, sometimes as a negative to another positive, but with respect:

"The only two things that can satisfy the soul are a person and a story; and even a story must be about a person. There are indeed very voluptuous appetites and enjoyments in mere abstractions - like mathematics, logic, or chess. But these mere pleasures of the mind are like mere pleasures of the body. That is, they are mere pleasures, though they may be gigantic pleasures; they can never by a mere increase of themselves amount to happiness. A man just about to be hanged may enjoy his breakfast; especially if it be his favourite breakfast; and in the same way he may enjoy an argument with the chaplain about heresy, especially if it is his favourite heresy. But whether he can enjoy either of them does not depend on either of them; it depends upon his spiritual attitude towards a subsequent event. And that event is really interesting to the because it is the end of a story and (as some hold) the end of a person." [GKC, A Miscellany of Men 112-113]

Or again:

"Do not believe them when they say, as they do perpetually nowadays, that modern war is really uninteresting because the distances are so great; and men cannot even see each other. You might as well say that chess is dull, because the castles are kept tight in two corners. That indefinite and unknown distance is true at the beginning of the sham battle: but it is the whole object of the battle to prevent its being true at the end. If things really remained like that there would have been no battle at all." [GKC, ILN Sept 28, 1912 CW:29:367

And one more, that I may leave you on an up-beat, which should reveal his penetrating insight into the TRUE poetry in the game...

"A man may be quite confident that his logic is right and the other man's wrong, and that it could be proved in a sufficient number of pages, just as a chess-player may be quite certain that his opponent will be mated in fifteen moves. But it does not follow that a crowd of total strangers will wait to watch us playing chess." [GKC, ILN Nov 10, 1923 CW33:210]

Perhaps I should mention that I don't play, but I do enjoy watching it on occasion - can you imagine watching GKC play?

I know; you'd prefer to play him... what a story that would make.

Newvictorian said...

Thank you for such a substantive first comment on this blog! I think it needs a whole post in response...

Tom said...


Found you via the Maverick Philosopher's site, which I visit from time to time.

My 12 year old son and I enjoy chess very much. I'm a tOtal amateur. If I want to help me son improve, avoid bad habits, develop good skills, is there a book I can get for him? He examines things well, understands very few of the basics (what I was able to tell him), but neither of us have gone much beyond that. However, we'd like to.

What would help?