…………..Crowley joined Hastings Chess Club, where ‘nobody ever beat him’, and he also took the time to tutor the Symonds’s nephew Roland, who later became a priest, in Latin………………..
Aleister Crowley…Chess Master ?!
by Robert T. Tuohey
Imagine facing this guy…OTB!
Let’s get one thing straight: Aleister Crowley has been called a lot of things by a lot of people. Infamously, the scandal sheets of his day branded him “the wickedest man in the world”. The English novelist W. Somerset Maugham, in “A Fragment of Autobiography” (note 1), called Crowley “…a fake, but not entirely a fake”. In a similar memoir, “A Moveable Feast”, Ernest Hemingway, tongue-in-cheek and pernod-in-hand, tagged Crowley “the Devil’s Disciple” (note 2). And yet, many have found the man inspirational, for example Jimmy Page, the Beatles, and Ozzie. Indeed, to thousands worldwide, the Great Beast 666 (as Crowley is known to his followers), is the prophet of the New Aeon religion Thelema (note 3).
Finally, usually somewhere near the bottom of the page, after a long and varied list of attributes (e.g., world traveler, mountain climber, poet, prophet, artist, womanizer, drug user, occultist, and so on), they also toss in that he was a chess expert.
So, what have we got here? Well, by all accounts, soul-deep in the magick, or occult, or black (choose your shading) arts, a prolific writer (I guesstimate in excess of twenty volumes of work), the founder of a new religion, and one hell of a wild and crazy guy. And, oh yeah, he could allegedly play a mean game of chess, too.
Alright, let’s cut to the endgame: Who in the Devil’s name was Aleister Crowley? And could this guy really push some wood or not?
Born Edward Alexander Crowley October 12, 1875 (note 4), in Leamington, Warwickshire, England, his wealthy parents were devout members of the strict, fundamentalist Christian sect the Plymouth Brethren (oddly, the family fortune was derived from an ale brewing business, and yet their religion demanded strict teetotalism). Certainly, Crowley’s childhood cannot be termed an unhappy one, and yet an atmosphere of such uncompromising religiosity on so boisterous a young spirit tends for a bad mix.
The child showed a certain giftedness, as recorded here by Crowley himself (using the third person), in his “Confessions” (note 5).
The boy’s intellect was amazingly precocious. It must have been very shortly after the move to Redhill that a tailor named Hemming came from London to make new clothes for his father. Being a “brother”, he was a guest in the house. He offered to teach Alick chess and succeeded only too well, for he lost every game after the first. The boy recalls the method perfectly. It was to catch a developed bishop by attacking it with pawns. (He actually invented the Tarrasch Trap in the Ruy Lopez before he ever read a book on chess.) This wrung from his bewildered teacher the exclamation, “Very judicious with his pawns is your son, Mrs. Crowley!”
As a matter of fact, there must have been more than this in it. Alick had assuredly a special aptitude for the game; for he never met his master till one fatal day in 1895, when W. V. Naish, the President of the C. U. Ch. C., took the “fresher” who had beaten him to Peterhouse, the abode of Mr. H. E. Atkins, since seven times amateur champion of England and still a formidable figure in the Masters’ Tournament.
It may here be noted that the injudicious youth tried to trap Atkins with a new move invented by himself. It consists of playing K R B Sq, instead of Castles, in the Muzio Gambit, the idea being to allow White to play P Q 4 in reply to Q B 3.
At about the age of 18, as befitting a young gentleman of means, Crowley “went up to Cambridge”. By now, however, his true personality was beginning to assert itself, and he seems to have squandered precious little time on coursework, instead occupying himself with writing poetry (selections of his work would later be included in the Oxford Book of Mystical Verse and the anthology Cambridge Poets 1900-1913), mountain climbing, and, of course, chess (he soon became president of the university club).
