Buckle as a Chess Player

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Buckle as a Chess Player  (1891) 
by Charles Tomlinson
Published in July 1891 "British Chess Magazine"

Henry Thomas Buckle was one of those fortunate individuals who inherit from their parents an ample fortune, and are not ruined by the bequest. On the contrary, he retained throughout a life, too brief for himself and for his country, a love of culture which after many years of patient and arduous study, culminated in the History of Civilization, which took the mind of England by surprise. This laborious fragment is very pleasant reading, and however much the historical critic may object to some of its conclusions, there can be no doubt as to the superiority of the style, and the wealth of knowledge, supported by superabundant evidence contained in the notes.

But it is worth while to insist upon another most remarkable fact, namely, that it is possible for a man of high literary and scientific culture to attain the first rank in chess, so that in a short match with Staunton, the only odds that great player could give to Buckle was Pawn and move, and of the three games played, Buckle won two and lost one. This little match occurred some time after the remark recorded in my notice of Simpson's Divan, to the effect that Buckle had never played a match with Staunton, because he wished to retain friendly relations with him; implying thereby that he could meet Staunton on the chess field on equal terms, and hold his own, but this does not seem probable.

Buckle was born on the 24th of November, 1821, at Lee, in Kent, [England] where his parents were on a visit to his uncle. His father was a ship-owner and merchant. Soon after his birth, the family returned to their house in Mark Lane, where, as was the custom with merchants before the time of railroads, they lived; from thence they shortly afterwards removed to 35 Mecklenburgh Square, and after the death of the father to 59 Oxford Terrace.

Buckle was delicate in health as a boy, but he was so fortunate as to have a sensible physician in the person of Dr. Birkbeck, president of the London Mechanics' Institution (whose scientific lectures I had the privilege of attending in my young days). He advised that Buckle's brain, which was always active, should be employed as little as possible in book learning. He never cared for children's books and toys, and had no sympathy with boyish games. He loved to hear his mother read and explain portions out of the Bible, and he was never tired of perusing three famous books, namely Shakespeare, the Arabian Knights, and Don Quixote. As he advanced in boyhood, he was sent to a day school in Kentish Town, with instructions to the master, Dr. Holloway, that he was not to study more than he liked, and that he was never to be whipped. A delicate state of health interfered with his schooling, and private tuition was tried with no better success. The fact is that with such a mind as Buckle's, self-education was more potent than school or college. He had a remarkable facility for acquiring languages, and in his frequent travels on the Continent, he managed to acquire a speaking knowledge of French, German, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and Dutch, and a reading knowledge of nine others, in addition to Hebrew, Greek and Latin. He found a language master of know use to him, except for practice in conversation and pronunciation.

Buckle's father had intended him to become a partner in his firm, and made him work in the office during some months, to the young man's infinite disgust; but he afterwards admitted that he thus acquired business habits which were of use to him. After the death of his father, in 1840, he never entered the office again, but had made preparation for his great work which had some time before been conceived. Travels on the Continent, and the collecting of a large library, with many hours a day devoted to study, formed a considerable part of Buckle's life. He declares that he was economical in most things, but never grudged money for books and cigars, and his biographer laments the smallness of his income; but seeing that it was fifteen hundred a year, we think it just possible that one might live comfortably on that sum, even with a devouring taste for books and cigars. But Buckle's books were acquired much in the same manner as I have heaped together a not inconsiderable library, and I have done as Buckle did on several occasions, weeded it out for the sake of a shelf-room. Buckle picked up most of his books at book-stalls or at book sales, and some of his best purchases he enters at from one to four or five shillings; and when he got all he wished out of one set of books, he sold them to make way for another. In like manner, I once had a considerable library of chess books, but when papers in the Saturday Magazine were complete, I got rid of them for the sake of shelf room.

The reader of the B.C.M. will probably think that the above details are somewhat too ample for the title of this paper. I therefore pass over any further notice of the book which made Buckle famous, and conclude this part of my subject by stating that he contracted typhoid fever at Damascus, and died on the 29th May, 1862, at the early age of forty.

