Poems and Poets in Chess
by Bill Wall
Poetry is a form of literature that uses aesthetic and rhythmic qualities of language to evoke meanings in addition to, or in place of, the prosaic ostensible meaning.
The earliest known poem mentioning chess is the Einsiedeln Poem (Versus de Scachis), discovered in the Einsiedeln canton of Switzerland. It was created by a German-speaking Benedictine monk at the monastery in Einsiedeln. The Benedictine Einsiedeln Abbey was built in 934 CE. It is a Medieval Latin poem about chess. Only two known copies exist today. The poem’s 98 lines described chess (scacci), its rules, and some basic strategies. The poem mentions the first chess queen (regina) for the first time ever, although it moved one square at a time in those days. The poem also described the 64-square chess board with two different colors for the first time. The piece that is today known as the bishop was represented by a count, or aged one. A copy of the poem in a manuscript has been given the estimated date of 997 CE (Common Era). If this date is accurate, it makes this poem the earliest known reference to chess in a European text. (see https://la.wikisource.org/wiki/Versus_de_scachis)
The Einsiedeln Poem began by praising chess as a unique game that did not require dice or a gambling bet. The description was meant to counter religious opposition to games of chance and gambling. The poem then described everything one needed to know in order to play the game. The 32 pieces, 16 on each side, were colored white and red (not black). The pieces in the poem were: rex (king), regina (queen), comes or curvus (count), eques (knight), rochus or marchio (rook), and pedes (pawn). The first English translation of the poem was made by Dr. Henry Aspinwall Howe of McGill College at Montreal in 1878. The poem was originally published by Professor Hagen in the Swiss newspaper Der Bund at Berne, with a German translation.
The Latin poem “Ruodlieb.” was written around 1030 AD. It is the first reference to chess in German literature. Portions of the poem were discovered in the Benedictine Abbey of Tegernsee (founded in 746 AD) in Upper Bavaria, Germany. The poem was probably written by a monk named Froumunt of the Tegernsee Abbey. The poem was translated by Baron Tassilo von Heydebrand und der Lasa (1818-1899). It described the adventures of a medieval knight named Ruodlieb. He was a youth of noble birth who goes out to seek his fortune. Chess (ludus scachorum) featured in one setting when Ruodlieb was force to play for stakes with the court of a foreign king. Ruodlieb has been regarded as an ancestor of the German novel. The poem was left unfinished. The manuscript was cut up and used for binding books. Fragments of the poem were only gradually discovered and pieced together in the early 19th century. Some fragments were discovered in 1838 under the binding of some old books in the Abbey of Tegernsee. These fragments were sent to the Munich Library, which has 34 leaves of the poem. Ruodlieb serves a powerful king. At the conclusion of a war with another king, peace was arranged by Ruodlieb. Ruodlieb spends some time in the enemy’s camp where he plays chess with the Viceroy. Ruodlieb wins most of the games, and only loses when he deliberately plays to lose. After five days of playing chess with the Viceroy, Ruodlieb is then admitted to the king’s presence. Ruodlieb then describes what happens next.
“The king, calling for the tabula (chess board), orders a chair to be placed for himself, and orders me to sit on the couch opposite to play with him. This I strongly refuse, saying: ‘It is a terrible thing for a poor man to play with a king.’ But when I see that I cannot withstand him, I agree to play, intending to be beaten by him. I say: ‘What profit is it to poor me to be beaten by a king? But I fear, Sir, that you will soon be wrath with me, if fortune help me to win.’ The king laughed and answered jestingly: ‘There is no need, my dear man, to be afraid about that: even if I never win, I shall not become more angry. But know clearly that I wish to play with you, for I wish to learn what unknown moves you will make.’ Immediately both king and I moved carefully, and, as luck would have it, I won three times, to the great surprise of many of his nobles. He lays down a wager against me, and would not let me lay down anything against him. He gives what he had wagered, so that not one coin remained. Many follow, anxious to avenge him, proposing bets and despising my bets, sure of losing nothing and trusting much to the uncertainty of fortune. They help one another, and do harm by helping too much. They are hindered while they consult variously; through their disputes I win quickly three times, for I would not play anymore. They now wished to give me what they had wagered. At first I refused, for I thought it disgraceful to enrich myself at their expense, and to impoverish them. I said: ‘I am not accustomed to win anything by play.’ They say: ‘While you are with us, live as we do; when you get home again, live there as you like.”
