Living Chess III

Feb 20, 2011, 4:56 PM |



Sir,—The early history of chess is involved in much uncertainty—some authors wishing to make it appear of greater antiquity than is allowed by others. Dr. Hyde [1.] has traced it as an invention of the Hindoos, many years before Christ; most writers concur in the same opinion. However, in his Historical Disquisition on Chess, the Hon. Daines Harrington maintains that it originated witli the Chinese. It is stated, on the authority of a Chinese M.S., that one Hemsing, commander of a Chinese army, 379 years after the time of Confucius, taught his men the game for the express purpose of reconciling them to the perilous situation in which they happened to be at the time, in which, it is added, he fully succeeded. If tradition may be relied on, chess was intended as "an image of war," aud as such we find it to have been made use of by Pyrrhus, who was in the habit of forming and communicating his designs fur the order of battle by the results of chess menChess has been cultivated in every civilized country; our ancestors appear to have been very partial to this game before cards became the fashion; many English families having emblazoned on their arms chess-boards, and also chessrooks. The Game of Chess, published by Caxton, in 1474, has many curious particulars on this head; among other facts it is mentioned as a fashionable amusement in most houses of rank in the time of Richard III. Than chess few games have been spoken of in more laudatory terms, nor has praise on any other been more deservedly bestowed. It requires the greatest possible address to play it well, as success is by no means dependant on chance; it has no connection with gaming; it has been played by popes, emperors, kings, princes, with, costly figures of gold, silver, or irory, and the poor Indian has played it with different-coloured pebbles; it is a delightful relaxation for the learned, and not less so for the illiterate, and has been very properly styled " a gymnasium of the mind."

Twiss, in his work on chess, quotes the following from Dr. Hyde, where he says, "Don John, of Austria, -had a chamber in which was a chequered pavement of black and white marble ; upon this living men moved under his direction, according to the laws of chess."
"The same thing is told of a Duke of Weimar, who, in squares of black and white marble, played at chess with real soldiers."
About 1783 the celebrated Automaton Chess-player, dressed in a Turkish costume, was exhibited in London. The history of this curious production is well known, especially one singular quality, entitling it to an epithet made use of by Dryden, for it was, in reality, an " uncheckmated man."

These are two of the most striking instances which the history of chess affords of the game being played out of the common routine. We have here living men in lieu of images, and an image in the place of a liting player. It is now my intention to proceed with a brief account of a scheme for playing this noble and scientific game with an animated dramatis persons, but in a manner much similar to a pantomime, and suitable for public exhibition. It differs from any other plan that has been adopted, in this, that though men or boys be employed, the whole game may be gone through without breaking silence, except to proclaim "check," or otherwise distracting the attention of an assembly. That it is possible to place persons dressed in appropriate costume on a chequered plain, and inform them when aud where to move by a mechanical process, will, I hope, be evident from the following description of the machinery intended for this purpose. In the centre of the exhibition room let a platform be raised two or three feet, and marked out into 64 squares; this will serve for the chess-board on which the actors will have to perform their several parts according to the rules of chess. The engraving represents this platform, or stage, in its complete state, and the game pretty far advanced. Underneath are shown, fig. 1, a perspective view of the chequered stage, with (a a) 64 wires descending from the centre of each square to the same situation in corresponding ones on the board, b, c, underneath. These wires are then drawn towards the end, e, of the lower board, and passing below the long roller, d, which mav be grooved, or have small pins to keep the wires in order, they rise up, as at f f, to the small chess-board, g, each wire from the large squares touching a corresponding square on this smaller board. This last arrangement is necessary, because the movements of the actors will have to be regulated by those of the player or players at the board, g. The wires running along the side of the roller d at e (48 in number) are purposely not drawn to their proper length, to prevent a confusiou of lines in so small a figure; it was thought sufficient to define only the wires at the extremities of g. The roller d serves to ease the action of the wires, as well as to keep them from being entangled.

