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MatPlus.Net Forum General "A Problemist Who Might Have Been: Edgar Allen Poe" -- an essay by Alain C. White
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(1) Posted by Vladimir Tyapkin [Saturday, Apr 4, 2009 07:28]; edited by Vladimir Tyapkin [09-04-04]

"A Problemist Who Might Have Been: Edgar Allen Poe" -- an essay by Alain C. White

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Edgar Allan Poe. I think a lot would-be problemists have enjoyed reading his stories. This wonderful and hard-to-find essay by Alain White shows other sides of his many talents: quite a literary gift, philosophical analysis of problemist’s mind, extensive knowledge of history. It's long but well worth reading. It was originally published in Good Companion folder, №3 1923(Volume XI)

All spelling and grammar as in original.

A Problemist Who Might Have Been: Edgar Allen Poe.

THERE are few intellectual exercises more fascinating than imagining and proving what "might have been," had some circumstances in time or space been just a little different. Such exercises are of course as futile as they are fascinating, for as George Saintsbury pointed out the Might-have-beens are also the Might-not-have-beens of life. But fascination generally outweighs all futility, and I shall not hesitate to maintain today the important thesis that Edgar Allen Foe, had he lived a century or so later, would have been prominent as a solver in the Good Companion Club and not improbably prominent also as a composer of chess problems.

Why do I pick out Poe? There must have been hundreds of men, distinguished and otherwise, who would have made solvers and composers had they lived in the present day of a universal interest in the royal game. Surely, but of all the names that suggest themselves, that of Poe carries the fullest conviction. And why? The question is one I think the reader of whatever nationality can pursue easily with me, for if America had one genius who is international, the man is certainly Poe. In translations and adaptations, the tales of Poe have gone to the four corners of the Globe. Here in America we may have figures we consider more important from the literary point of view. According to our tastes, we may rank higher a Walt Whitman or an Emerson; but abroad much more than the works of these, more even than the humor of Mark Twain, the mention of American literature means first and foremost the imaginative tales of Poe. The grotesque and the arabesque, as he called his vein of story telling, have an immortal appeal, which has carried with it to universal popularity also his stories of ratiocination, the Murders of the Rue Morgue and the rest.

Poe loved the sound of his words, loved the words themselves, emphasized them as only a long study of his entire writings can show, and this word: "Ratiocination" was among others a high favorite. It is a stiff word, unyielding and not especially useful in the language, a word identified with Poe as only rather unpopular words can become identified with single individual writers. But does it not already give us a glimpse of the chess problem angle in Poe's mind? Ratiocination, as Poe used the word, may be defined as the love of analysis for its own sake. It is as far from the unbridled imagination that wrecked the House of Usher as pole is from pole, so that at times we feel there must have been two Poes, divided unhappily for the man by the fanciful influence of opium; yet the division, however extreme, does not really divide. Imagination and ratiocination, separate as the poles, constantly meet as do the ingredients of a cocktail. One of the most fanciful tales is that of The Spectacles, where the hero marries his own great-grandmother; yet this absurd idea is developed, grotesquely it is true, but with an unwavering accent on the ratiocinative possibilities.

Chess problems are purely imaginative, strictly ratiocinative. Would they not have filled just the want Poe must constantly have felt of an absorbing medium in which to lose himself from the actualities of a none too kindly fate? But alas, Poe died in 1849, and chess problems were absolutely unknown in America at that date. Europe already had its great Alexandre collection, telling of a past with problems numbered in thousands. England had its chess Players' Chronicle, France its Palamede, Germany the Schachzeitung, and everywhere were columns, enigmas, and the active dawn of a new art. America knew nothing of the Indian problem, knew none of the great names of the Continent, had never seen a problem diagram at all until 1845, and then perhaps not more than a few scattered specimens in the four years remaining of brief life to Poe.

There was the game of chess, of course, gradually growing in the popularity that was to awake into such a country-wide triumph with the coming a few years later of Paul Morphy. But there was no Morphy in Poe's day, no Willard Fiske was as yet planning any Chess Monthly around which player and problemist alike might gather. Sam Loyd was a mere baby in his mother's arms, whom The Philadelphia Directory, of 1843, permits us a glimpse of in his father's house, recorded as Isaac S. Loyd, Schulkill 5th Street and Summer Street. Poe was living not many blocks away, for the same directory lists him: Editor, Coates Street near Fairmount Avenue. Only in this one issue do both names appear, for by another spring little three-year old Sam Loyd was taken to New York and thence presently to Elizabeth, while in 1846 Poe too came to New York and settled at the Bronx cottage shown in the illustration.

Chess, however, as a game, could never have the appeal of problems to a mind such as Poe's. Much more in checkers, even in Whist, would he find the pure analysis he sought, for Poe differentiate strictly between calculation and analysis. I must let him speak for himself:

"The Analyst," he says in the Rue Morgue, "glories in that moral activity which disentangles He derives pleasure from even the most trivial occupations bringing his talent into play. He is fond of enigmas, of conundrums, of hieroglyphics; exhibiting in his solutions of each a degree of acumen which appears to the ordinary apprehension preternatural."

