November 09, 2013

Reminiscing with total strangers, pt. 2

William Ewart Napier might be forgotten, but for...well, who am I kidding, he is already completely forgotten.  He is really only known to chess fans, and among them only those interested more in history than in play.

As a player he was one the few Americans who could beat really first-class opponents.  He won a match against Marshall, and won brilliant games against Chigorin and Van Bardeleben among others (this last being best known for his horrific loss to Steinitz, after which he threw himself out a window and into the imagination of Vladimir Nabokov).  He lost a famous game to Lasker, after which the great man said "it is your brilliancy, even though I won it."

But Napier does, in my opinion, deserve honor for his one literary work, a miscellany first published in three volumes as Napier’s Amenities and Background of Chess-Play.  Napier had more scope than the typical chess master, and clearly enjoyed engaging the masters of his time in conversation.  Here are three choice bits, along with a bit of backstory for each one:
  • Once in chatting with Janowsky at Lake Hopatcong, he referred to Maróczy as the gentle iron-man of Hungary, which was accurate as to both specifications.
Backstory - Marcozy, unlike many Central European masters, survived WWII.  When he died Hans Kmoch wrote of him that "the chess world lost more than a grandmaster and a fine gentleman. It lost the unchallenged champion of chivalry in chess.  This chivalry is hard to describe. It is sportsmanship with a medieval touch. It is the Occidental version of the Asian’s anxiety about 'face.' It is a basic and noble belief that a man should prefer to die than do wrong, to kill rather than submit to an insult; that honor is sacred."
  • I knew Dr. Tarrasch pleasantly at Monte Carlo, 1902. One day the fates had gone against me, malevolently, I felt, in a game against a man I had counted on beating. I got, by way of spur, this vitamin from the Doctor: “In these tournaments it is never enough to be a connoisseur of chess; one must also play well."
Backstory - Tarrasch, the great teacher, was not so fortunate.  Although he identified strongly as German, he was also of Jewish descent.  He died in 1934 - saddened and perhaps bewildered - after the National Socialists had taken power and begun their horrific program.  Harald Balló: "[a]bout Fritz Haber, Albert Einstein wrote something that could be equally applicable to Tarrasch: 'It was the tragedy of the German Jews, the tragedy of scorned love.'"
  • Pillsbury was present [at Thousand Islands, 1897] on other business, and I remember his taking me for a row on the river, in the morning, before play started. He lectured a bit on Steinitz’ opening vagaries; when we separated, he said – revealing perhaps a glimpse of his ruling philosophy, “Be steady, but not to the point of morbid restraint.”
Backstory - There is a great American tradition of American chess geniuses who reach the summit, and then go mad.  Morphy was the seminal example, Fischer the most recent.  Pillsbury, once steady enough to beat the best in the world, developed syphilitic dementia, and died in 1906.  

After his youthful chess adventures, Napier, in the great American tradition followed by other artists such as Wallace Stevens and Charles Ives, went into the insurance business, and apparently did fine for himself.  He liked music, wrote well, and for a chess master seemed unusually well-adjusted.  He is one of those historical figures I wishes I could actually meet.  Looking at him across a century, he seems like the sort of person who'd have some interesting things to say.

Wikipedia does a nice job with chessplayer biographies, Napier's is here.  The madman Edward Winter provides more Napier excerpts here.  After his death  Napier’s Amenities and Background of Chess-Play was bowdlerized a bit and republished as Paul Morphy and the Golden Age of Chess (link).  For even more information, get out eighty five bucks and have a look at this fine biography.



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