There are many heroes in Black history, but many have been long forgotten or at least unappreciated. Chess in the times of the Civil War took on a particular significance as it was often perceived as symbol of refinement and erudition.
James McCune Smith was such a man of erudition. Born on April 18, 1813, he was the son of an enslaved mother and developed into one of the most brilliant minds of his day. He attended schools in New York City, but because of blatant racism, wasn’t allowed to enter any of the U.S. colleges at the time. He decided to move to Scotland to attend Glasgow University where, by age 19, he would earn three degrees including a Doctor of Medicine. After an internship in Paris in 1837, he returned to his home state of New York where he became the first Black physician.
While in Scotland, he had joined the Glasgow Emancipation Society and upon his return began to fight the cause for the abolition of slavery. A Frederick Douglass contemporary, he understood the challenges of Black life in America and sought to build institutions and organization for Black self-empowerment. With Douglass, he helped to establish the The National Council of the Colored People and passed away on November 17, 1865. His life’s work was not in vain as he saw slavery abolished the year of his death.
Below is his essay on chess. It is lengthy piece and the prose is very elegant. He makes mention of a great many subjects pertaining to the 19th century chess era including the legacy of Paul Morphy who he noted had “Carthaginian” features. He also discussed an array of topics ranging from metaphysics of chess to the personal battle between Morphy and Howard Staunton. McCune Smith is an important figure in Black chess and preceded Theophilus Thompson another great player of the 19th century.
Dr. Daaim Shabazz, The Chess Drum
The National Era
September 29, 1859
Vol. XIII No. 665 P. 153
by James McCune Smith
In that sad autumn month of 1857, when the commercial panic had reached its height, and when New York city seemed the central vortex of disaster not only of the United States, but of the civilized world there were two occurrences in singular contrast with the frightfully excited state of the public mind. To the few who had the heart to look out of doors, out of doors never looked more lovely. The air was balmy and of delightful temperature, the sky was cloudless, the sunsets beautiful, and never, since the world began, threw a more gorgeous hue over mountain and forest of the American landscape. We confess to some sympathy with that gloomy state of the public mind not that we had any golden argosy in stocks or shares which went down yet there was the coming winter, and, possibly, wan cheeks and supperless beds to those dearer than life. But, whatever gloom we felt was one day suddenly dissipated by the glorious “out of doors,” which had smiled and beckoned us many a day unheeded, and which, now no longer to be kept aloof, told us of the goodness as well as the glory of the Almighty.
We thought then, and we think now, that had the men of God, instead of improving that dark hour with pictures of darker sins and darker vengeance, and a more fearful judgment to come, had they simply pointed to the earth yielding her abundance, and to the air charged with health, and to the sky filled with the smile of God, and said to their alarmed people, “Peace, be still!” there would soon have been an end of all panic. Cheerfulness would have resumed her sway; and many a grave would have yet remained unfilled, and the sadder gates of our institutions for the insane would now hold some thousands fewer within their portals. The other occurrence was in-doors. While men in Wall street surged to and fro under impulses they no more understood and could no more govern than the iron waves in the howling storm; while men in Broadway and other streets adjacent the masters suddenly arrested in their golden dreams of enormous profit, and the workmen sadly folding up their implements of labor; and while the poor, frantic with an unknown dread, rushed to the savings banks,* or gathered in bread mobs in distant parks in the midst of this social hurricane, there was one house in Broadway, in which men daily gathered, and matters went on “Calm as a summer’s sea,” the very centre of the vortex, yet calm as a moonlit pool, so deeply embayed in mountains, that no breath of air could reach it a land-locked haven, in which whoever entered, however storm riven or care-crushed, became calm and still, and hung up his votive offerings to the genius loci; which was neither music, nor dancing, nor dice, nor wine, nor opium, nor lotus, nor hasheesh, but simply Chess! the immortal game, painted as played on the inside of the tomb of Nevotp, the Egyptian, 3,000 years B.C.;** but who can paint it as played at Donadi’s rooms in Broadway, in the year of grace 1857?
We read of a passionate duke, in the middle ages, breaking the chess board on the skull of his conqueror; and I have seen the wild Fylbel aim a sudden blow at a little French, man, who recklessly swept the men off the board when Fyl was about to “mate” an opponent.”
