Debtor's Chess

May 13, 2012, 8:09 AM |

     There are myriads of ways to spend your free time.  Some people feel anxious unless they are doing something productive; others are quite satisfied with banal pursuits or mindless entertainment.  Whatever the case, it might be partly the freedom to choose how you utilize such time that's ultimately most important and being denied that choice might  be both dehumanizing and repressive.

    Rod Edwards of  Edo Historic Chess Ratings"  sent me a clipping from the March 23, 1851 edition of The Era,"  a British weekly, which had a brief response to a letter to the editor under the heading, "How poor debtors are treated at Lancaster Castle."
     The article mentions chess, but isn't chess-specific. However it does inspire in my mind certain thoughts about the value of such games.

                             But first let's talk a bit about the background. 
     Up until 1869 a debtor in England who was unable to pay his creditor could be imprisoned until the debt was settled. (After 1869, one could only be imprisoned if able but unwilling to satisfy one's debt).  These prisons were generally unpleasant, but one could pay for improved accommodations. Sometimes entire families, free to come and go, would join the prisoner.
     Mr. Edwards commented to me that the story below was almost Dickensian. In fact, when Charles Dickens was a child of 12, his father was sent to a debtor's prison named Marshalsea because of money he owed a baker, forcing Charles to leave school and to go to work in a blacking factory to support himself. Later Dickens wrote a serialized novel, "Little Dorrit," in which the father of the protagonist, Amy "Little" Dorrit was imprisoned at Marshalsea for debts owed.


     The people in the article below were imprisoned in Lancaster Castle, a famous London prison for criminals of all sorts. According to Lancaster Castle's website:
"Lancaster Castle housed between 300 and 400 debtors at any one time. Insolvent debtors were required to work within the prison and, in return, received, 3 ozs bread and 4ozs oatmeal daily and 1oz salt and 10lb potatoes weekly.
If the debtor still had access to money, life was quite different. A choice of 22 rooms was available, priced from 5s (25p) to 30s (£1.50p). The fee included fire, candle, use of culinary utensils, and the services of a "room-man" who did the cooking, cleaning, and waiting-on. Debtors could have beer, wine and tobacco but not spirits. They could buy newspapers, food and clothing, follow their trades or professions, and have visitors from 8 am to 8 pm. Their days were spent playing games in the courtyard, and any musicians who were imprisoned would often play at concerts or dances to amuse their fellow debtors. A debtors' market was held in the Castle Yard where meat, bread, butter, groceries, vegetables, fish and fruit could be purchased.

     The 1850 book, "The London Prisons,"  by William Hepworth Dixon claims:
"A man may exist in the prison who has been accustomed to good living, though he cannot live well. All kinds of luxuries are prohibited, as are also spirituous drinks. Each man may have a pint of wine a-day, but not more : and dice, cards, and all other instruments for gaming, are strictly vetoed. Chess, however, is permitted ; and to a chosen few the game serves to relieve the tedium of a duress which has no other time-consuming occupation."

     The newspaper article below shows this wasn't always the case and things could change on whim.

Lancaster Castle

Reading the letter and the reply, one realizes the tremendous value those without means and deprived of liberty place on things beyond the bare necessities.  Deprivation of diversions such as games that occupy the mind - chess, draughts and dominoes - were specifically singled out, among all the possible complaints,  as cruel and unreasonable treatment.  


Sir,--We, the inmates of Lancaster Castle, are suffering under oppression by authorities of this place,  who have forced us to quit the civil side, confined for debt,  where we had an uniterrupted range of a large yard,  but we have been transferred to the side of the Castle hitherto occupoed by felons.   They have divided us into several classes, and given us small yards and apartments to live in,  which were built for criminals.  They have changed the dietary from from an allowance in food of 2s. a week to a poor one only now in value 1s. 3d., as follows:-- 10½  lb. of bread, seven quarts of gruel, 2 lb. of potatoes, ¼ lb. of meat and 1½  pint of soup per week,  which corresponds exactly with the Barham Union, and for which the inmates recently revolted.
     We are anxious to know, in the replies of your paper,  if the games of chess, dominoes, and drafts are unlawful games, and if the magistrates have power to seize them under the pretext of calling them gaming instruments?  as these are visiting justices, on transferring us to the criminal side of tha goal,  examined all the debtors' effects -- upwards of 100 in number -- and took from us our chess, drafts,  &c.
     Owing to their illegal acts,  we be that you will insert this letter in your next paper and write an article in your leader on the subject of their proceedings and the charge.
      We are, for the debtors and ourselves,
               Your obedient servants,
                         John Quail and Wm. Brown.
     Lancaster Castle,  March 4, 1851.

There is no occasion to omit the names of the above complaints, for depend upon it they have nothing to lose.   But to come to the hardships they particularize,  they really seem to be such as they ought not to have inflicted upon them.  Governors, and others higher and lower in authority,  are apt to imagine, that a prisoner for debt is an offender deserving no more lenity than a criminal is entitled to.  But the former may be merely unfortunate, and, at worst, improvident, and detained there,   not as a punishment,  but in order to bring his affairs to a settlement (for the spirit of the reformed law is opposed to incarceration for debt) ; while the latter, after his trial (previous to which all are innocent), must be undergoing a penalty whose limits have been legally fixed.  Some of the best men living as well as dead have been imprisoned at the suits of their creditors, that the inmates and who shall say that the inmates of Lancaster Castle are not deserving the sympathy of their fellow-countrymen?  Shut up as they are in a goal where peculiar severity is practiced,  their case comes before us as one deserving special consideration -- for what is their fate to-day may be to-morrow that of those who little expect a reverse of fortune.  Surely certain magistrates will be moved to look into this matter.  It is, indeed, their duty to do so.  Why make bad worse?  Why introduce a starving ecomomy?  Why is he confined?  To our thinking, the law does not empower officials to treat them other than as persons for whose custody they are responsible  But we hope to be better informed upon this subject.

     In contrast, the superlative chess players can't easily be denied their game.

     Alexander Alekhine  wrote, "My first serious blindfold games were played soon after the Mannheim International Tournament of 1914.  As is well known, this tournament was interrupted during the first days of the war and I, together with other Russian participants of the congress, found myself interned at Rastatt Prison. With me there were Bogoljubow, Romanovsky, Bohatyrchuk, Ilya Rabinovich, Weinstein and others.  We had nothing else to do but to while away our free time by playing chess.  Since, however, we did not have boards at our disposal, we had to resort to playing blindfold.  That way I played many games with Bogoljubow and others; some of these were later published in the press."

Rastatt was a German POW camp in which the prisoners were treated relatively well.  Alekhine and his fellow chess players only spent a short time imprisoned at there. Below is a picture of American prisoners at Rastatt receiving packages from the American Red Cross.  Alekhine would spent the next couple of years working for the Russina Red Cross.

One of the blindfold games between Boboljubow and Alekhine at Rastatt in Sept. 1914.