Richard Penn's Maxims and Hints

Jan 9, 2011, 6:09 PM |

Charles Dickens, Jr. mentions in his Dictionary of London (under CHESS) :
"Richard Penn, the author of the quaintest book in the language, " Maxims and Hints for Chess Players and Anglers" (illustrated by Stanfield)."

It seems that Penn's Maxims and Hints were also published separately by category. Below are the ones on Chess excerpted from a book containing his work plus that of several others.





By Richard Penn, F. R. S.

Win as often as you can, but never make any display of insulting joy on the occasion. When you cannot win—lose (though you may not like it) with good temper.

If your adversary, after you have won a game, wishes to prove that you have done so in consequence of some fault of his rather than by your own good play, you need not enter into much argument on the subject, whilst he is explaining to the by-standers the mode by which he might have won the game, but did not.

Nor need you make yourself uneasy if your adversary should console himself by pointing out a mode by which you might have won the game in a shorter and more masterly manner. Listen patiently to his explanation—it cannot prove that your way was not good enough. ''Tous les chemins sont bons qui menent a la victoire.''

When you are playing with an opponent whom you feel sure that you can master, do not insult him by saying that you consider him a stronger player than yourself,—but that perhaps particular circumstances may prevent him from playing with his usual force to-day, etc., etc. Men usually play as well as they can: they are glad when they win, and sorry when they lose.

Sometimes—when, alas! you have lost the game—an unmerciful conqueror will insist on "murdering Pizarro all over again," and glories in explaining how that your game was irretrievable after you had given a certain injudicious check with the queen,* (the consequence of which he says that he immediately foresaw,) and that then, by a succession of very good moves on his part, he won easily. You must bear all this as well as you can, although it is certainly not fair to "preach'ee and flog'ee too."

A good player seldom complains that another is slow. He is glad to have the opportunity thus afforded to him of attentively considering the state of the game. Do not, therefore, be impatient when it is your adversary's turn to move. Take as much time as you require (and no more) when it is your own turn.

If, whilst you are play ing, your adversary will talk about the state of the game, it is very provoking, but you cannot help it, and the pieces will give you ample revenge, if you can avail yourself of their power.

If the by-standers talk, it is still more annoying: they always claim the merit of having foreseen every good move which is made, and they sometimes express great surprise at your not making a particular move; which, if you had made it, would probably have led to your speedily losing the game—before which time they would have walked away to another table.

Almost every moderate player thinks himself fully qualified to criticise the move by which a game has been lost.—Although, if he had himself been in the loser's place, he would, very probably, have been checkmated twenty moves sooner than the opportunity occurred for committing the particular mistake, which he thinks he should have avoided.

Amongst good players, it is considered to be as much an indispensable condition of the game, that a piece once touched must be moved, as that the queen is not allowed to have the knight's, or a rook the bishop's move.

Some persons, when they are playing with a stranger who entreats to be allowed to take back a move, let him do so the first time: then, almost immediately afterwards, they put their own queen en prise; and when the mistake is politely pointed out to them, they say that they never take back a move, but that they are ready to begin another game.

Do not be alarmed about the state of your adversary's health, when, after losing two or three games, he complains of having a bad head-ache, or of feeling very unwell. If he should win the next game, you will probably hear no more of this.

Never (if you can avoid it) lose a game to a person who rarely wins when he plays with you. If you do so, you may afterwards find that this one game has been talked of to all his friends, although he may have forgotten to mention ninety-nine others which had a different result. Chess players have a very retentive memory with regard to the games which they win.

If, therefore, any one should tell you that on a certain day last week he won a game from one of your friends, it may be as well to ask how many other games were played on the. same day.

There is no better way of deciding on the comparative skill of two players than by the result of a number of games. Be satisfied with that result, and do not attempt to reason upon it.

Remember the Italian proverb, '' Never make a good move without first looking out for a better.'' Even if your adversary should leave his queen en prise, do not snap hastily at it. The queen is a good thing to win, but the game is a better.

Between even, and tolerably good, players a mere trifle frequently decides the event of a game; but when you have gained a small advantage, you must be satisfied with it for the time. Do not, by attempting too much, lose that which you have gained. Your object should be to win the game, and the dullest way of winning is better for you than the most brilliant of losing.

