Greengard's ChessNinja.com

Google Diving Chess History

| Permalink | 18 comments

You can find occasional amusement digging through the digitized troves of chess material Google Books is accumulating. Many are from the Harvard College Library. For example, two books of chess poetry from the end of the 19th century by the Brooklyn Chess Club Treasurer, William Duval. Some of his campy doggerel even approaches poetry at times. And when it approaches it closely enough it beats it to death. Still, always a cool feeling to read about Pillsbury at Hastings 1895 from someone writing in 1895. Duval was worthy of a tiny obit in the NY times when he died in 1902.

Not everything is so atrocious, mind you. You can read The Book of the 1st American Chess Congress of 1857. You can even see the book itself was a donation from none other than James Russell Lowell! Cool. I have a facsimile edition of the book, Olms from the 80s I think, but somehow it's better to see this original, even online. The first chapter is a long history of chess, the second is an overview of the state of chess in the USA at the time. The incredible detail of every aspect of the organization and run-up to the event is a little tedious at times, but you do get the sense of being there. The decor of the hall is described in minute detail. Great description of Paulsen's blindfold exhibition and the contemporary coverage of it.

Or how about a complete run of the American Chess Magazine, with its quirky, chatty stories, jokes and fiction tossed in, and including the enlightening report on Blackburne's comments about the benefits of whiskey on chess (page 494 of the 1898 volume). Love the ads as well, especially for "the telephone service." Several volumes of The British Chess Magazine are also there.

How about this tidbit from Lasker's Chess Magazine, 1905, just in case you weren't sure that we just keep asking the same questions with new names, ad infinitum.

The faculty of always doing one's best in chess, as also in the general affairs of life, is granted to but few. It is largely a matter of temperament; the daring and imaginative man comes to grief occasionally though his successes may be great and striking. This winning gift in chess Tarrasch and Lasker possess almost to perfection. Blackburne never had it, and perhaps Marshall, of great masters, least of all, whilst Steinitz, with an overweening affection for the products of his own brain, lost many important games. No wonder the old conundrum always comes to the front:-- How would the Morphy of forty-seven years ago (given equal advantage of time) fare with the Lasker of to-day? Meanwhile we wait for Paul's successor. -- Yorkshire Weekly Post

The Google Books tools are also handy. You can see how often certain chess phrases and quotations were used and reused over the decades, which people and places were most often mentioned, etc. Great research tool. Any good chess finds of your own?


I am a historian of modern Europe by profession as well as an amateur chess player. A few years ago, I thought of writing a cultural history of chess in the west from the 18th century to the present and went to look at the issues of French magazine "La Palamède," which was published in 1836-47 and is said to be the first chess periodical. I was struck in this and my other preliminary research by how chess was often understood to be a morally uplifting game because it is not a game of chance. (You can see the same theme in Benjamin Franklin's writing on chess.) Games of chance were, by contrast, associated with the landed aristocracy that was on the way out in the late 18th and early 19th century. I think there is something here for a historian of chess to examine that would help us understand the place of chess in today's society. I wonder though whether such a history, which would focus on the cultural meanings of chess (instead of the games and tournaments of famous past players), would appeal to chess players? What do daily dirt readers think?


I like chess history. It shows us who we were years ago and helps us understand who we are today. I don't think that many people today would be interested in Steinitz, Lasker, et.al., let alone those from an earlier era. Today, it's all Anand, Topalov, Kramsky, Carlsen.

Interesting subject, but why do you want to start in the 18th century? The obvious starting points would be the 19th (tournament chess) or 1500 (modern rules).

MSC, a substantial fraction of chess players are indeed interested in chess history and culture, as distinct from what happens on the chessboard itself. Indeed, such people probably make up the majority of serious and semi-serious players (I refer to people who play frequently and/or competitively - NOT NECESSARILY THE TINY UPPER CRUST represented by professional-level players).