We are not informed as to when or how Buckle learned chess. His proficiency in that difficult game, and indeed in all games requiring mental skill in contrast to physical exertion, was the result of that singular brain-power which enabled him to master a difficult subject easily and pleasantly. He seems to have grasped the principle of the game much in the same way as it is said Des Chapelles acquired draughts and chess; that is, by merely watching the players at the cafe. It does not appear that Buckle, any more than Des Chapelles, De la Bourdonnais, Boncourt, MacDonnell, and other great players, ever opened a book on chess, or even cared to record the games that they played. Hence we have but few published games of Philidor, or the early masters; and even in the best days of the old Westminister Club, it was thought and innovation when Mr. Lewis published Fifty Games as specimens of modern play, but withholding the names of the players and adding no notes. So also in Mr. Cazenove's collection, published about the same time, the names of the players are not given. The same remark applies to the earlier collection by Greco. To have given the names would have been a breach of etiquette. The custom is even now partly followed when a professional player gives his own name, but not that of his amateur opponent, or gives only one or two letters of the name. The publication of names, if not introduced was promoted by Mr. George Walker, who was also the first to make chess books cheap. Buckle shared in the carelessness of the olden time. Many of his best games are lost, and the large number that are preserved fail, I think, for the most part, adequately to represent his skill. He seems to have known little or nothing of the book openings. He generally adopted the safe Giuoco Piano, and when second player, he usually preferred an irregular defense. In giving the odds of a Pawn his defense could not differ from the recognized one, at least in the early part of the game; but in giving a Knight his opening was peculiar, at least in the games that I have examined.

We must not judge of Buckle as a chess-player by such Divan [odds] games, because when heavy odds are given, the superior player reckons a good deal on the inferior skill of his opponent, and indulges in combinations which he knows to be unsound. Captain Kennedy thus refers to his play: "These contests of his at odds were always full of interest and entertainment to lookers-on, and a gallery two or three deep often surrounded his board in the Strand Divan, where it was his custom in the afternoon to recreate himself with his favorite game. I have occasionally heard roars of laughter elicited from the spectators from the crest-fallen aspect of some poor discomfited Rook-player, who, with much care and solicitude, having obtained as he fondly believed, an impregnable position, had suddenly found his defences scattered like chaff, and himself accommodated with a mate, after the sacrifice by his keen-witted opponent of two or three pieces in succession."

It was such a scene as above described that suggested to me the following lines on my poem on chess.

When some young chessling wields his timid spear,
Against a mighty man of valor there,
Caissa with some members of her court
Presides, in careless mood, to see the sport;
Directs the converse that descends to chaff,
Favors a titter, scarcely checks a laugh.
Her arrowed wit and published satire strike
Foeman and friend impartially alike:
Wounds to self-love she makes her captive feel,
Wounds hard to bear and harder still to heal.

Buckle's strong play led him into some curious adventures on the Continent. For example at Dresden, after watching some chess players in a cafe, one of them challenged him. The German played carelessly at first, but soon acquiring a taste for Buckle's quality, bestowed more attention on his game. After receiving check-mate, he got up and made a profound bow, saying "Whoever you are, you should play only with the best players." Buckle did so, and soon got a reputation in the place, but one man spread a report that refused to play with so an inferior man as Buckle, whereupon Buckle posted up a large placard challenging the man to play a single game for five hundred dollars. It is scarcely necessary to add that the challenge was not accepted. On another occasion, at Rome, while watching a game, he was invited to play for a scudo. Buckle assented. "Or perhaps a couple of scudi!" the man added. Buckle agreed. "Well, perhaps it would make a better game if we were to play for five scudi, if you like." But the man declined, probably suspected that he had a strong player before him. When at Dublin, the owner of a bookseller's shop told him of the fame of the Dublin Chess Club, that their chess players were far superior to the Saxons, and could easily beat Staunton. Buckle consented to visit the club in company with the bookseller, and it is needless to add that he beat their best player even, and then gave odds with a similar result.

I have obtained some of the foregoing particulars from Mr. Huth's Biography (2nd edition 1880). Considering how uneventful is the life of a literary man, and Buckle's is no exception, we protest the expansion of this work into two volumes, printed on very thick paper, at the cost of thirty-two shillings. Indeed, judging from many recent specimens, biography would appear to be a lost art. Instead of looking into a man's works for his life, we have ponderous volumes of so-called biography, in which the most trifling details are set down, together with long extracts from reviews and the most unimportant letters. Whereas a neat little volume at the cost of a few shillings ought to be sufficient for the sketch of the author in his public and domestic relations, with a judicious selection from his correspondence.

