Edgar Allen Poe's diatribe against chess

by Sergio Ernesto Negri
10/31/2018 – On this All Hallows Eve, we examine the chess connections of one of literature's great spooky storytellers, the American author Edgar Allen Poe. (See part one!) Poe was curiously dismissive of chess, comparing it unfavourably to both draughts and the classic English card game Whist. In the process, he attempted to weigh the relative importance of calculation and analysis, and while he clearly misunderstood the game by our modern estimation, his work carries tremendous literary weight and influenced generations, including writers who would also use chess for its metaphorical powers in their stories.

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Dupin's checkmate

Poe, in his work of fiction The Murders in the Rue Morgue, from 1841 is considered the first detective story of modern times and, therefore, the precursor of a whole genre. Chess is given a remarkable role.

The author is interested in distinguishing the difference between calculating and analysing. He defends the pre-eminence of the latter, and to do so uses chess, although his assessment of the game is not particularly flattering:

The mental features discoursed of as the analytical, are, in themselves, but little susceptible of analysis. We appreciate them only in their effects. (...) Yet to calculate is not in itself to analyse. A chess-player, for example, does the one without effort at the other. It follows that the game of chess, in its effects upon mental character, is greatly misunderstood.

A slap (and without anaesthetic) for those of us who love the game! It is possible to speculate that Poe had not delved deeply enough into the game or to say, as Jorge Luis Borges ironically suggested, that Poe simply was not a good chess player. 

What is striking is that he could not see that chess players, particularly those who compete at the master level, actually need to make use of analysis. That is a core element of the complex game. Calculation intervenes, of course, but on the contrary, it is necessary but not sufficient. Chess players not only calculate but also analyse, reason, imagine, invent, memorise. Many scientific works have shown this, in the fields of psychology, neuroscience, and so on.

If this characterisation of chess seems unfortunate, what is there to say about Poe's idea that chess is placed below draughts? This unfortunate comparison, which is intuitively incorrect, was later duly verified: specific computational analyses has shown the greater complexity of chess in comparison to all other traditional board games (except go).

As is well known, the influence of chess has been more powerful than that of any other board game, if we take into account its millenary history, the level of interest that has awakened over time, the existence of competitions throughout the world, the scope of its specialised bibliography, the treatment it has received in mass media, the scientific studies devoted to it and its permanent insertion in society and culture.

Poe, who could not or did not want to see all this, assured: "...the higher powers of the reflective intellect are more decidedly and more usefully tasked by the unostentatious game of draughts than by all the elaborate frivolity of chess". 'Frivolity of chess', an unfair and painful concept. Another slap... 

More on his disproportionate assessment of the game of draughts:

In draughts, on the contrary, where the moves are unique and have but little variation, the probabilities of inadvertence are diminished, and the mere attention being left comparatively what advantages are obtained by either party are obtained by superior acumen.

Contrarily, about chess, he assures:

...where the pieces have different and bizarre motions, with various and variable values, what is only complex is mistaken (a not unusual error) for what is profound. The attention is here called powerfully into play. If it flag for an instant, an oversight is committed, resulting in injury or defeat. The possible moves being not only manifold but involute, the chances of such oversights are multiplied; and in nine cases out of ten it is the more concentrative rather than the more acute player who conquers.

The fact that the complex can be confused for depth and that it is possible for the most concentrated player to prevail over the most penetrating one can be, in certain cases, admitted within the field of chess. Yet we believe that, when assuring this, Poe confused the exception with the rule; the concrete with the systemic; the possible with the necessary; a part with the whole.

Poe, probably unintentionally, made the humiliating comparison between draughts and chess, and one needs to be even more tolerant with him when one remembers that he also gave supremacy to another game (over chess): whist. And, when doing so, he once again belittles chess:

Whist has long been noted for its influence upon what is termed the calculating power; and men of the highest order of intellect have been known to take an apparently unaccountable delight in it while eschewing chess as frivolous. Beyond doubt, there is nothing of a similar nature so greatly tasking the faculty of analysis. The best chess-player in Christendom may be little more than the best player of chess; but proficiency in whist implies a capacity for success in all these more important undertakings where mind struggles with mind. When I say proficiency, I mean that perfection in the game which includes a comprehension of all the sources whence legitimate advantage may be derived. These are not only manifold but multiform, and lie frequently among recesses of thought altogether inaccessible to the ordinary understanding.

At least we have one consolation: Poe seems to mend fences with chess players by saying that one that is capable of concentration might eventually become a good whist player.

The obsession of the American revolves around whether it is possible to differentiate between analytical power and simple ingenuity. He thinks that, while the analyst is necessarily ingenious, the ingenious man is often remarkably incapacitated for analysis. In this framework, he considered that ingenuity could occur in individuals whose intellect bordered on idiocy. He believed that the ingenious man possesses the ability to fantasise while the truly imaginative man is always an analyst. In any case, Poe was worried about people ineptly falling into the risks raised by depth. Poetically (Poe-tically?!), he stated: "The depth lies in the valleys where we seek her, and not upon the mountain-tops where she is found".

After discussing these issues, the author presented the plot of a beautiful story, which is considered the first mystery story of modern times, in which we submerge after having tolerated Poe's diatribe against chess in its initial lines.