If your knowledge of '' the books'' enables you to see that a person, with whom you are playing for the first time, opens his game badly, do not suppose, as a matter of course, that you are going to check-mate him in ten or twelve moves. Many moves called very bad are only such if well opposed; and you can derive but little advantage from them unless you are well acquainted with the system of crowding your adversary,— one of the most difficult parts of the game.

Some players have by study acquired mechanically the art of opening their game in a style much above their real force; but when they have exhausted their store of book-knowledge, they soon fall all to pieces, and become an easy prey to those who have genuine talent for the game. Others do not know how to open their game on scientific principles, and yet, if they can stagger through the beginning without decided loss, fight most nobly when there are but few pieces and pawns left on the board. All these varieties of play must be carefully studied by those who wish to win. It is only talent for the game, combined with much study and great practice, which can make a truly good player.

Although no degree of instruction derived from "books" will make a good player, without much practice with all sorts of opponents, yet on the other hand, when you hear a person, who has had great practice, boast of never having looked into a chessbook, you may be sure either that he is a bad player, or that he is not nearly so good a player as he might become by attentively studying the laborious works which have been published on almost every conceivable opening, by such players as Ercole del Rio, Ponziani, Philidor, Sarratt and Lewis.

Between fine players, small odds (viz. pawn, with one, or with two moves) are of great consequence. Between inferior players they are of none. The value of these odds consists chiefly in position; and in every long game between weak players, such an advantage is gained and lost several times, without either party being aware of it.

Almost all good players (and some others) have a much higher opinion of their own strength than it really deserves. One person feels sure that he is a better player than some particular opponent, although he cannot but confess that, for some unaccountable reason, or other, he does not always win a majority of games from him. Another attributes his failure solely to want of attention to details which he considers hardly to involve any real genius for the game; and he is obliged to content himself with boasting of having certainly, at one time, had much the best of a game, which he afterwards lost, only by a mistake. A third thinks that he must be a good player, because he has discovered almost all the many difficult check-mates which have been published as problems. He may be able to do this, and yet be unable to play a whole game well, it being much more easy to find out, at your leisure, the way to do that which you are told beforehand is practicable, than to decide in actual play, whether, or not, it is prudent to make the attempt.

A theoretical amateur, with much real genius for the game, is often beaten by a fourth-rate player at a chess club; who has become from constant practice thoroughly acquainted with all the technicalities of it, and quietly builds up a wall for the other to run his head against. The loser in this case may perhaps eventually become the better player of the two; but he is not so at present.

A person sometimes tells you that he played the other day, for the first time, with Mr. Such-a-one, (a very celebrated player,) who won the game, with great difficulty, after a very hard fight. Your friend probably deceives himself greatly in supposing this to be the case. A player who has a reputation to lose, always plays very cautiously against a person whose strength he does not yet know: he runs no risks, and does not attempt to do more than win the game, which is all that he undertook to do.

When you receive the odds of a piece from a better player than yourself, remember he sees everything which you see, and probably much more. Be very careful how you attack him. You must act in the early part of the game entirely on the defensive, or probably you will not live long enough to enjoy the advantage which has been given you. Even though you may still have the advantage of a piece more, when the game is far advanced, you must not feel too sure of victory. Take all his pawns quietly, if you can and see your way clearly before you attempt to checkmate him. You will thus perhaps be longer about it, but winning is very agreeable work.

Many persons advise you, when you receive the odds of a rook, always to make exchanges as often as you can, in order to maintain the numerical superiority with which you began. This is very cunning; but you will probably find that '' Master is Yorkshire too," and that he will not allow you to make exchanges early in the game, except under circumstances which lead you into a ruinous inferiority of position.

You will never improve by playing only with players of your own strength. In order to play well, you must toil through the humiliating task of being beaten by those who can give you odds. These odds, when you have fairly mastered them, may be gradually dimished as your strength increases. Do not, however, deceive yourself by imagining, that if you cannot win from one of the great players when he gives you the odds of a rook, you would stand a better chance with the odds of a knight. This is a very common error. It is true that, when a knight is given, the attack made upon you is not so sudden and so violent, as it usually is when you receive a rook—but your ultimate defeat is much more certain. If, in the one case, you are quickly killed, in the other you will die in lingering torments.
When you hear of a man from the country, who has beaten every body whom he has ever played with, do not suppose, as a matter of course, that he is a truly good plaj^er. He may be only a ''Triton of the Minnows.'' All his fame depends upon the skill of the parties with whom he has hitherto contended; and provincial Philidors seldom prove to be very good players, when their strength is fairly measured at the London Chess Club, particularly such of them as come there with the reputation of having never been beaten.

