Josef's Site

Essay on Chess

 Story twenty three:  TRADITION OF 1000 YEARS


         Have you heard about the famous village named Ströbeck in Germany? Most likely, Harry Potter would say: “This is a chess Fairyland!”

         For a thousand years, all residents of this area have been playing chess. The game had been taught at the local school as an optional subject since 1823. From that time, yearly championships were held here. I saw a list of the winners – there were more than 160 names.

        One fine day, local chess teachers have organized a humorous tournament that attracted attention of both children and adults. At home, kids set parents a task looking for magical decisions. Only one job was in the spotlight (See diagram # 107).        

         According to the author of this composition, P. Drumer (1965), Black makes his last move with the pawn f2 to f1 that hasn’t been promoted jet, and White in this situation mates the Black king in three and… a half moves.

                    Probably, Black in a hurry does not have time to put in place the new-fashioned piece. Which one?

        As the saying goes, it’s better to see something once than to hear about it hundred times. I have visited to this well-known village in the Halberstadt district where chess became an integral part of the cultural tradition and customs of local people.

         For example, in the old days the bridegroom had to “win” his bride by playing chess against her parents. If the parents did not play chess well themselves, they asked the village leader or the mayor to play in their place, against the groom. The candidate, the suitor, had a great problem: either win the bride at the chessboard or pay out money. In case of failure the suitor lost his beloved and in addition had to pay a big fine.

         This custom brought money to the community because it was very difficult to win against the village leader who was always a good chess player. The bridegroom had to train a lot. He tried hard to play and to think clearly and well during the game in order to win against the mayor.

         Ströbeck became a “chess village” in 1068 when a prisoner, the Slavic prince Gunselin, made the time go by faster by playing chess. He taught the game to his guards, men from this village, and chess continued to gain in popularity there.

         The game of chess in the village of Ströbeck spread far and wide. In fact, kings and bishops freed the town of the duty of paying tribute on condition that the inhabitants were prepared at times to play chess with visitors.

         Early in 1986, I was there as an International master and journalist from Moscow.  I saw a high stone tower, where prince Gunselin sat in confinement. I was first invited to a local restaurant which was named “Chess.” Here, there was a big journal-diary, in which all chess events of Ströbeck had been written down since 1886.

         The first event registered in this book was about Emanuel Lasker who gave a simultaneous exhibition there. His brother, Bertold Lasker, also a chess master, likewise played there simultaneously in 1925. Here I met an old man who played against him. His name, if I remember correctly, was Mihaelis. He was included in the diary with the 24 names of other participants. This event was described in great detail.



         I met an old man who made chess pieces with which the champions of Ströbeck were rewarded every year. More than a hundred chess players regularly participated in the annual championships. These traditional competitions were organized by chess teachers from a local school which became the center of chess life in this village.

        I was invited to give a couple of chess lessons there. First, I played simultaneously against 22 schoolchildren. One game was a short one (my opponent had Black): 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 d6 4.Nc3 Bg4 5.h3 Bh5 4.Nxe5 Bxd1 (6…Nxe5 7.Qxh5 Nxc4 8.Qb5+ c6 9.Qxc4) 7.Bxf7 Ke7 8.Nd5 Mate.

         I asked my youthful partner: “Have you ever seen a combination called “Legal Mate?” The German schoolboy shook his head negatively. Afterwards, during school hours, there was a great deal of talk about that. The chess teacher, Josef Saseck, talked with competence.

         The idea was born in 1787. Two players began their game with Philidor’s Defense: 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 d6 3.Bc4 Nc6 4.Nc3 Bg4 5.Nxe5 Bxd1 6.Bxf7+ Ke7 7.Nd5 Mate.

          This game had been going on for several minutes. The winner was called Legal. He came upon this idea at the age of 85! The loser’s name was Cen Bry. Both players were French. Their game took place at the famous Café Regence in Paris. One more interesting detail: Legal taught the famous Philidor.

         At that time and later, this beautiful idea became widely popular at tournaments in Europe. Soon the “Legal Mate” turned into a theatrical musical comedy called “The Navel Kadet.” This performance was played on the stage with living pieces. Every evening, actors showed the audience such moves: 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 d6 3.Nc3 Bg4 4.Bc4 Nc6 5.0-0 Nd4 6. Nxe5 Bxd1?

         An improvident beginner would take a queen gladly (it is necessary to play 6…dxe5 7.Qxg4 Nxc2 8.Qh5)

 7. Bxf7+ Ke7 8.Nd5 Mate!

         The villagers of Ströbeck liked this story. The local restaurant’s cook baked a new  pie named “Legal’s Mate.”

         The first persons who tasted this delicious tart were German grandmasters. They arrived to Ströbeck from the adjacent town where a training session for the national team was held. All participants indulged in interesting discussions on different aspects of the game. Interesting arguments under the guidance of the experienced and educated German trainer, Ernst Bönsch, continued even in the restaurant Chess, in presence of Ströbeck amateurs. During my visit to this chess village, Bönsch’s son, Uwe, earned a grandmaster title and subsequently the main chess trainer of Germany.

         Once, Bönsch brought up a talk about Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the King of German literature, whose pithy words were: “Chess is the touchstone of the intellect.”

