I do not claim to be an authority on either the history or the practice of chess, but, as the poet Gray observed when he saw his old school from a long way off, it is sometimes an advantage not to know too much of one’s subject. The imagination can then be exercised more effectively. So when I am playing Capablanca (or old Robinson) for the championship of the home pastures, my thoughts are not fixed exclusively upon the “mate” which is threatening; they wander off into those enchanted lands of long ago, when flesh-and-blood knights rode at stone-built castles, and thin-lipped bishops, all smiles and side-long glances, plotted against the kings who ventured to oppose them. This is the real fascination of chess.
You observe that I speak of castles, not of rooks. I do not know whence came this custom of calling the most romantic piece on the board by the name of a very ordinary bird, but I, at least, will not be a party to it. I refuse to surrender the portcullis and the moat, the bastion and the well-manned towers, which were the features of every castle with which hitherto I have played, in order to take the field with allies so unromantic as a brace of rooks. You may tell me that “rook” is a corruption of this or that word, meaning something which has never laid an egg in its life. It may be so, but in that case you cannot blame me for continuing to call it the castle which its shape proclaims it.
Knowing nothing of the origin of the game, I can tell myself stories about it. That it was invented by a woman is obvious, for why else should the queen be the most powerful piece of them all? She lived, this woman, in a priest-ridden land, but she had no love for the Church. Neither bland white bishop nor crooked-smiling black bishop did she love; that is why she made them move sideways. Yet she could not deny them their power. They were as powerful as the gallant young knight who rode past her window singing to battle, where he swooped upon the enemy impetuously from this side and that, heedless of the obstacles in the way, or worked two of them into such a position that, though one might escape, the other was doomed to bite the dust, Yet the bishop, man of peace though he proclaimed himself, was as powerful as he, but not so powerful as a baron in his well-fortified castle. For sometimes there were places beyond the influence of the Church, if one could reach them in safety; though when the Church hunted in couples, the king’s priest and the queen’s priest out together, then there was no certain refuge, and one must sally upon them bravely and run the risk of being excommunicated.
No, she did not love the Church. Sometimes I think that she was herself a queen, who had suffered at the hands of the bishops; and, just as you or I put our enemies into a book, thereby gaining much private satisfaction even though they do not recognize themselves, so she made a game of her enemies and enjoyed her revenge in secret. But if she were a queen, then she was a queen-mother, and the king was not her husband but her little son. This would account for the perpetual intrigues against him, and the fact that he was so powerless to aid himself. Probably the enemy was too strong for him in the end, and he and his mother were taken into captivity together. It was in prison that she invented the royal game, the young king amused himself by carving out the first rough pieces.
But was she a queen? Sometimes I think that I have the story wrong; for what queen in those days would have assented to a proposition so democratic as that a man-at-arms (a “pawn” in the language of the unromantic) could rise by his own exertions to the dignity of Royalty itself? But if she were a waiting-maid in love with the king’s own man-at-arms, then it would be natural that she should set no limit to her ambitions for him. The man-at-arms crowned would be in keeping with her most secret dreams.
These are the things of which I think when I push my king’s man-at-arms two leagues forward. A game of chess is a romance sport when it is described in that dull official notation “P to K4 Kt to KB3”; a story should be woven around it. One of these days, perhaps, I shall tell the story of my latest defeat. Lewis Carroll had some such intention when he began Alice Through the Looking Glass, but he went at it half-heartedly. Besides, being a clergyman and writing as he did for children, he was handicapped; he dared not introduce the bishops. I shall have no such fears, and my story will be serious.
Consider for a moment the romance which underlies the most ordinary game. You push out the king’s pawn and your opponent does the same. It is plain (is it not?) that these are the heralds, meeting at the border-line between the two kingdoms–Ivoria and Ebonia, let us say. There I have my first chapter: The history of the dispute, the challenge by Ivoria, the acceptance of the challenge by Ebonia. Chapter Two describes the sallying forth of the knights–“Kt to KB3, Kt to QB3.” In the next chapter the bishop gains the queen’s ear and suggests that he should take the field. He is no fighter, but he has the knack of excommunicating. The queen, a young and beautiful widow, with an infant son, consents (“B to QB4”), and set about removing her child to a place of safety. She invokes the aid of Roqueblanc, an independent chieftain, who, spurred on by love for her, throws all his forces on to her side, offering at the same time his well-guarded fastness as a sanctuary for her boy. (“Castles.”) Then the queen musters all her own troops and leads them into battle by the side of the Baron Roqueblanc….
But I must not tell you the whole story now. You can imagine for yourself some of the more exciting things which happen. You can picture, for instance, that vivid chapter in which the young king, at a moment when his very life is threatened by an Ebonian baron, is saved by the self-sacrifices of Roqueblanc, who hurls himself in front of the royal youth’s person and himself falls a victim, to be avenged immediately by a watchful man-at-arms. You can follow, if you will, the further adventures of that man-at-arms, up to that last chapter when he marries the still beautiful queen, and henceforward acts in her name, taking upon himself a power similar to her own. In fact, you can write the book yourself. But if you do not care to do this, let me beg you at least to bring a little imagination to the next game which you play. Then whether you win or (as is more likely) you lose, you will at least be worthy of the Game of Kings.
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