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Essay on Chess

 Story twenty one: DID HAMLET PLAY CHESS?

          At the beginning of the twentieth century, a collector of paintings, Francis de Haimen from New York, bought a mysterious painting in which two men play chess. Who were they? People who really existed or the fruit of an artistic imagination? The most varied conjectures were also made with regard to the authorship.

          Meanwhile, it was impossible to determine the true price of this acquisition without clarifying these questions that worried de Haimen considerably. He invited experts to decode the secret of this canvas. After prolonged investigations and discussions, they arrived at a common opinion: the picture was painted by the Dutch artist Karel van Mander who was popular as a compiler of the biography summary of Dutch and German artists. Experts could also ascertain the approximate year of the canvas’ creation – 1603, and were fully confident that the people depicted here were two English dramatists – William Shakespeare and Benjamin Johnson.

         Thus, answers to the main questions were found, but it was impossible to completely lift the veil of mystery surrounding the picture. Up to now it was not clear where this masterpiece was kept for 275 years, from 1603 to 1878, when it was discovered by chance in America.

         Nevertheless, the significance of what they succeeded in establishing was enormous. The picture, which was painted during Shakespeare’s and Johnson’s lifetime, became one more document confirming their friendship. By the way, historical sources showed this, and at the same time they mentioned the “battle of theaters” that implied that there was a difference of opinion between both great dramatists on problems in art.

        By coincidence, these experts were also experienced in the field of chess.  According to an arrangement of pieces, they determined that Shakespeare was portrayed as if he stood on the right side and held a bishop in his hand, and prepared to checkmate his opponent. Johnson, who, upon giving a start of surprise, threw up his right hand. This meant “I resign!”

         At that time, Black quite often began the game (See diagram). Therefore, Black pieces took up the squares at the bottom of the board. Shakespeare lifted up his bishop from the point ‘e5’, intending to beat the opponent’s queen on ‘f6’. It was an obvious decision. One more sign, and White’s king would be checkmated!

        400 years after publishing this picture, I had an interesting conversation about it in the local chess club. Once, I arranged pieces on the chess board, demonstrating the game between Shakespeare and Johnson. My friends drew their attention to the impossible position of the white pawns on the queen’s side. One could not explain how a double pawn appeared on the a-file. Their arguments were convincing. There are all eight white pawns on the chessboard but, in no way could the white pawn on g-file end up at the queen side. Hence, the arrangement of white pawns is unreal. Where did the black bishop, that Shakespeare held in his hand, stand?  Probably, he stood on square‘e5’. What happened before? The White queen was on h6 and the black bishop – on ‘c7’. Shakespeare declared his check – Bc7-e5+. White could close the main diagonal –f7-f6. But Johnson gives up his queen. This reasoning was logical.

         One can suppose that Johnson was well disposed towards Shakespeare and did not want to distress his chess partner. Johnson lost this game on purpose... He threw up his hand as if missing his queen was unexpected. Every dramatist is an actor in his heart!

         That’s just what it means: “Shakespeare mates Johnson!” Yes, it was like this in the first years of the 17th century. Johnson’s drama was a failure, but Shakespeare was at the peak of his creative ability. Was this plot chosen accidentally?

         Probably, the artist really saw both dramatists playing chess. Experts in painting and antiquary who studied this picture at the beginning of the last century established that the author of this work was also a dramatist and chess player. Therefore, Karel van Mander turned his eyes upon chess subjects. One can justly note: Chess has many intersections with art.

          The opinion was also expressed that the disposition of pieces and the general view on the canvas resembles the illustration of the fate of King Lear who was betrayed and abandoned. In fact, there are direct mentions of chess in some of Shakespeare’s works.

         Let’s remember the dialog between Katherina and Hortensio from the play “The Taming of the Shrew.”  The irritated Katherina gives the cue:” I pray, you, sir, is it your will to make a state of me amongst these mates?” It is a play on words that means also: “In order to make me a laughing-stock for these madmen?”

         It is an astute comment, if we take into consideration that stalemate was then not a draw but a victory over anyone who was stalemated. A chess player who admitted a stalemate became a target for malicious insult. Stalemate was a laughing-stock! This pun becomes convincing evidence of the popularity of chess during Shakespeare’s time.