More important if you're thinking in terms of market potential, a great many people who have little or no direct involvement in chess playing, also are interested in cultural aspects of chess. In fact, the market for such books probably is larger than the market for pure chess books, that is, books whose main content involves activity on the 64 squares.

That is an interesting observation you had - that chess as a game of skill should have gained moral currency during the very period that historians associate most closely with the rise of bourgeoisie and the final decline the nobility as Europe's ruling class. It speaks to the idea of effort and meritocracy rising over privilege - an ideology closely associated with the rise of both capitalism and the modern state (exemplified by France's transformation during the 18th and early 19th century).

What makes it yet more interesting is that the same process seems to be REVERSING ITSELF in recent years. Nowadays, chess is widely derided (outside the chess world) for being TOO accessible to the non-moneyed classes - while games of chance are celebrated, presumably in tune with the conspicuous consumption lifestyle that came into fashion (in America at least) during the past decade or so. (It remains to be seen whether the recession will turn people -- not just the masses who play, but more important, the arbiters of culture and morality -- against poker.)

So we're left with the delicious irony that chess began its Western (i.e. European existence) as "the Royal game," eventually gained adherents for elevating skill over chance ... only to see its status devolve by the late 20th/early 21st century into a game played largely by children, the poor and social outcasts -- precisely because it elevates skill over chance!

one can't help but commentate on the effects chess seems to have on behaviour of individuals especially children. Never have I seen such sore loser as in chess.

This is awesome, Michael, thanks!

Here's an 1851 tournament book by Howard Staunton full of observations both whimsical and rude:


Thanks for the feedback everyone.

My idea of focusing on the late 18th and early 19th century has less to do with chess (although it is in the early 19th century that tournament chess is born) than with the fact that the period is a turning point in Western culture, society, politics, etc. It may be that some of these associations of chess with moral uplift go back to the Renaissance or earlier. I really don't know, so examining the earlier period would of course be necessary.

The comments by Jon about the place of chess today are particularly interesting. I would add that the chess world has been infected by games of chance in recent years as many high level chess players have to poker to make money.

I am not sure I will do it, but there is certainly something worth writing about here.

For Franklin's "The Morals of Chess" see page 153 of the following: http://books.google.com/books?id=TIgTAAAAQAAJ.

For those who read French, I found the following comment of interest about skill and chance in chess from the famous Encyclopedie of Diderot (http://fr.wikisource.org/wiki/Page:Diderot_-_Encyclopedie_1ere_edition_tome_5.djvu/263):

"D’autres personnes au contraire frappées de ce que le hasard n’a point de part à ce jeu, & de ce que l’habileté seule y est victorieuse, ont regardé les bons joüeurs d’échecs comme doüés d’une capacité supérieure : mais si ce raisonnement étoit juste, pourquoi voit-on tant de gens médiocres, & presque des imbécilles qui y excellent, tandis que de très-beaux génies de tous ordres & de tous états, n’ont pû même atteindre à la médiocrité ? Disons donc qu’ici comme ailleurs, l’habitude prise de jeunesse, la pratique perpétuelle & bornée à un seul objet, la mémoire machinale des combinaisons & de la conduite des pieces fortifiée par l’exercice, enfin ce qu’on nomme l’esprit du jeu, sont les sources de la science de celui des échecs, & n’indiquent pas d’autres talens ou d’autre mérite dans le même homme." - M. le Chevalier.

For those who don't read 18th-century French, it ends with the sobering conclusion that excellence at chess "is not an indication of other talents or merits in a person."

MSC: Let me assure you, as did Jon Jacobs, that there is a ready audience for chess history. There are even two, possibly three depending on how you count it, organizations devoted to it who meet and have (informal!) conferences every now and then. Many of the members are academics too-- art historians, cultural historians, etc, who include chess in their thought, so you might find even more affinity with that.

