04 May 2014

The Game at Chestes

Topics of current interest sometimes intersect in ways that could never be predicted. For example, while I was working on 'Something I Always Wanted To Do', a Barron's/WSJ article with a focus on chess, I decided to look at other chess-related articles from the same publishers. One of these was The Prince's Man, a review of 'The Book of the Courtier', which was 'an international best seller from its publication in 1528 until the end of the 18th century'. It's not a title I remembered seeing before.

"The Book of the Courtier" is in part a manual of advice on such subjects as seduction, the behavior required of women at court, practical jokes, how to keep love secret, why it is a mistake to learn chess, and more.

A mistake to learn chess? This sounded like an opinion with an impact on my 'Chess in School' series, last seen in 'Chess in School' : Three Studies.

The chess ['chestes'] passages are found in 'The Second Book of the Courtier'. The centuries old spelling might create difficulties for non-native English speakers, but the meaning shines through.

Me thynke, aunswered Syr Fridericke, we have geven the Courtier a knowledge in so many thynges, that he maye well varye his conversation and frame hymselfe accordynge to the inclination of them he accompanyeth hymself withall, presupposyng him to be a a good judgemente, and therewithall to guyde hymself. And according to the time otherwhile, have an eye to grave matters, and sometyme to pastimes and games.

And what games? quoth the L. Gaspar.

Syr Friderick aunswered: Lette us aske counsel of Frier Seraphin that daily inventeth newe.

But in good earneste, replied the L. Gaspar, doe you not thynke it a vice in the Courtier to plaie at Dice and Cardes?

I thynke it none, quoth Syr Fridericke, onlesse a man apply it tomuch, and by reason of that, setteth aside other thynges more necessary, or elles for none other entent but to get money, and to beguile his felow, and in his losse, fume and take on so, that it might be thought a token of covetounesse.

So dice and cards were acceptable as long as they weren't played for money or beguilement. No bluffing allowed! How times have changed. Nowadays covetousness is considered more of a virtue than a vice. And chess?

The L. Gaspar answered: And what say you to the game at chestes?

It is truely an honest kynde of enterteynmente and wittie, quoth Syr Friderick. But me think it hath a fault, whiche is, that a man may be to couning [too cunning] at it, for who ever will be excellent in the playe of chestes, I beleave he must beestowe much tyme about it, and applie it with so much study, that a man may assoone learne some noble scyence, or compase any other matter of importaunce, and yet in the ende in beestowing all that laboure, he knoweth no more but a game. Therfore in this I beleave there happeneth a very rare thing, namely, that the meane is more commendable, then the excellency.

The L. Gaspar answered: There be many Spaniardes excellent at it, and in many other games, whiche for all that bestowe not muche studye upon it, nor yet lay aside the compassing of other matters.

Beleave not the contrarye aunswered Syr Fridericke, but they beestowe muche studye upon it, although feiningly.

Better to learn a 'noble science' than to be more than mediocre at chess. To summarize the passage using the section headers from the Courtier book:-

  • Dice and Cardes.
  • The play at Chestes.
  • The meane [simple] knowledge is best in the play at Chestes.
  • Spaniardes dissemble their study in the play at Chestes.

Another story later in the chapter tells us:-

  • An ape plaied at chestes.
  • To lose at chestes vexeth men.

But this was no ordinary ape:-

Then spake the L. Cesar Gonzaga: It must needes be that this ape was a Doctour emong other Apes and of much authoritie: and I beleave the commune weale of the Apes of India sent her into Portugall to gete a name in a straunge countrey. At this every manne laughed, both for the lye and for the addition mande to it by the L. Cesar.

In conclusion: It's OK to teach teach chess to children; just don't try to make them play well.

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