Stories and Essays

Off with their heads

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Off with their heads

Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, the Oxford academic, deacon and abstruse mathematician, better known as Lewis Carroll, authored two fantastical books which will doubtless endure. The first volume, titled Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, depicts a hierarchical society, dominated by the aristocracy and led by a Queen of Hearts, whose principal notion of progress is decapitation of anyone who irritates her. “Sentence first, verdict afterwards,” neatly encapsulates her worldview. The Queen rules heartlessly over a cowed imperium of playing cards, and the aleatory nature of her pronouncements dovetails neatly into place alongside Carroll’s vision of a realm where irrational caprice and blind chance can still be all powerful.

Carroll’s sequel, Through the Looking Glass, depicts a society that appears equally predicated on autocratic, aristocratic and hierarchical structures. However, that first impression is erroneous. The prominent cast of actors in this second Alician adventure consists of chess pieces, not playing cards. Although chess might appear to be just as socially stratified as cards, with its kings, queens, bishops, knights, castles (rooks) and pawns (foot soldiers), that facade is misleading.

Alice starts the game of chess, portrayed in the book, as a humble white pawn, but gradually progresses to the 8th rank, where she is promoted, by the legitimate rules of the game, to become a queen herself. Carroll demonstrates graphically what has always been one of my core beliefs, namely that chess, a game of reason, not of chance, embodies an ultimate demonstration of meritocracy. This quality can be observed, both within its own rule structure and in the performance of its exponents, in that winning at the game propels you inexorably towards the top. Here is the chess puzzle in the preface to Through the Looking Glass, showing the progression of Alice the pawn to her coronation as a Queen.

In terms of success through merit and veracity, Emanuel Lasker, World Chess Champion from 1894-1921, asserted that lies and hypocrisy do not survive long on the chessboard. Equally, there should be no barriers of age, physical or mental ability to playing the game, nor — in most countries — barricades based on gender, politics, faith or social views. The basic equipment for playing a game of chess is inexpensive to acquire, it consumes little space, unlike for example football, rugby, cricket or tennis, and there is no necessity to recruit a mass of team members before the game makes any sense. If Polo might be termed the most exclusive competitive activity to access, then chess is certainly at the top of the tree in terms of its egalitarian ease and accessibility.

Furthermore, once a young talent starts to play, the ability to rise rapidly through the ranks depends purely on objective merit. However obscure one’s origins, or however distant from the chief epicentres of chess activity, such surges can be meteoric. A case in point was that of Sultan Khan who rose, in just a few short years, from sub-continental obscurity to apotheosis as a slayer of champions.

In many ways, the more recent example of Phiona Mutesi, a girl living in Katwe, a slum of Kampala the capital of Uganda, was even more striking. At the age of nine she dropped out of school, because her family needed her to earn some money selling maize. Phiona learned to play chess, became a Master strength player, was selected for the Ugandan National Team, where she scored Olympiad victories, and attracted so much attention that a Walt Disney movie, The Queen of Katwe (2016), was made about her life and exploits. The film attracted both positive reviews as well as substantial paying audiences, and grossed $2.5 million in its first week of screening. Phiona’s fame earned her a place at Northwest University, Kirkland near Seattle, where she proceeded to study Sociology, with the laudable intention of working with children in deprived areas of her home country.

Chess results are also relatively free from the myopia of referees and umpires, the caprice of judges and the prejudice of national voting blocs, which afflict so many other competitive activities, from the Football World Cup, via Strictly Come Dancing, to The Eurovision Song Contest. Any England football fan will remember the “ghost goal” that was not given when England played Germany in the 2010 World Cup Round of 16. Before VAR (video assistant referee) was brought in, the current Chelsea FC manager, and then England midfielder, Frank Lampard “scored” from a long-range shot, but the referee did not give it. You can decide for yourself whether or not the ball crossed the line.

Returning to chess, one abysmal exception to the general absence of intrusion by meddling officials was the collusion in 1985 by the World and Soviet Chess Federations to prematurely terminate Kasparov’s first World Title Challenge against Karpov. In chess, though, such inept interventions by competition judges, match officials and governing bodies are comparatively rare. Once you sit down at the board and face your opponent, you are on your own and success or failure depends on your brainpower alone.

Above all, social class has nothing whatsoever to do with chess success, and this is where I believe that chess can teach a valuable lesson to those who, like the character of the Cowardly Lion, in “The Wizard of Oz”, suffer from a failure to think matters through. The Wizard’s own advice to the Lion was: “As for you, my fine friend, you are a victim of disorganised thinking. You are under the unfortunate delusion that simply because you run away from danger, that you have no courage. You are confusing courage with wisdom.” In other words, seen through the corrective prism of the Wizard’s ingenious redefinition, what might appear an absence of courage is, in fact, the presence of wisdom.

The same syndrome can be seen in the knee jerk reaction of the Left to the very name of Eton College, Alma Mater of no fewer than 20 British Prime Ministers, nine of whom also went on to graduate from Lewis Carroll’s Oxford College Christ Church. Here I must digress briefly to point out that my old college, Trinity Cambridge, has produced no fewer than 34 Nobel Prize winners, but revenons à nos moutons

Eton College, in common with many other British public schools, such as my own principal crucible of education, Dulwich College, quite obviously serves as a real red flag to the metaphorical bull of a multitude of left-leaning advocates. However, as far as the modern Eton and Dulwich are concerned, the left-leaners are suffering from the aforementioned leonine-style disorganised thinking, confusing high fees with class privilege. I speak from personal experience, when I assert that some parents are so focused on acquiring what is, by repute, the best possible education for their offspring, that extraordinary material sacrifices have to be made. Studying at Eton does not necessarily indicate a noble title or silver-spooned birth; it may also indicate that parents from humble origins have worked in Stakhanovite fashion to create conditions where going to Eton becomes within reach.