Regarding his chessic activities at university, again dipping into the Confessions (note 6), we glean the following:
At Eastbourne, I had still no interest in games. I was still prevented from anything like intimate association with my fellow creatures. I was still ignorant of the existence of English literature and I became a first-rate French scholar without reading any French literature. In my play time I was either hunting flappers on the front, playing chess or climbing Beachy Head. My chess was almost entirely book learning and I was very mush surprised to find myself the best player in the town. For although the local champion insisted on giving me pawn and more, I beat him so easily every time I met him that the odds might have been reversed without making much difference to the result. I edited a chess column in the Eastbourne Gazette and made myself a host of enemies by criticizing the team. I wanted to arouse enthusiasm, to insist on study and practice and to make Eastbourne the strongest town in England. The result fell short of breaking up the club, but not very far.
I used my position a editor to criticize the formation of the team and anything else that seemed to me wrong. I was absolutely unable to conceive that anyone should be anything but grateful for constructive criticism. I had moreover in my mind a firm conception of an editor as Jupiter tonans. I remember one occasion on which I made myself particularly nasty. In a club tournament I had won all my games except two against a man named Martin, who had failed to play any of his games. At the same time he would not withdraw from the tournament. I tried to deal with the situation in my weekly articles. I requested Mr. Martin to begin to play his games; I implored him to begin to play his games; I pointed out to him the propriety of beginning to play his games, I showed him that the best traditions of England (which had made her what she was) spoke with no uncertain voice to the effect that he should begin to play his games. All this settled down to a weekly chorus à la Cato, Delenda est Carthago. Whatever the subject of my discourse, it invariably ended, “Mr. Martin has not yet begun to play his games.”
By this persistent nagging I got him to make an appointment with me and the game had to be adjourned in a position which was clearly won for me. He determined to avoid defeat by the simple process of refusing to make any further moves. I could have done a great deal with a brazier and a gimlet, but short of that there was no moving him; and his abstention prevented me from being proclaimed the winner. I published an analysis of the position, demonstrating that he was bound to lose and suggesting that he should either play it out or resign. But of course the result of my manoeuvres had simply been to drive him into blind fury and the situation was never settled. It simply lapsed by my departure for Switzerland. (Note 7.)
And, more interestingly (note 8):
I was to find very shortly that the most innocent personal relations could be taken by filthy minds as the basis for their malicious imagination. The story of how this came about dominates my third year at the university, as will appear. It seems as if my destiny were preparing me for my appointed work by clearing inessential factors out of the way. My one serious worldly ambition had been to become the champion of the world at chess. I had snatched a game from Blackburne in simultaneous play some years before. I was being beaten in the Sicilian defence. The only chance was the sacrifice of a rook. I remember the grand old master coming round to my board and cocking his alcoholized eye cunningly at me. “Hullo,” said he, “Morphy come to town again!” I am not coxcomb enough to think that he could not have won the game, even after my brilliancy. I believe that his colossal generosity let me win to encourage a promising youngster.
I had frequently beaten Bird at Simpson’s and when I got to Cambridge I made a savagely intense study of the game. In my second year I was president of the university and had beaten such first-rate amateurs as Gunston and Coles. Outside the master class, Atkins was my only acknowledge superior. I made mincemeat of the man who was champion of Scotland a few years later, even after I had given up the game. I spent over two hours a day in study and more than that in practice. I was assured on all hands that another year would see me a master myself.
I had been to St. Petersburg to learn Russian for the Diplomatic Service in the long vacation of 1897, and on my way back broke the journey in Berlin to attend the Chess Congress. But I had hardly entered the room where the masters were playing when I was seized with what may justly be described as a mystical experience. I seemed to be looking on at the tournament from outside myself. I saw the masters — one, shabby, snuffy and blear-eyed; another, in badly fitting would-be respectable shoddy; a third, a mere parody of humanity, and so on for the rest. These were the people to whose ranks I was seeking admission. “There, but for the grace of God, goes Aleister Crowley,” I exclaimed to myself with disgust, and there and then I registered a vow never to play another serious game of chess. I perceived with praeternatural lucidity that I had not alighted on this planet with the object of playing chess.
………As we shall see, a pitiful few of Crowley’s games have been preserved. Among these, however, a win against a Coles, of the university team, survives, as well as a draw, but not a win, against the great Blackburne.