But to return to our immediate subject, from which we are tempted to wander, while in search of details of Buckle's chess. I can not help remarking, that anyone who has a competent knowledge of the game, must be startled at the outrageous comments before us. We are introduced per saltum into the Cafe de la Regence, where we find young Buckle, scarcely out of his teens, playing Kieseritzky, "and even the redoubted St. Amant himself. Each of these masters gave him a Pawn, but each was beaten." This information is given in the first chapter of the book. There is much confusion of statement on the part of the biographer, who is probably not a chess player for in the Chess Players' Chronicle for 1843 it is stated that Kieseritzky gave Buckle the odds of QB, and St. Amant certainly have given as much, but we are not informed when or how he acquired such a mastery over the game. So much so that a few years later, that is in 1848, he is said to have played Kieseritzky even, and beaten him; while in 1851 the too partial and too sanguine biographer declares that Buckle was "entitled to the championship not only of England but of the whole world." The biographer sometimes displays a sense of uneasiness in the use of this excessive laudation. For example, after stating that Buckle "is the first to have raised history to a science" he adds "I know well that I should be accused of the common fault of the biographer, that I have gazed upon the brightness of my hero until I can see nought else."

Now considering the very small part that Buckle took in the tournament of 1851, the above statement must be regarded as the incense offered up at the shrine of his divinity by an idolatrous biographer. Buckle consented to serve on the committee of the great chess tournament, and even he paid his entrance fee as one of the combatants for a prize; but his biographer coolly adds that he "could not give the necessary time and did not play." In the second heat however, his name was drawn by lot in conjunction with that of Lowenthal, and he consented to play, provided an exception was made in his favor, that is, instead of having to win seven games, the victory was to be declared in favor of him who first scored four games. Whether this arrangement was quite fair to the other players we do not stop to inquire. The first game was played at St. George's Chess Club, in Cavendish Square, on the 26th July, and Lowenthal won. Buckle won the second game, and lost the third, and at the fourth after playing from two o'clock till eight, Lowenthal was too exhausted to proceed. The sitting was adjourned till next day, when Buckle won, and he also won the following game after a five hours' contest. An interval of three days now occurred, in consequence of Lowenthal's illness, and when they met again, Buckle was beaten after a nine hours' contest. They were now three to three; Buckle won the deciding game, but Mr. Huth does not mention a game that was drawn, so that the victory on the part of Buckle was but slight. The exhaustion felt by Lowenthal in such prolonged match games does not seem to have been felt by Buckle. His biographer informs us that "during these days he worked on as usual up to about one o'clock, then played his match, and afterwards, if there was time, went to the Divan. The only exception he made was after the nine hours' game, when he writes 'In bed at 11:30, but was too tired to read.'"

My limited space does not permit me to quote any of these games, as illustrative of Buckle's play; but as they are well reported in Staunton's volume on the Chess Tournament, it may suffice to refer to that work (p. 225 et seq.). The first game is admirably played by Lowenthal. Staunton who was by no means friendly towards him, admits that he "managed the attack in the most finished style." In the second game, Buckle had a mate in two moves, but did not see it, although at length he won. In the third game the editor again refers to Lowenthal's admirable play. In the fourth, much purposeless manoeuvering on the part of both players is complained of, but Buckle is complimented on his skill in conducting the end game. In the fifth game, Lowenthal is evidently nervous and out of play.. In the sixth, the editor remarks on Buckle's eighteenth move on the unskilful mode in which he has opened the game. In the seventh game, Lowenthal is again in not good form, and so he loses the deciding game. In the tabular statement at p. 377, a drawn game is entered, but this is not given in the report.