         Goethe (1749-1832) was born in Frankfurt am Main but did not stay there long. He liked the picturesque surroundings where Ströbeck was located. His genius embraced most field of human endeavor, including chess. Goethe’s art and thought are epitomized in his great dramatic poem Faust.

         One o the most important lessons expressed in this work is between learning and experience. This difference is also a concern in chess life. Lately, many masters give preference to uninterrupted practicing, tournament by tournament, to improving chess knowledge. The game requires work without assistance and an accurate analysis of one’s own games as well as those of others. There isn’t enough time for that.

         Let’s pay attention to another aspect. It is known that the opening theory is “the first book to be read” by every chess player. In short, develop your pieces quickly and well, control the center, keep your king safe. From the time your game begins, you should remember that every move you make may affect your chances in the endgame. Unfortunately, present tournament conditions force the participants to play endgame quickly. As the result, many players stop studying intensively this important part of chess.       

         Another day, the conversation turned to psychology in chess. The German grandmaster, Lutz Espig, recollected his playing in the 1971 International tournament in Dubna, near Moscow. Among the participants was the Mongolian champion, Tudev Uitumen. The first International master in Mongolia, he played successfully in different European competitions. During the Interzonal tournament in Spain (1970), he even beat Samuel Reshevsky. From the very outset, Tudev began to teach his colleagues how Mongolians started to play chess.

          Tamerlane, the Mongolian ruler and conqueror of the 14th century, was a chess enthusiast. He considered two pastimes worthy of a warrior: hunting and chess. Tamerlane even invited chess teachers to his capital to instruct surroundings in the game. All were surpassed by the best player, Galaldin, who often gave his partners the odds of a queen. Tamerlane used to tell him: “You are first on the chessboard, as I am first in the country. We are both invisible in our own domain.”

          The tournament duel between Uitumen and Espig was an instructive one from the psychological point of view. Espig suddenly lost before he finished the tournament. It was an utter defeat. The whole night he analyzed this game. He did not drop off to sleep.           

         The next day, in the last round, Espig played against the Armenian grandmaster, Rafael Vaganian, and fell sleeping at the chessboard. He awoke when the round was over. The German grandmaster lost again. Later Espig explained to his fans: “I had a dream that I beat Uitumen.” 

        Let’s return to Ströbeck. I was impressed how the chess teacher, Josef Saseck, arranged an interesting demonstration with living chess pieces. The local school had had a set of chess costumes for a long time. Such demonstrative games (with human chess pieces) were always played during local festivals. The school boys and girls dressed in beautiful chess costumes, and made smooth motions on a big chessboard which covered the main village square.

People dressed as chess pieces

         I was invited to play with living chess pieces in the same place. The mayor of Ströbeck, Peter Zarodnik, was my chess partner. Many people were present at this enthralling sight. After that, the villagers gathered in the local club to hear an amateur concert. In order to keep up the tradition, people first performed the village hymn, named “The song about chess in Ströbeck.” I was present at such a party.

         Well, what do you think was the result of my playing with the mayor of Ströbeck?

         Draw, of course! It was a friendly meeting. When the game was over, an amusing chess task was shown on the big chessboard {See diagram # 112}. The leading part was performed by a living horse. The rider, as in circus, knew well knight’s jumps…        

         For the last three centuries, the young people of Ströbeck have been acting living games. In feudal times the village was obliged by an edict to stage such a show at all royal coronations.

         Chess as a struggle between opposing individuals or armies inevitably invites personification. The idea came very early of enlarging the board to the size of a court-yard and replacing wooden pieces by living actors. So “living chess” was created. The scope for the spectacle is obvious. Staged games of chess, offered to an audience in a decorative setting, are as attractive today as centuries ago.

         The oldest written account of living chess dates back five hundred years. The well-known French writer of those days, Francois Rabelais, described such play in his novel “Gargantua and Pantagruel.” It was a series of very episodic tales about the adventures of the giant Gargantua and his son Pantagruel.

         It would be interesting to know if there are any documents describing real life chess exhibitions in Europe, earlier than the 15th century. In China, living chess was practiced earlier still and has survived unchanged up to the present day. When the world champion, Alexander Alekhine, visited China in 1933, he witnessed a spectacle of this kind in a city square.

          In 1554, the Italian town of Marostica witnessed a chess duel between rivals for the hand of the local governor’s daughter. An attempt to settle their problem by the sword had led to the arrest of both admirers.

         Another living chess exhibition, held in Italy in the 16th century, was described by the Polish writer Karol Libert (1807-75), in a short story “A Game of Chess”. Living chess became a frequent subject for ballet on the stage as a spectacle in itself or as a part of an opera or play.

         Solutions # 108: 1.fxg8Q Qxf4 2.Qgxg5 Qxg5 3.Qxg5; # 109: 1.fxg8R Rxf4  2.Rxg5! Rxe4 3.Rxg3; # 110.1.fxg8B g4 2.Bc4 Kxe4 3.Qe6; # 111: 1.fxg8N Nh2 2.Ne7 and 3. Nd5; # 112.1.Nc2+ Ka2 2.Nd4 Ka1 3.Kc2 Ka2 4.Ne2 Ka1 5.Nc1.