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- Chess History and Reminiscences - 10/38 -

The Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and French writers who refer to chess, and in our own country Chaucer, Lydgate, Caxton, Barbiere, Pope, Dryden, Philidor, and the Encyclopaediasts deal mainly with traditions, each having a pet theory; all, however, conclude by declaring in words, but slightly varied, that the origin of chess is enshrouded in mist and obscurity, lost in the remote ages of antiquity, or like Pope pronounce it a problem which never will be solved.

The incomparable game of chess, London, 1820, says, under "Traditions of Chess." Some historians have referred to the invention of chess to the philosopher Xerxes, others to the Grecian Prince Palamedes, some to the brothers Lydo and Tyrrhene and others, again, to the Egyptians, the Chinese, the Hindus, the Persians, the Arabians, the Irish, the Welsh, the Araucanians, the Jews, the Scythians, and, finally, their fair Majesties Semiramis and Zenobia also prefer their claims to be considered as the originators of chess.

Chess history, it may be assumed, has never been regarded as a very profitable subject to write upon; and, even in these days of very advanced appreciation of chess, it is highly probable, that only a very few among the more curious of its admirers, who care to consider the basis and essence of things, will take any particular interest in this branch of the subject; but it is just for such that we venture to submit a very brief outline of what we find suggested from the fairest inferences, which can be gathered from existing information, as to the source from whence our favourite and charming game first sprung.

Enquiries as to the habits and the idiosyncrasies of chess players known to fame, have, always, appeared to be of interest, and have been frequent and continuous from our earliest recollections, both at home and abroad. We have met with people, who would devote an hour to questions of this sort, who would not care to listen five minutes to chess history or devote that time to look at the finest game. In America, once, a most pertinacious investigator, in for a very long sitting (not an interviewer with his excellent bait and exquisite powers of incision but a genuine home brew), was easily disposed of by the bare mention of the words India, Persia, China, Chaturanga, Chatrang, Shatranji and Chess Masterpieces.

This thirster after knowledge would have absorbed willingly any account of Staunton's appearance and manners, his elevated eyebrows and rolling forehead, Munchausen anecdotes, Havannah cigars and tobacco plantations, Buckle's peculiarities, pedantic and sarcastic Johnsonian's gold-headed walking stick, so often lost yet always found, but once, and the frequent affinity between his hat and the spittoon, the yet greater absence of mind of Morphy and Paulsen and their only speeches, the gallantry, kid gloves, lectures of Lowenthal and his bewilderment on the subject of Charlemagne, the linguistic proficiency of Rosenthal, the chess chivalry, bluntness extreme taciturnity, amorous nature and extreme admiration for English female beauty, of Anderssen, McDonnell's jokes and after dinner speeches, Boden's recollections, Pickwickian and other quotations, and in fact little incidents relative to most of the celebrated chess players, constantly flit through the memory in social chat, which invariably seem to entertain chess listeners whom a minute's conversation about the history, science, or theory of the game would utterly fail to please.

The early censurer of chess in the old Arabian manuscript who declared that the chess player was ever absorbed in his chess "and full of care" may have reflected the chess of his time, but he did not live in the Nineteenth century and had never seen a La Bourdonnais, a McDonnell or a Bird play or he might have modified his views as to the undue seriousness of chess. The Fortnightly Review in its article of December, 1886 devoted some space to the fancy shirt fronts of Lowenthal, the unsavoury cigars of Winawer, the distinguished friends of one of the writers, the Foreign secretary, denial that Zukertort came over in two ships, and other less momentous matters, so we may assume that the authors who greatly control the destinies of chess could even, themselves, at times appreciate a joke.

Despite however the preference so decidedly evinced on these subjects, concerning which we are advised to say a little, the real origin of chess, the opinions in regard to it and its traditions and fables interest us more, and tempt a few remarks upon prevailing misconceptions which it appears desirable as far as possible to dispel, besides there may yet be a possibility that some of the more learned who admire the game may produce a work more worthy of the subject, which, though perhaps of trifling importance to real science and profound literature, certainly appears to merit, from its many marked epochs, and interesting associations, somewhat more attention than it has ever yet received.