Several years later, in 1904, in Cairo, Egypt, with his first wife, Crowley would experience the event of his life – achieving communication with his Holy Guardian Angel, Aiwass. From this encounter would result the Liber Al vel Legis (or The Book of the Law). Shortly thereafter, Crowley would found the religion of Thelema (Greek for “Will’), with The Book of the Law serving as the central text.
I will not do Crowley the injustice of attempting to thumbnail the rest of his colorful life (as he says himself, it’s more like the lives of three people!). Suffice it to say, what with world travels, mountain climbing (including one of the first K-2 face attempts), prodigious writings, founding magical organizations (most notably the disastrous Abbey in Cefalu, Italy), two marriages and countless women (and even a few boys) in between, Aleister Crowley was indeed a “man of many parts”.
Crowley’s last years were spent in the small English town of Hastings (certainly not unknown to chess players); for some years he had been plagued by financial worries caused by the various scandals that swirled around him. As no publisher was willing to take him on (fearing government prosecution on some type of “public morals” charge), and his personal resources has long since run out, he only managed to survive via “hook and crook”. Never one to succumb to misfortunes, however, Crowley continued to write during these hard, uncertain years, producing, amongst other titles, his “Book Of Thoth” (a very significant contribution to the theory of the Tarot cards).
In the evenings, however, the elderly, though ever-bon-vivant, Crowley, strapped as he was for any ready cash, complained a bit of being bored: he said he wished he had a lady friend to occupy some of his time, or that at least there was a chess player around who could give him a decent game.
Aleister Crowley died December 1, 1947.
As mentioned, a very few of Crowley’s games have been preserved (although the number of fake Crowley games is astounding) (note 9). In fact, to my knowledge, four definite examples, with another five or six possible games, constitute the corpus (there also exist 14 chess problems in the “Chess Notes”, see below, all or some of which are of Crowley’s composition). All of the definite games were played when he was at Cambridge.
With this limited evidence, all we can truly venture is that Crowley was at least a strong amateur player; in all likelihood, with the experience of years, he attained master-level strength. Certainly, the man’s insight into the psychology of chess was deep. Ponder these lines from one of Crowley’s short stories, written when he was about forty (note 10):
“Let me tell you something, if you will forgive a senior for prosing. There are two ways to play chess. One is a man against a man; the other is a man against a chessboard. It’s the difference between match and metal play in golf. Observe: if I know you are going to play the Philidor defense to the King’s Knight Opening, I do not risk being forced into the Petroff, which I dislike. But in playing an unknown quantity, I must analyze every position like a problem, and guard against all possibilities. It takes a great genius and a lifetime’s devotion to play the latter game. But so long as I can read your motive in your move, I can content myself with guarding that one line. Should you make a move whose object I cannot see, I am compelled to take a fresh view of the board and analyze the position as if I were called upon to adjudicate an unfinished game.”
The first game analyzed below is from an inter-collegiate match; Crowley clearly outplays his opponent, demonstrating a sound grasp of fundamental chess principles (with, however, something of a slip on his 32nd move). The second game is from a six or seven board simul the famous English master Joseph Blackburne gave at the Cambridge club; Crowley ventures an unsound pawn sac which, incredibly, Blackburne miscalculates, leading to a draw.
Along with my own analysis, I have incorporated Crowley’s own comments from his “Chess Notes”.
Coles – Crowley,A [B21]
Hailsham-EastBourne Match, 1894
1.e4 c5 2.d4
B21 Sicilian: Smith-Morra gambit.
2…cxd4 3.Qxd4 Nc6 4.Qd1 Nf6 5.Bc4?
OOB 5.Nc3 e6 6.Nf3 Bb4 7.Bd2= Is one book continuation.
Crowley: Bd2 is much better, gaining time and saving the attacked pawn.
6…Nxe4 7.Qf3 Nf6 8.Qf4?! e5 9.Qd2 Ne4
“Tactics flow from a superior position”.
