Culture and Civilisations

Living chess in Rabelais and Trafalgar Square

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Living chess in Rabelais and Trafalgar Square

(Oevres De Rabelais, Published 1928).

As previously announced in my column The Martial menagerie of King Alfonso the Wise, a charitable chess spectacular in London is happening this coming week, culminating in a living game in Trafalgar Square, organised by the Stakhanovite Malcolm Pein. I have on several occasions been involved in playing live chess games, with schoolchildren, actors or, in one case (The Spectator vs The New Statesman in Lincoln’s Inn Fields) inebriated journalists taking the role of the pieces. My opponents have included David Essex, Viktor Korchnoi, Tony Miles and Bob Wade, and all the games ended in draws. However, chess with human pieces is a striking way for the game to interact with the general public, even those who hardly know how the pieces move.

In Venice, 1499, Aldus Pius Manutius (through his printing office, The Aldine Press) published Francesco Colonna’s account of a living chess game, carried out under the old rules, described in his Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (otherwise known as Poliphilo’s Strife of Love in a Dream). This formed the template for a later effort by the classic 16th-century French author, François Rabelais, circa 1483–1553. 

Rabelais is normally associated with robust, bawdy humour, rather than strategic thinking — hence the adjective “Rabelaisian”, more Francophone Falstaff than Parisian Polonius. It might, therefore, come as something of a surprise to learn that the fifth book of Rabelais’ masterpiece La vie de Gargantua et de Pantagruel (The Life of Gargantua and of Pantagruel) – recounting the adventures of the giants Gargantua and Pantagruel — contains a detailed description of a game of chess with living pieces, dressed up as a kind of musical ballet, or chivalric tournament, held at the Court of the Queen of Whims.

Rabelais (PA Images)

I believe that in Gargantua and Pantagruel Rabelais has provided the very first description of living chess, played according to the new Renaissance-inspired rules of the game, with its enhanced powers for both the Queen and Bishop. The preamble, in fact, amounts to an explanation of the moves of the pieces, their functions and the new rules in general.

It is in Rabelais’ Book Five, Chapter XXIV, that the author introduces the pieces and rules of the new chess: “After supper there was a ball in the form of a tilt or tournament, not only worth seeing, but also never to be forgotten. First, the floor of the hall was covered with a large piece of velveted white and yellow chequered tapestry, each check exactly square, and three full spans in breadth. Then 32 young persons came into the hall, 16 of them arrayed in cloth of gold; and of these, eight were young nymphs, such as the ancients described Diana‘s attendants: The other eight were a king, a queen, two wardens of the castle, two knights, and two archers. Those of the other side were clad in cloth of silver.”

Rabelais then proceeds to describe the game in some detail, but other than deciphering the first move on each side as 1.d4, met by 1…d5 from the opposing side, the remaining clues are obscure, the author being seemingly more concerned with an ostentatious parade of his classical erudition, than publishing identifiable moves. The pioneering chess historian HJR Murray (1868–1955) tried briefly to reconstruct the game, but soon abandoned the attempt as hopeless. Armed with my grandmasterly skills, I rather assumed that I could do better than Murray, but then found myself confronted by this type of classics-based move notation:

“While they were thus warmly engaged, we heard continually the claps and episemapsises, which those of the two bands reiterated at the taking of their enemies; and this, joined to the variety of their motions and music, would have forced smiles out of the most severe Cato, the never-laughing Crassus, the Athenian man-hater Timon; nay, even shining Heraclitus, though he abhorred laughing, the action that’s most peculiar to man.”

On a slight tangent: in François Rabelais’ book, as translated by Thomas Urquhart and Peter Antony Motteux, a word in the above paragraph occurs – “episemapsises” – which I am at a loss to comprehend. If any erudite readers of TheArticle know its meaning, please do let me know. Google and Oxford English Dictionary searches have so far been in vain.