Chess is mentioned in the poems of Hakim Abu ‘I-Qasim Ferdowsi or Firdawsi (935-1025), a Persian poet of the 10th century. He is the author of the epic poem Shahnameh (Book of Kings), which is the world’s longest epic poetry created by a single poet. The poem uses the Persian term “Shah mat” (check mate) to describe the fate of one of the characters and recounts how chess was invented.
H.J.R. Murray’s “History of Chess” has a chapter that discusses 11 Latin poems and 2 Hebrew poems written between 1000 and 1450 AD.
Around 1120, a poem, The Song of Chess, written by the Spanish rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra (1089-1164) described each chess piece. The pieces still resembled the Arab style of play, which did not have the modern chess queen. The elephant did not move like today’s bishop piece, but as confined to three spaces diagonally at a time.
sing a song of battle
Planned in days long past and over.
Men of skill and science set it
On a plain of eight divisions,
And designed in squares all chequered.
Two camps face each one the other,
And the kings stand by for battle,
And twixt these two is the fighting.
Bent on war the face of each is,
Ever moving or encamping,
Yet no swords are drawn in warfare,
For a war of thoughts their war is.
They are known by signs and tokens
Sealed and written on their bodies;
And a man who sees them thinketh,
Edomites and Ethiopians
Are these two that fight together.
And the Ethiopian forces
Overspread the field of battle,
And the Edomites pursue them.
battle the foot-soldier
Comes to fight upon the highway,
Ever marching straight before him,
But to capture moving sideways,
Straying not from off his pathway,
Neither do his steps go backwards;
He may leap at the beginning
Anywhere within three chequers.
Should he take his steps in battle
Far away unto the eighth row,
Then a Queen to all appearance
He becomes and fights as she does.
And the Queen directs her moving
As she will to any quarter.
Backs the elephant or advances,
Stands aside as ’twere an ambush;
As the Queen’s way, so is his way,
But o’er him she hath advantage,
He stands only in the third rank.
Swift the horse is in the battle,
Moving on a crooked pathway;
Ways of his are ever crooked;
Mid the Squares, three form his limit.
the Wind moves o’er the war-path
In the field across or lengthwise;
Ways of crookedness he seeks not,
But straight paths without perverseness.
Turning every way the King goes,
Giving aid unto his subjects;
In his actions he is cautious,
Whether fighting or encamping.
If his foe come to dismay him,
From his place he flees in terror,
Or the Wind can give him refuge.
Sometimes he must flee before him;
Multitudes at times support him;
And all slaughter each the other,
Wasting with great wrath each other.
Mighty men of both the sovereigns
Slaughtered fall, with yet no bloodshed.
Ethiopia sometimes triumphs,
Edom flees away before her;
Now victorious is Edom;
Ethiopia and her sovereign
Are destroyed in battle.
king in the destruction
Fall within the foeman’s power,
He is never granted mercy,
Neither refuge nor deliv’rance,
Nor a flight to refuge-city.
Judged by foes, and lacking rescue,
Though not slain he is checkmated.
Hosts about him all are slaughtered,
Giving life for his deliverance.
Quenched and vanished is their glory,
For they see their lord is smitten;
Yet they fight again this battle,
For in death is resurrection.
Around 1150, the Winchester Latin poem was written about chess. The poem was part of a manuscript of miscellaneous contents which was written at Wichester, England.
In early Russian folk poems, chess is mentioned as a popular game.
In 1320, Heinrich von Beringen (Berngen) wrote the poem Schachbuch (chess book or chess poem). It mentions the courier game as an improvement on chess.
Chaucer (1343-1400) wrote a poem called The Boke (Book) of the Duchesse. He introduces himself in a dream as playing at chess with Fortune, and speaks of false moves, as though dishonest tricks were sometimes practiced in the game. Chaucer attributed the invention of chess to Attalus Asiaticus.