An elderly gentleman, lately returned from India, is apt to suppose that his skill has been much impaired by the change of climate, or some other cause, when he finds, to his great surprise, that his style of play does not produce such an alarming effect in the Chess Clubs of London or Paris, as it used to do at Rumbarabad.

When you can decidedly win at the odds of a rook given by a first-class player, you will rank among the chosen few. It would be very difficult to name twenty-five persons in London to whom Mr. Lewis could not fairly give these odds, although there are many hundreds who would be much offended at its being supposed to be possible that any one could give them a knight.

A first-rate player, who is to give large odds to a stranger, derives great advantage from seeing him first play a game, or two, with other persons. His style of play is thus shown, and the class of risks which may be ventured on is nicely calculated. That .which, before, might have been difficult,. thus becomes comparatively easy.

There is as much difference between playing a game well, by correspondence, and playing one well over the board, as there is between writing a good essay, and making a good speech.

No advantages of person and voice will enable a man to become a good orator if he does not understand the grammatical construction of the language in which he speaks: nor will the highest degree of ingenuity make any man a good chess player, unless his preparations for the exercise of that ingenuity are made upon the soundest principles of the game.

Every game perfectly played throughout on both sides would be by its nature drawn. Since, then, in matches between the most celebrated players and clubs of the day some of the games have been won and lost, it seems to follow that there might be better players than have been hitherto known to exist.

Most of the persons who occasionally ''play at Chess'' know little more than the moves and a few of the general rules of the game. Of those who have had more practice, some have acquired a partial insight into the endless variety of the combinations which may be formed, and their beautiful intricacy:—a few play moderately well; but, however small the number of good players may be, it would be difficult to find any one who, after having played a few hundred games, would not think it an imputation on his good sense to be considered a very bad player;—and this is the universal feeling, although it is well known that men of the highest attainments have studied Chess without great success, and that the most celebrated players have not always been men of distinguished talents.

He who after much practice with fine players remains for a long time without taking his station amongst them, will find at last that there is a point which he cannot pass. He is obliged to confess his incurable inferiority to players of the higher order, and he must be content with easy victories over a large majority of those whom he meets with in society.


Chess holds forth to the philosopher relaxation from his several studies,—to the disappointed man, relief from unavailing regret,— and to the rich and idle, an inexhaustible source of amusement and occupation. It has, however, been frequently urged as an objection to the study of the game, that no man can pursue it, with a fair prospect of becoming a good player, without devoting to it much time and attention which might be more beneficially employed.

Although it may perhaps be true in the abstract, that even a high degree of skill is not per se worth the time and trouble which it must have cost, it should be remembered that on this ''mimic stage'' of life much besides chess may be seen and studied with advantage. The real character of a man's mind may, almost always, be known by his behaviour under the varying circumstances of this most interesting game. The triumph of the winner, and the vexation of the loser, are often coarsely displayed amongst inferior players; and, although good players very rarely give way to this degrading weakness, still, the good breeding of some of them, towards the end of a difficult match, is not always quite perfect.

The temper of the student cannot fail to derive very material benefit from the severe discipline to which it will be subjected. When he begins to play well he will find that he has learnt to submit patiently to contradiction; and that he has become convinced of the necessity of abandoning his most favourite schemes, whenever he sees that from a change of circumstances they can be no longer pursued with safety.—He will have felt the full value of using caution and circumspection, when called upon to exercise his judgment in cases of complicated difficulty, and he will have acquired the faculty of fixing his undivided attention on the business in which he is engaged.

If such qualities of the mind are called forth and strengthened in the pursuit of a harmless and delightful recreation, the time cannot have been wholly wasted, although the professed object of study may have been only the art of giving Check-mate. 

R. P.
Whitehall, March, 1839.