Culture and Civilisations

Chess, cricket, chickens and Nostradamus 

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Chess, cricket, chickens and Nostradamus 

(Photo by Rainer Binder/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

Chess, like cricket, can be enjoyed on many quite different levels. In pole position, of course, is actually playing the games. This can be divided into two distinct activities, namely, recreational chess, possibly played at home with a friend or family member, and competitive chess in tournaments and championships, with ratings, rankings, titles and prize money at stake. Under the current Covid-19 restrictions, chess online has surged in popularity. Last month, for example, the reigning World Champion Magnus Carlsen even floated his company Play Magnus on the Oslo stock exchange for $85.8 million. This valuation was predicated primarily on the immense increase in online chess activity.

The recreational category for chess evidently does not fall into the definition of a sport, much as recreational cricket, with one batsman, one bowler and the pet dog as fielder, played in the back garden would also not count as sport. On the other hand, competitive chess, demanding physical fitness for its exponents, combined with a non-smoking and non-alcoholic regime, and significant rewards at stake, is most emphatically to be considered a sport — a mind sport, no less.

This is an argument overlooked by official UK sporting bodies, not to mention our courts. The UK still lags behind most countries where chess is formally granted sporting status. For example, in the old eastern bloc nations, the recognition of chess was axiomatic. Thus, while I was in Moscow, during the summer of 1983, I developed a pain in one leg, and, as a chess Grandmaster, I was promptly whisked off to the excellent facilities of the Sports Hospital in the centre of the capital. It was not just an eastern preserve. Chess is now recognised as a sport in twenty-four member states from just the EU alone, and endorsed also by India, China, and the International Olympic Committee.

For both chess and cricket, there is the additional pleasure to be derived from watching experts play the game, while following live commentary from other experts, who explain tactics and strategy in real time. For cricket, such a bonus has been traditional, more or less from the inception of radio, the very first broadcast occurring in Australia in 1922 at the Sydney Cricket Ground, with Lionell Watt reporting. I personally pioneered instant live chess commentary, when I organised the Times World Chess Championship, staged at the Savoy Theatre in 1993 with Garry Kasparov combatting Britain’s Nigel Short for the world chess crown.

Now, with live online commentary, and instant move transmission, readily available, not just to spectators in the theatre and via national television and also globally online, the audience for such skilled commentators as former World Champion Vladimir Kramnik, Grandmaster Daniel King and the best ever female exponent of chess, Judit Polgar, has massively expanded.

Another enjoyable chess activity is playing over well-annotated games from a book, such as Harry Golombek’s exquisite notes to the best games of that Hypermodern pioneer Richard Reti, or Peter Clarke’s exceptionally insightful explanations of the best games of Mikhail Tal and Tigran Petrosian. I found that playing over a Reti victory, furnished with Golombek’s annotations, was wonderful. The cricketing equivalent, I imagine, would be to resurrect a classic audio recording from the archives, by either John Arlott or Brian Johnston.

Then there are records and statistics. In a week when Rafael Nadal equalled Roger Federer’s Grand Slam record of twenty triumphs, and Lewis Hamilton drew level with Michael Schuhmacher’s ninety one Formula 1 victories, Magnus Carlsen set the seal on 125 consecutive games of classical chess, without loss, by losing what would have been the 126th. (That game was given in my column last week.) This represented a clear unbeaten run, to be lodged at Guinness World Records, for any champion at that level. Chess enthusiasts also love to discuss who was the greatest, whether that be Carlsen, Fischer, Kasparov, Lasker, Alekhine, Capablanca — and, of course, every active chess player is obsessed by his or her personal rating. The cricketing equivalent would be Wisden, which since 1864 has been the home of cricket scores, stats, news, features and competitions.

There is one area, though, in which chess has been used, which I do not think has ever applied to cricket, and that is in divination. Leaving aside the fire and brimstone prophets of the Old Testament, as well as legendary soothsayers such as Teiresias, Taliesin, Merlin or Pherrylt, genuine historical figures have been associated with divination, the art of foretelling the future, and remarkably variegated resources have been enlisted in order to identify future truth through current prophesy.

In literature, it is the speech of John of Gaunt in Shakespeare’s Richard II, as he turns prophet, which I find most moving, leveraging his own imminent death as the pathway to a clear vision of the future demise of England, “methinks I am a prophet new inspired”. This leads on to his vision of what England has been, and should be, but has now become.

Further channels of clairvoyance include: myomancy, koskinomancy, brontomancy and taghairm, terms which refer, respectively, to divination through mice, cutlery, thunder and sitting, wrapped in a bullock’s hide, under a waterfall. As distinct from Biblical or mythic figures, identifiable historical characters have taken to augury. They include: Dr John Dee, and Johannes Kepler, adept of both astronomy and astrology and favourite of the deranged Holy Roman Emperor, Rudolf II. Also Julius Caesar and Augustus were both in charge of ornithomancy in Ancient Rome (divination through the flight, calls and feeding habits of birds).

