Probably Not A Good Idea To Get Them Playing Diplomacy Though


I was reading Eric Jager’s Blood Royal: A True Tale of Crime and Detection In Medieval Paris, about the murder in 1407 of Louis of Orleans and the criminal investigation headed by Guillaume de Tignonville, provost of Paris. It’s one of the earliest criminal inquiries for which we have really good documentation, like, depositions and all that. We can follow Guillaume de Tignonville’s careful investigation all the way through to when John, Duke of Burgundy, called the other dukes over to say he did it and then fled Paris. At that point the investigation was considerably simplified apart from John getting away with it. Anyway, in part of the backstory to the murder comes this event from January 1393:

… One of the queen’s ladies-in-waiting was to be married, and, to everyone’s delight, the king offered to host the wedding feast and the dancing to follow at the royal palace. A young nobleman, a friend of the king’s, proposed privately to Charles [VI] an entertainment to add excitement and pleasure to the ball: He and the king, and a few friends, would beforehand and in great secrecy put on linen costumes covered with pitch and stuck full of fine yellow flax that looked like the hair of beasts. Sewn into these close-fitting garments and completely disguised from head to foot as wild men or savages, the king and his friends would burst into the ballroom during the dancing to surprise and amuse the guests. The king thought it a splendid idea, and they set the plan in motion, telling only a few servants whose help they needed.

It all ended in tragedy, because everything in that era ended in tragedy, including for the person who thought to warn folks not to let the torches get too near the people dressed in linen with straw pasted all over them by oil and tied together by ropes. But what’s got me is that the King of France thought this sounded like great entertainment. And apparently the guests did too, just thrilled by how much fun it all was, at least until the tragedy started and spread out to help the nation plunge into civil war because everything in that era eventually plunged the nation into civil war.

So this was grand entertainment. Everybody thought a couple people dressed in linen and flax and tied together and running around was just the best idea. These people were starved for entertainment. One good parlor game could have changed the whole course of what tragedies plunged the nation into civil war.

There’s a longstanding tradition in science fiction stories where someone from the present falls into history and makes his fortune “inventing” new technologies. OK, I think there’s like four of them, one of which I refuse to read. And another of which debunks the whole story idea. Anyway, I realize now this inventing-future-technology stuff is useless. Even if I could figure out how to make a transistor there’s no market for it in 14th-century France. Plus the era was centuries away from even Alessandro Volta’s most basic prototype of the mini-USB plug that doesn’t fit any cord you, or anyone else, has ever had.

But the era still needed amusements. They had some, yes, but in impossibly primitive and needlessly complicated form. The chess board, for example, was three by forty squares wide, yet it held only five pieces, and four of them were bishops. And they weren’t allowed to move. All they could do is excommunicate the Patriarch of Constantinople. You could only take three turns per day, except days that allowed five turns, and none at all on Feast Days, except one after sunset. The game innovator who first introduced the “rook” was branded a madman and sentenced to live in Gascony. “That’s all right, I’m from Gascony,” he said (in Gascon French), so that at least had a less-tragic-than-usual ending, but still, it took his reputation decades to recover. They had backgammon boards, but hadn’t yet invented its rules. They just moved markers back and forth until they got bored, which is all I know about backgammon too. And the video games were none too good, what with the screens being embroidery taking upwards of sixty weeks to render a single frame.

So what I need to prepare for in case of being lost in the distant past is to be able to “invent” some games that don’t involve open flame. Even with my scattered brain I bet I could reconstruct a basic Yahtzee set or put together a minimally functional Connect 4. Paper football matches could change the whole course of how the nation plunges into civil war. And if I spent some time preparing? Think what society could do with eight centuries and the plans for Hungry Hungry Hippos. You may call this problem ridiculous, as long as I’m not in earshot, but I like to think I have this one solved, and that’s at least something going well right now.

Another Blog, Meanwhile Index

While the Another Blog, Meanwhile index rose five points nobody has any good ideas why and so they’re all very doubtful that this is the way anything should be.

121

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.)

Robert Benchley: How To Watch A Chess Match


[ I don’t mean to brag, but I’ve beaten a grown-up in a chess game as recently as 1990, when he had to run off and catch a bus. I know how to play chess in terms of being able to move the pieces around in ways that don’t actually break most of the important rules, which is a skill that I’m surprised has ever impressed anyone ever. In Love Conquers All, Robert Benchley thought to give some useful advice to people who want to watch a chess game even if they aren’t sure just how. Meanwhile, apparently “Ohio State Michigan jokes” is a search query bringing people to my disapproving of a recent Pearls Before Swine strip, so if you’re looking for that, go over there. Enjoy ]

HOW TO WATCH A CHESS-MATCH

Second in the list of games which it is necessary for every sportsman to know how to watch comes chess. If you don’t know how to watch chess, the chances are that you will never have any connection with the game whatsoever. You would not, by any chance, be playing it yourself.

