The Royal Game

Long before chess had black and white squares, it had a checkered past. For some a passion, for others an obsession, the Royal Game has driven more than a few combatants to total madness and others to an early grave. The medieval Norse epic Olaf’s Saga tells us that in A.D. 1037 King  Knut made a terrible blunder during a chess game against Jarl Ulf. When the king asked if he could take back the ill-considered move, his opponent understandably – but foolishly – refused. In what can only be called an act of poor sportsmanship, Knut chased Ulf into a nearby church and killed him. Vikings, apparently, took their chess quite seriously.

Il Dilettevole e Giudizioso Giuoco de Scacchi , 1724-1735.

Even mere allusions to the game have caused trouble. Early in the ninth century the new Byzantine Emperor Nicephorus I fired off a letter to the Arab Caliph Harun aI-Rashid acknowledging that while the emperor’s predecessor had “estimated [Harun] as of the rank of the Rook, and estimated herself as of the rank of the Pawn” – and therefore paid a tribute to him – Nicephorus certainly held no such humble opinion. Harun responded poorly to this missive, declaring war on the emperor and causing such destruction that Nicephorus eventually was forced to pay up.

But the Royal Game has not just fostered murder and war. A game of chess may have played an important role in Columbus’s discovery of America. Letters from February 1492 by Hernando del Pulgar, a distinguished Spanish warrior, record the following eyewitness account: King Ferdinand was playing chess when news arrived that Columbus threatened to leave Spain because the king would not grant him the rank of admiral. Everyone urged Isabella to intercede on Columbus’s behalf, but she knew better than to interrupt the king’s game and, more importantly, that his mood – and therefore his response – would probably depend on the game’s outcome.

Ferdinand’s position was such that all seemed lost until Senor Pulgar discerned a spectacular combination and whispered to the queen that Ferdinand could win in only four moves. Just as the king was about to make a move that certainly would have cost him the game, Isabella asked, “Do you not win, my Lord?” Ferdinand stopped to reconsider, found the correct line of play, and won brilliantly. In good spirits, he granted Columbus’s request.

History by the Books

At least that’s the story. Authenticating accounts that involve chess is difficult because the game’s powerful imagery is frequently exploited for dramatic – not to mention metaphorical- effect.

Chess appears in the works of William Shakespeare, Lewis Carroll, Giovanni Boccaccio, Francois Rabelais, and, quite famously, in The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. More recently, the game has figured in Ingmar Bergman’s film The Seventh Seal (wherein a knight plays chess with Death), Vladimir Nabokov’s novel The Defense, and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.’s short story “All the King’s Horses.” In fact, chess occurs so often in literature that its bibliographical record can be used as a kind of carbon dating. Like detectives trying to solve a long-forgotten crime, scholars have analyzed hundreds of early Middle-Eastern and Oriental manuscripts to determine when the game first appeared.

One of the earliest references to chess dates back to the Middle Persian romance Kārnāmak-i-Artakshatr-i-Pāpākan, from the eighth century A.D., an account of events from about four hundred years earlier. It includes, in a list of important accomplishments, a prince’s ability to play chatrang (Persian for “chess”). This does not prove that anyone actually played an early form of chess in the fourth century, but it does provide an important clue: it indicates that the game was well known and respected at the time the manuscript was written. To have attained that kind of status, the Royal Game must have been around for at least a century or two. Based on works such as the Kārnāmak and the first text to unmistakably refer to chess, the Harschacharita (c. A.D. 625), by the Indian court poet Bana, historians believe the game was probably invented in northwest India in the fifth or sixth century. This conclusion is strongly supported by the fact that no definitive mention of it can be found before the year 600.

Originally called chaturanga, Sanskrit for “four limbs” (reflecting the four components of the Indian army: elephants, chariots, cavalry, and infantry), chess was quickly introduced to Persia (now Iran) and the name translated into chatrang.

Many essential elements of the modern game date from this period. The term chess, for example, is ultimately derived from the Persian word shāh, meaning “king,” and the victorious declaration “checkmate” from the Persian shāh māt, or “the king is defeated.” After the Islamic conquest of Persia in the mid-seventh century, chatrang was transformed into the Arabic shatranj. The spread of Islam brought chess to the West, most likely through the Spanish Moors, and it made its first appearance in Christian Europe – where the checkered board was introduced – just before the turn of the millennium.