After going through a considerable number of Buckle's games from books that I have on my shelves, I was much struck with the dull monotony of his openings. It seems to me that chess loses much of its interest and beauty if a player, however skilful, persistently adopts a close game when defending, or only one form of play when he has the first move. Several of the editorial remarks on Buckle's reported games refer to his defective opening, such as "We can not congratulate Mr. B. on his opening, which constrained without being secure" (Brien in C.P.C. 1854). But no sooner is the opening got over, and the middle game entered upon, than Buckle shines forth as a player of extraordinary merit. He was however, so much accustomed to play with inferior men at various odds, that his fame is to a great extent erected on these brilliant encounters. But when he plays a serious game with such accomplished strategists as Boden and Williams ( whose imperturbable coolness is very different from Lowenthal's nervousness), Buckle meets with his equals in the middle and end game, and his superiors in the opening. Even with Zytorgorski, he only made a draw, at least in the single game that I have in my books between the two. Williams in his Horae Divanianae gives four even games, which he played with Buckle, and won three of them. As the book is not now readily accessible, the last and best of the four games may be quoted and played over with interest.

Buckle played a considerable number of off-hand skirmishes with distinguished opponents, and often won. Hence his biographer enters all these won games on the credit side of his account, and for that reason supposes him to be entitled to the championship of the world. Such a lofty position could only be earned by a man who played long and serious matches, in some cases for a high stake, as when Staunton encountered St. Amant for a hundred guineas to the winner of the first eleven games, or when Morphy for merely nominal stakes encountered several European masters of the first rank. But it is idle to compare Buckle's occasional games with those prolonged and serious matches. We are willing to admit the great merit of Buckle as a skilful and original master of the game; but as he often stated, he practised chess merely as an amusement, and objected to matches as taking more out of him than he was willing to give to any such "frivolous triumph"; but he always loved the game, and continued during some years to visit the Divan at least twice a week. Here he became so absorbed as to forget aught else. We are informed that on one occasion he forgot a dinner engagements. In his letter of apology to the hostess next day (19th January, 1856) he says: "I went out in the afternoon to enjoy myself, which I accomplished by playing chess for seven hours, and difficult games too." It was on the occasions as these that he played the off-hand games above referred to; and among a number of such games, played with so great a master as Anderssen, he may have won the odd game, but this does not place him in the first rank which his biographer claims for him, namely as a greater player than the champion player of the '51 Tournament.

On the occasion that Buckle was at Margate, he was informed by letter of some review of one of his works, and he replied: "I have not thought it worth while to buy the Review, and shall wait till I can read it in town for nothing- which is about the value of most criticisms." Should anyone of the chess masters of the present day estimate my critical remarks on Buckle as a chess player at a similar rate, I will submit, but at the same time shall be glad to learn his reasons why. And now, taking leave of Buckle I will apply to him the words which the celebrated Bayle applied to Greco: "He played at chess so skilfully that it cannot be thought strange that I consecrate to him a little article. All those who excel in their profession to a certain degree, deserve that distinction."

Match 1851
Game Four
1 d4 e6 2 c4 Bb4 3 Nc3 Bc3 4 bc3 f5 5 e3 Nc6 6 Nf3 Nf6 7 Bd3 b6
8 O-O Bb7 9 h3 O-O 10 Ba3 Ne7 11 Rb1 Re8 12 c5 Ng6 13 Qe2 Ne4 14
Be4 Be4 15 Rb3 Qf6 16 Nd2 Bd5 17 c4 Bb7 18 Bb2 Qg5 19 f4 Qe7 20
Qf2 Bc6 21 Ba3 d6 22 cd6 cd6 23 Nf3 Qc7 24 Rc1 Qd7 25 Rbc3 Rac8
26 Nd2 Bb7 27 Nf3 Rc7 28 Nd2 Rec8 29 Bb2 Ne7 30 Kh2 b5 31 cb5
Rc3 32 Bc3 Nd5 33 Bb2 Rc1 34 Bc1 Qb5 35 Nf3 Nc3 36 Ng5 Qd5 37 a3
h6 38 Nf3 a5 39 Qc2 Ne4 40 h4 Bc6 41 Bd2 a4 42 Bb4 Nf6 43 Bd2
Qb5 44 Bc1 Bf3 45 gf3 Qf1 46 d5 Qf3 47 de6 Ne4 48 Qg2 Qh5 49 Kh3
g5 50 fg5 hg5 51 Kh2 g4 52 Qc2 Qh4 53 Kg2 Qg3 54 Kf1 Qf3 55 Ke1
Qh1 56 Ke2 Qg2 57 Kd3 Qc2 58 Kc2 g3 0-1

This work published before January 1, 1923 is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.