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    Concerning Chess

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    Chapter 30
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    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.
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