10.Qd5 Qxd5 11.Bxd5 Nf6 12.Bb3
Black is clearly in control.
12…d5 13.h3?! Bc5 14.Ne2 0-0 15.0-0 Be6 16.Nd2 Rad8
Classic center domination.
17.a3 d4 18.Bxe6 fxe6 19.Nb3 Bb6 20.Bg5 h6 21.Bxf6 Rxf6 22.Rad1 d3 23.Ng3 Rf4 24.Nd2 Ne7 25.Nf3?
Just hastens the inevitable. 25.Nge4
25…e4 26.Nd2 e3 27.fxe3 Bxe3+ 28.Kh2 Bxd2 29.Rxd2 Rxf1 30.Nxf1 e5 31.Ng3 Kf7 32.Ne4 Ke6?
Black’s edge is lost with this inaccuracy. 32…Nf5
Crowley: “Anything but this. Nxd3 or Nxb7 would change the fate of the day most likely.” 34.g4+! Kf6 35.Rxd3; 34.Nxd3=; 34.Nxb7?-+ The pawns will soon be connected, and damned hard to deal with.
34…Rxd3 35.Nxd3 e4 36.Ne1 Nd5 37.g3 Ne3 38.Kg1? Nc4 39.Kf2 Nxb2 40.Ke2 Nc4 41.Nc2 g5 42.Ne3+?
White’s last blunder.
42…Nxe3 43.Kxe3 h5 44.c4
Crowley: Fatal of course. But nothing would save the game.
44…Ke5 45.a4 b6 46.g4 hxg4 47.hxg4 a6
And the black pawns are unstoppable. 0-1
Blackburne,J – Crowley,A [B45]
Blackburne simul Eastbourne, 1894
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 e6 5.Nc3 B45
Sicilian: Taimanov variation ~ as we now call it. Crowley: “The usual move is Nb5, but Mr. Blackburne perfers development to attack.” 5.Nb5 B44 Sicilian: Szen (anti-Taimanov) variation ~ as we would say.
Crowley: “Unwise.” ….Because the trade is forced.
6.Nxc6 bxc6 7.Qd4
OOB 7.Bd3 d5 Book.
7…Bxc3+ 8.bxc3 Nf6 9.Ba3 Qa5!
Crowley: “A strong counterattack.” 9…d5
10.Bb4 + =
The sac is unsound. 10…Qb6 += At least holds, and is probably best.
12.Qxg7! Wins. It’s hard to see how Blackburne missed this. 12…Qxc5 (12…Qxc3+ 13.Qxc3 Nxc3 14.Bd4 + -) 13.Qxh8+ Ke7 14.Qd4 + –
Crowley: “Better than Qf5 because of g3.” 12…Qf5 13.g3
13…exd5 14.Rd1 Bb7 += 15.Be2?!
15.Rb1 With counterattacking possibilities.; 15.Ba5 Is also good.
15…a5 16.Ba3 Nxc3 17.Rd3
Crowley: “Perhaps better than taking the second pawn. The two bishops are always dangerous and the pawn might have been regained with the better game.” 17…Nxa2
18.Re3+ Kd8 19.Kxe2! d4
Crowley: Temporary insanity.
20.Rg3 Is playable for the moment, but in the long-term, the R is in an odd spot.
20…Bxg2 21.Rg1 At least loses black’s edge by permitting counterplay.
21.Rxe8+ Kxe8 22.Kd3 f6 23.Kxd4 Kf7
23…Bxg2?! 24.Rg1 Here actually hands the advantage, and likely the game, back to white.
24.c3 Re8 25.Rb1 Bc6
Playing safe for the draw. 25…Bxg2! Will work now.
Crowley: “This forces the exchange of rooks, and consequently the draw. Bishops of opposite colors and pawns even can result in nothing else.” 26…Bxg2 Will still work, but with a tough game against the Black Death, Crowley opts for the draw.
27.Rb2 Rxb2 28.Bxb2
Crowley: Mr. Blackburne proposed a draw which was accepted.
