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Concerning H. G. Wells

In 1897 Lawrence & Bullen of London  published a book of 39 essays by H. G. Well entitled, "Certain Personal Matters."  Essay number 30's topic was Chess.

 

This clipping is not from "Certain Personal Matters" but illustrates that, although Wells had an obvious disregard for chess, he did have an interest in games a war and strategy.


Concerning Chess

     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 ha ve 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 t 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.

Comments


  • 22 months ago

    Taylornj01

    cool but i think those might be army men but it could be chessWink

  • 22 months ago

    taylor68

    Nice to know( not )

  • 22 months ago

    toto_gorich

            Thank you for doing so much work . I tryed to find the game under " Drunken chess games " , but found only a large bunch of Alekhine's games .

  • 22 months ago

    batgirl

    "Lowson's Historical game of chess" gave me enough pause to try to figure out who Lowson was.  After just a little bit of time with Google, I uncovered, perhaps not much biographical information but rather pieced together something along the lines of a resume.

    His name was William Lowson, Esq. of Balthayock - in fact he owned and lived at  the Balthayock Castle, a 14th century tower (the best I can determine is that he purchased it between 1862-5 from Adam Johnston Fergusson-Blair and did some extensive repair and addition to the structure).  Lowson was born in 1814 and died in 1893. He married the lovely Helen Flowerdew in 1851 with whom he had 8 children (Eliza, Margaret, Helen, Anne, Louise, William, Patrick and James). He served for a time as president of the Dundee Chess Club  (Scotland).  He worked primarily for John Lowson & Son, merchants, whose building at 166 Nethergate, built in 1818, is on the national historic list. They also had offices at 107 Murraygate and at Haugh and South-street Works in Glasgow.

    Lowson served as
    Chairman of:
    The Northern Assurance (Fire and Life) and of the Dundee Board of Directors;
    Vice-Chairman of:
    The Dundee Mortgage and Trust Investment Co. and of the Oregon and Washington Trust Investment Co.;
    Vice-President of:
    The Dundee Adult Free Breakfast Mission and of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals;
    A Trustee for:
    William Harris's Institution, "a Trust for the assistance of persons (male
    or female), who from a better condition in life have been reduced to necessitous circumstances" and for the Margaret Petrie trust which supplied a pension for the "aged and indigent persons belonging to the town and parish of Dundee" and for the Dundee Workingman's Club and Institute and for the Armistead educational trust as well as for the Patrick A. Lowson Memorial Scholarship;
    A Director for:
    The Dundee Industrial School Society; the Dundee and Arbroath Railway; for the Institution for the Deaf and Dumb; the Dundee Sabbath School Teacher's Union; the Working Boys' Home ("for orphan, destitute, and homeless lads"); the Dundee director for the National Telephone Co., Limited.
    Lowson was also a patron of the Dundee Horticultural Society; Secretary for the Prisoner's Aid Society and an agent for Wordie & Co. (the largest carrier and haulage firm in Scotland).

    I couldn't find any of Lowson's chess games, so the "historical game" remains a mystery.





  • 22 months ago

    Fritzlange

    I find it hard to fault the first paragraph. Chess is a terrible addiction. I was a talented art student now I'm a penniless loser chess addict.

  • 22 months ago

    Noreaster

    I never considered HG Wells a chessplayer. He is more a hero to the hardcore miniture/hex & counter wargaming crowd.

  • 22 months ago

    toto_gorich

    H.G.Wells wrote :

      " 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 ofapparently irrevocable disaster. 

    And talking of cheerfulness reminds me of  Lowson's historical game of chess "

                          ---------

    Is this game really existing , it will be curious to see it.

    I think, what Wells didn't like about chess was the lack of tempo ( long-thinking ) and not the chess like a game.

  • 22 months ago

    batgirl

    "So was 'that' (referring to the above pics) how they played the royal game back then? "

    First, thanks for chiming in.  No, that picture has nothing to do with chess but is rather a photo of Wells with his game of Little Wars. Many gaming experts consider Wells as a pioneer of, even the "Father of," modern war gaming.  Chess just didn't seem to have fit into his idea of what a game should be.

  • 22 months ago

    NimzoRoy

    I dunno if old H G was a very good chessplayer hisself or not, but he definitely knew the correct procedure for teaching beginners. I don't think his intention here was to belittle chess at all - IMHO - but to have some fun, possibly at the slight expense of the royal game.

    99% of the people who say they "know how to play chess" don't even know all of the basic rules much less how to play chess. They know how the pieces move and some of the more basic rules. This is because they were taught exactly the opposite of the way H G Wells would teach them - they were taught how to set up the bd, the names of the pieces, how they move and a few of the basic rules. Period.

  • 22 months ago

    AllogenicMan

    So was 'that' (referring to the above pics) how they played the royal game back then? - or was Wells there merely demonstrating some new-fangled 'fashionable' way to promote a new chess variant, so he could then have at least some 'sporting chance' to beat his refined [and smug-looking] socialite-dignitaries there? ... perhaps to name it, 'Wells Chess' [I presume(?) ... ].

    And that's the way 'I' see it! ...

  • 22 months ago

    MyCowsCanFly

    That was one of the best pieces I've read about chess. "There is no remorse like the remorse of chess." I took the essay at face value. I think he expressed the love/hate relationship with chess. We all know it's just a game....yeah...sure. I appreciate you sharing your finds batgirl.

  • 22 months ago

    melvinbluestone

    Wells was certainly a genius, but has occassionally been criticized for the lack of character developement in his stories. It's never bothered me; I love his work. But I think it was the result of his greater interest in more concrete ideas such as logically plausable speculation, which most of his sci-fi work was. I guess he wasn't too crazy about dealing with the vagaries of human behavior. So it seems strange that such an analytical mind had no affinity for the Royal Game. He had some kind of interest in it, though, as evidenced by the article. Maybe he got clobbered too many times when playing it as a kid.

  • 22 months ago

    batgirl

    It seems totally possible that he wrote the essay tongue-in-cheek, though my impression was more that he was writing against chess in a somewhat light-hearted way.  I'll try to uncover more information, if possible.

  • 22 months ago

    Grobzilla

    Did he really not like Chess? I got the feeling that he had a cheek full of tounge while penning this. He is obviously familiar with the game and its culture. Which may have turned him off, but still..

  • 22 months ago

    batgirl

    In 1911 Wells wrote a book called "Floor Games," and in 1913, he wrote "Little Wars," both dealing with children's games. "Little Wars" is a specific game proposed by Wells.  The games he put forth utilize models, figures and such.  Here's a couple photos directly from "Little Wars:"

  • 22 months ago

    DrFrank124c

    Interesting article. Although wells did not like chess he still enjoyed playing war games. I have read quite a bit of Wells' writings including "Outline of History" and many of his Science Fiction stories and so I find this article to be of special interest. Great research on your part, Batgirl!

  • 22 months ago

    JAKGreek

    Thanks for this!

  • 22 months ago

    Alex1968

    :)

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