Michael Dummett

  • Chess: The History of a Game by Richard Eales
    Batsford, 240 pp, £12.50, December 1984, ISBN 0 7134 4607 2

The history of a game, like that of an art form such as ballet, has an external and an internal aspect, which in neither case can be kept sharply separated. Under the external aspect, we must, for each period, ask such questions as these. In what countries was it played? Among which social groups? Did they play at home, or in cafés, clubs or gaming houses? Was it played only at the local level, or were there organised regional, national or international competitions? Was there an authority to lay down the rules? Was the game played for high stakes, for moderate ones or for none? Did the players regard it as a serious pursuit or a light recreation? Did they play rapidly or with deliberation, talking as they played or in intent silence? Was it generally regarded with respect, despised as a frivolous waste of time, condemned as degrading or treated with indifference?

These are the questions that principally interest Eales, and he conveys a good deal of interesting information in answering them. He conveys it in a pleasant and readable, if never elegant or very distinctive style: though he takes for granted that his readers know the rules, his book could be read with enjoyment by those who have never played. It is occasionally disfigured by grammatical errors, such as ‘who he wished to be monks’, ‘like del Rio ... did’ and ‘having said this, it is necessary ...’, and by the misuse of ‘parameter’ with the vague meaning of ‘boundary line’; apart from ‘up-market’, however, this is the only vogue-word in the book. Much more serious is the failure to dismantle the scaffolding. The author is constantly telling us that he proposes to conclude the section by discussing so-and-so, that, having talked about one thing, he will now talk about another, that it would be unfair to end the chapter at this point, and so on. These are comments and exhortations that the author had, in writing the book, to address to himself: having complied with them, he has no need to communicate them to the reader.

Another minor annoyance is the lack of graciousness to H.J.R. Murray, whose great History of Chess of 1913 must be the basis for any subsequent research, and to which Eales’s debt is necessarily great. A handsome tribute in the Introduction does not compensate for the impression given by the text, in which Murray is repeatedly mentioned only to be contradicted: a reader who skipped the Introduction would gather that Eales regarded him as a muddler who could write about nothing without getting it wrong. This is an unintentional effect of the natural tendency to mention only points of disagreement, but the resulting flavour is displeasing.

The history of a game, under its internal aspect, can (again like that of ballet) be further subdivided into the evolution of the game itself – the rules governing it – and of the manner of playing it – the strategies used by leading players or in vogue among average ones: once more, no clean separation is possible. Eales is very much less informative about either than the reader has the right to expect. He twice rebukes Murray for wrongly discerning particular schools of play at certain periods: on neither occasion does he trouble to give specific descriptions of the styles of the leading players in order to refute Murray’s contention. This omission is particularly glaring when he comes to discuss the battle, in the 1920s, between the ‘hypermoderns’ and the ‘classicists’. He has, in this case, to admit that ‘there was a distinct hypermodern group, and many contemporaries were very conscious of belonging to it or opposing it’: but he still wants to play down the divergence between them. Many players were non-aligned, he argues, some of the hypermodern ideas were less new than they claimed to be, many of them were soon adopted by players who never joined the camp, and so on. All this may well be true, but the reader still wants to know what the battle was all about, and is offered only the sketchiest description. The same holds good of Eales’s accounts of the famous players of the past. We learn about their lives and careers, the games they lost and won, the books they wrote, the influence they had on the standing and popularity of chess, but very little about their style of play. The reader who is interested in chess as a game, rather than as a social phenomenon, and wants to know how the manner of playing it evolved, will find Eales’s history defective.

It could be replied that, to remedy this omission, the book would have had to be much longer. That defence can hardly be used to excuse the even more striking lack of interest in the evolution of the game itself. Eales devotes his first chapter – the shortest of the six – to chess as played outside Europe, and the second to the Medieval period. At the beginning of his third chapter, he gives an interesting summary of the evidence concerning the invention of the new rules, and thereby of the modern game, at the end of the 15th century. As he says, the two chief innovations were the increased mobility of the Bishop, and, particularly, of the Queen. It is therefore almost incredible that he tells the reader only that both pieces had previously been much weaker, not what their moves actually were during the long history of chess in India, Persia, the Islamic world and Medieval Europe.