We have said that “out of doors” dissipated our gloom at that date; but in-doors this indoors was an accessory cloud-dispeller. We “got” there after this wise: Years ago, in the early months of our still persistent honeymoon, I purchased a pretty but fragile set of chessmen, and aided by an old copy of “Walker”, and the new frau, made some little progress in chess, until little fingers grew up round the table, and made a general smash of knights, pawns, and rooks, and little cares of another kind interfered with further proficiency. And it is good testimony in favor of the game, that when knight and pawn so went to the band, no harsh nor unkind word was uttered against their young destroyers, the chubby fingers were not rapped, nor their owners punished. It is not always so, however. We read of a passionate duke, in the middle ages, breaking the chess board on the skull of his conqueror; and I have seen the wild Fylbel aim a sudden blow at a little French, man, who recklessly swept the men off the board when Fyl was about to “mate” an opponent. My description of the game attracted some friends to buy board and book; and in a little while, Fylbel, the Downings, one of the Reasons, and an occasional jew-pedlar who insisted on taking the king, (the atrocious regicide!) with the preliminary exclamation, “chess de koenig” formed as clumsy a set of chess players as could be hunted up. The appearance of Staunton’s Chess-Players Hand Book was an era in our progress, although months were wasted in discussing the laws of the game by that born Causidicus, who now presides over the Sea-Girt House at Newport. In course of time, we became decent players.
So the year 1857 found us. It was some relief, looking at the daily papers, to turn from the failure of A, B, & Co., for $150,000, and from the suspension of specie payments by the banks, except the glorious old Chemical, to the unruffled proceedings of the first American Chess Congress, then in session, admission for the week, to lookers on one dollar. But that dollar? Was it prudent, with bank account at low water, and slim prospect of a flow, and on the edge of a long winter, with others dependent, was it prudent so to bestow to throw away a dollar? After hearing counsel before ourself three whole days, we held a family council with “die frau,” who at once decided that we must go. And “went” we did. And the officers of the Chess Congress, with nobler instincts of gentlemen than the New York Academy of Medicine ***, did not hesitate or refuse to admit a negro, even with the high-bloods from the South in their midst, and the danger of the dissolution of the Union before their eyes.
“And as we gazed at Morphy, with his fine, open countenance, brunette hue, marvelous delicacy of fibre, bright, clear eyes, and elongated submaxillary bone, a keen suspicion entered our ethnological department that we were not the only Carthaginian in the room. It might only be one drop, perhaps two ,God only knows how they got there but surely, beside the Tria mulattin who at present writes, there was also a Hekata-mulattin in that room!”
Having seen their portraits in Frank Leslie, we instantly singled out Paulsen and his great antagonist, and a little skillful elbowing found us seated beside their board. There was Louis Paulsen, with his vast head, sanguine temperament, but coarse fibre, indicating his rough, almost pure-Bersekir blood; and as we gazed at Morphy, with his fine, open countenance, brunette hue, marvelous delicacy of fibre, bright, clear eyes, and elongated submaxillary bone, a keen suspicion entered our ethnological department that we were not the only Carthaginian in the room. It might only be one drop, perhaps two ,God only knows how they got there but surely, beside the Tria mulattin who at present writes, there was also a Hekata-mulattin in that room!
It was the old combat between Coeur de Lion and the Saladin. How strange that the Orient and the Occident should yet war! Paulsen huge, massive, ponderous; Morphy slight, elegant, yet swift as lightning.
The game was about half through, so far as the number of moves were concerned. Paulsen hesitated, clasped his hands, leaving out the two long fore-fingers, which he laid firmly on the edge of the board counted over the five or six possible moves of his opponent, and then evidently knew something more would follow but what? You could almost see him think; at length, with a peculiar flourish of his arm, he seizes a pawn, and moves. With scarcely a moment’s hesitation, with his eyes for an instant bent on the board, Morphy raises his arm as if to strike, and throws a piece right in the way of his antagonist. Another long, long pause, the hands again clasped: “why, take the piece, man,” is on everybody’s unopened lips; yet Paulsen pauses, again clasps his hands, and for nearly half an hour pores over the board; he does not take the proffered piece, but offers one of equal value; then something skin to electricity flashed through and out of Morphy, the calm white forehead “pleated up,” his arm raised, he swiftly moves; and, as if caught with the same impulse. Paulsen moves instantly; then, for a few seconds, there is a click, click, click a move each second percussion-caps, rifles, cannons, grape, canister, the clash of swords and then all is still. Flushed with the struggle, Paulsen looks up to see why the other sits calm and cold as an icicle; Paulsen glances again at the board, and sees mate for himself three or four moves off!