Crowley,A – NN [B30]
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.c3 g6 4.Bc4 e6 5.d4 cxd4 6.cxd4 Bg7 7.e5 d5 8.Bb5 Qa5+ 9.Nc3 a6 10.Bxc6+ bxc6 11.Bd2 Qc7 12.Ng5 f6 13.exf6 Nxf6 14.0-0 0-0 15.Qe2 e5 16.dxe5 Ng4 17.f4 Qb6+ 18.Kh1 a5 19.Na4 Qa7 20.e6 Nf6 21.Rac1 Ba6 22.Qe5 Ng4 23.Qe1 Bxf1 24.Nc5 Bc4 25.e7 Qxc5 26.Qe6+ Kh8 27.Nf7+ Rxf7 28.Qxf7 0-1
Crowley,A – Shoosmith,H [C37]
1.e4 e5 2.f4 exf4 3.Nf3 g5 4.Bc4 C37 KGA: King’s knight’s gambit 4…d6 5.0-0 h6 6.d4 Ne7 7.Nc3 Bg7 8.e5 OOB 8…d5 9.Bb3 c6 10.Ne2 Ng6 11.g3 g4 12.Nxf4 Nxf4 13.Bxf4 gxf3 14.Qxf3 Be6 15.c3 Nd7 16.Bc2 Nf8 17.Qh5 Qd7 18.Bd2 Bg4 19.Qh4 Ng6 20.Bxg6 fxg6 21.e6 Bxe6 22.Rae1 g5? 23.Qg4 0-0-0 24.Rxe6 h5 25.Qe2 h4 26.Bxg5 Rdg8?? 27.Re7 Qh3 28.g4 Bxd4+ 29.cxd4 Rxg5 30.Re8+ Rxe8 31.Qxe8+ Kc7 32.Qe7+ 1-0
Feb 6, 2005 at 9:06am
Excerpts from Chris Ravilious article which appeared in December 1997 Chess.
ALEISTER CROWLEY : A LIFE IN CHESS
Readers of The Complete Chess Addict will know that Aleister Crowley, occultist, sex addict, and self-styled “Great Beast” of the book of Revelation, was a chess player of some note. Those who have penetrated the bizarre half-world of Crowley’s own works may have encountered his statement that he gave up the game at the end of his second year at Cambridge, after winning a half-Blue and captaining the Cambridge team in the Varsity match of 1897. The truth is more complicated. This article presents a chronological sweep of Crowley’s involvement with chess, beginning with his childhood in Surrey and ending, sixty years later, in that hallowed ground of chess players, the Hastings Chess Club. Along the way we shall encounter Crowley the maverick chess columnist, Crowley the ambitious opponent of masters like Jacques Mieses and William Winter, Crowley the would-be virtuoso of blindfold play, and lastly a sadly diminished Crowley, living out his final days in a dingy seaside boarding-house, yet still, in his own words, “trying to learn to play chess”.
Crowley occupies an ambiguous place place in the cultural history of the twentieth century. Savant or charlatan, philosopher or walking freak-show? Fifty years after his death, the jury is still out. In his lifetime he was the man the popular press loved to hate, “the wickedest man in the world” as one journalist dubbed him in a phrase which stuck. In the sixties, however, he was to become a cult figure—a development which would have afforded him sardonic amusement. Timothy (“Tune in, turn on and drop out”) Leary admired him. The Beatles thought him trendy enough for the cover of the Sergeant Pepper LP. He has been the subject of numerous books, most of them hagiographic. His own, largely unreadable, works run into many volumes. That he was multi-talented is certain. Just as certainly, his life story is a cautionary tale of squandered potential, “the expense of spirit in a waste of shame”. In chess, as elsewhere, he was his own worst enemy.
Crowley’s Confessions, a series of autobiographical volumes written in the nineteen-twenties, provide tantalising glimpses of Crowley the chess-player. Born in 1875 into a family of devout Plymouth Brethren, he was taught the moves at the age of six or seven by a visitor to his parents’ home in Redhill, who, as in all the best stories of chess prodigies, “lost every game after the first”. In a colourful passage, Crowley recalls his teacher quitting the board abruptly, declaring “Very judicious with his pawns is your son, Mrs Crowley!” Perhaps the unfortunate man had become a victim of what his opponent would one day call “a typical A.C. Anaconda Attack”.