Roman commanders ignored avian warnings at their peril. Before the naval battle of Drepana in 249 BC it is related that the Roman admiral, Publius Claudius Pulcher, succumbed to a furious rage, when favourable omens failed to materialise and the sacred chickens refused to eat. Claudius Pulcher then had the recalcitrant fowls pitched into the sea, announcing that if they would not eat, then let them drink. The battle itself, predictably enough turned out to be a glorious victory for Carthage.

Most celebrated of all as a seer was the French mystic, Nostradamus (1503-1566). One searches in vain through the quatrains of Nostradamus for a mention of chess, but there are interesting clues and leads that chess could have been deployed as a vatic device.

According to the pre-eminent Sinologist, Joseph Terence Montgomery Needham (1900-1995) the earliest form of chess, developed in China, was the direct lineal ancestor of most subsequent methods of divination. Needham was Master of Gonville and Caius College Cambridge, a polymathic biochemist, historian and Sinologist, known for his scientific research and prolific publications on the history of Chinese science and technology. His opinion is, therefore, worth very serious consideration.

Chess, he claimed, had been associated throughout its development with astronomical symbolism, while he regarded the battle element of chess to have developed from a technique of divination, to ascertain the balance of eternally opposed Yin and Yang forces in the universe. Chinese literature records that Xiangqi (also called Chinese chess) developed during the reign of Emperor Wu (Northern Chou dynasty AD 561 to AD 578) in the Warring States Period, and that the first treatise on the subject is dated to AD 569. Needham emphasises that the preface of this treatise, written much later by the Chinese poet Wang Bao, still exists. It appears that the pieces on the board in this divination technique represented the sun, moon, planets, stars and constellations. Needham’s suggestion is that this “game” passed to AD 7th-century India, where it generated the recreational game involving representations of human armies.

Needham’s conclusion was as follows:

“The ancestor of all dial-and pointer-readings, the greatest single factor in the voyages of discovery, and the oldest instrument of magnetic-electrical science may perhaps have begun as a proto-‘chess’-piece used in a divination technique. Not without some surprise we are brought to the conclusion that the recreational game of chess, and the magnetic compass, with all that flowed from it, took their origin at a single point — namely, a group of divination techniques in ancient Chinese proto-science.”

There are two problems with Needham’s hypothesis, attractive though it may be. The first caveat is that Needham regularly succumbed to his adoration of China, of its government and of Chinese history. Needham must, therefore, be considered a possibly overenthusiastic true believer, where Chinese history and science are concerned.

Secondly, although Xiangqi is definitely mentioned in Chinese texts, before all accepted references to chess from India or Persia, the Xiangqi treatise so beloved of Needham does not specifically mention any game rules. Hence it must be conceded that Xiangqi, the elephant game, widely interpreted as the Chinese version of chess, may simply be a generic name for any ancient board game of skill, much as the Celtic game of Gwyddbyll was later interpreted as chess, though it might have been referring to the intellectually less arduous game of Fox and Geese. Indeed, the identification of Gwyddbyll as chess, probably merits as much validity as the legend of the drowning chickens of Admiral Claudius Pulcher.

Bearing these reservations in mind, I now turn to the prophetic quatrains of Nostradamus. Two sets in particular resonate with a modern audience. In the sections below, I have refrained from even attempting to translate the two deliberately obscure passages, focusing instead on the word for bees “Albelhos” (in the Provençal Occitan dialect used by Nostradamus) and the word “Hister”.

First, the alleged “Napoleon” quatrain:

Lou grand cyssame le levera d’albelhos,
Que non sauran don, te signen ven guddos,
Denech l’embousq, sou gach sous las treilhos
Cuitad trahido per cinq lengos non nudos.”

It has been claimed that Nostradamus predicts an invasion by bees. Bees were the symbol of the ancestral house of Napoleon, a noted chess player, one of whose games may have come down to us.

Bees adorned the coronation robes of Napoleon, when he declared himself emperor on December 2, 1804, in the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. On the other hand, bees were also the symbol of Maffeo Barbarini, Pope Urban VIII, who had a nasty brush with Galileo in 1633. Nostradamus offers no guidance to us on this ambiguous point.

And then the “Hitler“ quatrain:

Bestes farouches de faim fleuves tranner,
Plus part du camp encontre Hister sera,
En cage de fer le grand sera traisner,
Quand rien enfant Germain observera.”

Nostradamus mentions a similar intervention by Hister, commonly thought to be a prediction of Hitler. A problem here is that Hister (or Ister) is also the Latin name for the River Danube.

There is no record of Hitler playing chess, though the game was encouraged in the Wehrmacht, and the Nazi regime supported a world chess championship, as well as a considerable number of powerful tournaments, dominated by Alekhine, Keres and the young Wehrmacht officer, Klaus Junge, who was killed on the final day of World War II. Astoundingly, though, according to Ben Macintyre in the Times, Hitler did form his own cricket team to play against British prisoners of war, during WWI.

This week’s games: Carlsen’s second loss from the Altibox tournament in Norway, which finished last week, in spite of two losses, with an overall Magnus victory, plus an artistic win by Richard Reti.

Member ratings
  • Well argued: 95%
  • Interesting points: 96%
  • Agree with arguments: 94%
57 ratings - view all

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