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Account of Oriental Manuscript Works on Chess in the British Museum, and in the Library of the Royal Asiatic Society, &c.
BEFORE I come to discuss the principles of Mediæval Chess, it may be well to give a brief account of the manuscript works which I follow as my authorities. These are four in number; and, fortunately, they are public property, easily accessible to those able and willing to examine their contents; and not, like the MSS. of some good natured private individuals, liable to be lent and not returned. The first is an Arabic manuscript (No. 7515) in the British Museum. It is a quarto volume of 132 leaves, and averaging 16 lines to each page-that is, where no diagrams occur. It was written, or, more properly speaking, copied, in A.D. 1257; and, consequently, is now upwards of 600 years old. The author's name is not given; but, from circumstances to be mentioned, we may safely infer that he lived within a century previous to the above date. The authorship of the volume is absurdly attributed to "Hasan of Basra," one of the early Muhammadan doctors, who died A.D. 728. The only authority for this fiction is, that in the preface there is a quotation of a general nature from the "sage of Basra,"
recommending to people "some innocent amusement after the mind has been fatigued with care or much study," which pithy advice will be found to apply as much to leap-frog or to blindman's-buff, as to Chess. On this slender foundation, however, the knavish book-dealers entitled the work "Shatranj al Basri," which they construe into "a treatise on Chess, by Hasan of Basra." Yea, further, in order to conceal the trick, they have had the precaution to erase from the preface the name of the Prince to whom the book was dedicated. However, we know from the titles employed in the dedication, that the Prince was one of the Ayubite dynasty, that ruled for a brief period over Egypt and Syria; that is, he was either the renowned Saladin himself, or one of his immediate
In the East, as of late among ourselves, the Princes of certain dynasties were addressed by certain peculiar titles and epithets whereby they might be known, just as we a century or two ago used to read of "His Most Christian Majesty of France," or "His Most Catholic Majesty of Spain," or their "High Mightinesses of Holland." With regard to the contents of this volume, they may be briefly described, for unfortunately a large and valuable portion of it is missing. The first seven leaves, which are merely introductory, may be passed over as containing nothing of importance. The eighth leaf commences the main business, by enumerating the five classes into which Chess-players may be divided, of which very sensible division more hereafter. Between the 8th and 9th folio there is what the learned call a hiatus valde
1 To these altisonant designations, it would be unpardonable in me, not to add that of the Austrian Kaiser, who, according to the "Times," is addressed as "his Imperial and Royal Apostolic Majesty." The exact meaning and real aptness of the term Apostolic, I do not pretend to understand, though I dare say it is all very right.
deflendus. Folios 9th and 10th treat of the equality of force at the end of a game, together with the relative values of the various pieces; and, from the minuteness and fulness with which the author explains this part of his subject, we may infer that the missing portion contained an account of everything relating to the theory and practice of the game on the same ample scale. The rest of the volume consists of some 200 diagrams, containing "openings of games," eleven in number, and positions or problems, in which either mate is forced in a certain number of moves, or the weaker party, by skilful play, draws the game. These are accompanied with solutions at full-length; and this work alone, even if we had none else, would have sufficed to give us a fair idea of the manner in which chess was played in the East six hundred years ago.
My second authority is a Persian manuscript (No. 16,856) in the British Museum. It is an octavo volume containing sixty-three leaves, ten lines to the page. It was copied A.D. 1612, and the author lived in the time of the Emperor Humayun, of Delhi, to whom it is dedi cated, somewhat more than 300 years ago. It is a translation and abridgment of an older work in the Arabic language, entitled "Munjih fi'ilmi-l-Shatranj," or the Chess-player's Monitor." It is divided into twelve chapters, of which the first five contain brief notices of those among the companions and followers of the Prophet Muhammad, who were Chess-players, thence deducing arguments in proof of the lawfulness of the game. It then details the numerous benefits of Chess, mental and
1 Mr. Bland has more fully described this MS. in his "Essay on Persian Chess." He has, however, given us a wrong title viz., “Manhaj fi ilmi-l Shatranj" or "the Guide to the knowledge of Chess." This is all very well for a title, but the author's own words are clear enough in the MS., precisely as I have given them.
physical-the inventor of the game, and the occasion of its invention. The 6th and 7th treat of the morals and amenities of Chess, together with a few judicious advices to the players; the 8th, on drawn games; the 9th, on the openings; the 10th, on the curiosities of Chess, such as the well-known feat of the Knight covering the sixtyfour squares in so many moves, &c. ; the 11th is valuable, as it gives an excellent selection of end-games on diagrams, together with their solutions. The 12th contains directions for playing without seeing the board. This work is decidedly the neatest and plainest compendium of the theory and practice of the medieval game that I have yet seen or heard of.
In the third place, I have had recourse to two copies, in the British Museum, of a Persian work in Manuscript, entitled "Nafa,isu-l-Funūn" or the or the "Treasures of the Sciences." It is a compendious Encyclopædia, and consequently the article devoted to Chess and other games, consisting of three chapters, is necessarily more concise than either of the two treatises above mentioned. The second Chapter gives a brief history of the invention of the game in India, and enumerates five different varieties of Chess, or rather five distinct forms of the chessboard, for the principle is the same in all. The concluding chapter contains some fifteen problems or positions which offer no particular novelty, being, as we might expect, all selected from previous works on the subject. To these are added some amusing and sensible remarks respecting the morals and social observances or amenities of the Royal game. The following is especially worthy of remark—“ In India they test a person's fitness for the duties of Wazir or Minister by making two people play chess in his presence. If he looks on and speaks not a word, they put confidence in him; but if he indulges in
remarks on the moves, and gives advice to the players, he is considered to be deficient in discretion, and unfit for the office."1
My fourth authority is a Persian manuscript (No. 260,) belonging to the library of the Royal Asiatic Society. It consists of 64 leaves, quarto size, finely written, 15 lines to the page. One half consists of diagrams of very interesting positions, without any solutions, and the other half of descriptive writing. The work is both imperfect and misarranged, there being scarcely one leaf placed where it ought to be. On careful perusal, however, I have found that twenty-eight of the leaves, if properly arranged, would form a complete sequence without any break, and the other four are uncertain. The following is the order of the subjects as intended by the author: first, a detached leaf forming part of the preface, the purport of which is to convince the reader of the author's prodigious merits, especially in Chess. Then follow 12 folios on the beneficial effects of Chess: this subject is complete, with the exception of a few lines at the commencement.
1 It is curious to observe, that the early Scandinavians applied the game of Chess to a similar purpose in order to discover a man's temper and moral disposition. From an English abridgement of the "History of the Goths, Swedes and Vandals,” by Olaus Magnus we read that “It was a custom amongst the most illustrious Goths and Swedes, when they would honestly marry their daughters that in order to prove the disposition of their suitors that came to them and to know their passions especially, they used to play with such suitors at Chess and Tables. For at these games their anger, love, peevishnesse, covetousnesse, dulnesse, idlenesse, and many more mad pranks, passions, and motions of their minds, and the forces and properties of their fortunes are used to be seen; as whether the wooer be rudely disposed, that he will indiscreetly rejoyce, and suddenly triumph when he wins; or whether when he is wronged, he can patiently endure it, and wisely put it off.”
2 This manuscript is the ground work of Mr. Bland's Essay on Persian Chess in which brochure a very detailed but unsatisfactory description of it will be found. Mr. Bland seems to have failed in arranging the detached leaves of the work, so as to form a sequence. His essay, of which some notice will be taken hereafter, is more to be commended on the score of its ingenuity and hardiesse than for the soundness of its logic.-Vide Appendix, A.