Aside from its symbolic use in prose and poetry, the game also has inspired an extensive body of technical literature that encompasses classics from Chess Player’s Handbook (1847), by Howard Staunton, to retrospectives such as My 60 Memorable Games (1969), by Bobby Fischer.

After winning the world chess championship in 1972 by defeating Boris Spassky, Fischer vanished from the face of the earth for twenty years before resurfacing in 1992 to play an unofficial rematch with Spassky in Yugoslavia, which he won ten to five. No one knows exactly how many books on chess have been published, but the number certainly reaches the tens of thousands: tournament reports; books on opening gambits, middle game combinations, and endgame techniques; biographies of the game’s greatest players (you’ll find more than a few odd birds on that shelf); compilations of chess problems; psychological studies of the game; and a staggering number of books on strategy.

Because chess is such a wide-ranging topic, many collectors of chess books specialize in certain areas within the field. Around the turn of the twentieth century, however, three great American chess collections covering virtually every aspect of the game emerged as an amiable competition among John G. White of Cleveland, Ohio, Charles Gilberg of Brooklyn, New York, and Eugene B. Cook of Hoboken, New Jersey.

The three collectors and friends helped each other by finding and exchanging books, comparing notes, and even copying entire books or manuscripts by hand. All three collections were ultimately bequeathed to major American research libraries, and all three include hundreds of spectacular chess books that illustrate the game’s unique place in the history of printing.

The John G. White Collection

With more than 35,000 volumes on the Royal Game, the John G. White Collection at the Cleveland Public Library is the largest collection of chess books in the world. Now part of the Fine Arts and Special Collections department, the library’s chess section was founded in 1928 when John G. White died and bequeathed his books to the institution he had served as president for eighteen years.

White had amassed a huge library of chess books and also left a rich legacy of personal correspondence on the game, including letters he exchanged with the leading chess scholars of the time. This outstanding collection boasts some truly special old volumes. It holds the first printed book that refers to chess, Summa Collationum (Cologne, 1470), by John of Wales, as well as a late-eighteenth-century manuscript in the hand of famous chess player and musician Andre Philidor setting forth his rules and observations of the game. Other prominent holdings in the White collection include nine manuscript copies of Jacobus de Cessolis’s De Luda Scaccharum (On the Game of Chess), from the thirteenth or fourteenth century, one copy of which contains the only known portrait of the author. This work, an important title in the history of chess, provided the original Latin text for William Caxton’s early morality, The Game and Playe of the Chesse (Bruges, c. 1475), the second book printed in English after the Recuyell of the Historyes af Troye.

Questo Libro a da Imparare Giocare a Scachi et de la Partite by Damiano, 1512.

The third printed book about the game of chess itself (as opposed to the moralities of John of Wales and William Caxton, where chess is used figuratively) was Questa Libra e da Imparare Giacare a Scachi et de Ie Partite (Rome, 1512), by Damiano, an apothecary from Odemira, Portugal. Little else is known about the author, but his book on chess, sort of a general rules handbook that even makes suggestions for blindfold play, was the first to have been widely distributed, and it became extremely popular, spawning eight editions in various languages over fifty years. Since most books at the time were not illustrated, this book’s woodcut illustrations made for difficult printing, and the printers of the various editions traded the blocks among themselves. Consequently, the different editions can be dated by examining the deterioration of the woodcuts. Damiano’s book offers helpful hints for strategists, with such practical pointers as, “If you have a good move look to see whether there is a better one.” Good advice, even today.

One of the White collection’s most remarkable pieces is an instruction book for beginners titled Ii Dilettevole e Giudizioso Giuoco de Scacchi (The Delightful and Judicious Game of Chess; Venice, 1724-1735), which includes forty-nine hand-drawn plates that demonstrate the basic rules of the game and how the pieces move. The unknown author worked on the manuscript in the northern Italian towns of San Zeno, Cattaro, and Venice. Perhaps he served as a public official or a soldier. Such an occupation would explain his mobility. A professional career might also account for why he chose not to identify himself spending a great deal of time preparing a book on what was then considered just a game might have invited criticism, or at least bewilderment.

