Popular Science Monthly/Volume 33/August 1888/The Parlor-Game Cure

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SOME forty years ago, a distinguished citizen of Boston was caught, by an intimate friend who entered without knocking, in the very act of reading Bowditch's translation of the "Mécanique Céleste." He excused himself for the unfashionable character of his reading, by saying that he had thought he would refresh his memory of his college-days. But the friend drew from the wife a better explanation. The good man was a heavy stockholder in a company which had been almost brought to bankruptcy by the thefts of a dishonest treasurer; and he was reviving his mathematics as a means of diverting his mind from the unpleasant topic, which had begun to weigh too seriously upon him.

Those who have had no early training in these severer studies, refresh their minds, when wearied with business anxieties and cares, by a lighter sort of reading. The diversion which refreshes and reinvigorates a man must be one that is suited both to his peculiar tastes and to the character of the fatigue or anxiety which has worn upon him. That which interests and refreshes one man may weary another; that which banishes the thought of one kind of trouble, may recall and aggravate the causes of distress to a man whose anxiety or weariness has arisen from a different cause. The "Mécanique Céleste" served a good purpose for our Bostonian; while a novel which turned upon a plot involving breach of trust, and the ruin produced by it, would have been only a means of increasing the sufferer's trouble.

This is the real and substantial value of parlor-games. They serve as means of cure for those sufferings which arise from mental causes; they do so by diverting the mind without overtaxing it. It is true that many parlor-games may be used for gambling—or rather abused—but they are not on that account to be wholly condemned. Indeed, there is, in the very fact of a thing being capable of doing mischief, a presumptive proof that it can do good; by the correlation of forces, any energy can be turned into a useful channel. A substance absolutely inert would be capable of doing mischief only when present in a sufficiently large quantity to impede the useful action. Keeping to our comparison of games to medical agencies, we may perhaps get some light from a curious remark of Liebig. His theory, as we dimly remember it, was somewhat to the following effect: When any article is received into the stomach, a contest begins between the gastric powers and the intruder. If they conquer, the article was food; if they are conquered, it was poison; but if it is a drawn battle, the article is medicine. To a certain extent, this theory certainly embraces truth; although it is equally certain that it does not cover the whole ground of therapeutics and hygiene.

Pastimes and games are justified to the moral sense by their sanitary value. Cards, dominoes, and the backgammon-board are as manifestly means of health as hair mattresses and ventilating-flues. The dice-box, as used in backgammon, is often more valuable to an invalid than the pill-box. But the very fact that games are thus valuable as medical agents, proves that they can not be a wholesome article of diet; they are not valuable enough to be made a continual occupation; they do not furnish sufficient food to the mind. So far as that, we might apply the Liebig theory to them. If a man were, for example, to take up chess after the manner of Paul Morphy, master all the possible combinations so thoroughly as to be able to checkmate every adversary, and that, with any pawn designated by lot, at the beginning of the game, such a man would evidently have made more than a pastime of chess. It would have been food for his mind; just as really food, although not so valuable, as Euclid's "Elements," or Legendre's "Theory of Numbers." If, on the other hand, a man, without Morphy's talent for chess, should become infatuated with the ambition of gaining Morphy's skill, and should spend a disproportionate amount of time playing, his right hand against his left, then to him the game would be poison. Its sanitary use, as a recreation, is evidently attained only when a man pursues it just far enough to divert his mind completely from the thoughts which were injuring him, and not far enough to make it in itself an absorbing occupation.

The late Prof. Peirce once said that no game, and no toy, ever became permanently popular unless it involved some deep and peculiar mathematical or mechanical principle. He asserted it as a fact of observation, but we never heard him attempt to account for it. The theory which we are ascribing to Liebig furnishes a partial explanation. The presence of this deeper principle, underlying the game, prevents it from being digestible by any except those of strong power. To all others the game may be considered either as a poison, when it is utterly beyond their reach to do anything with it, or else it is a recreation of permanent sanitary value; that is, when the patient can acquire skill in it, but is not tempted to try to fathom its mathematical principle. Pierce's meaning may be illustrated by familiar examples. The child's top, his hoop, his bandelor, his devil on two sticks, all involve the same fundamental doctrines of rotation on an instantaneous axis, which task the mightiest powers of the geometer in their application to celestial mechanics. Ball-playing, quoits, hurling of spears, throwing at a mark, involve the addition of two other famous mathematical principles; namely, the epicycloids of Hipparchus, and Galileo's law of gravity. Billiards bring in the insoluble mystery of friction, which creates a breach of continuity in the path of the ball. Cards, backgammon, and various games for the evening at home, involve the doctrines of permutations and of chances.