In my case, I was the first member of my family, which previously consisted largely of London bus conductors, to continue school studies beyond the age of fifteen. In fact, I can proudly claim that my father was the founding member of “Alcoholics Conspicuous!” Certainly, I was the first to attend university, definitely the first to be awarded an OBE and, without a doubt, the first to become a chess grandmaster.

For such reasons, my blood rose to boiling point, some days ago, when I heard Polly Toynbee proudly explain how she had contacted the headmaster of Eton, interrogated him and confirmed the College’s ordering of Covid-19 testing for all its students. For Toynbee, this appeared to be a matter for concern, rather than congratulation. “Eton-as-red-flag-to-the-Left” thus rears its ugly head for the nth time. Of course, Toynbee then predictably went on to contrast the privilege of an Eton education with the deprivation of the underprivileged, conveniently ignoring the fact that Eton reserves scholarship places for students whose families cannot pay the fees. Similar eleemosynary mechanisms are also in place at Dulwich, where the new science lab was mobilised for pupils to produce hundreds of thousands of face masks for free distribution.

What critics operating from the ideological Left consistently fail to understand is the element of complexity. As noted, attendance at Eton does not necessarily signify great parental wealth, privilege of birth or aristocratic origins. The existence of shades of nuance, even of contradiction, must not be ignored. Indeed, is it just possible that those 20 Old Etonian prime ministers might have been rather talented in their own right?

As Sherlock Holmes once noted, in a free moment from chasing Professor Moriarty over the Reichenbach Falls or writing up his commentaries on “The Polyphonic Motets of Lassus”, “mediocrity knows nothing higher than itself, but talent instantly recognises genius”.

Given my family roots, I might have found my natural political home on the Left. However, the Left’s habitual failure to acknowledge subtlety and nuance, their tendency to judge every issue in ideological hues of black and white may not be systemic, but it is certainly predictably commonplace. It was instrumental in driving me towards the Right, where I have found that complex and contradictory notions, as in chess, achieve far more respect.

For an example, allow me to give a historical instance of extreme complexity, if not, indeed of contradictory drives and motives, all founded firmly on fact. Let us imagine a British leader whose programme included abolition of the monarchy, chopping off the reigning monarch’s head, terminating the House of Lords, closing down all theatres and bars, and banishing the celebration of Christmas from the calendar. That person, you might conclude, would be characterised by super egalitarian political principles, even far to the left of Jeremy Corbyn himself.

Simultaneously, we then discover that this self-same abolitionist would never make a move without hearing first personally from God, that he would not have permitted the majority of the male population to vote without stringent property qualifications, would have refused absolutely to countenance female suffrage, dealt harshly with mutinous dissenters, such as Diggers, Ranters, Levellers and Fifth Monarchy Men, was a strict disciplinarian and military commander of undoubted genius and thoroughly relished the ejection from Parliament of all MPs who failed to endorse his views with sufficient ardour.

This miasma of contradicting views describes no less a figure than England’s own: Oliver Cromwell! A case of complexity if ever there was one. An extreme example, but life is rarely black and white; it is packed with grey areas.

His words, as he ejected the unworthy from Parliament, ring down the centuries, and resonated with particular relevance during the frustrating parliamentary pre-election impasse of last year: “I beseech you in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.”

And: “You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing lately… Depart, I say, and let us have done with you; in the name of God go!”

And finally: “What is all our histories, but God showing himself, shaking and trampling on everything that he has not planted.”

Faced with such a complex, resolute, contradictory yet self-confident opponent, I feel for King Charles I, whom Cromwell was instrumental in executing. My sympathy is invoked, not least, because Charles I owned an amber chess board of great value, while there is no record at all of Cromwell ever having played. In fact, Cromwell might even have been suspicious of chess (and cards) because of the potential propensity for gambling. Although overt gambling is no longer associated with the modern game, prevailing fast time limits and online battles have encouraged huge risk-taking on the board itself.

As evidence, see this extraordinary game between Hikaru Nakamura and Jeffrey Xiong, from the recently concluded online Blitz tournament, centred on what is rapidly becoming the world chess capital, St. Louis. Nakamura’s second move Ke2, advancing his king into the thick of the fray, already ridicules several centuries of thinking about chess strategy and King safety, and thus belongs, more appropriately, to Carroll’s realm of “Looking Glass Chess”, rather than to a modern tournament between elite Grandmasters.

Reverting to the days of Cromwell and The King, it is said that Charles was playing chess on his amber board, when informed that the Scots had betrayed him. Charles subsequently took the board and his Bible to his execution lodgings, whereupon the board passed into the possession of Bishop William Juxon, the king’s chaplain. Made in 1607 by master craftsman George Schreiber of Konigsberg, the board was auctioned at Sotheby’s in 2012 for the kingly sum of £601,250. For more on the relationship between Cromwell and Charles see Derek Wilson’s book, The King and The Gentleman.

Two hundred years later, another monarch, who always kept her head about her, was said to have taken an interest in chess. Legend has it that Queen Victoria was so entranced by Carroll’s chess Fantasia in Through the Looking Glass that she insisted on receiving a copy of his next work. Unfortunately for the Queen/Empress, this turned out to be a baffling disquisition on Newtonian calculus. Enough for most people to lose their head in the Eleusinian Mysteries of higher mathematics, without any need for a chopping block.

To slightly misquote The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam:

“Tis all a chequer board of nights and days,
Where death with men, instead of pieces plays…”

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  • Agree with arguments: 73%
63 ratings - view all

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