Crowley had few immediate opportunities to develop his new-found talent, and it was not until he was seventeen and studying with a private tutor in Eastbourne that he found time, in between “hunting flappers on the front” and climbing Beachy Head (he was to become an ambitious if controversial mountaineer), to continue his chess education. All he knew of the game at this point came from books, and on joining the local chess club he was startled to find himself among the club’s élite. The current champion, a shopkeeper named Coupe who was to be on the losing end of a Blackburne brilliancy in 1895, insisted on giving the newcomer pawn and move; but “I beat him so easily every time I met him that the odds might have been reversed without making much difference to the result”. Nothing daunted, Crowley conceived the idea of becoming the club’s Svengali: “I wanted to arouse enthusiasm, to insist on study and practice and to make Eastbourne the strongest town in England”. The result, he admits with disarming candour, “fell short of breaking up the club, but not very far.”
Crowley’s campaign to put Eastbourne on the chess map can be followed week by week in the Eastbourne Gazette, to which, between January and July 1894, he contributed a regular series of “Chess Notes”. Two features distinguish Crowley’s column from a host of apparently similar examples in local newspapers: the extreme youth of its editor, and the fact that it tells a story. Not, it must be said, the inspirational saga of a small club aiming successfully for the big time, but a serio-comic chronicle of frustrated ambition and mean-minded revenge, complete with subplots, dramatic irony and a surprise denouement. The “Chess Notes”, each of them signed “Ta Dhuibh” (probably a muddled version of the Gaelic for “The Magician”), have added fascination as an authentic piece of early Crowleyana. To the end of his life the Beast remained a master of invective, and many of the characteristics of his mature style are to be found in undeveloped form in the writings of “Ta Dhuibh”.
Crowley’s six months as the Gazette’s chess columnist shook the club to its foundations. Week by week readers were treated to a commentary on members’ deficiencies, their tiresome habit of dropping out of tournaments (Crowley proposed substantial fines for defaulters), their casual approach to matches against neighbouring teams, and the chronic incompetence of the committee (“needless to say, such a thing would not be allowed in any other chess club under the sun”). Then there was the matter of attendance on club nights:
“The attendance at the Club of late is quite phenomenal. We have had as many as six present on one evening, though the average attendance is only two or three. Out of a mere fifty we can muster six! This diligence is most commendable, and, if persisted in, can hardly fail to secure victory in all our matches.”
The Crowley ego, never far from the surface, was much in evidence in the column. In most weeks “Ta Dhuibh” published a game from a local event, often with approving comments—“this brilliant little game”, “a very elegant finish”, “a game of much interest and vigour”, and so on. Very soon, the more percipient members of Eastbourne’s chess fraternity must have noticed that the winner in these contests, whether or not identified by name, was none other than Crowley himself. Most of the problems offered for solving were similarly his. They were not of high quality, but then Eastbourne’s small-time chessists were hardly equipped to recognise that, or to identify the two or three masterpieces by Sam Loyd, C. Planck and B.G. Laws which Crowley slipped in as though they were his own work. The column, in short, was an exhibition-case for the display of its editor’s talents, and only secondarily a means of furthering the interests of chess.
How good a player was Crowley? The evidence is partial and confusing. None of the opponents encountered during his period at Eastbourne was of the first rank, even by county standards, though the equally youthful Brighton player H.W. Shoosmith, whom he beat in a knife-edged game, was later to win the title of British Amateur Champion. Most of the games published by “Ta Dhuibh” are strewn with errors, as are, less forgivably, Crowley’s own annotations. We should thus take with a pinch of salt the statement in the Confessions that he “found himself the best player in the town”, just as we may doubt that the Cambridge undergraduate of 1895-7 acknowledged no superior “outside the master class”, with the exception of H.E. Atkins. The man protests too much. On the other hand, it is to be noted that in the first half of 1894 he had been playing competitively for only a few months. From this perspective, one or two of his victories compel respect. In later life, as we shall see, he had successes against some starry names to his credit, though mostly in casual games…………..
