That Time When People Thought Playing Chess Would Make You Violent

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Although chess has been played for centuries, it wasn't until the 19th century that the game really took off in Europe and the U.S. Yet not everyone had a favorable view of this crazy new fad. Several critics decried chess as a source of intellectual laziness and anti-social behavior that could even provoke violence.

I can imagine why those unfamiliar with chess would view it with derision. ("It stops all fun," was an oft-repeated comment.) Unlike other leisurely pursuits, such as cards or even backgammon, a game of chess involves two opponents, hunched silently over a board for hours and impatient with any distractions. A chess aficionado, writing in 1881, described how its detractors characterized the game:

What a dull, unsocial game is chess! Why, look at those two playing in that corner for the last two hours I don't think they have exchanged a word in that time, except, perhaps, "check." They have hindered us from having a nice round [card] game. They look anxious and miserable as though they were each undergoing a surgical operation. Their eyes flash daggers when the music strikes up. They corrugate their brows as they bend over the board and, in short, are absorbed in a silly pastime as though life or honor depended upon the result.


Yet, that criticism was tame compared to other commentaries published in books, journals and newspapers throughout the 1800s. Chess players, who found themselves on the defensive, took great pains to emphasize not only the social nature of the game, but to extol its virtues, comparing it to the study of art, science and mathematics. One British enthusiast, writing in the Chess Player's Chronicle (1849) even cited it as the source of an intellectual awakening:

England has not hitherto been the land of arm-chair amusements. The turf and the chace, the rod and the gun, have numbered among their votaries the mass of those whose means allowed them anything beyond the vicissitudes of labour and rest. And these active sports still keep their ground, but with a difference; the sportsman of Queen Victoria's epoch, has his evening as well as his morning to employ; conviviality is chastened, and music or conversation claims the hours formerly resigned to the bottle. A similar change has been wrought among those whose mornings are passed in the more sedentary pursuits of commerce or study.

Tradesman and artisan have partaken of the movement, and through every rank of society, save the very lowest, there is evinced a preference for intellectual recreation over animal refection. Reading-rooms and mechanics' institutes multiply, and their supporters have wisely desired to vary the attractions which they pre sent. To these and similar causes we in great measure attribute the growing popularity of Chess.


Others, however, believed that chess — a time-consuming obsession — was actually stunting society, as was the case with this physician, who wrote in 1883:

One word, however, to the sempiternal chess-players, whom we meet everywhere: they are, for the most part, per sons with long well-filled heads and ambitious hearts; which if they devoted to the further improvement of useful arts, sciences, inventions, &c., only half the time they squander in contests for victories "baseless as the fabric of a vision," this sacrifice alone would liberate at least ten thousand profound thinkers on the globe for the service of their own times and generation, and compensate for the rather selfish and unsocial species of warfare which two of a company carry on for hours together, to the annoyance and exclusion of all the rest from the charms of their conversation and intelligent minds.


An Ignoble Pursuit


At least that author acknowledged that chess was a pursuit suitable for "intelligent minds." Most other critics ridiculed the notion of chess as an intellectual game. Often, they pointed out how it suffered in comparison to the popular card game of the era, "whist." A common argument was that chess ultimately limited the mind, because it had only finite outcomes.

An article appearing in an 1883 edition of Popular Science contemplated whether a student's proclivity for gaming could be used as a way to measure intelligence:

It is not unusual to find a profound mathematician who is particularly dull in all other subjects, and who fails to comprehend any simple truth which can not be presented to him in a mathematical form ; and, as there are a multitude of truths which can not be treated mathematically, a mere mathematician has but a limited orbit.

A chess-player, or a solver of chess problems, has always to deal with pieces of a constant value; thus, the knight, bishop, pawn, etc., are of constant values, so that his combinations are not so very varied. A whist-player, however, has in each hand not only cards which vary in value according to what is trump, but, during the play of the hand, the cards themselves vary in value; thus, a ten may, after one round of a suit, become the best card in that suit. Brainpower independent of stored knowledge is therefore more called into action by a game of whist than it is by mathematics, chess, or classics; consequently, while mathematicians and classical scholars may be found in multitudes, a really first-class whist-player is a rarity; and, if we required an accurate test of relative brain-power, we should be far more likely to obtain correct results by an examination in whist than we should by an examination in mathematics. In the latter, cramming might supply the place of intelligence; in the former, no amount of cramming could guard against one tenth of the conditions.

A first-rate mathematician may on other subjects be stupid; a first-class whist-player is rarely if ever stupid on original matters requiring judgment.


An article appearing in the July 2nd, 1859 issue of Scientific American (which Clive Thompson has also written about here), likewise declared:

Chess has acquired a high reputation as being a means to discipline the mind, because it requires a strong memory and peculiar powers of combination. It is also generally believed that skill in playing it affords evidence of a superior intellect. These opinions, we believe, are exceedingly erroneous. Napoleon the Great, who had a great passion for playing chess, was often beaten by a rough grocer in St. Helena. Neither Shakespeare Milton, Newton, nor any of the great ones of the earth, acquired proficiency in chess-playing. Those who have become the most renowned players seem to have been endowed with a peculiar intuitive faculty for making the right moves, while at the same time they seem to have possessed very ordinary faculties for other purposes.


