In our country, where the cultural level is comparatively low, where up to now a typical pastime of the masses has been brewing liquor, drunkenness and brawling, chess is a powerful means of raising the general cultural level Krylenko: Introduction to the 1925 Moscow Tournament book cf Eales: The History of a Game pg.171
A parcel of books arrived on my office desk whilst I was out for lunch one day late August. Its journey across Europe to the Caspian Sea some weeks before I had forgotten about, what with the summer being so interminably long. It was damaged in transit but the contents were fine thankfully: they were for the minutes of freedom during work and those silent hours when the little one is curled up beside my wife at the day’s end and doesn’t notice the bedside lamp switched on beside her.
It is only after our basic needs for food and shelter have been met that we can hope to enjoy the luxury of theoretical speculations -Aristotle.
With such a dazzling array of literary talent before me, it wasn’t easy to know what to choose first but with over 2000 pages of history ahead, I thought some historiography might help first. I began reading a difficult text one sunny morning on the shuttle bus as it left the exhaust end of Baku and headed towards the myriad of congested junctions, cacophony of horns, and impatient traffic police which tell you in no uncertain terms, that you are in the city centre. On the day it was finished, I opened Eales’s publication the morning after.
Who is Richard Eales?
Dr. Richard Eales was once head of history at the University of Kent and still retains a position there, though I believe he is retired now. He is a noted historian, his specialty being Medieval History. His is a keen chess player and was strong in his youth, strong enough to represent England in some capacity. His wife, professor Jackie Eales is GM Raymond Keene’s sister, and according to chess historian Tim Harding, was once married to Daniel Levy. As Jackie Levy, she once had an article published about the history of women’s chess. If you have an interest in chess history, you might hear Dr.Eales being mentioned. It is a part of the Harding Simpole Chess Classic Series. I payed something in the region of thirty pounds for it and was not disappointed.
Eales: Chess -The History of a Game
Given his background, it is unsurprising that ‘Chess -The history of a game’ evinces a high degree of technical proficiency. It is an academic work written for both historians and chess players but the latter should note that it contains no chess theory & games as such. The aim of the book is to show chess as not just a game but a social and cultural phenomenon and how it has developed as such. The author’s motivation for writing can be found in the introduction:
‘Since Murray’s a history of chess, nothing has been published on the subject since. (On page 18 he continues) The present work makes no claim to emulate or replace Murray’s scholarship, and is conceived on quite a different scale. It’s aim is twofold: to summarize what is now known about the subject, and to suggest a number of new approaches which makes chess even more relevant and valuable to the cultural historian than it was in 1913.’
Murray’s ‘A History of Chess’, is what many people consider to be the text to read concerning chess history, it was written in 1913. I cannot comment on that publication in this post. Not since the bleak winter of 89, with its scowling winds and cold, lashing rains have I read it.
To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born, is to remain always a child’ -Cicero De Onatore 34
Even if you do question the idea of cramming the long and rich history chess has into a mere 200 pages or so, the book still stands as an exceptionally strong piece of writing. The expertise with which the first two chapters are handled is an absolute joy to behold. It is hard to believe that a stronger piece of writing exists on the early periods of chess history. I found his proud inconclusiveness in the light of such fragmentary evidence to be refreshingly honest. Many important claims made by Murray are repudiated by Eales with apparent ease, meaning that if you were ever to give lectures on chess history then Eales will form part of a core of essential reading. The final two differ from those preceding however. There is a distinct change in style and I felt that the emergence of Eales the chess player appeared alongside Eales the historian, as the narrative becomes fluid and loose in parts. For example, the description of Lasker as‘being German and cosmopolitan’, requires qualification given that Germany did not exist as a country for some 20 years after his birth, and what being ‘cosmopolitan’ in the context of nineteenth-century central Europe means is vague. Given the precision of the preceding chapters, its a little surprising to see the author slip up so easily. I wondered if Eales was one of those historians who thinks that history only begins before a certain point in time. Before moving onto Keele, a former lecturer who taught me 17th century British history as a young undergraduate, was rather dismissive about the idea of 20th century history. Claiming that anything which can be watched, isn’t history. Like Eales, her specialty was Medieval History.
