Friday, September 14, 2007

Moncure Daniel Conway on Chess

Moncure Daniel Conway
Moncure Daniel Conway was an American Transcendentalist writer and Methodist minister of the mid- to late-nineteenth century and one of the earliest cultural critics of chess in the United States. Here are some interesting selections from his works regarding the game, including commentary on his meeting with Paul Morphy.

Selections from “Chess” (The Atlantic, June 1860: pp. 662-672)

There is no call for any one to vindicate this game. Chess is a great, worldwide fact. Wherever a highway is found, there, we may be sure, a reason existed for a highway. And when we find the explorer on his northward voyage, pausing a day in Iceland, may pass his time in keen encounters with the natives,--that the trader in Kamtschatka and China, unable to speak a word with the people surrounding him, yet holds a long evening’s converse over the board which is polyglot,--that the missionary returns from his pulpit, and the Hindoo from his widow-burning, to engage in a controversy without the theologicum odium attached,--the game becomes authentic from its universality. It is akin to music, to love, to joy, in that it sets aside alike social caste and sectarian differences: kings and peasants, warriors and priests, lords and ladies, mingle over the boards as they are represented upon it (664).

Looked at simply as a diversion, chess might naturally impress a man of intellectual earnestness…. It is not a diversion; a recreation it may be called, but only as any variation from ‘the shop’ is recreative. But chess has, by the experiences of many, sufficiently proved itself to have serious uses to men of thought, and in the way of an intellectual gymnasium. It is to the limbs and sinews of the mind—prudence, foresight, memory, combination, analysis—just what a gymnasium is to the body. In it every muscle, every joint of the understanding is put under the drill; and we know, that, where the mind does not have exercise for its body, but relies simply on idle cessation for its reinforcement, it will get too much lymph. Work is worship; but work without rest is idolatry. And rest is not, as some seem to think, a swoon, a slumber; it is an active receptivity, a masterly inactivity, which alone can deserve the fine name of Rest. Such, we believe, our favorite games secures better than all others (665).

Chess has even its Mythology,--Caissa being now, we believe, generally received at the Olympian Feasts. True, some one has been wicked enough to observe that all chess-stories are divisible into two classes,--in one a man plays for his own soul with the Devil, in the other the hero plays and wins a wife,--and to beg for a chess-story minus wives and devils; but such grumblers are worthless baggage, and ought to be checked (669).

One who knows the game will feel that it is sufficiently absorbing to be woven in with the textures of government, of history, and of biography. It is of the nature of chess gradually to gather up all the senses and faculties of the player, so that for the time being he is an automaton chess-player, to whom life and death are abstractions. … Some of the ealiest writers on chess have given their idea of the all-absorbing nature of the game in the pleasant legend, that it was invented by the two Grecian brothers Ledo and Tyrrheno to alleviate the pangs of hunger with which they were pressed, and that, whilst playing it, they lived weeks without considering that they had eaten nothing (670).

He who masters chess without being mastered by it will find that it discovers essential principles. In the world he will see a larger chess-field, and one also shaped by the severest mathematics: the world is so because the brain of man is so,--motive and move, motive and move: they sum up life, all life,--from the aspen-leaf turning its back to the wind, to the ecstasy of a saint (671).

Selections from Autobiography: Memoirs and Experiences (Boston: Houghton Mifflin 1905)

Despite all my freedom there was a curious survival in me up to my twenty-seventh year of the Methodist dread of card-playing. The only indoor game I knew was chess. There was a flourishing Chess Club in Cincinnati, and I entered into the matches with keen interest. For a time I edited a weekly chess column in the Cincinnati Commercial, and wrote an article on Chess which Lowell published in the Atlantic Monthly. Whenever in New York I hastened to the Chess Club there, and watched the play of Lichtenstein, Thompson, Perrin, Marache, Fiske (editor of the Chess Monthly), and Colonel Mead, president of the club. This was at a time when the wonderful Paul Morphy was exciting the world. In July, 1858, I called on him at the Brevoort House, New York. He was a rather small man, with a beardless face that would have been boyish had it not been for the melancholy eyes. He was gentlemanly, and spoke in low tones. It had long been out of the question to play with him on even terms; the first-class players generally received the advantage of a knight, but being a second-class player I was given a rook. In a letter written at the time I mention five games in which I was beaten with these odds, but managed (or was permitted) to draw the sixth. It is added:--

When one plays with Morphy the sensation is as queer as the first electric shock, or first love, or chloroform, or any entirely novel experience. As you sit down at the board opposite him, a certain sheepishness steals over you, and you cannot rid yourself of an old fable in which a lion's skin plays a part. Then you are sure you have the advantage; you seem to be secure--you get a rook--you are ahead two pieces, three!! Gently, as if wafted by a zephyr, the pieces glide about the board; and presently as you are about to win the game a soft voice in your ear kindly insinuates, Mate! You are speechless. Again and again you try; again and again you are sure you must win; again and again your prodigal antagonist leaves his pieces at your mercy; but his moves are as the steps of Fate. Then you are charmed all along, so bewitchingly are you beheaded: one had rather be run through by Bayard, you know, than spared by a pretender. On the whole, I could only remember the Oriental anecdote of one who was taken to the banks of the Euphrates, where by a princely host he was led about the magnificent gardens and bowers, then asked if anything could be more beautiful. "Yes," he replied, "the chess-play of El-Zuli." So having lately sailed down the Hudson, having explored Staten Island, Hoboken, Fort Hamilton, and all the glorious retreats about New York, I shall say for ever that one thing is more beautiful than them all--the chess-play of Paul Morphy.

This was in July, 1858. I had already received a domestic suggestion that it was possible to give too much time to an innocent game, and the hint was reinforced by my experience with Morphy. I concluded that if, after all the time I had given to chess, any man could give a rook and beat me easily, any ambition in that direction might as well be renounced. Thence­forth I played only in vacations or when at sea.

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