Every Chess-player should know this essay:
In Praise Of Chess
by A. G. Gardiner
I sometimes think that growing old must be like the end of a tiring day. You have worked hard, or played hard, toiled over the mountain under the burning sun, and now the evening has come and you sit at ease at the inn and ask for nothing but a pipe, a quiet talk, and so to bed. “And the morrow’s uprising to deeds shall be sweet.” You have had your fill of adventure for the day. The morning’s passion for experience and possession is satisfied, and your ambitions have shrunk to the dimensions of an easy chair.
And so I think it is with that other evening when the late blackbird is fluting its last vesper song and the toys of the long day are put aside, and the plans of new conquests are waste-paper. I remember hearing Sir Edward Grey saying once how he looked forward to the time when he would burn all his Blue-books and mulch his rose-trees with the ashes. And Mr. Belloc has given us a very jolly picture of the way in which he is going to spend his evening:
If I ever become a rich man,
Or if ever I grow to be old,
I will build a house with deep thatch
To shelter me from the cold,
And there shall the Sussex songs be sung
And the story of Sussex told.
I will hold my house in the high woods
Within a walk of the sea,
And the men that were boys when I was a boy
Shall sit and drink with me.
There is Mr. Birrell, too, who, as I have remarked elsewhere, once said that when he retired he would take his modest savings into the country “and really read Boswell.”
These are typical, I suppose, of the dreams that most of us cultivate about old age. I, too, look forward to a cottage under the high beech woods, to a well-thumbed Boswell, and to a garden where I shall mulch my rose-trees and watch the buds coming with as rich a satisfaction as any that the hot battle of the day has given me. But there is another thing I shall ask for. On the lower shelf of the bookcase, close to the Boswell, there will have to be a box of chessmen and a chessboard, and the men who were boys when I was a boy, and who come and sit with me, will be expected after supper to set out the chessmen as instinctively as they fill their pipes. And then for an hour, or it may be two, we shall enter into that rapturous realm where the knight prances and the bishop lurks with his shining sword and the rooks come crashing through in double file. The fire will sink and we shall not stir it, the clock will strike and we shall not hear it, the pipe will grow cold and we shall forget to relight it.
Blessed be the memory of him who gave the world this immortal game. For the price of a taxicab ride or a visit to the cinema, you may, thanks to that unknown benefactor, possess a world of illimitable adventures. When Alice passed through the Looking Glass into Wonderland, she did not more completely leave the common day behind than when you sit down before the chessboard with a stout foe before you and pass out into this magic realm of bloodless combat. I have heard unhappy people say that it is “dull.” Dull, my dear sir or madam? Why, there is no excitement on this earth comparable with this kingly game. I have had moments at Lord’s, I admit, and at the Oval. But here is a game which is all such moments, where you are up to the eyes in plots and ambuscades all the time, and the fellow in front of you is up to his eyes in them, too. What agonies as you watch his glance wandering over the board. Does he suspect that trap? Does he see the full meaning of that offer of the knight which seems so tempting?… His hand touches the wrong piece and your heart thumps a Te Deum. Is he?… yes … no … he pauses … he removes his hand from the piece … oh, heavens, his eye is wandering back to that critical pawn … ah, light is dawning on him … you see it illuminating his face as he bends over the board, you hear a murmur of revelation issuing from his lips … he is drawing back from the precipice … your ambuscade is in vain and now you must start plotting and scheming all over again.
Nay, say it is anything you like, but do not say it is dull. And do not, please, suggest that I am talking of it as an old man’s game only. I have played it since I was a boy, forty years ago, and I cannot say at what age I have loved it best. It is a game for all ages, all seasons, all sexes, all climates, for summer evenings or winter nights, for land or for sea. It is the very water of Lethe for sorrow or disappointment, for there is no oblivion so profound as that which it offers for your solace. And what satisfaction is there comparable with a well-won “mate”? It is different from any other joy that games have to offer. There is a swift delight in a late “cut” or a ball that spread-eagles the other fellow’s wicket; there is a delicate pleasure in a long jenny neatly negotiated, in a drive that sails straight from the tee towards the flag on the green, in a hard return that hits the back line of the tennis court. But a perfect “mate” irradiates the mind with the calm of indisputable things. It has the absoluteness of mathematics, and it gives you victory ennobled by the sense of intellectual struggle and stern justice. There are “mates” that linger in the memory like a sonnet of Keats.
It is medicine for the sick mind or the anxious spirit. We need a means of escape from the infinite, from the maze of this incalculable life, from the burden and the mystery of a world where all things “go contrairy,” as Mrs. Gummidge used to say. Some people find the escape in novels that move faithfully to that happy ending which the tangled skein of life denies us. Some find it in hobbies where the mind is at peace in watching processes that are controllable and results that with patience are assured. But in the midst of this infinity I know no finite world so complete and satisfying as that I enter when I take down the chessmen and marshal my knights and squires on the chequered field. It is then I am truly happy. I have closed the door on the infinite and inexplicable and have come into a kingdom where justice reigns, where cause and effect follow “as the night the day,” and where, come victory or come defeat, the sky is always clear and the joy unsullied.
A. G. Gardiner’s essay: In Praise