Surely, thought we, chess is a question of magnetism; given, a fair parity in skill between two players, and the more powerfully magnetic will sway and conquer the will of the less magnetic, and force him into moves according to his will. We had tried this often, directly, with the susceptible engraver, P. H. R., and once, in a reflex manner, with J. S., of Providence. In this latter instance, he being the less practiced player, but of impressible nerves, by fixing our attention on the board at the same moment with him, and marking out the best move against us, he invariably made that move, and won; per contra, while, in another game, we made moves, and then looked away; ignored the board until he had moved; unmagnetized, the termination of the game was speedily against him.
Napoleon planned his battles on large maps, with pin-heads indicating the whereabouts of each corps, division, and even brigade. He moved the pins about as his thought required, and thus completed his plan. But your chess-player must go through this preliminary fight without touching map or pin; he must with most difficult reticence keep hands off until he makes a complete survey of the men and the field; and when he once touches a man, it must be moved beyond recall. This requires a stretch of attention very exhausting, nay, almost impossible to some minds; it is the faculty which phrenologists term “continuity,” which is the result, for the most part, of training, sometimes a gift.
How, then, did Paulsen, with his superior magnetism, and not very inferior skill, fail to affect Morphy? The moment that Morphy completed a move, he threw the whole board away from his attention, brushed away magnetism, so to speak often went off to the other end of the room, and had to be summoned thence to reply to Paulsen’s move. (4.) And it was very evident that the study of the former was not at all in relation to what Paulsen would move, but in regard to the possible moves and combinations, embracing from twelve to twenty moves, and their twelve times twelve, and twenty times twenty of possible inter-combinations. This whirl of permutation, with accurate results in each of thousands of combinations, evidently passes through Morphy’s mind in like manner as in Zerah Colburn and other arithmetical prodigies, addition, subtraction, multiplication, and the square root, are performed with the rapidity and accuracy of Mr. Babbage’s machine. So that for any one less gifted in this peculiar power than Morphy to attempt to play with him, is like one man at the brake of a fire-engine, striving to play the same against another worked by steam; or, more accurately, for an ordinary adept to endeavor to count interest with Zerah Colburn, or the negro prodigy recently announced in Alabama.
This leads us to inquire, what is chess? Is it a purely intellectual exercise, affording scope and improvement and test of the mental faculties? or is it a physico-intellectual exercise, engaging muscular as well as brain work? What faculties does it call into exercise? The eye and fingers, the muscles of the arm, and the muscles of the orbit, the peculiar power of seeing the men in their places, and of seeing men that are in their places as if they were not there, but elsewhere, and others, or blanks, where they actually are a sort of physical reticence and imagination acting at one and the same moment such is one phase of chess exercise. Napoleon planned his battles on large maps, with pin-heads indicating the whereabouts of each corps, division, and even brigade. He moved the pins about as his thought required, and thus completed his plan. But your chess-player must go through this preliminary fight without touching map or pin; he must with most difficult reticence keep hands off until he makes a complete survey of the men and the field; and when he once touches a man, it must be moved beyond recall. This requires a stretch of attention very exhausting, nay, almost impossible to some minds; it is the faculty which phrenologists term “continuity,” which is the result, for the most part, of training, sometimes a gift. We notice, in nearly all the chess – playing friends we have named, that their failure in play depends on the lack of this faculty. G. T. D., for example, makes the most vigorous attacks of any of them, but, after the twelfth or sixteenth move, his attention is exhausted, and some careless move makes him an easy prey to a less vigorous opponent. In his case, this failure in attention, or continuity, is confined to his chess play; in business, or in public movements, in which he is deeply interested, he is constant, persistent, and steadfast as a sleuth bound. This would seem to indicate that his perceptive faculties are deficient, or are easily wearied over the chess-board. Per contra, among these friends, P. H. R., the engraver, is the only one who plays an even, unflagging game throughout; indeed, as many have found to their chagrin, plays the better end game, the worse his chances appear to be. His perceptive faculties are trained by his employment, and rather improve than weary by continuity of exercise.