‘History is not a value free enterprise’, John Slater -The aims of school history
The primary reason I purchased Eales was for his handling of Soviet Chess, after several historians I spoke to were complimentary of it. Though it was pleasing to see it treated as a subject in its own right, as indeed it should be, I wanted much more from the author than ten pages or so. The final chapter is, in my opinion, not as strong as those before it. Once again, I wondered if the wealth of material available to select from was to blame, given the numerous allusions made by the author to that effect in it. Since an aim of the book was to summarize what is now known post-Murray, or so Eales claimed, I thought more care should have been put into the period of time beyond the scope of Murray’s work. It was far too short in my opinion.
The problem of chess history – an idolatry of the factual
Chess history is not usually written by academics. It is usually written by titled chess players, who contextualize the games of past masters, the matches and tournaments they participated in with some historical discourse. This dispensation of history, however, is not without its problems. Though it is true that some titled chess players are considerably more talented than others regarding historical matters, there are few who can write about it authoritatively as they are not trained to do so….as we know, it is what sells that matters in publishing, and titled chess players can sell books by virtue of their title and its indicative chess prowess. In certain respects chess history, if left in the hands of titled chess players, is analogous to Tolstoy’s view of the modern history of his time, ‘Modern history, like a deaf man, answers questions no one asks’.
‘There is no history without dates’ Claude Levi-Strauss
The moves and games of past greats receive all the attention in their publications but the ‘history’ offered beyond the analysis is sparse and stripped down to its bare bones. The problem, or perhaps critical flaw, with that approach is that if you simplify something too much, there comes a point where it stops being what it is. What we are often left with is, if it is anything, is not history but non-history. In his early work ‘Untimely Meditations’ Nietzsche once warned us of the dangers of a reductionist history:
‘He who has once learned to bend his back and bow his head before the power of history, at last nods ‘Yes’ like a Chinese mechanical doll to every power, whether it be a government or public opinion or a numerical majority and moves his limbs to the precise rhythm at which any ‘power’ whatever pulls the strings.’ Chapter II On the use and disadvantages of history for life pg.105
Publications like Eales serve only to show us how much we need more historians writing about chess history. Even though I am yet to read it a second time, I can already tell that it is a text which will stay close to my heart…my favorite question within it was: ‘Why did the Soviets adopt, what was at the time, a distinctly bourgeois pastime, as a symbol of struggle for the proletariat? I don’t yet know the answer but in all probability it was a form of historical accident…not everything is open to rationalization.
Some further thoughts on professionalized history
It is below me to pretend that I have a greater understanding of history than Dr. Richard Eales and I do not wish to be critical of his approach, given that this is only a blog and not a dialogue as such. He is not a titled chess player trying to pass himself off as a historian, he is a distinguished academic in his own right. However, I am a philosopher and not a historian, so I have something to say. As a post-grad, I learnt that in our post-Foucault, post-Nietzschean world, the idea of a distanced, value-free historian, one who writes history for its own sake, is rather dubious. Ignoring the fact that such a position rests upon a whole host of metaphysical assumptions that are vigorously rejected by our post-modernist allies, there is of course, the question of what is the purpose of history?
‘We want to serve history only to the extent that history serves life…let us at least learn better how to employ history for the purpose of life!’ Unitemely Meditations, pg 59 (Hollingdale)
The difficulty with professionalized history is that it consigns history to the past. The type of history that Eales offers is, I am sad to say, guilty of that charge. But for us who want to understand everything that is around us, we must find a greater use of history than that. History should help us embrace the present and future, it shouldn’t just consign itself to the past. The difficulty I faced with this publication was how to accept an exemplary model of a type of history I don’t believe in given the nature of chess history. It is undoubtedly true that chess history needs gifted academics like Eales even if we don’t agree with the type of history presented. The fact that I managed to enjoy the book from start to finish bears that out I think… and I look forward to a second read beyond the inclement autumn days ahead. Before then I have much Aristotle to plow through and Chomsky and the charismatic Howard Zinn.
“History can come in handy. If you were born yesterday, with no knowledge of the past, you might easily accept whatever the government tells you. But knowing a bit of history–while it would not absolutely prove the government was lying in a given instance–might make you skeptical, lead you to ask questions, make it more likely that you would find out the truth.”
For the first time ever, the parcel of books I had sent contained nothing on chess theory. Being British, I buy the broadsheets we have to offer, as they are amongst the very best in the world, so I find my chess-theory there. The great thing about reading such columns is that if they are are poor, you can always use them to wrap your fish and chips the next day! For me, I leave the fish out…in chess that’s an unorthodox move but in life, whilst visiting the British Chess Championships in Eastbourne 1990. I ate a dodgy chicken burger on the pier there late evening and have not touched meat or fish ever since… .
Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world – Shelley -A defence of poetry