I know some very nice people that play chess, mind you, and I wouldn’t have thought that I was in any way spoofing at the game. I would sooner spoof at the people who engineered the Panama Canal or who are drawing up plans for the vehicular tunnel under the Hudson River. I am no man to make light of chess and its adherents, although they might very well make light of me. In fact, they have.

But what I say is, that taking society by and large, man and boy, the chances are that chess would be the Farmer-Labor Party among the contestants for sporting honors.

Now, since it is settled that you probably will not want to play chess, unless you should be laid up with a bad knee-pan or something, it follows that, if you want to know anything about the sport at all, you will have to watch it from the side-lines. That is what this series of lessons aims to teach you to do, (of course, if you are going to be nasty and say that you don’t want even to watch it, why all this time has been, wasted on my part as well as on yours).

HOW TO FIND A GAME TO WATCH

The first problem confronting the chess spectator is to find some people who are playing. The bigger the city, the harder it is to find anyone indulging in chess. In a small town you can usually go straight to Wilbur Tatnuck’s General Store, and be fairly sure of finding a quiet game in progress over behind the stove and the crate of pilot-biscuit, but as you draw away from the mitten district you find the sporting instinct of the population cropping out in other lines and chess becoming more and more restricted to the sheltered corners of Y.M.C.A. club-rooms and exclusive social organizations.

However, we shall have to suppose, in order to get any article written at all, that you have found two people playing chess somewhere. They probably will neither see nor hear you as you come up on them so you can stand directly behind the one who is defending the south goal without fear of detection.

THE DETAILS OF THE GAME

At first you may think that they are both dead, but a mirror held to the lips of the nearest contestant will probably show moisture (unless, of course, they really should be dead, which would be a horrible ending for a little lark like this. I once heard of a murderer who propped his two victims up against a chess board in sporting attitudes and was able to get as far as Seattle before his crime was discovered).

Soon you will observe a slight twitching of an eye-lid or a moistening of the lips and then, like a greatly retarded moving-picture of a person passing the salt, one of the players will lift a chess-man from one spot on the board and place it on another spot.

It would be best not to stand too close to the board at this time as you are are likely to be trampled on in the excitement. For this action that you have just witnessed corresponds to a run around right end in a football game or a two-bagger in baseball, and is likely to cause considerable enthusiasm on the one hand and deep depression on the other. They may even forget themselves to the point of shifting their feet or changing the hands on which they are resting their foreheads. Almost anything is liable to happen.

When the commotion has died down a little, it will be safe for you to walk around and stand behind the other player and wait there for the next move. While waiting it would be best to stand with the weight of your body evenly distributed between your two feet, for you will probably be standing there a long time and if you bear down on one foot all of the time, that foot is bound to get tired. A comfortable stance for watching chess is with the feet slightly apart (perhaps a foot or a foot and a half), with a slight bend at the knees to rest the legs and the weight of the body thrown forward on the balls of the feet. A rhythmic rising on the toes, holding the hands behind the back, the head well up and the chest out, introduces a note of variety into the position which will be welcome along about dusk.

Not knowing anything about the game, you will perhaps find it difficult at first to keep your attention on the board. This can be accomplished by means of several little optical tricks. For instance, if you look at the black and white squares on the board very hard and for a very long time, they will appear to jump about and change places. The black squares will rise from the board about a quarter of an inch and slightly overlap the white ones. Then, if you change focus suddenly, the white squares will do the same thing to the black ones. And finally, after doing this until someone asks you what you are looking cross-eyed for, if you will shut your eyes tight you will see an exact reproduction of the chess-board, done in pink and green, in your mind’s eye. By this time, the players will be almost ready for another move.

This will make two moves that you have watched. It is now time to get a little fancy work into your game. About an hour will have already gone by and you should be so thoroughly grounded in the fundamentals of chess watching that you can proceed to the next step.

Have some one of your friends bring you a chair, a table and an old pyrography outfit, together with some book-ends on which to burn a design.

Seat yourself at the table in the chair and (if I remember the process correctly) squeeze the bulb attached to the needle until the latter becomes red hot. Then, grasping the book-ends in the left hand, carefully trace around the pencilled design with the point of the needle. It probably will be a picture of the Lion of Lucerne, and you will let the needle slip on the way round the face, giving it the appearance of having shaved in a Pullman that morning. But that really won’t make any difference, for the whole thing is not so much to do a nice pair of book-ends as to help you along in watching the chess-match.

If you have any scruples against burning wood, you may knit something, or paste stamps in an album.

And before you know it, the game will be over and you can put on your things and go home.