Another amateur, W. C. I., is a most interesting study at the chess-board. He has fine perceptive faculties, is a splendid boxer, of quick, strong, combative temperament, and of full physical imagination. He makes the most beautiful combinations we ever saw on the chess – board; they seem as brilliant as fireworks; but he loses almost every game, not from breaking down of his continuity or attention, so much as from an incurably mercurial disposition, which leads him to forsake a sound move for one apparently more brilliant, but less safe. This gentleman bought a mare the other day, which, in twenty four hours, kicked three wagons to pieces, and threw him out each time; of course, instead of getting rid of her, he is “bound” to break her, it will be “such a splendid feat.” From the nature of the faculties which it calls into play, we regard chess as a physical as well as intellectual exercise, requiring muscular work as well as brain work. Cricket, billiards, chess, rise from the physico-intellectual to the intellectuo-physical; and chess, billiards, cricket, reverse the order. Lookers-on at cricket feel the blood rush, the muscles clench, and a “hurra” escaping from the lips. Lookers on at billiards tell me that to see Phelan play affords the highest possible physical enjoyment (5.). Lookers on at chess feel their muscles twitching, their fingers clasping and moving imaginary men, and their heads aching when the game is done.
“The best chess-players on record, in like manner, had attained their eminence while under thirty years of age; while the human intellect is not at its full development until between the thirty-fifth and forty-fifth year of the individual. And if chess-playing maximum occurs before the intellectual maximum, it follows that chess is not a purely intellectual exercise.”
Another reason why we regard chess less as an intellectual than a physical exercise consists in the fact, that the highest eminence in chess is attained before the age of full intellectual development. In our American Chess Congress, the champions of the champions were very young men: Morphy twenty, and Paulsen twenty-three or four. McDonnell, Staunton, Harrwitz, Stanley, all won their laurels in their early days. The best chess-players on record, in like manner, had attained their eminence while under thirty years of age; while the human intellect is not at its full development until between the thirty-fifth and forty-fifth year of the individual. And if chess-playing maximum occurs before the intellectual maximum, it follows that chess is not a purely intellectual exercise. Furthermore, a man’s force in chess, like his physical power or force, diminishes after he is thirty years of age. Yankee Sullivan at forty three, some eighteen years after he had passed his physical maximum, was no match for his own equal, aged twenty-five; hence the years told in Tom Hyer’s favor.
In like manner, Mr. Stanley, who, at twenty-two, had won a match against Mr. St. Amant, in New Orleans, was but a third-rate player at forty years of age; and the real excuse for Mr. Staunton, in declining to play with Morphy, was, that he had passed his maximum chess-playing age some twenty years ago, and could not be expected, an old man, to acquit himself as if he had been a young one. “I will take to my work, let the young gentleman take to his play,” was really a truthful and adequate reason for declining to play; but “why not say this before?” say the critics. Because, on practicing, as he doubtless did, in private, Mr. Staunton discovered that his chess skill was dulled to his own apprehension, his chess muscles had lost their wonted fire and lubricity in the gambit. Au reste what a stupid piece of red republicanism it is, in the midst of the nineteenth century, to expect a king, even of chess, to throw away his crown wittingly, before an unknown cavalier, however preux!
In relation to the higher faculties which it calls into exercise, chess affects less the pure reasoning powers than is usually taken for granted. Classed as a division of mathematical study, it belongs to the arithmetical rather than the transcendental department of mathematics; it is no higher than permutation. All possible moves of a given number of pieces can be summed up in an intelligible line of figures less than a yard long. The objection, therefore, of the great Scotch metaphysician to mathematics, as a means of mental development that they lead to only positive results, as in a grooved track applies with double force to chess, which calls into exercise one of the lower branches of mathematics only.
Yet chess-playing is an amusement worthy of cultivation, especially for the young. It is better in-door entertainment than cards, or dice, or lager-bier; it has been well said that it does not lead to gambling. It has the positive merit of improving the tone of manners and of cultivating the power of attention.