In the ancient astronomy the planets were imagined to be carried on the ends of revolving arms, which themselves were carried by arms rotating more slowly, these latter arms again being carried by arms of still slower rotation. This epicycloidal motion of Hipparchus is evidently closely analogous to the motion of the human hand, which rotates upon the wrist-joint, while the wrist is carried in a circle about the elbow-joint, the elbow in a circle about the shoulder, and so on. The ingenuity of Hipparchus had, as it were, contrived a huge imaginary man, carrying the planet between his thumb and finger. The friction of the billiard-table diminishes the rotation of the ball upon the instantaneous vertical axis at such a rate as to bring it presently to an end, leaving only the rotation upon a horizontal axis. At this moment the curved path of the ball becomes instantly a straight line. Cards involve the smallest prime number, and that in two ways, there being two colors, red and black, and also two suites of each color. Cards also involve the relatively high prime thirteen, and, less conspicuously, the intermediate numbers. They furnish, therefore, the opportunity for an almost endless variety of permutations and combinations; and if these are produced by shuffling, they involve also the doctrine of chances. We ourselves do not know how to play a single game of cards; therefore, on Sydney Smith's principle of never reading a book before he reviewed it, for fear of becoming prejudiced, we can speak of them in an unprejudiced manner. Their universal popularity we have just explained. But it is a nearly invariable rule that the best things are also the worst. Fire is a good servant but a bad master; and strychnine, one of the most valuable of tonics, will kill a man as promptly as it will a wolf. Cards are capable of great abuse, and they have been so greatly abused that many persons interdict their use also. Yet they have a use; and their sanitary value as a recreation and diversion of the mind is, in certain cases and for certain persons, very high. The invalid needs rest, and often finds the best form of rest in the exercise of different powers from those which have become fatigued. This is as true concerning mental as concerning bodily exercise. When a man is tired, weighed down with anxiety and care, or with a continuous application of the mind to one set of questions, his brain is apt to go on automatically, tiring itself and its master, producing even in sleep restlessness and dreams. Such a man obtains rest more easily, and a sounder, more refreshing sleep, if his mind can be diverted for an hour or two to some different train of thought, which ought to be barely interesting enough to keep his attention without producing excitement or requiring strong exertion.

Two elements which enter into a game are of prime importance—chance and skill. In the latter word we include both manual and mental skill. For example, in cup and ball we have an instance of a game requiring nothing but manual skill; while in jackstraws, it is a combination of chance with manual skill that determines the result. Again, in checkers we have a game of pure intellectural skill, but in backgammon intellectual skill is combined with chance. Skillful physicians prescribe for a patient that kind and degree of exercise which is suited to his case—to one a rocking-chair on the south piazza; to another a good round trot out of town on the saddle. Thus, in the evening games, which shall rest the tired worker, or divert the invalid, there is a great opportunity for wise choice in selecting those which are best suited for the purpose in view. Men of intellectual habits, who need rest for the brain and diversion for the sake of rest, find the greatest benefit in those games which demand constant attention, but comparatively little mental exertion. The late Charles Robert Darwin astonished the scientific world by the immense amount of labor which he successfully accomplished. One secret of his immense power of endurance unquestionably lay in his devotion to backgammon, in which he so frequently passed his evenings. This game has the admirable qualities, first, of demanding imperiously your attention at every throw of the dice; and, secondly, of giving you a comparatively easy question in the use you are to make of the throw. There was even an advantage in the old fashion of invariably calling out each throw in mongrel French before playing; it still more fully occupied the mind with "easy nothings." The preponderance of chance over skill in backgammon is a fourth recommendation of this game for a tired brain. It produces a constant but slight expectation or watching to see what will turn up. In the Russian game, however, it has appeared to us that the preponderance of chance was too great; it does not leave enough demand for skill. This, also, is the objection to dominoes.

In rude antithesis to backgammon and dominoes stands chess. This game can not be said to be popular, in the strict sense of the word, and the reason is evident—it is too severely intellectual. It is a very famous game; so also are Newton's "Principia" and Butler's "Analogy" very famous books. But neither of the three are likely to be found on the sitting-room table as an amusement for either old or young when needing recreation. Moritz Retzsch's marvelous picture of the young man playing chess for the stake of his own soul has been far more popular than the game itself.

The stake of one's own soul is not often, if ever, consciously made; but one of the abuses to which we have alluded is the habit of staking money or things of money value upon the issue of a game. To say nothing of the moral character of gambling, the stake of even sixpence is just so much detracted from the real interest and value of the game itself. Wagers of every kind, for even the most trifling amounts, are to be avoided; they are essentially bad. But when they take the guise of forfeits or prizes in games, they are doubly mischievous, injuring the utility of the diversion, as well as fostering, to some trifling extent at least, that gambling spirit which is one of the great destructive agencies to the human race.