Here are words that need no change to be applied directly to our own field of chess problems. But Poe does not apply them to chess at all, but more nearly to checkers, for he continues presently:

"The higher powers of the reflective intellect are more decidedly and more usefully tasked by the unostentatious game of draughts than by all the elaborate frivolity of chess. In this latter, where the pieces have different and bizarre motions, with various and variable values, what is only complex is mistaken (a not unusual error) for what is profound. The attention is here called powerfully into play. If it flag for an instant, an oversight is committed, resulting in injury or defeat. The possible moves being not only manifold, but involute, the chances of such oversights are multiplied; and in nine cases out of ten, it is the more concentrative rather than the more acute player who conquers."

It is this impossibility of solving a game of chess and winning by sheer ratiocination, which turned Poe from chess, and which would just as surely have turned him to problems. A problem is a definite moment in the game, where ratiocination can at last step in. Let me quote again, this time from the famous analysis of Maelzel's Automaton, already known to the Good Companions (Our Folder, April 1917) :

"No one move in chess necessarily follows upon any one other. From no particular disposition of the men at one period of a game can we predictate their disposition at a different period. Let us place the First Move in a game of chess in juxtaposition with the Data of an algebraical question. From the Data, the second step of the question, dependent thereupon, inevitably follows. It is modelled by the Data. It must be Thus and not otherwise. But from the first move in the game of chess no especial second move follows of necessity. In the algebraical question, as it proceeds towards solution, the certainty of its operations remains altogether unimpaired. But in proportion to the progress made in a game of chess is the Uncertainty of each ensuing move. A few moves having been made, No step is certain. All is dependent upon the varying judgment of the players."

In the above, substitute chess-problem for algebraical question, and key-move for data, and the direction of my argument will be seen without further quotations.

Presently Poe will show us just how he would have proceeded as a solver of problems. He is speaking still of checkers, but let us read him in terms of chess problems, changing of course no written word :

" Where no oversight is to be expected, it is obvious that the victory can be decided only by some recherche movement, the result of some strong exertion of the intellect. Deprived of ordinary resources, the analyst throws himself into the spirit of his opponent, identifies himself therewith and not unfrequently sees thus at a glance the sole methods (sometimes indeed absurdly simple ones) by which " . . . . by which, well, by which he could have solved the problem.

Poor Poe, what might he not have made of his life had he had the absorbing interest of problems to fall back upon, instead of only the "elaborate frivolity of chess." What other mental relaxation had he at hand? Principally, we suppose, checkers and whist. What does he tell us of the latter?

"The best chess-player in Christendom may be little more than the best player of chess; but proficiency in whist implies capacity for success in all those more important undertakings where mind struggles with mind" (Rue Morgue).

That is high praise, but it did not satisfy. Poe craved, perhaps without knowing it, the solitary features of the chess problems, the ability to exercise by oneself the "activity which disentangles." He turned then to every available substitute. He threw himself at one time intensively into the solution of cyphers. His proficiency became so marked that he started a department in a daily paper where he promised to unravel every cypher contributed by the readers. In spite of considerable prizes for contributions which should baffle him, he succeeded over a considerable period in unraveling everything sent in. He was so uniformly successful that a rival accused him of both concocting the cyphers and resolving them. This charge was quickly dispelled when the rival himself contributed a test cypher and when this was as easily resolved.

Another curious groping towards problems may be mentioned, which links Foe's name to that of Sam Loyd. The reader may recollect that in his later years Loyd became greatly interested in the Tangram blocks of the ancient Chinese, and wrote a pamphlet, now one of the rarities of Loydiana, analyzing some of the possibilities of these seven small geometric figures. Actual relics of Poe are very rare, he was too poor and too much of a nomad to leave behind him many material traces of his camping ground among us. But strange to say, in the Poe cottage, now preserved as a museum in the Bronx, one of the very few genuine relics is nothing other than a set of carved ivory tangram blocks, a gift from Poe to his friend, Mrs. Sarah F. Miller. These could be used today to unravel the propositions of Sam Loyd's booklet.

So through life went Poe, the imaginative ratiocinator, incarnating the analyst he describes in the words quoted above, deriving pleasure from the most trivial occupations which called his talents into play, exhibiting in his solutions a degree of acumen which appears to the ordinary apprehension preternatural. And Poe did solve one chess problem, the only one to which he had any access, the problem of Maelzel's Chess Player. The folders of the fourth volume contain so many splendid articles on the automaton that it is not required here to review this nine days wonder. Suffice it to indicate that Poe's explanation of the mechanism devised by von Kempelen in the construction of the automaton proved to be the first published unraveling of the mystery at all in accord with the actual facts in the case.

The gist of Poe's analysis was given in the folder for April, 1917, but the whole article must be read to get a proper estimate of Poe's full train of reasoning. In the edition I happen to have at hand, the article covers 37 pages, an admirable example of pure ratiocination, even though one so much less known than the other examples of pure ratiocination he chose to put into narrative form.