The protagonist Auguste Dupin, a Frenchman who would later appear again and again in Poe's stories, interacts with the narrator in investigative tone, in a dialectic in which both are trying to anticipate the thoughts that live inside the other person's brain — which could have been viewed from a chess perspective.

Dupin, thanks to analysis (and not to the reviled calculation), deciphers — unlike an incompetent policeman — two crimes that were committed in Morgue Street. He used all the published news about the case and his personal findings while prowling the scene of the crimes, obtaining information that would be crucial for the successful result of the investigation.

As it had been argued that simplicity is the purest and highest form of rationalisation — and following that logic, draughts is considered to be superior to chess — it is a surprise to find out that the author of the crimes was none other than...[Spoiler alert!]

...a wild orangutan from Borneo!

Even after this surprising ending, it is inevitable to recognise that Poe deploys, in The Murders in the Rue Morgue (public domain PDF), all his power of analysis, which is now commonplace in mystery stories, and which has always been notorious in chess — despite the American author's ignorance in this regard.

Many of the writers that followed the path traced by Poe, with this story as a starting point, in their respective oeuvres, learn to use chess as a narrative resource. In that sense, Poe was very beatific to chess, despite his relationship with the most influential of games.

In this group of notable authors, we shall include numerous English-speaking writers, who incorporated chess in their respective stories, such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930); Raymond Chandler (1888-1959); Agatha Christie (1890-1976); William Faulkner (1897-1962); Truman Capote (1924-1984)...The list can be largely extended.

The same thing happens when we move to other latitudes and include other languages. To mention only two of the most prestigious authors, we can refer to the Argentine Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) and the Spaniard Arturo Pérez-Reverte (born 1951).

Chess appeared in literature linked to wars and battles, mythological stories, epic songs, the world of love, cavalry stories, the parallelism with the evolution of societies, the spiritual and transcendental world — and we are not being completely exhaustive — and now a new possibility was introduced: chess in mystery stories. Therefore, we must be very thankful for Poe, who generated a new literary space where chess can venture and deploy all its metaphorical strength.

We can only reproach Poe for not having investigated a little more deeply into the nature of the millenary game, for not having been able to detect in it the power of representation that no other so-called pastime has ever achieved. He also failed to notice that the very logic of his mystery stories — and this literary genre in its entirety — can be looked at from the analytical perspective that is inherent to chess.

Always Borges 

Borges, always Borges! He was one of those who more strongly held that his admired Poe had created the crime fiction genre; he also shared with the American the passion for mirrors, labyrinths and doubles. Nonetheless, the Argentine settled this particular issue with the game by ensuring that the kind of stories that the American left for us can be conceived and solved following the strict logic of a game of chess.

In an interview with the expert in games Jaime Poniachik, Borges concretely expressed, "Poe, in The Murders in the Rue Morgue, attacks chess and says that he prefers the game of draughts; that is absurd". Although he later seems to agree with the American when he refers to an event in his life: "He mentions that, '...the best chess-player in Christendom may be little more than the best player of chess'. Of course, he has an ability and nothing else. I know a lady, a woman of the world, very, very frivolous. She played with my father, she faced very good players, she talked about hats and fashion with my mother — she moved the pieces and always won! She was not smart at all. Very charming, very cute, very frivolous, very silly, but I do not know how she got that ability, and it reminded me of Poe: she was a very good chess player and nothing else".

Additionally, in dialogue with Fernando Sorrentino, Borges, referring to the comparison with draughts and whist, points out, "...I do not think they are comparable to chess, for example". From his perspective, he only assigns value to Truco, a typical card game from Argentina, although always on a smaller scale compared with chess: "...I think Truco has superiority over other games. Of course, not over chess..."; nor in comparison with bridge — another game that Borges respected, as he immediately clarified.

Borges at Poe's grave

Edgar Allan Poe was not only a remarkable writer but also made contributions as an intellectual, the most important of all being the introduction of a new literary school of thought.

His diatribe against chess, despite seeming badly oriented, nevertheless generated a space of reflection that enriches the game. We should acknowledge the fact that the author proposed a basis for debate, a necessary element when it comes to growth. Intellectuals open the way, with their acute analysis, to generate debates, extending the margins of consciousness.

We should also thank him for having created a new genre in the field of literature, that of detective stories, the crime fiction genre, where mystery is a central element. Very interesting and influential plots are created within this field. They were written by other authors, who found in chess an important narrative resource in the description of stories and due to its metaphorical power. In that sense, perhaps unknowingly, Poe was not only was a great writer but he also became metaphorically, a great chess player (and we do not intend to offend him!).

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Sergio was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina. He is Master FIDE, who developed studies on the relationship of chess with culture and history.
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NJD NJD 11/2/2018 04:15
I believe the point Poe was trying to make was that reasoning through a "decision tree" with very clear rules is not quite the same as "deep thinking" or "calculation"...
Karbuncle Karbuncle 11/1/2018 05:11
There's some irony in that in modern times, we now 'enlighten' people on the complexity of situations by saying "This is Chess, not Checkers".
Timothy Chow Timothy Chow 11/1/2018 12:48
Another great writer who made some dubious comments about chess is Tolstoy. In "War and Peace," one of the characters says that the difference between war and chess is that in chess, "a knight is always stronger than a pawn, and two pawns are always stronger than one, while in war a battalion is sometimes stronger than a division and sometimes weaker than a company."
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