Fig. 2 is an enlarged view of a single square of the board g (fig. 1), having a pawn placed on it, and at h, the head of a long-shanked hook, i, which will explain the manner of fixing the wires. The 64 squares of g being formed in a like manner, it is intended, on moving the piece, which in the present cose would be a pawn, h must be pulled up by the hand, which will give notice to the actor representing that pawn in the exhibition room, that he will soon have to perform the same thing. The game, in other respects, played on this board, will be after the usual manner with common chess men. The wires attached to the several hooks, i, of the board g are made to act upon a small trap-door in each square of the stage. Fig. 3 represents one of these closed, and fig. 4, the same, as when opened by way of signal; to keep them from doing so of themselves, they ought to have a small spring or weight Now, a stage properly fitted up in this way might be neatly covered with a fine carpet, having the squares printed on it; this would not make it the less perceptible to the actor when to move, nor more difficult to observe the square for which the player at the board g (fig. 1) might destine him. When the actor has to move to an occupied square, he is to know it, not by seeing the trap-door, but by the actions of the occupant of that square. For example: when the black know it is their turn to move, and, we will suppose, a pawn receives the signal by the movement of the trap-door against his foot, how is he to know, provided he finds he is not to advance, and the square on each side of him has an adversary, which of these two he is to attack? Why, one of them (the white) will have received a signal at his foot, and knowing it is not the white's turn to move, and aware he is to be attacked, prepares as if he would defend himself—this is quite enough for the pawn, the attack immediately follows, and he takes possession of the square. It is first to be understood that each man must keep as quiet as possible ; that the right foot be placed lightly over the trap-door, and that tire rm*v>es be made deliberately. Retrograde, and all other movements, may be ascertained by fixing the number of beats oh the foot to be given by the trap-door (figs. 3 and 4). It cannot be necessary to say more on'ttie dresses than that complete scarlet and white uniforms would be the most appropriate, and that, as regards the castles and knights, their horses and elephants might be fashioned of strong pasteboard, with drapery hung round the body in such a manner as to hide the men's feet ;-the castles having small windows in front, the actor would, through them, have a clear view of the stage. Professors of the game, or the examples given in chess books, might be employed in playing the games in the ante-room, where the small chess-board, g, would be kept.

This scheme would afford an agreeable means for our chess clubs to exercise their skill to the entertainment of themselves and their friends. And more instruction might likewise be obtained from seeing such games as are laid down by Philidor and others played in this manner, than on the common board, where the study must needs be as confined as it is tedious.

Among the curiosities of chess, some of the principal ones have been glanced at, but the "game of chesse play" does not appear ever to have been applied as here proposed. To all true admirers of this princely exercise it would, I feel persuaded, be no less gratifying to them than to the writer to see this exhibition

                                  "Of armies on the cliecquer'd Held array'd.
                                   And guiltless war in pleasing form display'd."

[1.]  Author of a very elaborate treatise, entitled De Ludu Orientalibus, by the Rev. Dr. Thomas Hyde,1694, reprinted at Oxford, 1767.

Liverpool, February, 1831



This photograph is of a live chess game at Tiverton, Devon County, England, 1906

Lillian Lawrence was a popular actress around the turn of the 20th century.  An interesting and apropos element of her career is that it began with a part as a Living Chess piece -
"Lillian Lawrence was born in Alexandria, Virginia, in the middle sixties. When she was two years old her parents moved to San  Francisco, and there Miss Lawrence passed her girlhood. When she was in the grammar school, Charles E. Lacke, manager of Bush  Street Theatre in San Francisco, chose her as one of thirty-two children to take part in a living chess spectacle at his playhouse, and  thus her theatrical career began, when she was thirteen years old, as the Queen's Knight in the chess game in the operetta, "The Royal  Middy." Miss Lawrence's parents were opposed to her going on the stage, but when they perceived that her heart was set on it, they  relented. She remained with "The Royal Middy" [An adaptation of the musical comedy, "Der Seecadedt,"] after it was transferred to the California Theatre, and for three seasons she sang in light  opera at that house in the company of which Emily Melleville was the prima donna. Then Miss Lawrence's voice failed, and she took her  first engagement as an actress in a stock company in Oakland, California, where she remained for two years."  - Famous Actresses of the Day in America, Volume 1, 1899   by Lewis Clinton Strang
According to Musical Comedy in America, 1987   by Cecil Michener Smith, Glenn Litton, "An inventive production number [in the Royal Middy] , presaging the Ninette de Valois ballet Checkmate may years later, presented a game of chess, with gaily dressed children as pawns, castles, knights and bishops."   And according to Puck magazine in 1880  ". . .the game of chess with 32 live children introduced in the second act besides being something of a novelty, as a spectacle was exceedingly pretty."