The automaton, Poe's only chess problem, seemed to haunt him. In one of his stories, Von Kempelen and his Discovery, where he is giving a typically imagino-ratiocinative account of the discovery of synthetic gold, he breaks off to say of his hero, Von Kempelen, "the family is connected, in some way, with Maelzel, of Automaton-chess-player memory." This hoaxing touch he then proceeds to heighten by a foot note he attributes to his editor: " If we are not mistaken, the name of the inventor of the chess-player was either Kemplen, Von Kempelen, or something like it." No, indeed, Mr. Poe, you were not mistaken.

And again, in the Thousand and Second Tale of Scheherazade, the Automaton crops up once more, almost an obsession one would think, but this time in a very strange way. For Poe who was at such pains to prove the Automaton a hoax, now quotes it as one of the mechanical marvels of the age. He is making his heroine amuse the great caliph, Haroun al-Raschid, with an ac¬count of the natural and industrial marvels of the present age, which to his medieval mind are utterly incredible as compared with the fictitious wonders of the original Arabian Nights. Scheherazade has been telling about the railroads and the electrotype, Babbitt's adding machine and the voltaic pile, each in turn greeted by lusty and joyous caliphate laughter, when she comes suddenly on a little arabian night's tale of the automaton:

"One of this nation of mighty conjurers created a man out of brass, wood and leather, and endowed him with such ingenuity that he would have beaten at chess all the race of mankind with the exception of the great caliph, Haroun Alraschid."

Bosh, laughed the Caliph, and Bosh, would have laughed Edgar Allen Poe, had the four lines been written by any other than himself. And yet the lines are distinctly typical, for Poe emphasizes Ratiocination only to slip at the last moment heels first into the wildest imaginations; he loved persuading himself and others only to mystify himself and others at the end. Had he had the problemists pocket board at command, he would have excelled us all at solving, but at the last his true interest would have been to turn and become composer himself, for to mystify the Good Companions by a Loydesque composition would have been sweeter medicine to a perplexed soul than to display in however astonishing a degree "that moral activity which disentangles."
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(2) Posted by Marjan Kovačević [Saturday, Apr 4, 2009 15:40]

Thanks a lot, Vladimir!
Remembering and reading A.C.White always brings us back to the basic values of Problem Chess.
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(3) Posted by Michael McDowell [Monday, Apr 6, 2009 22:40]

The following article by B.H.Wood was published in the “Birmingham Post” in 1949.


Edgar Allen Poe died a hundred years ago. How frequently it is said, “To have written such stuff, he must have had a diseased mind!”
Granted that his tendency towards the macabre was so pronounced as to be almost monotonous, and sometimes even intruded so as to mar a picture good without it… the very power and success of his writing speaks rather of a delicate , detached craftmanship which intelligently utilized every literary device to bring about his effects.

In his “Murders in the Rue Morgue” Poe made a few remarks about chess:

“To calculate is not to analyze. A chessplayer, for example, does the one, without effort at the other. It follows that the game of chess, in its effects upon mental character, is greatly misunderstood…

The higher powers of the reflective intellect are more decidedly and more usefully tasked by the unostentatious game of draughts than by all the elaborate frivolity of chess. In the latter, where the pieces have different and bizarre motions, with various and variable values, what is only complex is mistaken (a not unnatural error) for what is profound. The attention is here called powerfully into play. If it flag for an instant, an oversight is committed, resulting in injury or defeat. The possible moves being not only manifold but involute, the chances of such oversights are multiplied; and in nine cases out of ten, it is the more concentrative rather than the more acute player who conquers."

Any keen chessplayer knows that these opinions just don’t make sense – it is safe to say that they have puzzled more than rankled.

I must have read the words ten or twenty times before the truth came to me in a flash of insight – the sort that occurs rarely but when it does, fills you with a delicious certainty. Poe was a beginner at chess whose whole attention was engrossed in avoiding mistakes. He still had to concentrate on remembering the moves of the men. Like a schoolgirl at the piano, anguishedly engaged in not playing the wrong note.

Or, to take a literary analogy, he was not even the youth who likes a penny dreadful but balks at Poe’s own Eulalie. He was still learning his letters, laboriously telling an ‘a’ from a ‘b’, a ‘b’ from a ‘c’.

To appreciate this fully, please read the whole passage again carefully. Don’t you agree?

We could only prove this by a process for which no layman could spare the time; by examining every biographical relic of Poe’s life for mention of chess. I confidently predict that no evidence would be forthcoming that, when he penned these lines, he had played ten serious games of chess in his life.
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(4) Posted by Hauke Reddmann [Wednesday, Apr 8, 2009 17:13]

It's very interesting to reread the passage in the age of Fritz, Rybka et al :-)

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MatPlus.Net Forum General "A Problemist Who Might Have Been: Edgar Allen Poe" -- an essay by Alain C. White