The involved politics that surrounded Thomas Middleton’s allegorical play A Game at Chæss (Leiden, c. 1624), of which the Cleveland Public Library owns a first edition, exemplify the metaphors that chess suggests. In 1624 the long negotiations for a marriage between Great Britain’s Prince Charles and Donna Maria, Infanta of Spain, collapsed, an event greeted with great relief among the English, who feared the possibility of a future Catholic king.

In this atmosphere Middleton wrote his allegory, with chess pieces for characters – white, of course, stood for the virtuous English and black represented the evil Spanish – and staged it in the Globe Theatre. Several roles clearly were modeled after real people: the white knight after Prince Charles and the black knight after the Spanish ambassador to Great Britain, Count Gondomar. Predictably unhappy at being portrayed, however obliquely, as the “villain,” Gondomar took offense and complained loudly. History hasn’t recorded whether Middleton was thrown in jail for his merciless satire, but King James I ordered the play shut down after only nine days. The Cleveland Library copy of his work is unique because in place of the missing original title page appears a hand-drawn facsimile by John Henderson, an actor who performed at the Globe in the late eighteenth century.

Though the highlights of the White chess collection attract the most attention, its real strength lies in the depth of its holdings. There are more than one thousand different editions in forty-eight languages of The Rubáiyát; 225 editions of Frithiof’s Saga (1825), a Swedish poem by Esaias Tegner; and fifty-eight editions of the Gesta Romanorum, a collection of tales and legends originally written in the late thirteenth century. The collection also holds over fifteen hundred Middle-Eastern and Oriental manuscripts and thousands of photographs and letters.

The John G. White Collection is the most comprehensive reference source on the Royal Game ever assembled.

The Charles Gilberg Collection

New York businessman Charles Gilberg, a noted problemist (one who composes chess problems), built a major chess collection with an emphasis on fine bindings. After his death in 1898, Gilberg’s heirs kept all his books until their purchase in 1930 by Silas W Howland, who willed the 2,800-volume collection to Harvard University. The Charles Gilberg Collection now forms part of the Rare Book Collection at Harvard’s Houghton Library.

Stories about grudges between eccentric, if not psychotic, chess players fascinate observers of the game, and the story of Ruy López de Sigura is a classic, combining all the maneuvering and strategizing of a great chess match. López, a Spanish priest and expert chess player, wrote the fourth book ever printed on chess. While visiting Rome in 1560 for the installation of Pope Pius IV, he defeated the best Italian players. He also read Damiano’s treatise. He clearly disliked what he read, so he wrote his own discourse in retort, Libra de La Invencion Liberal y Arte del Juego del Axedrez (Alcalá, 1561), a chess handbook that also criticizes Damiano’s book in scathing detail. To prove the inadequacy of Damiano’s analysis, López suggested a new set of opening moves that later became very popular. In the centuries since, analysis of the Ruy López opening has encompassed dozens of volumes and hundreds of articles.

López reigned as the Spanish chess champion for twenty years and was rewarded by King Philip II with a preferment to a rich benefice and a golden rook hung from a golden chain. But his  good fortune eventually took a turn. After López returned to Spain from Italy, one of the Italian players he had defeated, Leonardo da Cutri, decided to exact revenge. He practiced his chess diligently, then set out for Spain when the time felt ripe. What followed was an exciting tale complete with a tragic love story and an escape from pirates, but in the end Leonardo gained his revenge by defeating López in front of the king of Spain. Da Cutri was rewarded by the king but was subsequently poisoned in a palace intrigue. Chess was dangerous business in the sixteenth century.

Chess players who like to consider themselves part of an elite surely can appreciate Arthur Saul’s desire to claim a rather narrow market for his little book. The author of the earliest chess book originally in English, The Famous Game of Chesse-Play (London, 1614), characterized his book as “fit for Princes or any person of quality soever.” Little else is known of Saul. He may have gone into religious exile along with Queen Mary – but clearly he intended his book more to further a gentleman’s education than to relate a scientific knowledge of the game.

