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The Chess Village- Journey to Ströbeck

Oct 19, 2007, 1:50 PM 4,295 Reads 3 Comments

   William Lewis had a long, varied chess career. It spanned most of the first half of the 19th century.  A contemporary of the Great La Bourdonnais, he was considered London's "Teacher of Chess." For a time he acted as a director for Maelzel's Automaton, the Turk. He wrote about chess, taught chess and played chess. Born in 1787, he lived long enough to be the stakes-holder for the Morphy-Löwenthal match. He died in 1870.

   Apparently he was also a traveler and in one of his travels he passed through Ströbeck, Germany.  The following year, 1832, he also wrote his impressions from his visit in his book, "FIFTY GAMES AT CHESS, which have actually been played, most of which occured between the author and some of the best players in England, France and Germany."



   During an excursion into Germany in the summer of 1831, I stayed for a few days at Halberstadt; in the neighbourhood of this town is a small village called Ströbeck, which has been celebrated for some centuries on account of its inhabitants being very good Chess players. Some have stated that this village holds its lands upon the tenure of forfeiture, if any one of their community lose a game at Chess, and that therefore they decline finishing a game with a stranger, this is however erroneous.

   The following is the account given by the inhabitants of the origin of the game of Chess in the village.

   A dignitary of the cathedral at Halberstadt was exiled to Stroebeck, and being consequently deserted by his former friends, he became the more attached to the inhabitants of the village, and determined on teaching them the game of Chess; he found to his delight that they became partial to it, and made great progress in it; he soon felt himself doubly recompensed for the trouble he had taken, for not only did they become proficients in the game, but it afforded him many opportunities of improving their morals and behaviour, which became visible in their intercourse with their neighbours; after a time he was recalled and became bishop of Halberstadt; he, however, did not forget his Ströbeck as he used to call it, but on the contrary, often went there and conferred many benefits on the community, amongst others he instituted a free-school there.


   I walked over on a Friday afternoon and introduced myself to the clergyman of the village, whom I found an obliging and well-educated man; he informed me that the day I had chosen was an unfortunate one for me, for owing to the fineness of the weather all the inhabitants were out in the fields, gathering in the harvest; he hoped, therefore, as he himself was ignorant of the game, that I would come over on the following Sunday, when I might be sure of finding some of the villagers at home. He informed me that the game is still much played there, and that they have several strong players; though himself no player of the game, yet he is so persuaded of the advantage of cultivating it, that he encourages the children who attend the school to practise it at proper times, and has succeeded in obtaining the grant of a small sum annually from the community for the purchase of six Chess Boards and Men, to be given to the best six players among the scholars, the number of whom amounts to forty-eight; the method of ascertaining who are the best is, in the first instance, to have two sets of tickets, each set numbered from one to twenty-four; these are drawn by the boys, then the two ones, two twos, etc etc play together; those who lose go out, and the remaining twenty-four draw numbers in a similar way and so on, until only six winners remain, to whom the Boards are given.


     On the Sunday following I walked over in the afternoon and called on the Syndic of the village, who oblingingly offered to accompany me to the public house, where he showed me their old Chess Board and Men, which were carefully locked up; the Board is of a large size, being above two feet square, including the border, which is about four inches broad; on the border is a representation of the village of Stropcke, (it is spelt thus,) but not in bas relief, according to Mr. SILBERSCHMIDT'S account, but rather in rude Mosaic; there appears to have been at that time three towers or steeples in the village, two only of which now remain, the third having been taking down and the building converted into a saw mill. According to an inscription on the Board, it appears to have been presented to the village by the Elector of Brandenburg, on the 13th of May 1651; on the other side the Board is divided into 96 squares, (12 by 8,) this is intended for the Courier Game, which is played with the usual Chess Men, to which are added for each player, four pawns, two couriers, a man, and a fool, which last two are now called state counsellors.


   Chess Board of the Great Elector 1651, having seen all the curiosities, I invited one of the party to play with me, to which he readily agreed. I believe it was formerly their rule never to play with strangers but for money; of course I expected they would have named a stake to play for, but this was not the case, and accordingly we did not play for any thing.


   The Courier Game is now seldom played at Ströbeckk. GUSTAVUS SELENUS states that it had been played there from time immemorial, and that the common game is derived from it.


   The Game at Chess as now played at Stroebeck, differs from that commonly played in the following particulars:

   The pieces being placed as usual, each party is obliged to play his king's rook's pawn, queen's rook's pawn, and queen's pawn two squares, and the queen to her third square.

   No other pawn can be moved two squares at a time.

   The king is not allowed to castle. (I was informed by one of the inhabitants that some of the players have lately allowed castling.)

   When a pawn has reached the last line, it does not at once assume the powers of a queen or any other piece, but it must first make three joyous leaps (Freudensprung) of two squares at a time, until it reach the square on which it was at first placed, for example:

   Suppose your pawn to be on the adversary's K. rook's square, its first leap will be to your K. rook's sixth square, the second to your K. rook's fourth square, and the third to your K. rook's second square; on its reaching this last square it has all the powers of a queen, etc.; it must moreover be observed, that while your pawn remains on the adv. K. rook's square, it can not be taken by the adversary, but the moment it has made a leap, it may be taken; moreover, the pawn is not permitted to leap over any piece or pawn, nor does it possess any power in its way back to its original square. In consequence of these pecularities, many games which could easily be won elsewhere are drawn at Ströbeck.



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