         Pay attention to the drawing that was made in England four hundred years ago: chess players determine which of them will move first. The two pawns missing from the board are concealed in the hands of the player on the left (It is an illustration from the title page of The Famous Game of Chess-Play, 1614).

Painting of 1614

         The characters in the play “The life and death of King John” carry on a dialog in which the audience hears such words as “be a queen and check the world!

         Probably, the word “check” with the meaning of a “threat” was also used in colloquial speech. But this implied that then the queen became more powerful in England. A reform also appeared in chess when in the queen in real life was getting enormously strong and could “check” the whole world! It is a brilliant, colorful comparison. But before the queen in medieval chess did not have such mobility.

        In ancient times, this piece was perceived as the king’s wife. The queen moved on the whole board like a pawn, her feminine weakness and modesty commanded her to hold close to the king, avoiding struggles. But some centuries passed, and the chess queen found great strength; she dictates her will, having power even over the king.

          Here is a unique position with a minimum quantity of chess pieces. It illustrates the power of a queen (See diagram # 101).

        The condition of this task is unusual. One needs to mate the Black king in the least number of moves, and it is known that the White king does not have to move from his place. The solution is like a “Ladies’ waltz” - the white queen asks the black king to dance. A dancing lesson!      1. Qf6+ Kh7 2.Qf8 Kg6 3.Qe7 Kh6 4.Qf7 Kg5 5.Qe6 Kh5 6.Qf6 Kg4 7.Qe5 Kh4 8.Qf5 Kg3 9.Qe4 Kh3 10.Qf4 Kg2 11.Qe3 Kh1! 12.Qe2! Kg1 13.Qe4! Kh2! 14.Qf3 Kg1 15.Qh3 Kf2 16.Qg4 Ke3 17.Qf5 Ke2 18.Qf4 Ke1 19.Qd2+ Kf1 20.Qh2 Ke1 21.Qg2 Kd1 22.Qd2. Mate!

         Let’s return to van Mander’s canvas.

         Perhaps the artist was mistaken: the unnecessary white pawn on ‘a5’ was a black one. Besides, when the picture was found at the beginning of the 20th century, it was in a bad state. The canvas was partly cracked, covered with soot and dust. The old picture needed restoring. It was probably made with chess pieces of incomprehensible form that were typical in those days. Some amateurs voiced the supposition that Shakespeare, by beating white’s knight also took the missing knight’s pawn ‘g7’.  Moving this pawn to the side, he could deliver without care on the square ‘a5’.  But that was one of the riddles of this brightly colored excellent composition. It was unlikely to reveal the riddle of the picture itself.

          In 1975, Nicaragua issued a stamp “William Shakespeare and Ben Johnson play chess”. One could also to perceive a microscopic inscription on this stamp “With the courteous permission of William M. de Haimen” who was one of the descendents of the New York collector of paintings. This inscription explained why this work of art of the 17th century was absent from museum exhibits. The picture was probably left to the ownership of Haimen’s family though, in due course, the multimillionaire J.Morgan tried to buy it for a million dollars. Other rich men also wanted it. For the present, it is most likely that this masterpiece is in accessible to museums and galleries, and lovers of painting and chess can admire it on the postage stamp only.

          Several years ago, I played at the traditional New York Open and in my spare time was looking for this painting in the city’s art galleries. But I could not find it.  I shared my thoughts with other participants and we decided: it doesn’t matter where the painting is, for chess it is more important that Shakespeare liked the game!

         I knew that the great English dramatist used chess terms as good figurative comparisons in his literary dialogues. Probably he depicted chess pieces as living people. For instance, in those days the king had a very strong personality who was feared, and people lived in dread of him. But he had weaknesses, too, and sometimes was helpless.

          Sometimes, I separated myself from chess moves and pondered over Shakespeare’s King Lear. His fortune could be compared with a dethroned chess king. During this game, I thought first of all about protecting my king from possible assaults because I knew how superior forces deal with the enemy in another game.

                                       COLLE SYSTEM                                


                                         Moscow, 1949

1.d4 Nf6 2.Nf3 e6 3.Bg5

         This move was first made by the American grandmaster F. Marshall in 1927. His opponent, J.R.Capablanca answered 3…c5 4.e3 Nc6 5. Nbd2 b6 6.c3 Be7 7.Bd3 0-0. The 3rd world champion was an unsurpassed master of creative play in simple positions. It was a very strong point of his chess.  Every young player who strives for success should study Capablanca’s games.

