Friday, July 31, 2015

HJR Murray's History Of Chess Is Humongously Splendiferous

It was published in 1913 and is still widely regarded as the standard work on the subject.

Well -- okay, let's get more specific about what "the subject" is: some people looking for a history of chess want something going from the beginnings of the modern game in the 15th century, when the rules first resembled the rules chess is played by today, and going until the present. A book published in 1913 obviously has a 102-year handicap on that last part, and of its 900 pages, the part dealing with the modern game goes from page 776 to page 890. 891 to 900 is the index, and a lot of the index, obviously, covers the parts of the book before page 776.

What's in those 775 pages? Well, it's the history of chess in India, beginning in the 6th century; in the Malay lands, Further India, China, Corea, Japan, Persia, the Eastern Empire, in Muslim lands, in Central and Northern Asia and Russia, and in Medieval Europe. That's how Murray, writing in England in 1913, referred to those regions. what he called the Malay lands, we refer to as Malaysia and Indonesia; instead of Further India we say Myanmar and Southeast Asia; he spelled Corea with a c and we spell korea with a k; his Persia is our Iran; and what he called the Eastern Empire, some people still call the Eastern Empire or Eastern Roman Empire, and others call Byzantium.

If you don't like footnotes, you won't like this. Murray wrote A Short History of Chess of chess for people like you. I'm not recommending the shorter version for you, I don't understand people like you, I don't know if you'd like it or not.

Us people who love lots and lots of footnotes and lengthy appendices, with lots of lengthy quotations from Latin texts in both once we get to Medieval Europe on page 392 -- Murray wrote his book for us. He was one of us. He studied Arabic specifically to prepare for his research into Muslim chess, which he calls Shatranj, and which occupies pages 186 through 365.

Throughout the book, Murray presents us with absolutely meticulous consideration of both primary texts and secondary works. He not only tells us why he thinks this or that early text does or does not refer to chess, and why he agrees or disagrees with this and that secondary work of scholarship on this and that point -- he tells us why he thinks as he does, and he does so convincingly. He's one of us.

There are diagrams showing board positions in the Indian, Chinese, Korean, Japanese and other games. There are a very great number of problems shown in both Shatranj and Medieval chess. And just a few modern chess problems, but I don't care because modern chess problems are easy to get, and where except this book do you get Shatranj or Medieval chess problems? The fact that the book was published in 1913 doesn't bother me all that much, for the same reason: it's pretty easy to find historical accounts of chess from Pillsbury, the last player mentioned by Murray, up to the present.

Murray is thorough, thorough, thorough, tracing and explaining the changes in the game from region to region and over time, going exhaustively into regional variations and lore and literature. Latin is quoted more than any other non-English language, but there's also a fair amount of Medieval English and French and Spanish and German and Icelandic.

If you're into chess but not so much into history or comparative literature, but will put up the latter two for the sake of your curiosity about chess, this book is for you. If you're into history but not so much into chess or comparative literaure, or comparative literature but not so much into chess or history, you might still like this book a lot.

If you're a nice sensible scholarly type like me who's interested in chess and history and comparative literature, especially Latin but you've got nothing against those other European languages, than for you this book will be Christmas every day. About the only thing which could've made it even better would have been more untranslated passages from texts in Greek and non-European languages -- but don't get me wrong, there's a little bit of that, too, just a little bit, although those texts are mostly just cited in translation.

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