Saul’s work remains famous for its curious classification of checkmates: “The Queenes Mate, a gracious Mate; The Bishops Mate, a gentle Mate; and The Pawnes Mate, a disgracefull Mate.” He also gives a name to the most famous checkmate of all: “The Mate at two Draughts, a Fooles Mate.” Thomas Hyde, professor of Arabic and Hebrew at Oxford University and chief librarian at the Bodleian Library, earned the distinction in 1694 of publishing the first scholarly history of chess, Mandragorias (Oxford). In spite of his great achievement, the title reflects a mistake: Hyde followed an incorrect etymology for the Arabic word for chess, using satrang instead of shatranj, then translating satrang into the Latin; hence, mandragorias, Latin for “mandrake root.”

Diagram from Hyde’s book Mandragorias, 1694.

The book’s many languages display both Professor Hyde’s erudition and the wide typographic resources of the Oxford press three hundred years ago. This book represents its era’s state of the art in printing.

The E. B. Cook Collection

The third of the great American chess collections found its way to Princeton University Library. Eugene Beauharnais Cook, one of the first American chess problemists, nurtured a deep interest in chess history and bibliography. When he died in 1915, he had amassed a collection of more than 3,000 items. He and his books – and the voluminous correspondence he exchanged with the greatest chess scholars of his day – were considered the final authorities on matters of chess history and problems.

At least one of the books in Cook’s collection recounts a rather sensational episode from the annals of chess history. Long before computers, machines existed that played chess. The first and most famous, built in 1769 by inventor Wolfgang von Kempelen (1734-1804) for Austrian Empress Maria Theresa, was called the Turk. Von Kempelen toured Europe with his invention and won many games, causing a great stir as people tried to divine the machine’s secret.

During his elaborate demonstration, the inventor would show that no one hid inside the contraption, then take out a giant key and noisily wind it up. Although the Turk lost to the best players, including Philidor, it defeated such luminaries as Benjamin Franklin, Joseph II of Austria, and King George III of England. Edgar Allan Poe wrote an article about the phenomenon, and French magician Robert-Houdin built a similar device.

The “Turk” Chess Automaton.

The Turk, of course, was no machine at all, but an elaborate hoax, essentially a box that hid some of the best players of the time. At least one person figured it out. Joseph Friedrich, Freiherr zu Racknitz, in 1789 published an expose, Ueber den Schachspieler des Herrn von Kempelen und dessen Nachbildung (About the Chess Player of Mr. von Kempelen and Its Forgery; Leipzig), that came remarkably close to the actual solution, except he wrongly concluded that the device could hold only a person of small stature – a child, perhaps, or a dwarf – and not a full-grown man. His account failed to deter the entrepreneurial spirit of Bavarian musician Johann Maelzel, who, after von Kempelen’s death and with Ludwig van Beethoven as a later partner, bought the invention, then sold it to Napoleon’s stepson, Prince Eugène de Beauharnais (after whom E.B. Cook was named), for the fantastic sum of thirty thousand francs. The Turk eventually was placed in Philadelphia’s Chinese Museum, where it was destroyed by a fire.

Das Schach-oder König-Spiel (The Game of Chess, Also  Called the Game of Kings; 1616), by August, Duke of Braunschweig-Liineburg, was the first treatise on chess printed in German. The duke was something of a prodigy; by age sixteen he was appointed rector of the Universities of Rostock and Tubingen. He traveled widely and from contemporary reports seems to have been a good ruler. His book contains a German translation of Ruy Lopez’ book but gives the moves in a unique notation that limited the book’s appeal. Although the duke appears to have been a weak player, he was an excellent researcher, and he documented the rules of chess current in Europe in his day. He also described variants of the game that are found in no other source.  This book is a favorite of collectors because it contains dozens of extraordinary plates and engravings.

E.B. Cook was the judge for the problem tournament at the first American chess championship, held in 1857 and won by the first great American player, Paul Morphy. The Cook collection includes a copy of The Book of the First American Chess Congress (New York, 1859), by Willard Fiske, useful for its history of chess in early America and its complete bibliography of American chess books. On the frontispiece appears a problem composed by Cook and dedicated to “Paul Morphy, The Only,” stated as, “White to play and force Black to mate in Sixty-eight moves.”

A problem with the problem. A printer’s error left off “at h1” at the end of the challenge.