Chess is the English name for the most intellectual as well as diverting and entertaining of games. It is called in the East the game of the King, and the word Schach mat, or Shah mat in the Persian language signifies the King is dead, "Checkmate." Chess allows the utmost scope for art and strategy, and gives the most various and extensive employment to the powers of the understanding. Men whose wisdom and sagacity are unquestioned have not hesitated to assert that it possesses qualities which render it superior to all other games, mental as well as physical; it has so much intrinsic interest that it can be played without any stake whatsoever, and it has been so played and by the very finest players, more than all other games put together. The invention of chess has been termed an admirable effort of the human mind, it has been described as the most entertaining game the wit of man has ever devised, and an imperishable monument of human wisdom. It is not a mere idle amusement, says Franklin, partakes rather of the nature of a science than a game, says Leibnitz and Sir Walter Scott, and would have perished long ago, say the Americans if it had not been destined to live for ever.

The earliest opinion found on record concerning chess, after the Muslim commentaries on the Koran passage concerning lots and images, is from a philosopher of Basra named Hasan, of celebrity in his day, who died A.D. 728, who modestly and plainly termed it "an innocent and intellectual amusement after the mind has been engrossed with too much care or study."

In our age, Buckle, foremost in skill, who died at Damascus in 1862, and more recently Professor Ruskin and very eminent divines have expressed themselves to a like effect; highly valuing the power of diversion the game affords and giving reasons for its preference over other games; Buckle called his patiently hard contested games of three, four or five hours each a half-holiday relief; Boden and Bird, two very young rising amateurs, then approaching the highest prevailing force at the time would, to Buckle's dismay, rattle off ten lively skirmishes in half the time he took for one. The younger of the two aspirants became in 1849 a favourite opponent of the distinguished writer and historian whom, however, he somewhat disconcerted at times by the rapidity of his movements and once, and once only, the usually placid Buckle falling into an early snare as he termed it; and emulating Canute of old and Lord Stair in modern times got angry and toppled over the pieces.

Colonel Stewart used frequently to play at chess with Lord Stair who was very fond of the game; but an unexpected checkmate used to put his Lordship into such a passion that he was ready to throw a candlestick or anything else that was near him, at his adversary: for which reason the Colonel always took care to be on his feet to fly to the farthest corner of the room when he said "Checkmate, my Lord."

In older times the narrative is silent as to the temper of Charlemagne when he lost his wager game to Guerin de Montglave, but Eastern annals, the historians of Timur, Gibbon and others tell us that the great potentates of the East, Al Walid, Harun Ar Rashid, Al Mamun and Tamerlane shewed no displeasure at being beaten, but rather appreciated and rewarded the skill of their opponents. They manifested, however, great indignation against those who played deceitfully or attempted to flatter by allowing themselves to be overplayed by their Monarchs.

Concerning the origin of chess considerable misconception has always prevailed, and the traditions which had grown up as to its invention before knowledge of the Sanskrit became first imported to the learned, are various and conflicting, comprising several of a very remarkable and even mythical character, which is the more extraordinary because old Eastern manuscripts, the Shahnama of Persia, the Kalila Wa Dimna, the fables of Pilpay in its translations and the Princess Anna Comnena's history of the twelfth century (all combined) with the admissions of the Chinese and the Persians in their best testimonies to point out and indicate what has been since more fully established by Dr. Hyde, Sir William Jones, Professor Duncan Forbes and native works, that for the first source of chess or any game with pieces of distinct and various moves, powers and values we must look to India and nowhere else, notwithstanding some negative opposition from those who do not attempt to say where it came from or to contravert the testimony adduced by Dr. Hyde, Sir William Jones and Professor Duncan Forbes, and despite the opinion of the author of the Asiatic Society's M.S. and Mill in British India that the Hindoos were far too stupid to have invented chess or anything half so clever.

Not a particle of evidence has ever yet been adduced by any other nation of so early a knowledge of a game resembling chess, much less of its invention, and it is in the highest degree improbable that any such evidence ever will be forthcoming.

NOTE. There are some who do not concur in this wholesale reflection on Indian intelligence, among others, may be mentioned Sir William Jones, Professor Wilson, a writer in Fraser's, and Professor Duncan Forbes.


One of Sir William Jones' Brahman correspondents, Radha Kant, informed him that it is stated in an old Hindoo law book, that the wife of Ravan King of Lanka, the capital of Ceylon invented chess to amuse him with an image of war, when his metropolis was besieged by Rama in the second age of the world, and this is the only tradition which takes precedence in date of the Hindu Chaturanga.

Chess History and Reminiscences - 10/38

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