Another ground on which games may be classified is the manner and amount to which the social element enters into them. Here, again, cards have an advantage, which greatly increases their favor with the people. • The social element enters into cards in a great variety of ways. There are games admitting several persons, but requiring all to keep whist; there are games admitting several persons, and allowing free conversation. There are games for two persons, and there are various solitaires. An invalid's hours are often necessarily spent in solitude; and he tires of reading, of whittling, of crocheting, or knitting; and yet tires of idleness. Then a solitaire is valuable; and he may choose, from the solitaires at cards, a kind which shall suit his taste and his needs; since the different solitaires in cards vary greatly, in the amount of thought and of skill required to play them.

The severely intellectual game of chess offers also a numerous set of solitaires. Every chess-column in a newspaper furnishes problems of greater or less difficulty. A diagram gives the position of a few pieces toward the close of a supposed game; and the party to be victor is required to checkmate, in a specified number of moves. Setting your men according to the diagram, you play for both parties; endeavoring to prevent the game from ending so soon, and yet endeavoring, with equal fidelity, to bring it to a close as required.

The new game of halma, which has acquired so sudden a popularity in some parts of the country, furnishes, like chess, an unlimited variety of problems; either one of which may be considered, like any enigma or puzzle, a solitaire. The most general statement of a problem in halma would be, to move a given number of men from one given position to another, in a given number of moves. One problem proposed by ourselves has proved so wonderfully rich in the number of possible solutions, that we may be pardoned for repeating it here: "Place nineteen men outside a yard of nineteen squares, in a figure symmetrical upon the diagonal of the board; such that the men may all be yarded in nineteen moves." Of course, the problem, in this form, is too difficult for a direct attack. It must be solved by reversing it: "Place the nineteen men in a yard, and bring them out into a symmetrical figure in nineteen moves." At first, it is very difficult to get them out at all, in nineteen moves. As you go on, you find more and more of symmetrical figures, into which you can arrange them. One young friend has found nearly eight hundred figures, arising from only three different ways of making the first seven moves. Another player has discovered nearly twenty ways of taking the first seven moves. This seems (in spite of the fact that some of the symmetrical figures are capable of being produced by different modes of approach), to indicate that there are, probably, four or five thousand different figures which fulfill the conditions of the problem. There is, therefore, in this one question, an unlimited amount of amusement, for those who fancy that kind of work, moving the men out and moving them back, in thirty-eight moves.

These problems in chess and in halma are problems of pure. intellectual skill. We chanced, a few months ago, to have had a problem suggested to us, requiring no skill, but depending wholly on chance. Meeting, in a Pullman car, a little Mexican boy, not yet six years old, we were surprised to have him produce a dice box with five little dice and propose to throw for money. When he found us inflexible in refusing, he began to throw for himself, and, keeping an audible account, credited us, in fun, with the alternate throws. We then began to make a memorandum of the number of pips up at each throw of his five dice. Ten throws were equivalent to fifty throws of a single die, and it so happened that his first ten throws gave one hundred and seventy-five pips; the precise theoretical average of fifty throws of a die. It then occurred to us that some persons might find it an interesting solitaire amusement to record a large number of throws made at successive times. The interest would arise in comparing the actual averages of ten consecutive throws, or fifty, or a hundred; and of consecutive tens, fifties, etc., with the theoretical averages. These comparisons might extend from the average of the number of pips up to the number of doublets, triplets, and other special combinations, produced by consecutive throws, or by simultaneous ones. The labor of calculating the chances (how often, for example, with a pair of dice, doublet aces should occur, and how often they should be instantly followed by quatre ace) should be performed by a person in health, and the invalid amuse himself by simply recording a large number of throws, and seeing how nearly the actual frequency of occurrence agreed with the theoretical average frequency.

We might mention, also, a number of parlor-games which involve some degree of muscular exercise; and others, like the game of twenty questions, which require vivacity and brightness in the use of language. But the main principles to which we wished to call attention have been sufficiently illustrated by the sedentary games and solitaires which we have already mentioned. The therapeutic value of a game depends upon its adaptation to the individual tastes and needs of the person who takes it up. It must be such as to interest him and keep his attention, and yet not such as to absorb, excite, and fatigue him. His native and acquired tastes, his age and habits of life, the state of his health, the causes of his fatigue, or of his illness—all these, and other similar causes, will influence the effect that any particular game or amusement will have upon him; and in the exercise of a sound common sense, by himself and his friends, he will select and vary his amusements as carefully as he selects his various occupations, or chooses his diet.