          The 9th world champion, Tigran Petrosian recalled that in his youth he fell “asleep with and awoke with” Capablanca’s textbook. Therefore, Petrosian played positional with great skill. He could win with a minute advantage because his understanding of chess was very deep.

         Petrosian analyzed the game Marshall-Capablanca for a long time and found a lot of interesting ideas for White.

3…c5 4.e3 Be7

        Black has to play exactly. If 4…b6, then 5.d5! exd5 6.Nc3 Bb7 It is dangerous to take 9…Qxb2 because of 10.Rd1! Qc3+ 11.Rd2 Qa1+ 12.Ke2 Nc6?? 13. Qd7 Mate. In case of 10…Qb4+, White continues 11.c3! Qxc3+ 12.Rd2 Qa1+ 13.Ke2 and wins

 5. Nbd2 d5 6.c3 Nbd7 7.Bd3 0-0 8.Ne5 Nxe5 9.dxe5 Nd7

(See diagram # 102)

         Pay attention to the pawn on e5. White gets a strong outpost in the center. Please take another chessboard and look at the development of White’s attack.

Petrosian and J. Vatnikov

         Probably during Shakespeare’s time the ordinary people were portrayed figuratively as chess pawns. One character in the play “King Lear” compares his life with a chess pawn. What does the dramatist mean? Maybe the pawn is a good toiler but has a bad fate? Or Shakespeare depicted his character as a weak person? At the same time one could see the incredible power of pawns. As bold and brave soldiers, they never retreat. Not infrequently, a pawn plays an important part in this battle.

         After 10.Bxe7 Qxe7 11.f4 f6 Black destroys White’s outpost on e5. But now it is unpleasant: 10…f6 11.Qh5 g6? 12.Bxg6 hxg6 13.Qxg6+ Kh8 14.h4! fxe5 15.Qh5+ Kg8 16.Bh6 Rf6 17.Rh3 and the attack goes on.  11…f5 is better.

10…f5 11.h4!
         White is planning g2-g4 (11…Bxh4? 12.Qh5!)

11…c4 12.Bc2 b5 13.Nf3   

          In order to continue 14.Ng5! For example: 13…b4 14.Ng5 Nc5 15.Qh5 h6 16.Qg6. If 14…Bxg5 15.hxg5 Qe7 16.Rxh7! Kxh7 17.Qh5+ Kg8 18.g6 Nf6 19.Qh2! White threatens 20.Ke2 and 21.Rh1. Black doesn’t escape after 19…Qe8 20.exf6 Qxg6 21.fxg7 Kxg7 22.Be5+ Kf7 23.Bd1! and wins.

13…Nc5 14.g4 b4 15.gxf5

         15. Nd4! is preferable.

15…exf5 16.Ng5 g6

 Black had a chance to repulse White’s attack: 16…h6 17.Qh5 Nd3+ 18.Bxd3 cxd3 19.Qg6 hxg5 20.hxg5 Qe8 21.Qh7+ Kf7 22.Rh6 Rg8, but did not use this opportunity.

17. h5 Nd3+

         The continuation 17...Bxg5 18.Bxg5 Qxg5+ 19.Qxd5+ Be6 20.Qxc5 gives an indisputable advantage to White.

18.Bxd3 cxd3 19.hxg6 hxg6 20.Qxd3 bxc3 21.bxc3 Bxg5 22.Bxg5 Qa5 23.Bf6 Re824.Qd4 Kf7 25.e6+ Rxe6 26.Bd8! 1-0

         After 27.Qxd8 28.Rh7+, mate is inevitable. The black king as a poor man if he is leaving to the mercy of fate

          I went into this game in detail to demonstrate how the black king feels when in danger. There were instructive exercises for beginners and also for highly skilled players. Petrosian showed a method and technique of attack on the king’s side.

          Let’s return to the tournament game where I was dizzy with “theatrical ideas”. I played against a 15-year-old teen, Morgan Pehme of New Yourk (White). His father told me later that before the game his chess teacher showed Morgan many Petrosian’s variations in this opening system.

         Here the “revue” with King Lear and Faust begins (See diagram # 103).

