Morals and reasoning of chess

Throughout the history of game culture, dice and cards along with chess were frequently banned by the Church. Although some of the best players were clergymen, chess was often viewed as the work of the devil diverting the masses from work and worship - H.G. Wells thought that chess was a curse upon humanity furthering countering that there is no remorse like the remorse of chess.

Chess required time and attention which could be employed profitably elsewhere. To counter this objection Benjamin Franklin, a US politician, penned ‘The Morals of Chess’ in 1779 dedicated “To Ellie, the most tolerant of chess widows.”

Franklin regarded chess as an innocent character builder, brain food, not just “idle amusement.” It developed such qualities of mind as foresight, circumspection, caution, and “the habit of not being discouraged by present bad appearances…of hoping for a favourable change…of persevering in the search for resources.”

Franklin laid down the law: “No false move should ever be made to extricate yourself out of difficulty…if you touch a piece, you must move it somewhere; if you set it down, you must let it stand.”

About a hundred years after Franklin, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s ace detective Sherlock Holmes makes an appearance. Every so often a new piece of chess fiction appears featuring the deductive reasoning powers of Holmes at the chessboard. The only clue that Holmes played the game at all was his observation about a suspect: “Ambereley excelled at chess - one mark Watson, of a scheming mind.”

Despite this negative view of the game, chess enthusiasts continued to claim Holmes as their patron. In an article ‘The Hoax of His Career’ in ‘The Chess Atlas’ Thomas Hailey maintains that the master of disguise assumed the alias Harry Nelson Pillsbury, an unknown 22-year-old American genius who annihilated the worlds best chess players in his debut at Hastings 1895.

There were similarities. Pillsbury had a prodigious memory, an aquiline nose, hollowed cheek bones and piercing eyes. “Finally, he wearied as an active chess player and so he killed off Pillsbury in a fake death in 1906 and eventually retired from the detection arena to bee raising in Sussex,” theorises Mr Hailey.

Another side of the famed detective is revealed in Raymond Smullyan’s unusual book ‘The Chess Mysteries of Sherlock Holmes.’ Along with the violin and cocaine, it seems the resident of 221B Baker Street harboured a secret passion for chess problems in retrograde analysis. In ‘The Sign of the Four’ (1889) he did say “Give me problems.”

Unlike conventional chess puzzles that demand the shortest number of moves to mate, ‘retrograde problems’ deal with the past history of a game, requiring us to work backwards. “These problems are intriguing studies in pure deductive reasoning. They might be said to lie on the borderline between logic and chess,” says Smullyan. Holmes further enhanced his credentials with his fans in ‘The Adventure of the Reigate Puzzle’ where he used graphology, the study of hand writing, to catch his prey.

Retrograde chess is further clarified by Jose R Capablanca, the 3rd world champion - “In order to improve your game, you must study the endgame before everything else, for, whereas the endings can be studied and mastered by themselves, the middle-game and the opening must be studied in relation to the endgame.”