At chesse with me she gan to playe,
With her fals draughts (moves) dyvers,
She staale on me and toke my fers (Queen),
And wharne I sawe my fers awaye,
Allas I couthe no longer playe,
But seyde, farewell swete yuys,
And farewell ul that ever ther ys,
Therwith fortune seyde Chek here,
And mayte in the myd poynt of the Chek here, (chess board)
WIth a paune (pawn) errante allas,
Ful craftier to playe she was,
Than Athalus that made the game,
First of the chesse, so was hys name.
In 1370, a French poem, Echecs amoureaux, was written.
In 1408, John Lydgate (1370-1451) wrote a poem on love, which he dedicated to the admirers of chess.
In 1422, the Latin Cracow poem (De ludis Scaccorum) was written. It consists of 48 lines about chess. The first 13 lines proclaim that Ulysses in the inventor of chess and not the Trojans, Romans, or any Greek king.
In 1475, Scach d’Amor (Chess of Love), a poem written in Catalan (hand written book), was published in Valencia, Spain. The poem was discovered in the Royal Chapel of the Palau de Barcelona. The authors were Francesch de Castellvi, Bernat Fenollar, and Narcis de Vinyoles. It is the first poem to fuse a game and allegory. The poem is an allegory describing a game of chess between two players representing the gods Mars and Venus, with a referee (Mercury) watching the game.
In 1513, Scacchia Ludus, a poem by Marco Girolamo (Hieronymus) Vida, Bishop of Alba, was written. It describes a game of chess played on Mount Olympus between the Roman gods Apollo and Mercury. He first published the poem anonymously in 1525, then with his name attached to the poem in 1527.
In 1564, Szachy (Chess) was written by Jan Kochanowski. It is a narrative chess poem inspired by Marco Vida’s Scacchia Ludus. It describes the game between two men, Fiedor and Borzuj, who fight for the right to marry Anna, princess of Denmark.
In 1547, Henry Howard (1517-1547) published a chess poem entitled To the Lady That Scorned Her Lover. He is one of the founders of English Renaissance poetry.
had a check,
To give the mate is hard ;
For I have found a neck,
To keep my men in guard.
And you that hardy are,
To give so great assay
Unto a man of war,
To drive his men away ;
I rede you take good heed,
And mark this foolish verse ;
For I will so provide,
That I will have your ferse.1
And when your ferse is had,
And all your war is done ;
Then shall yourself be glad
To end that you begun.
For if by chance I win
Your person in the field ;
Too late then you come in
Yourself to me to yield.
For I will use my power,
As captain full of might ;
And such I will devour,
As use to shew me spite.
And for because you gave
Me check in such degree ;
This vantage, lo ! I have,
Now check, and guard to thee.
Defend it if thou may ;
Stand stiff in thine estate :
For sure I will assay,
If I can give thee mate.
In 1652, a chess poem called The famous game of chesse-play was written by J. Barbier. (source: The Winnipeg Tribune, May 14, 1923, p. 15)
"What man or piece soever of your owne you touch, or lift up from the point whereon it standeth, that must you play for that Draught ... according to the ancient saying, Touch man and goe, Out of hand and stand: Because, besides that the contrary were Childes play: were you allowed a two-fold study on every Draught, you would make the Game not tedious onely, but intollerable."
In 1735, Rou wrote a poem in Latin about chess players in New York.
In 1763, William Jones (1746-1794) wrote the poem called Caissa. It was first published in 1772. In the poem, Mars becomes infatuated with a nymph named Caissa. Mars gains Caissa’s attention and teaches her how to play chess. Here is the poem.
dryad rang'd the Thracian wild,
Her air enchanting, and her aspect mild:
To chase the bounding hart was all her joy,
Averse from Hymen, and the Cyprian boy;
O'er hills an valleys was her beauty fam'd,
And fair Caissa was the damsel nam'd.
Mars saw the maid; with deep surprize he gaz'd,
Admir'd her shape, and every gesture prais'd:
His golden bow the child of Venus bent,
And through his breast a piecing arrow sent.