And an 1816 essay ridiculed the notion that chess was a strategic pursuit:

I shall not attempt to investigate in what manner Chess can be a school in miniature of the art of war, as the folly of the comparison is evident; for though you make your attacks, defend yourself, and endeavour to conquer your adversary, these manoeuvres are all practised in so small a compass, and with so trifling a difference in the disposition of the Pieces, when compared with the evolutions of war, that there appears to be no other similitude than in the attack and defence; and since in war, as in every thing else, many events happen which make it necessary to act from appearances often deceitful, I may venture to affirm, that Cards enable us to form better notions of war than Chess can do ; as in the latter, we must always regulate our play from positive evidence, and not according to reasonable presumption.


A Dangerous Game


But even as critics mocked the strategic virtues of chess, they often warned that its warlike theme, coupled with the obsessive behavior of its players, could provoke bellicose behavior. Or the players could become so focused on triumph that they would ignore all else to their peril. Thus, An Introduction to the History and Study of Chess (1804) included a cautionary chapter on "the powerful effects of chess on the mind and passions":

The great interest taken in this warlike game — the importance attached to a victory — and the disgrace attending defeat, are exemplified in numerous instances handed down to us by various writers, of which the most worthy of notice are the following….

Richlet, in his Dictionary, article Echec, writes, " It is said, that the Devil, in order to make poor Job lose his patience, had only to engage him at a game at Chess."

Ferrand, Count of Flanders, having been taken prisoner by Philip Augustus at the battle of Bovines, his wife, who might have obtained his release, left him to languish a long time in prison. They hated each other, and their hatred proceeded from playing at Chess together: the husband could never forgive his wife for constantly beating him ; and she never could resolve to suffer him to win a game.

Col. Stewart, who had been aid-de-camp to the Earl of Stair, and was afterwards one of the Quarter-masters General in the Duke of Cumberland's time, used frequently to play with the Earl, who was very fond of the game; but an unexpected check-mate used to put his Lordship into such a passion, that he was ready to throw a candlestick, or any thing else that was near him, at his adversary; the prudent Colonel always took care therefore, to be on his feet, to fly to the farthest corner of the room, when he said, " check-mate, my Lord!"

William the Conqueror, in his younger years, playing at Chess with the Prince of France (Dauphiny was not annexed to that Crown in those days,) losing a mate, knocked the chess-board about his pate, which was a cause afterwards of much enmity betwixt them.

King John was playing at Chess when the deputies from Rouen came to acquaint him that their city was besieged, but he would not hear them until he had finished his game. Charles I. was also playing at it when news was brought of the resolution of the Scots to sell him to the English ; but so little was he discomposed by this alarming intelligence, that he continued his game with the utmost composure.

Al Amin, Khalif of Bagdad, and his freed -man Kuthar, were playing at chess without the least consideration of impending danger, when his brother Al Mamun's forces pushed the siege of Bagdad with so much vigor, that the city was upon the point of being carried by assault, and the Khalif himself was obliged to fly: it is said, that he cried out, when warned of his danger, " Let me alone! For I see check-mate against Kuthar."


I suppose it is the fate of every new leisurely pastime to evoke suspicion. When radios began playing music, some worried about how this would impact the productivity of American workers. When bicycles became popular, a columnist in an 1896 edition of the London Spectator wrote: "The phase of the wheel's influence that strike… most forcibly is, to put it briefly, the abolition of dinner and the advent of lunch… If people can pedal away 10 miles or so in the middle of the day to a lunch for which they need no dress, where the talk is haphazard, varied, light, and only too easy; and then glide back in the cool of the afternoon to dine quietly and get early to bed… conversation of the more serious type will tend to go out."

And, of course, within my own lifetime, I recall the controversy over Dungeons & Dragons. From the August 13th, 1983 issue of the New York Times:

"Dungeons & Dragons," one of the top-selling games in the country with an estimated three to four million players, creates an intricate fantasy world in which players take on the roles and mystical powers of mythical characters, such as medieval monsters, wizards, dwarves and dragons, some of them borrowed from J. R. R. Tolkien's popular "Lord of the Rings."

The game has received publicity in connection with several bizarre incidents and deaths in recent years, most notably the disappearance and subsequent suicide of a brilliant 17-year-old Michigan State University student who was said to be obsessed with the game.

"He had a lot of problems anyway that weren't associated with the game," said Victoria Rockecharlie, another classmate of Pulling's in the Talented and Gifted program.

Dieter H. Sturm, corporate public relations director for TSR Inc., the Lake Geneva, Wisc. based company that distributes "Dungeons & Dragons," dismissed suggestions that the game could in anyway be linked to Pulling's death.

He noted that the game is used in many advanced school programs around the country and that television personality Dr. Joyce Brothers, a psychologist, has been retained as a consultant by TSR to promote use of the game.

"The game has been very successful in allowing students to have some fun but it also has some educational benefit," said Sturm. "It teaches kids to use their imaginations and to engage in problem-solving."

Critics of games like "Dungeons & Dragons" have a different view. "This doesn't surprise me at all," said Robert Landa, a lawyer for a California-based group called SALT (Sending America Light and Truth) that has been campaigning against "Dungeons & Dragons." "I've got stories you wouldn't believe about people who have been victims of role-playing games like 'Dungeons & Dragons.' "This game becomes a lifestyle . . . that uses witchcraft and sorcery and black magic," Landa said.


And so, the argument continues, in one form or another.....