Players around the world analyzed the problem, and many found a checkmate in fewer moves. The explanation lay in a printer’s error. The problem ought to have read, “White to play and force Black to mate in Sixty-eight moves on the square h1.”

Princeton’s collection proudly houses one of only ten copies of the earliest surviving printed treatise on chess, Repetición de Amores e Arte de Axedrez (Discourse on Love and the Art of Chess; Salamanca, 1497), by Luis Ramirez de Lucena, the second book ever printed on the Royal Game. (Tragically, the only known copy of the first, Libre dels Jochs Partitis dels Schachs en Nombre de 100, Valencia, 1495, by Francesch Vicent, was lost in 1811 during the French occupation of Montserrat, where the book was kept in a Benedictine monastery.) Lucena, a student at the University of Salamanca, wrote a book in two parts: an anti-feminist tract and a chess treatise.

Earliest surviving book on chess, Lucena’s Repeticion de Amores e Arte de Axedrez, 1497.

Princeton’s copy contains only the chess section, which describes both older and newer versions of the game and offers helpful stratagems to improve one’s results – if not one’s actual mastery of the game: when playing during the day, place your opponent where the sun is in his eyes, and, if possible, play when your opponent has just finished eating and drinking a heavy meal.

 To Err is Human

 For fifteen hundred years, the Royal Game has captivated king and commoner alike. A one-on-one, take-no-prisoners fight to the death, it is the quintessential intellectual struggle. But it is more than that.

In 1997 the IBM supercomputer Deep Blue made headlines when it defeated world chess champion Garry Kasparov. (Subsequently, IBM announced there would be no rematch. Lucky for them they were not playing King Knut.) As a result of this unexpected turn of events, many experts proclaimed the end of chess as we know it, if not the end of the world, Dr. Frankenstein’s monster essentially having come to life.

This is nonsense. Chess is not about making 200 million calculations per second, it is about psychology and strategy, vision and risk, flashes of brilliance amidst the darkness of uncertainty. This is not machine territory. No computer is on the verge of creating masterpieces such as the games of Jose Capablanca, Alexander Alekhine, or Mikhail Tal, because genius is not the product of blind calculation, it is destiny bent to the will of the victor. The great games are like x-rays, black and white photographs of the human imagination; the great players artists, not automata.

The world can do without My Best Games, by Deep Blue. (One can only imagine an excerpt from that best seller: “First, I mindlessly calculated eight billion moves (see printout), then, without knowing whom I was playing, or even why, I calculated a few billion more.”) Yet computers will inevitably precipitate a crisis, if only an imaginary one.

When a chess game begins, white has twenty possible moves, black has twenty possible responses. Thus, after only one move there are theoretically four hundred possible positions. After two moves there are 72,084 possible positions, and the possibilities quickly become astronomical. In fact, only astronomical terms can adequately express it: there are more possible chess games than atoms in the universe.

Although the numbers are incomprehensible, the possibilities are nevertheless finite. One day, admittedly not a day on the immediate horizon, but a day that must come – a computer will calculate every possibility and determine, from the very first move, the perfect game. The question is: What will happen then? And the answer is: Nothing. The book will be published and players will memorize the game, but it won’t make any difference. No one will understand it. A computer might calculate umpteen-gazillion moves without making a single error, but no human ever will. Players always will be free to vary from the “correct” line of play at any point because although their opponents will know a mistake has been made, they won’t know why or what to do about it.

At first, everyone will be horrified when the perfect game is calculated, but it will soon become obvious that it is of no consequence. The Royal Game will continue to be played for the same reason it always has been: because chess is one of the most challenging and rewarding of all intellectual endeavors. The machines will play their one game among themselves, but there will always be crushing defeats and miraculous escapes, electrifying sacrifices and terrible blunders – the very imperfection of human play being the source of the game’s infinite beauty.

And undoubtedly more great books on chess will come, because the future, like the past, is sure to be filled with the glorious victories and improbable controversies that make up the fascinating and unfinished history of the Royal Game.

This article first appeared in Biblio Magazine, Vol 3, No 5, May 1998. It was co-authored with James Weinheimer, a librarian at Princeton University who curated the exhibition ‘The Art of Chess: The Collection of E.B. Cook.’

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