People Used To Think Chess Would Ruin Everything

Illustration for article titled People Used To Think Chess Would Ruin Everything

You know how it goes: something new comes along, and catches everyone's attention. Immediately, people think the new thing will corrupt society and make everything worse: this has been true for everything from books to video games. And yes, it also holds true for chess.


Chess! A thing we largely consider to be an intellectual pursuit nowadays. But it's interesting to hear how people described chess back in 1859—Clive Thompson over at Medium brings to our attention an old excerpt from Scientific American that printed the following:

...a pernicious excitement to learn and play chess has spread all over the country, and numerous clubs for practicing this game have been formed in cities and villages. Why should we regret this? it may be asked. We answer, chess is a mere amusement of a very inferior character, which robs the mind of valuable time that might be devoted to nobler acquirements, while at the same time it affords no benefit whatever to the body.

Chess has acquired a high reputation as being a means to discipline the mind, because it requires a strong memory and peculiar powers of combination. It is also generally believed that skill in playing it affords evidence of a superior intellect. These opinions, we believe, are exceedingly erroneous. Napoleon the Great, who had a great passion for playing chess, was often beaten by a rough grocer in St. Helena. Neither Shakespeare, Milton, Newton, nor any of the great ones of the earth, acquired proficiency in chess-playing. Those who become the most renowned players seem to have been endowed with a peculiar intuitive faculty for making the right moves, while at the same time they seem to have possessed very ordinary faculties for other purposes. A game of chess does not add a single new fact to the mind; it does not excite a single beautiful thought; nor does it serve a single purpose for polishing and improving the nobler faculties.

Persons engaged in sedentary occupations should never practice this cheerless game; they require out-door exercises for recreation — not the sort of mental gladiatorship. Those who are engaged in mental pursuits should avoid a chess-board as they would an adder's nest, because chess misdirects and exhausts their intellectual energies. Rather let them dance, sing, play ball, perform gymnastics, roam in the woods or by the seashore, than play chess. It is a game which no man who depends on his trade, business or profession can afford to waste time in practicing; it is an amusement — and a very unprofitable one — which the independently wealthy alone can afford time to lose in its pursuit. As there can be no great proficiency in this intricate game without long-continued practice, which demands a great deal of time, no young man who designs to be useful in the world can prosecute it without danger to his best interests. A young gentleman of our acquaintance, who had become a somewhat skillful player, recently pushed the chest-board from him at the end of the game, declaring, "I have wasted too much time upon it already; I cannot afford to do this any longer; this is my last game." We recommend his resolution to all those who have been foolishly led away by the present chess-excitement, as skill in this game is neither a useful nor graceful accomplishment.


Incredible, right? All you need to do is tweak the language to sound a bit more modern and replace "chess" with "video games," and you might not know the difference.

Of course, what's particularly interesting about this all is that while it is a sort of fearmongering...they also have a point. Some of what they're saying here is actually true. Clive Thompson goes into more detail about how society changed the way it thinks about stuff like chess over the years. It's a fascinating read!

But, even conceding that these folks have a point in there...if a normal dude beat Napoleon at chess, I'd start wondering if that "normal dude" actually has a good affinity for tactics outside of chess instead of taking it as proof that chess must be bullshit. Tactics are useful in battle if you're a commander or something, right? Or maybe that's just what someone born in this day and age would think.

[Image via Shutterstock]

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Fucking 1859 and people were still telling people to stop playing games and do sports.

I don't think that is going away.