Alert readers will further observe here a foretaste of Umberto Eco’s celebrated roman à clef, The Name of the Rose, which weaves fantasies around Aristotle’s “lost” Treatise on Comedy. The genre of comedy was abhorred by some authorities on the pretext that laughter distorts the noble features of the human face. Indeed, the overall travelogic nature of Book Five of the Rabelaisian oeuvre both echoes and foreshadows other works of a similar genre. These include: The Romance of Alexander, The Travels of Marco Polo, The Exploits of Sir John Mandeville (my favourite of his outlandish encounters is with The Vegetable Lamb of Tartary), Cervantes’ Don Quixote, and of course Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Among the windmills of La Mancha and amid the towers of Brobdingnag, it is not difficult to discern the gigantic footprints of the peripatetic Pantagruel.

As the Gargantuan games unfold (there were three of them) it becomes absolutely apparent that we are witnessing contests played according to the new rules, introduced around 1475. From the following passage we can, for example, readily deduce that the nymphs (pawns) can promote to be crowned anew as Queens, and that those pieces, post coronation, wield the same fearsome powers as the modern Queens of the chessboard. It is interesting that Rabelais chose female Nymphs as pawns, evidently wishing to avoid any kind of gender change on promotion. Nowadays we tend to regard the pawns as masculine foot soldiers, in spite of their abstract quasi-Masonic design, in the conventional Staunton pattern at least.

“The new golden queen, resolved to shew herself valiant, and worthy of her advancement to the crown, achieved great feats of arms. But, in the meantime, the silvered knight takes the golden warden who guarded the camp: and thus there was a new silvered queen, who, like the other, strove to excel in heroic deeds at the beginning of her reign. Thus the fight grew hotter than before. One thousand stratagems, charges, rallyings, retreats and attacks were tried on both sides; till at last the silvered queen, having by stealth advanced as far as the golden king‘s tent, cried, ‘God save you, sir!’“.

As Rabelais explains, this was the courtly fashion of announcing check. In contemporary Grandmaster circles drawing attention to a check is no longer considered necessary, while, a fortiori, the reintroduction of the chivalric circumlocution adopted by the living pieces of the court of The Queen of Whims, would be regarded as downright eccentric.

The Rabelaisian account now proceeds to what we would describe as checkmate:

“Now none could rescue the golden King but his new queen: So she bravely came and exposed herself to the utmost extremity to deliver him out of it. Then the silvered warden, with his queen, reduced the golden case to such a stress, that to save himself, he was forced to lose his queen; but the golden king took him at the last. However, the rest of the golden party were soon taken; and that King being left alone, the silvered party made him a low bow, crying, ‘Good-morrow, Sir!’ which denotes that the silvered king had got the day.” 

Indeed, “Good-morrow, Sir!” indicated that the Golden King had been checkmated.

The chess boom in Britain, which follows the success of The Queen’s Gambit and the pivot towards online chess during the pandemic lockdown, will culminate in this ChessFest – a three-day celebration in Trafalgar Square between 16-18 July, which is expected to draw in thousands of spectators. Seeing a marked upsurge in the game’s popularity, the world’s biggest chess site  has recorded a million new subscribers every month over the last year, with popular chess site also seeing numbers double from 55 million to 101 million in the last 14 months. Reigniting an interest in the game, eBay (among many) have noted a 215 per cent rise in sales for chess sets, while an explosion in online play has occurred on platforms such as Twitch and YouTube, with vibrant new streamers, including the Botez sisters and Anna Rudolf, helping to contemporise the sport by introducing it to new audiences.

More details are now emerging about ChessFest and I am grateful to the organisers for supplying me with the crucial information which will encourage all fans of chess to participate or spectate at what is bound to be an extravaganza of Rabelaisian proportions.

The event aims to bring chess to a wider audience and showcase its inclusivity and educational benefits – notably, the outdoor event, which will be the first large-scale public event in Trafalgar Square this summer. The entire enterprise draws on the chess theme of Lewis Carroll’s much-loved Alice Through the Looking Glass, with a packed schedule of chess activities to encourage both children and adults to get on board and get involved. The opening day will see 300 children from 30 inner-city schools across the UK in the charity’s Classroom Chess programme invited to the capital for a day of chess fun, with a tournament and a Mad Hatter’s Chess Party on the agenda.

