That Time When People Thought Playing Chess Would Make You Violent

from the let-the-wookie-win dept

Whenever one is forced to bear witness to the predictable silliness of the moral panic of the day, it is useful to recall all the past moral panics that we now consider so equally silly. We’ve written before about the relatively recent hand-wringing over modern entertainment ventures such as tabletop boardgames, video games, and even ghost stories told on that most-dreaded of mediums, the internet. Most recently, the moral panic that had once focused its misguided eyes upon violence has inexplicably shifted to hacking, with warnings abounding that ten-year-olds everywhere will be crashing our civic infrastructure with their iPhones and all the rest. It should be apparent that all this is stupid on its face, but even forgiving the general public’s inability to make that determination, the point should be unassailable when put into historical context.

Take, for example, chess. ChurchHatesTucker writes in about a nice and extensive post on iO9 about how critics attacked what is now considered the game of intellectuals when it was first taking over, over a century ago. The arguments, I dare say, will sound familiar to you.

One word, however, to the sempiternal chess-players, whom we meet everywhere: they are, for the most part, persons with long well-filled heads and ambitious hearts; which if they devoted to the further improvement of useful arts, sciences, inventions, &c., only half the time they squander in contests for victories “baseless as the fabric of a vision,” this sacrifice alone would liberate at least ten thousand profound thinkers on the globe for the service of their own times and generation, and compensate for the rather selfish and unsocial species of warfare which two of a company carry on for hours together, to the annoyance and exclusion of all the rest from the charms of their conversation and intelligent minds.

That is the writing of a physician in 1883 and it operates under the notion that the time in which we must pursue the useful arts and abandon any form of pleasure or entertainment is limitless and without diminishing returns. If only the people of the world would put down their rooks and pick up a chemistry set, we’d have the elixir of life worked out and eternity would be our playground! You hear this argument all the time when it comes to gaming: those damned kids should be reading/playing outside/studying/etc. It makes a certain amount of sense until you decide to understand that anything without moderation is dangerous and most things in moderation are not. It’s entertainment after all, and suggesting that people who play chess or video games should instead be furthering the useful arts only makes sense as an argument if you also propose closing up all the movie theaters, sports leagues, golf courses, parks and swimming pools. The only thing that was different about chess at the time, and video games now, is that they were/are new, which apparently makes them scary.

But, of course, you just can’t have a moral panic without predictions of apathy and violence. This first quotation comes from An Introduction to the History and Study of Chess, published in 1804.

Richlet, in his Dictionary, article Echec, writes, ” It is said, that the Devil, in order to make poor Job lose his patience, had only to engage him at a game at Chess.”…Col. Stewart, who had been aid-de-camp to the Earl of Stair, and was afterwards one of the Quarter-masters General in the Duke of Cumberland’s time, used frequently to play with the Earl, who was very fond of the game; but an unexpected check-mate used to put his Lordship into such a passion, that he was ready to throw a candlestick, or any thing else that was near him, at his adversary; the prudent Colonel always took care therefore, to be on his feet, to fly to the farthest corner of the room, when he said, ” check-mate, my Lord!”…King John was playing at Chess when the deputies from Rouen came to acquaint him that their city was besieged, but he would not hear them until he had finished his game. Charles I. was also playing at it when news was brought of the resolution of the Scots to sell him to the English ; but so little was he discomposed by this alarming intelligence, that he continued his game with the utmost composure.

Yes, chess, in the very tome that endeavored to examine the game in detail, was blamed for biblical corruption, peer-on-peer violence, and apathy of a King. What a cruel, twisted game this must be. It’s almost comical to note that video games, the entertainment of children today, have been blamed for sin, violence, and general apathy toward the things we’re all supposed to be focusing on, according to the whims of others. It’s… the… same… exact… story. So much so, in fact, that it becomes instantly frustrating knowing this history and seeing it play out all over again.

The young become old and repeat the moral panic pattern of their parents, for some stupid reason. Maybe it’s in our DNA. Maybe it’s a function of a society that creates generational age-groups the way we have. Or maybe it’s the fault of some new fad that my peers will soon be blaming for all the world’s ills. Personally, I blame chess.