The reed was hope; the feathers, keen desire;
The point, her eyes; the barbs, ethereal fire.
Soon to the nymph he pour'd his tender strain;
The haughtly dryad scorn'd his amorous pain:
He told his woes, where'er the maid he found,
And still he press'd, yet still Caissa frown'd;
But ev'n her frowns (ah, what might smiles have done!)
Fir'd all his soul, and all his senses won.
In 1825, Esaias Tegner (1782-1846) wrote the poem Fritiof’s Saga which includes several chess references. Tegner is considered the father of modern poetry in Sweden.
In 1836, Joseph Mery (1798-1865) wrote a chess poem called Une revance de Waterloo; ou, Une partie d’echecs, poeme heroi-comique. (source: http://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=hvd.hn53f3;view=1up;seq=14)
In 1854, Charles Tomlinson (1808-1897) published Chess: A Poem, in Four Parts. (see http://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=hvd.hn536c;view=1up;seq=8)
In 1882, John Augustus Miles (1817-1891) published Poems and Chess Problems. (see http://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=hvd.hn532g;view=1up;seq=63)
In 1885, Lord Alfred Tennyson (1809-1892), poet laureate, became president of the British Chess Federation.
In 1887, James Pierce (1833-1892) published Stanzas and Sonnets. There are several poems on chess in this collection.
In 1887, Arthur Ford Mackenzie (1861-1905) published Chess: its poetry and its prose.
In 1895, Edward Robert Bulwer-Lytton, 1st earl of Lytton (1831-1891) wrote “The Chess-Board” which appeared in A Victorian Anthology, 1837-1895, edited by Edmund Stedman (1833-1908).
In 1910, The Poems of Hannah Bryant Hazeltine was published. It contained eight poems on chess. These include ‘A Winning Game,’ ‘An Enigma,’ ‘Check-Mate,’ ‘Chess Teachings,’ ‘Chess Similies,’ ‘My Problem,’ ‘Caissa’s Field of the Cloth of Gold,’ and ‘The Final Game.’
In 1911, Savielly Tartakower had some of his poems published in Rostov. He also translated numerous Russian poems into French and German for various magazines.
In 1922, T.S. Eliot (1888-1965) wrote The Waste Land Part II: A Game of Chess. It opens with a description of a woman sitting inside an expensive room. (source: http://www.poetryarchive.org/poem/waste-land-part-ii-game-chess)
In 1922 and 1923, Tartakower had two anthologies in Berlin with poems which he had translated into Russian.
In 1924, Vladimir Nabokov published a series of poems titled “Three Chess Sonnets.”
In 1927, Nabokov published the poem The Chess Knight.
In 1952, J. De Lemarter published Chess game and other poems.
In 1971, Vlaidmir Nabokov published Poems and Problems.
In 1981, Andrew Waterman (1940- ), and English poet, published The Poetry of Chess.
In 1981, Edward R. Brace, a chess author and author of An Illustrated Dictionary of Chess, wrote a book of poetry called Devils to Ourselves.
In 1981, The Poetry of Chess was written by Andrew Waterman (1940- ). It is an anthology of chess poems and poets, from Chaucer to the present day.
In 2000, Chess Poems by Michael Kuzen was published. It is a small collection of instructional verse for children.
In 2006, Manus Patrick Fealy published The Great Pawn Hunter Chess Tutorial: Stories, Poetry and Games.
Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) wrote several chess poems. Two of his chess poems are Chess (II)
Ezra Pound wrote The Game of Chess.
You can turn your chess games into poetry at the ChessBard at http://chesspoetry.com/
Poets who have played chess include Shakespeare, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Shelley, Lord Byron (George Gordon), Lord Tennyson, Alfred Douglas (1870-1945), Alfred Kreymborg (1883-1966), Thomas Middleton (1580-1627), Ezra Pound (1885-1972), Walter Scott (1771-1832), Ivan Turgenev (1818-1883), and William Yeats (1865-1939)
For more on chess and poetry, see Edward Winter’s article at http://www.chesshistory.com/winter/extra/poetry.html