Although it thus has the character of Hamlet without the Prince, a chapter is at least devoted to the Medieval game: the forms played in Asia are dismissed in a page or two, or, sometimes, a line or two. Eales is interesting about the origins of chess and its spread westwards. He maintains the received view that it is of Indian origin, and, very rightly in my view, rejects the heresy of Bidev and others, based on research by Joseph Needham, that it was a Chinese invention. He very capably summarises the evidence for its origin in India and its transmission, first to Persia, and then to the whole Islamic world after the Muslim conquest, and from there to Europe, with a brief notice of Byzantine chess. (It is puzzling that the game did not achieve greater popularity in the Byzantine Empire.)

Eales is uninterested in the spread of the game eastwards, on the other hand. This seems to me quite wrong: it is surely interesting to ask why, on its journey westwards, the game achieved such enormous popularity, but remained, in its principal form, almost unaltered for so many centuries, whereas, in South-East Asia and, particularly, in the Far East, it never became as popular, but was subjected to quite radical modifications. Eales really regards modern European chess as the only form worth bothering about, and cannot think his readers would like to hear about other versions. He therefore hardly troubles to describe Chinese chess: the reader learns that the pieces stand on the points, not on the squares, that it is played on a board with ten ranks and nine files, that the Horse has the same starting position and move as the Knight (it does not quite, since it cannot leap over an intervening piece), and that there is a piece called the Cannon unknown to other forms of chess: and that is all. It would surely have been of interest to describe the powers of the Cannon, which introduces a radically new idea into chess: it has the same move as our Rook, but can capture only by leaping over one intervening piece (and can leap only when making a capture), giving check in the same manner. Japanese chess (shogi) fares even worse, being mentioned but not described at all. The even more radical innovation it incorporates is surely interesting enough to demand a mention: namely, that a player who has captured a piece from his opponent may, at any stage, return it to the board as one of his own pieces in lieu of making a move; naturally this rule, unknown outside Japan, transforms the game. Of equally general interest is the Burmese rule, under which the game starts with each player disposing his pieces on his side of the board as he chooses, one at a time alternately. The fact is that Chinese chess, at any rate, is an excellent game. Owing to the smaller number and advanced initial positions of the Pawns (Soldiers), the Chinese game is far more open than the European one; it also differs markedly in that the initial array is symmetrical about the central file, in lacking any piece with the power of our Queen and in the confinement of the General (the equivalent of the King) to nine of the ninety points. It is in no way foolish to consider Chinese chess more enjoyable than European: it is therefore very well worth describing for its own sake. Such a thought does not cross Eales’s mind: he names China as a country with a ‘vast potential for growth’ in playing European chess, but he cannot imagine that any other game, or form of the game, is worth considering alongside it, and so it does not occur to him that the West might have a vast potential for growth in playing Chinese chess.

Even if the Chinese game be judged wholly inferior to the European one, however, the comparison is of great interest, and not only historically. Games differ from music, say, in that the only connoisseurs of games are players, most of whom concentrate on one game, like a pianist who devotes his life to perfecting his performance of one composition. Such players like the game, obviously, but they do not appreciate it as one game among others, as one may prefer one opera to another: it is for them simply their vocation or the recreation they have chosen. Devising games and improving existing ones is as much an exercise of human creativity as playing them skilfully, but a distinct one. A game can be appreciated as a product of this art only if it is considered against the background of other possibilities, actual or hypothetical: hence knowing the evolution of its rules and its divergent development in other parts of the world enhances one’s appreciation of its merits. Of course, one can no more easily grasp the character of a game by merely reading its rules than one can enjoy a piece of music by reading the score: to understand its strategic principles, you have to play it. One whose sole desire is to become an ever better player of European chess, or any one other game, has no interest in playing anything else, or, for that matter, in reading about its history. One who is always trying out new games, and plays each only occasionally, is not a connoisseur but a dilettante, and will gain little understanding of any. The connoisseur wants to tackle different strategic problems from time to time, and so to play various games, each sufficiently often, if found appealing, to gain some understanding of them; and his attitude is wholly reasonable. He is part of the audience for a history of a game; and he will not be well served by Eales’s book.

The book thus does not really deserve its subtitle, which ought, rather, to be ‘the history of the social setting of a game within European countries’. What it aims to do, however, it does well: and it is particularly welcome as the work of a professional historian who has shaken free of the stupid snobbery that rates games – which are among the most important parts of a culture – unworthy of scholarly attention.