Edward Winter's Chess Explorations (71)

10/16/2011 – Which is the most difficult form of chess writing? Of course, each kind presents its own problems and pitfalls, but the Editor of Chess Notes focuses here on a genre which hardly anyone ventures upon nowadays although it used to be highly popular: an attempt to capture the essence of a chess master’s appearance and demeanour with some well-crafted words, in a pen-portrait.

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Chess Explorations (71)

By Edward Winter

The previous Chess Explorations article showed how easy it is to write about chess (if writers leave aside considerations of accuracy, honesty and decency). In contrast, there is a highly demanding form of writing which requires no particular chess expertise yet is almost universally avoided nowadays: the pen-portrait.

In former times it was common to read eloquent vignettes which strove to encapsulate, usually without caricature, the chief physical traits and mannerisms of chess masters, but, as we commented in C.N. 2637, ‘The pen-portrait is a form of chess reporting that has fallen into desuetude (as has the word desuetude)’. That item quoted some passages by ‘André de M.’ regarding the London, 1899 tournament from pages 210-213 of La Stratégie, 15 July 1899. For example, in our translation from the French:

‘It would, I think, be difficult to imagine two men more completely dissimilar than Lasker and Janowsky. Nothing disturbs Lasker; his shirt, his clothes are the least of his worries. He is hungry; he goes to the sideboard and returns with a bread roll, which he eats with gusto while continuing his game. His legs are in his way; he puts them over one of the arms of his chair and continues to play, smoking strong cigars; when he reflects deeply he blows the smoke through his moustache with a characteristic grimace.

Janowsky, by contrast, is correctness personified. Seated before his board, he remains almost totally immobile. With a dazzling shirt, Turkish cigarettes, ice-cold lemon-squash, which he sucks through a straw, he is a refined, sensitive player par excellence, a sybaritic player who may lose merely because of a rose-leaf being crumpled.

Pillsbury is a slim young man with lively, intelligent eyes, and a pale, clean-shaven face which has a sad, resigned air, as if chess were an extremely painful task for him.’

Further descriptions of the contestants in London, 1899 may be found in the American Chess Magazine, July 1899, page 10 and September 1899, page 116. One brief excerpt:

‘A real son of Anak is Maróczy, the Hungarian. He must be at least six feet three inches, and as he is tall so is he thin – a perfect lath, but hard as nails. The toughest game leaves him fresh, not a hair turned.’

C.N. 5696 quoted some pen-portraits concerning New York, 1889, from page 5 of the New York Times, 26 March 1889. The first three paragraphs are given below by way of illustration:

‘Most of the players have very well developed craniums, and most of them smoke, but they seem to differ in temperament and in the quality of liquids which they imbibe. Blackburne is about 50 years old, of a rather florid complexion, and deliberate in his movements. He is fond of smoking a short briarwood pipe, crossing his legs, and quietly waiting for his antagonist to rack his brains over the next move. His opponent was Mr Hanham, a nervous little gentleman of about the same age, who hardly ever takes his eyes from the chess board. As the game progresses color mounts to his face and fire in his eye.

Both Gunsberg and Burn are Englishmen, and are said to be well matched. Gunsberg is a blonde, with very deliberate movements and a habit of looking out of the corner of his eye at his opponent when he moves a piece, as though he expected to trip him up. Burn pulls his hat over his eyes with a “you-can’t-catch-me” expression as he deliberates, and not unfrequently changes an attack into a defense. Gunsberg sips seltzer, and Burn puffs away at a cigar.

Chigorin is a rather slender Russian, with black hair and dark complexion. His face is lighted up by thoughtful and large light-blue eyes. He is nervous in his manner, and, as the play proceeds, becomes more nervous, perhaps from drinking a large cup of strong coffee and smoking a cigar. He watches the game intently and deliberates long before making a move, when he sometimes gets up, stretches himself, and goes to another table, where he watches the game for a couple of minutes. His opponent, Delmar, is very well known to chessplayers in New York. He, also, is a coffee drinker and smoker, and is just as deliberate as Chigorin in his calculations and movements.’

A correspondent, Stephen Davies (Kallista, Australia), pointed out in C.N. 5710 that further descriptions appeared on page 8 of the New York Times, 16 June 1889. We pick out here the paragraph about Gunsberg:

‘... Isidor Gunsberg was brought up in London, and has the appearance of an Englishman. His hair is very light, and he is slightly bald on the top of his head. A little below the medium height, he is not slender. His eyes are weak and trouble him a little. In his movements and conversation he is deliberate, his chess training having probably disciplined him to be guarded in everything he undertakes. Unlike the other players, he neither smokes nor drinks, because both vices disagree with him. The only beverages he indulges in besides water are vichy and tea. ... If he refuses the offer of a draw he does so without any bluster, for he is modest and gentlemanly. When he wins, he nods, and smiles at his defeated antagonist.’

Decades later, the pen-portrait was still going strong. The following comes from pages 295-296 of the July 1925 BCM:

It may naturally be suggested that as photography and film became more widespread there was less call for the pen-portrait. On the other hand, such writing requires uncommon powers of observation and expressiveness, with sentences carefully honed and not simply dashed off in the manner of so much ‘chess writing’ nowadays.


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All ChessBase articles by Edward Winter


Edward Winter is the editor of Chess Notes, which was founded in January 1982 as "a forum for aficionados to discuss all matters relating to the Royal Pastime". Since then, over 7,300 items have been published, and the series has resulted in four books by Winter: Chess Explorations (1996), Kings, Commoners and Knaves (1999), A Chess Omnibus (2003) and Chess Facts and Fables (2006). He is also the author of a monograph on Capablanca (1989). In 2011 a paperback edition was issued.

Chess Notes is well known for its historical research, and anyone browsing in its archives will find a wealth of unknown games, accounts of historical mysteries, quotes and quips, and other material of every kind imaginable. Correspondents from around the world contribute items, and they include not only "ordinary readers" but also some eminent historians – and, indeed, some eminent masters. Chess Notes is located at the Chess History Center. Signed copies of Edward Winter's publications are currently available.


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