         Both opponents get an open file. Whose side will make better use of this “performance”? Which rook will play first fiddle?

         The capture of the open line is an important factor because the rook penetrates   opponent’s rear. The danger of such an invasion is shown in the following “scene”: 28…Rd2 29.Rxe6 Rcd8 30.Rxb6 Rc2 31.a4 R8d2 32.b4 Rxg2+ 33.Kh1 Rxh2+ 34.Kg1 Rcg2+ 35.Kf1 h5 36.bxa5 h4 37.a6 h3 and 38…Rh1 Checkmate!

28…Rd2 29.Rb1 Rcd8 30.Kf1 Rc2 31.Re2 Rdd2 32.Rxd2 Rxd2

       It was clear that Black achieved a positional advantage. Its rook was more active than the White one, the white king was cut off from the other forces. At this moment, a feeling of pity over King Lear’s fate seized me. The white king, like Shakespeare’s vis-à-vis, looked like a person who gave way to despair.

33. a3 Kf7 34.c4 Rc2 35.b3 Ke7 36.Rd1 Ra2 37.a4 Rb2 38.Rd3 g5 39.Kg1 h5 40.h4 g4 41.Kh2 gxf3 42.Rxf3 f5 43.Rd3 Kf6 44.Kg3 Ke5 45.Kf3

         After 45.Re3+ the proud black king is having broken through on the queen side via Kd6-c5-b4.


          Zugzwang, White has no useful moves. If 46.Rc3 Kd4 47.Rc1 e5, Black has chances to win.

46. g3 fxg3 47.Kxg3 Ke4

         The black king, as a masterful man, dictates his will. He proved the rule that the king is the strongest piece in the endgame.

 48. Rf3 e5 49.Rf6 Rxb3+ 50.Kg2 Rb4 51.Rh6 Rxa4 52.Rxb6 Rxc4 53.Rh6 a4 54.Rxh5 a3 55. Rh6 Ra4 56.Rg6 Kd5 0-1

         Imagine how both kings felt. White’s king was similar to King Lear. His black opponent was akin to Faust after the drama of the same name by the famous German playwright Johann Wolfgang Goethe. Black’s king, like Faust, regained his youth and with it, his youthful enthusiasm, strength and energy.

         In an American film-fantasy, A Safe Place (1971), the old magician, an ex-prodigy who was able to recite whole passages from King Lear when he was two, surprised everyone by announcing that he didn’t know how to play the game. The moves he makes in the film, therefore, have only symbolic significance: the magician can perform magic not only in life but on the chessboard as well…But in any event both pursuits can be seen in this context as an escape from reality.

          Studies of Hamlet, the famous character of Shakespeare’s drama, are ubiquitous. We know the Danish prince as if he lived among us. But all who have written about Hamlet passed over in silence the one question: Did Hamlet play chess?

         The man who finally raised this question was none other than the world champion Emanuel Lasker. As a philosopher, he commented on the game between grandmasters Spielmann and Yanowsky played in Carlsbad in 1907, and wrote about the artist’s sense of chess. This feeling impels players with fantasy to withstand the temptation to make simple, obvious though strong moves, and gives them a powerful incentive to create combinations which are born in the fight against truism. From time to time, this gift creates geniuses but makes them vulnerable to mistakes which can never happen to the average player. Sometimes the possessor of an artist’s sense is forced to be indecisive and doubtful. After all, he transforms himself into the Hamlet of the chessboard.

         Lasker put an interesting question to himself: did Hamlet play chess?

         It seemed most likely to the world champion that he did and, if yes, his playing was rather bad but satiated with creative fantasy and the aspiration to make the next move better than usual. Quite the contrary, this often leads to worse moves.

          “Hamlets of the chessboard are numerous,” Lasker concludes. They often are deep in thought looking for the most complicated chess combinations and getting lost in their own stratagems which cease being viable. Then the fate delivers the cruel blow of common sense, waking them up from their dreams.

           Further, Lasker tells how Yanowsky, being forced to make a simple and useful move, is indignant at this necessity, and, as a result, suffers a defeat.

         These philosophic commentaries suggest an idea to the reader: who is Lasker himself? Of course, he was not the Hamlet of the chessboard. But he was also not a man of “daily common sense.”  Lasker strove for the synthesis of a fighter and an artist.