It's just not chess

Chess, Jews and History
September 22, 1995

The Jewish contribution to the game of chess has been a remarkable one, and in the book under review, the first of a trilogy, Victor Keats has set out to document the fact from literary and other sources with relentless enthusiasm.

A crucial topos in this book is the idea that chess is mentioned in the Talmud, and is thus to be detected among the Jews of the fifth to sixth centuries ad, perhaps even in the third century. In the foreword this contentious proposal is "highly speculative and cannot be proven", but before too long the author has certainly persuaded himself of its validity, and abandoned all restraint.

Not all readers will be so easily led, however. Passages in the Talmud mention three games played with gamesmen: nardshir, "little cubs", and iskundree. Nardshir means tables, or backgammon, and this has been clear for a long time. However, "little cubs" and iskundree cannot on present evidence be securely identified as anything more than board games. It simply cannot be maintained, as Keats is content to do, that because iskundree was serious enough to distract scholars it must have been chess. The very terminology discussed by the author points strongly away from that conclusion.

The danger is that this theory is used to reappraise the early history of the royal game, and Keats is thus happy to disregard the "widely accepted" view that chess "progressed from India to Persia and thence to Arabia". The latter view is indeed that held among most historians of chess, and the author has done nothing to affect its validity.

There are endless misprints, and many mistakes in the figures. For instance, a very famous Egyptian race game from Thebes of the second millennium bc is identified as the "Greek game of pesseia (petteia)". Petteia is indeed a Greek game, but of quite different type, and of much later date. Pesseia is not a variant of petteia in Greek sources.

To take another example, figure 17 is annotated as follows: "Dogs heads from Middle Eastern games (British Museum). Were they confused with chess pieces?" These famous pieces are in fact lion-headed, Egyptian, second millennium bc (ie 1,000 years too old for chess by any criterion), senet pieces (never to be confused with chess in any case), and probably 19th-century forgeries anyway.

The material between pages 295 and 303 is a shambles which will bewilder Hebraists and non-Hebraists alike, in which the reader is apparently presented with 17th-century sources in 15th-century script. In dealing with a section of a Vatican manuscript in chapter eight under the heading "An Enigmatic Board Game" (nothing however to do with chess!), the author has profited from major input by the Hebraist Raphael Loewe (or, as the author calls him, "Rafael Lowe"), who read the manuscript, and two chess experts, who addressed its interpretation.

The reader's guard is at once up on meeting the remark that the original Hebrew is written "in very old script", and his confidence is not restored by the method whereby this evidence is approached. The results are not at all convincing, and the whole topic requires complete re-investigation. The reconstruction, quoted without demur, that "the rest of the board, with no numbers on the squares, seems to play no role at all in the game" must be dismissed as flatly impossible.

Readers will perhaps find themselves wishing, with the reviewer, that the whole product had been brought out on a far more restrained level after submission to a vigorous, clear-thinking and surgical editor.

The volume does contain fascinating and even new material, and Keats has done his readers a great service in assembling it all for study, and providing convenient translations of what is often difficult Hebrew - but the book's liberal carelessness does not inspire confidence. The chess enthusiast will find much within these pages to interest and entertain, but a scholar of the subject will need to tiptoe warily and dig very much deeper himself.

Irving Finkel is an expert on board games.

Chess, Jews and History: Volume One

Author - Victor Keats
ISBN - 1 899237 00 3
Publisher - Oxford Academia Publishers
Price - £45.00
Pages - 399

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