Also, from the other side of the coin, this community needs someone like you. I've gone to some of their conferences, and I think they're a little myopically focussed on chess. Chess did *not* exist in a vaccuum like it does now, before the 1800s or so. Knowing chess was only part of being a complete and well-rounded gamesman, I think. Nowadays, one tends to be exclusively a chessplayer or whatnot, and everything else is just piffle. But Philidor, when he was giving his simultaneous exhibitions, often played games of Polish Draughts right alongside his chess games, and smacked all comers at that too. Everyone forgets that. I think that means something there..

Anyway, I would buy your book lickety-split. And.. I am awfully curious: Who *are* you? I like to know who is interested in this field. Reply to my e-mail if you wish.

Anecdote tangentially relevant to this discussion: In the 2003 book, "The Chess Artist," the author (whose name escapes me right now) takes up chess on the Internet but soon decides his real interest isn't in learning to play well, but in making a contribution to the understanding of how chess evolved. He yearns to grow into a chess historian. This relates to the distinction that MSC and later Myron drew here.

(For my own part, my interest in chess is totally confined to what happens on the 64 squares. I couldn't care less about chess history, or films or novels about chess, or making artworks out of chessboards or chess pieces, etc.)

Don't forget that Games of Chance and Gambling were forbidden by some interpretations of the Bible and other religious texts, were against the law, were associated with alchohol consumption and bad men, and were scorned by the morally upright.

Chessplayers pretended that this low regard for gameplayers ought not apply to them, as chess is a "game of skill," and not gambling.

Yet, chess too is frowned upon by major religions - or at least, was frowned up on in earlier eras.

Christian, Muslim and even Jewish authorities have issued edicts against chess at various times. Besides being associated (rightly or not) with games of chance from which it sprang, chess was condemned as a worldly activity that can only distract from the relationship with the holy. Some authorities even explicitly linked chess with the devil.

An amusing recent instance is reports a few years ago that Iraq's Ayatollah Sistani said in interviews that while composing chess problems might be halal, actually playing chess is invariably haram. This is the same ayatollah who reportedly said that oral sex might be permitted under some conditions.

So: we had the delicious spectacle of a cleric proclaiming chess to be more ungodly than oral sex!

Oral sex might be permitted under some conditions? What conditions might those be? I think we ought to know.

Hardy (and other enquiring minds),

It's okay if a) it's between husband and wife and b) no liquid gets into the mouth.


Thanks Greg.
I'm slightly puzzled about the Ayatollah's qualifications for making these rules. Is he a sex therapist? Or a porn star? Or a great moral philosopher?

Ayatollah Sistani is one of the most influential, if not the most influential, Shiite Muslim religious leader in the world.

He was/is a major behind-the-scenes power broker in Iraq. The U.S. put plenty of effort into cultivating him, and he responded by not condemning the U.S. presence (although he wasn't explicitly pro-U.S., either).

From what I've read, Sistani's stature with the majority-Shiite Iraqi population far exceeds the other guy, the young mullah who's led a number of armed insurrections against the U.S.

My assumption is his views on sex and chess weren't priorities in his religious thought, but rather happened to come out through giving interviews he gave headline-seeking Western journalists. If it matters to you, look up the news stories for yourself.

I would LOVE to see a book like this--it's crying out to be written. Soltis on Soviet Chess takes a stab at the 20th century, but not really very well on the social history side. Have you seen Alex Ross's book on music in the 20th century? I think it'd make a great model for how to interweave the two. PLEASE write it!

I visited this page first time to get info on people search and found it Very Good Job of acknowledgment and a marvelous source of info......... Thanks Admin! http://www.reverse-phone-look-up.net

Twitter Updates

    Follow me on Twitter



    About this Entry

    This page contains a single entry by Mig published on April 14, 2009 3:48 AM.

    Pirate Killing Monday was the previous entry in this blog.

    Nalchik Grand Prix Opening is the next entry in this blog.

    Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.