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Comments on “That Time When People Thought Playing Chess Would Make You Violent”

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Prashanth (profile) says:

Other reasons

Are you sure that it’s only the usual moral panic that contributed to this moralizing? I wonder if it also has to do with the fact that chess is a foreign game (it has its origins in India and came through the Middle East, after all), because after all, this was the time when attitudes of imperialist superiority were close to their peak in Britain.

mcinsand (profile) says:

Re: Re: Other reasons

Neophobia might be a more targeted term than xenophobia… although I have always used xenophobia in this context, too. This article merely prompted me to see if there is a term for fearing the new. Looking back through the ages, this seems to be a facet of becoming an old buzzard.

sigh I thought I was immune to the malady, but I really, really, really hate the new MS-Office interface. It’s new, so I have to ask, despite the fact that I’ve always been happy with the changes to OpenOffice, GIMP, and even KDE’s evolutionary jumps. It simply has to be me, I know, since MS would never make a change that sucks.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

True, but doctors actually washing their hands took quite a while longer. Arguably, it’s still a battle being fought today. Current studies show that only about 40% of doctors wash their hands or use antiseptic gels when they should.

The hospital where my wife is a nurse tries to get doctors to be better about that, but the resistance remains quite strong. So much so that the hospital has signs everywhere advising patients to outright ask doctors if they’ve washed up.

ltlw0lf (profile) says:

Re: Re:

My mom was a teen in the 50s in the US. It was common for parents back then to blame polio on rock & roll concerts and hanging out at the beach.

Theoretically they were right. Since polio is an communicable disease, spread by poor bathroom hygiene, if someone at the concert or at the beach had polio, it is possible, though extremely remote, that you could have gotten it too.

Though it would be far easier to get polio from someone with bad bathroom hygiene working at a restaurant than from a rock concert or at the beach.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: surely

Many people think that now, let alone in 50 years, especially from a viewpoint outside of the US (although many countries have equally shrill noisemakers).

The real question is whether we can get enough people to stop dealing with such scapegoating and witchhunting, and get down to deal with the real problems of society. Many of which really haven’t changed all that much since chess and the waltz were having scaremongering stories written about them.

Whatever says:

Re: Re: surely

Perhaps it would be better to, rather than look at it a scapegoating, looking at it more like people seeing short term pain and having no way to know the long term gain. The gain, the benefit, the pluses are often written out over a long period of time, and may not be as obvious at the time.

It’s also just a little misleading and dishonest to hold up an extremist view taken without context, and try to paint the entire society with it. That reads more like something Rick Falkvinge would do.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: surely

“The gain, the benefit, the pluses are often written out over a long period of time, and may not be as obvious at the time.”

Except for the matter that the ACTUAL problems in society remain the same. Poverty, employment, education, discrimination, sexual and physical abuse, exploitation, and so on. These are constants, not something that disappears because the most convenient scapegoat this decade about video games instead of chess or heavy metal.

“It’s also just a little misleading and dishonest to hold up an extremist view taken without context, and try to paint the entire society with it”

…and who is doing that, exactly? Is this one of those occasions where you’re so much in a rush to attack every article here that you’ve lost the ability to understand the words that are said again?

Gerry (profile) says:

Malthus and The Bomb

Everything is up for destruction every few years. At one time the settled science was that we would all starve to death becuase the population was exploding (and that one was resurrected in the mid-20th century). In the ’50s, there was going to be a nuclear holocaust. Now, the destructive rage is global warming or global chaos or climate change or whatever they’re calling it now.

In 100 years the’ll look back and say it’s a shame we couldn’t have known better. Of course, then they’ll be fretting about sexbot malfunctions.

Udom (profile) says:

Video Games

Misleading comparison. The world was wildly different in the 1800s, and only the wealthy had hours to spend playing anything. Frittering one’s time away playing games would lead to disaster, and perhaps criminality.

To older people in our times, video games seem an embarrassingly onanistic addiction. Laboratory rats will ignore food and keep pressing the lever that gives their brains a shot of endorphins until they starve to death.

CCC says:


Evil chess, volleyball, badminton, reading Mark Twain, checkers, driving/flying /boating for entertainment, shoe shopping (for women), reading other than news, furniture making, toy chest construction, etc. magazines (for men). Soccer, baseball, Olympics & the sports involved, styled haircuts, pedicures/manicures, television except for news programs (BIG time evil), make-up, music & dancing, & on & on, & on. Basically smiling & enjoyment of any sort are an anathema to various draconian religions & politics. When will this simplistic & ignorant approach to human behavior end?

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