The overall Programme includes:

– as noted above, the Human Chess Game, based around Alice Through the Looking Glass and performed by professional actors; 

– free chess lessons for children and adults from professional chess teachers and top UK players;

– 6 giant chessboards for people to play in “The World Giant Chess Championship”;

– hundreds of chess tables for children and chess fans to play each other;

– opportunities to Challenge a Grandmaster at speed chess;

– inter-city chess tournaments, as London challenges the world, with giant screens broadcasting games simultaneously across the UK and the world, from Liverpool to St Petersburg, Russia. 

Over in Kensington, the V&A Museum will stage an exhibition of Alice: Curiouser and CuriouserThe closed schools’ event, on Friday 16 July, will also see young enthusiasts try on 15th- and 16th-century armour from the Wallace Collection, and become real “knights” on the chessboard, a truly inspirational stroke by the organisers. Lewis Carroll’s famous work celebrates its 150th anniversary of publication this year, and children attending are encouraged to dress up as the book’s characters. The event will also celebrate the 170th anniversary of “The Immortal Game”, acclaimed as the most brilliant game in the 1,400-year history of chess, which was played at Simpson’s-in-the-Strand, just a few hundred yards from Trafalgar Square. ChessFest will leave a legacy for London as the organising charity, Chess in Schools and Communities, will work with local councils to install giant chess sets and concrete chess tables in London parks to enable chess to be played all year round, as in New York, Paris, Amsterdam and other cities.

Chess in Schools and Communities (CSC), led by the indefatigable chess publicist Malcolm Pein, has a stated mission to improve children’s educational outcomes and social development by introducing them to the game of chess. Founded in 2009, the charity now runs over 1,000 projects across the UK in schools, libraries and prisons and a world-class tournament, the London Chess Classic, most Decembers, Covid permitting. The core message of CSC is that chess is a low-cost, high-impact educational intervention. It knows no boundaries of age, gender, faith, ethnicity or disability, and can be played anywhere at any time. The game fosters intellectual and emotional skills crucial to a child’s wider development; CSC teaches chess in disadvantaged communities to give every child the chance to realise their full potential. ChessFest is supported by generous sponsors XTX Markets, a world-leading algorithmic trading firm, delivering quality liquidity across financial markets.

For further and full information as to how to participate, please email the organisers at: 

Last week in my column, Tobacco, witchcraft and chess: a study in Jacobean cancel culture, I posed a question based on a supposedly hidden Shakespearean code, which I repeat here: A recent theory links Shakespeare (1564–1616), who mentioned chess specifically in both Edward III and The Tempest, not just with chess, nor the diabolical, as in Macbeth, but also with the divine. The surmise is that at the age of 46, Shakespeare also contributed clandestinely to the King James translation of The Bible (1604–1611). The coded clue lies concealed in Psalm 46. Now read 46 words into the Psalm and note the word which arises. Then go to the end of the Psalm and read 46 words backwards. I guarantee that you will be astonished. By the way, please ignore the double repetition of the word “Selah”, which is a liturgical/musical mark, and not part of the text.

The answer: reading from the start, the 46th word is “shake”, while the 46th word, reading backwards from the rear is “spear”. Code or coincidence? Who knows, but if indeed it is a coincidence, then it is a suspiciously multi-layered one.

Going back even further, in my column The Martial menagerie of King Alfonso the Wise, regular reader Peter Webster, whom I last saw dining in the Mountbatten Room of The Royal Automobile Club in Pall Mall with King Yuhi IV of Rwanda, has sent me photos of a soapstone chess set (pictured below) he acquired in an African market, in this case Nairobi. It will be seen that rhinos take the places normally occupied by the clergy. Many thanks, Peter, for your fascinating find. 

This week’s game is from 1560 between Ruy Lopez de Segura and Giovanni Leonardo Di Bona da Cutri. The game was played at a Papal exhibition in Rome, fifteen years before a rematch (won by Da Cutri) at the court of the Spanish King Philip II, of Armada fame. The game was roughly contemporaneous with the appearance of Book Five of Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel saga.

Raymond Keene’s latest book “Fifty Shades of Ray: Chess in the year of the Coronavirus”, containing some of his best pieces from The Article, is now available from  Amazon , and  Blackwell s .

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Member ratings
  • Well argued: 96%
  • Interesting points: 97%
  • Agree with arguments: 97%
48 ratings - view all

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