A great deal has been said about invention in relation to chess-playing, and a London newspaper especially lands the inventive genius of Mr. Morphy. If our view of his peculiar power be the correct one, then there is no invention in his play. All the possible combinations of the moves before him appear to his mind as clearly as K. p. to K.’ to an ordinary player; and from what he sees, he selects the best play. It is about as much invention as is exercised by a natural arithmetician, in announcing, in a minute, a difficult result in interest for days no more. Besides, this gentleman, he very best of known living chess-players seems singularly deficient in even the moderate degree of invention which can be predicated of chess. We have the Evans Gambit, the Scotch Gambit, the Muzio Gambit, &c., &c., but we have not yet the Morphy Gambit, nor is there in print more than one very commonplace problem by our modern chess king.
But the problems! Do not they require invention! If they do, it is invention of no higher character, and requiring no greater powers, than to construct certain figures with a Chinese puzzle; and a first-rate problem-composer is seldom, if ever, a first-class player. These views of the status of chess-playing receive confirmation from the fact that first-class chess-players have seldom, if ever, distinguished themselves in the higher departments of thought or invention. Mr. Buckle, the author of “Civilization in England,” may be adduced as an exception; he was, fifteen years ago, among the most eminent chess-players in Europe; he suddenly gave up chess-playing, betook himself to study, and his admirable volume is the first fruits of fifteen years of intense application. Yet, while, he betrays an extent of reading wider than that so pompously announced by Gibbon, and while strong common sense and keen observation are abundantly manifest in his work, there is lacking the bold grasp and deep insight which we find in Hume and Sir James Mackintosh, and even in Dumas. Mr. Buckle lets us into the secret of his shortcomings, moreover, in the following sentence: “Whoever will take the pains fairly to estimate the present condition of mental philosophy must admit that, notwithstanding the influence it has always exercised over some of the most powerful minds, and through them over society at large, there is, nevertheless, no other study which has been so zealously prosecuted, so long continued, and yet remains so barren of results!” Barren of results! Shades of Locke, Malebranche, Berkeley, Dugald Stewart, Reid, Brown, Cousin, and Sir William Hamilton! Of course, Mr. Buckle is an ardent admirer of Auguste Compte, and fifteen years of purely literary labor has not raised him above the intellectual level of the chess-board.
Yet chess-playing is an amusement worthy of cultivation, especially for the young. It is better in-door entertainment than cards, or dice, or lager-bier; it has been well said that it does not lead to gambling. It has the positive merit of improving the tone of manners and of cultivating the power of attention. In looking at Morphy and Paulsen, in 1857, we were struck with the evident purity of both these young men. Neither presented the bleared eyes, shaking hands, nor nervous tremor, which a four-hours sitting would betray in nine-tenths of our young men of the city; they were plainly in perfect physical condition, and all their faculties were clear and in full honest exercise. And so must the devotees of chess keep themselves, or they will inevitably lose rank as chess-players.
* It was a marked instance of “faith,” that while the colored people of New York had over a million of dollars in savings banks, scarce one of them was seen in the crowd who made this “run” on those institutions.
** Bunsen, Egypt’s Place in Universal History, vol. ii, p. 288.
*** A month or two after the organization of the New York Academy of Medicine, the writer of this, at the request of the late Dr. Bliss, and Dr. Tones, sent his name, with these gentlemen as vouchers, as an applicant for membership. It was duly referred to the proper committee, who sent their chairman, the venerable Dr. Francis, with a letter, acknowledging the fullness of the credentials, and even passing as encomium on the applicant, yet respectfully requesting him to withhold his application for the present, lest it might interfere with the “harmony” of the young institution. This be did on conditions which the committee and the Academy took the earliest opportunity flagrantly to violate.
(4*) Morphy, on meeting a new antagonist of first class, generally loses the first game. He then sits by the board, and is under the magnetism of his opponent. Ten minutes reflection, after the game is over, shows him his own false play, and the strength of his adversary; in after games he deserts the board and play as soon as he has moved and wins.
(5*) Probably that sense of pleasure from muscular movement announced by Brown, in his Lectures on the Philosophy of the Human Mind; pages 134-186. Glasg. 1830.