Robert Benchley: Confessions Of A Chess Champion


It’s always fun to read a review of a book that amused someone in ways they didn’t intend. Here, from Love Conquers All, is a review Robert Benchley wrote of a chess memoir.

CONFESSIONS OF A CHESS CHAMPION

With the opening of the baseball season, the sporting urge stirs in one’s blood and we turn to such books as My Chess Career, by J R Capablanca. Mr Capablanca, I gather from his text, plays chess very well. Wherein he unquestionably has something on me.

His book is a combination of autobiography and pictorial examples of difficult games he has participated in and won. I could understand the autobiographical part perfectly, but although I have seen chess diagrams in the evening papers for years, I never have been able to become nervous over one. It has always seemed to me that when you have seen one diagram of a chessboard you have seen them all. Therefore, I can give only a superficial review of the technical parts of Mr Capablanca’s book.


His personal reminiscences, however, are full of poignant episodes. For instance, let us take an incident which occurred in his early boyhood when he found out what sort of man his father really was — a sombre event in the life of any boy, much more so for the boy Capablanca.

“I was born in Havana, the capital of the Island of Cuba,” he says, “the 19th of November, 1888. I was not yet five years old when by accident I came into my father’s private office and found him playing with another gentleman. I had never seen a game of chess before; the pieces interested me and I went the next day to see them play again. The third day, as I looked on, my father, a very poor beginner, moved a Knight from a white square to another white square. His opponent, apparently not a better player, did not notice it. My father won, and I proceeded to call him a cheat and to laugh.”

Imagine the feelings of a young boy entering his father’s private office and seeing a man whom he had been brought up to love and to revere moving a Knight from one white square to another. It is a wonder that the boy had the courage to grow up at all with a start in life like that.

But he did grow up, and at the age of eight, in spite of the advice of doctors, he was a frequent visitor at the Havana Chess Club. As he says in describing this period of his career, “Soon Don Celso Golmayo, the strongest player there, was unable to give me a rook.” So you can see how good he was. Don Celso couldn’t give him a rook. And if Don Celso couldn’t, who on earth could?

In his introduction, Mr Capablanca (I wish that I could get it out of my head that Mr Capablanca is possibly a relation of the Casablanca boy who did the right thing by the burning deck. They are, of course, two entirely different people) — in his introduction, Mr Capablanca says:

“Conceit I consider a foolish thing; but more foolish still is that false modesty that vainly attempts to conceal that which all facts tend to prove.”

It is this straining to overcome a foolish, false modesty which leads him to say, in connection with his matches with members of the Manhattan Chess Club. “As one by one I mowed them down without the loss of a single game, my superiority became apparent.” Or, in speaking of his “endings” (a term we chess experts use to designate the last part of our game), to murmur modestly: “The endings I already played very well, and to my mind had attained the high standard for which they were in the future to be well known.” Mr Capablanca will have to watch that false modesty of his. It will get him into trouble some day.

Although this column makes no pretense of carrying sporting news, it seems only right to print a part of the running story of the big game between Capablanca and Dr O S Bernstein in the San Sebastian tournament of 1911. Capablanca wore the white, while Dr Bernstein upheld the honor of the black.

The tense moment of the game had been reached. Capablanca has the ball on Dr Bernstein’s 3-yard line on the second down, with a minute and a half to play. The stands are wild. Cries of “Hold ’em, Bernstein!” and “Touchdown, Capablanca!” ring out on the frosty November air.

Brave voices are singing the fighting song entitled “Capablanca’s Day” which runs as follows:

    “Oh, sweep, sweep across the board,
    With your castles, queens, and pawns;
    We are with you, all Havana’s horde,
    Till the sun of victory dawns;
    Then it’s fight, fight, FIGHT!

    To your last white knight,
    For the truth must win alway,
    And our hearts beat true

    Old `J R’ for you

    On Capa-blanca’s Day.”

“Up to this point the game had proceeded along the lines generally recommended by the masters,” writes Capablanca. “The last move, however, is a slight deviation from the regular course, which brings this Knight back to B in order to leave open the diagonal for the Q, and besides is more in accordance with the defensive nature of the game. Much more could be said as to the reasons that make Kt – B the preferred move of most masters…. Of course, lest there be some misapprehension, let me state that the move Kt – B is made in conjunction with K R – K, which comes first.”

It is lucky that Mr Casablanca made that explanation, for I was being seized with just that misapprehension which he feared. (Mr Capablanca, I mean.)

Below is the box-score by innings:

1. P – K4. P – K4.
2. Kt – QB3. Kt – QB3.
3. P – B4. P x P.
.4 Kt – B3. P – K Kt4.

(Game called on account of darkness.)

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Author: Joseph Nebus

I was born 198 years to the day after Johnny Appleseed. The differences between us do not end there.

2 thoughts on “Robert Benchley: Confessions Of A Chess Champion”

  1. Robert Benchley always seemed as if he didn’t know what to make of the world – and who could blame him? I shudder to think what he would make of today’s world (or maybe it’s just the chill of winter’s belated sudden appearance where I live).

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    1. Oh, Benchley’s a wonderfully modern writer, not just because so much of his thinking was about how he kind of understands the life around him, but isn’t very sure he’s all that good at it. I have an easy time imagining him fitting into the world today while still fretting that he had really no idea what he was supposed to be doing, the way so many of us will.

      Liked by 1 person

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