…………….In stressing the negative side of Crowley the chess columnist, I may have done him an injustice. Most of his writings, not least his private diaries, display a sense of humour which redeems at least a few of his vices. In February 1894 the Uckfield Institute Chess Club was routed 9½ – 2½ by Eastbourne, a result which “Ta Dhuibh” hailed in an ingenious limerick:
“There was a smart chess club at Eastbourne,
Whose glory and honour increased, borne
On pinions cherubic
They conquered so ubiq-
Uitously, those players of Eastbourne.”
This is curiously endearing, as are many of Crowley’s wilder flights of fancy; among them his vision of a club of blindfold players. “It would be rather a novelty”, he suggests, “if a Blindfold Tournament were started at the Chess Club”. Crowley would indeed have been a magician if he had brought this off, but the idea has, none the less, its own crazy appeal, particularly when its author goes on to suggest that Eastbourne might become a recognized centre of blindfold excellence: “…by and by we should be able to challenge Hailsham or some club of about that strength and play a match, our men blindfold, theirs seeing”. “Unspeakable” Crowley may have been (the assessment is that of the poet W.B. Yeats, a fellow member of the occultist circle the Golden Dawn), but the charm which was a constant accompaniment of the Beastliness is well in evidence in such passages, as at many points in his career…………………
………While the Beast was hatching these airy schemes, Nemesis—aided, it must be said, by his own character defects—had him firmly in her sights. The club, to his mounting exasperation, showed no interest in reforms on the Crowley model. His appeal for someone to present a brilliancy prize fell on deaf ears. His suggestion that losers in club matches should automatically be demoted in the order, “a general rule in the big London clubs”, was ignored. His objections to “everlasting skittle play” went unregarded. And then there was the Martin affair.
Martin was a local player of the second rank, whose chief failing, according to the Confessions, was a reluctance to play off his games in the club’s annual handicap tournament. “Ta Dhuibh”, as the same source acknowledges, made himself “particularly nasty” to the defaulter, and one of his diatribes seems even to contain a personal threat:
“Mr. Martin has not yet commenced to play. Should this state of things continue, it will be necessary to indicate a remedy—and that a drastic one.”
The drastic remedy is not specified, and we should perhaps conclude that the Beast’s supernatural powers were not yet in their full maturity, for Martin emerged from the episode unscathed. Crowley never did get to play him in the handicap tournament, but took his revenge by publishing their Club Championship encounter in instalments, complete with contemptuous annotations (“this grotesque blunder…”) and with reflections on the time consumed by his opponent over inferior moves (“Black actually occupied 28 minutes 46 seconds in deliberation on this move…”). It was Crowley himself who eventually lost patience, adjourning the game sine die in a clearly won position.
The spat with Martin looms large in these weekly columns, as it does in the Confessions. Eventually a meeting of the club’s committee was called, ostensibly to consider Crowley’s claim that the handicap title should be his. A majority of the officers, however, had by now had enough of Crowley, and a stormy meeting—one of whose results was the resignation of the club secretary—decided that “Mr. Martin should be declared winner of the Handicap, unless Mr. Crowley chose to play him two games”. A brief statement to this effect was published in a five-line paragraph of “Chess Notes”, apparently not written by Crowley, which adds that “Mr. Crowley refused, on what he believed to be reasonable grounds”. By his own account, Crowley dismissed his squabbling fellow members from his mind and went off to climb mountains in Switzerland. “Ta Dhuibh” was to write no more.
The next twelve months are a hiatus in Crowley’s chess career. There is a hint in the Confessions that it was at this period that he “frequently” beat H.E. Bird at Simpson’s. He is also known to have turned out at least once for Eastbourne, playing in the McArthur Cup final against Horsham in February 1895. Apart from this, the record is blank. By the time he reached Cambridge, however, in the autumn of the same year, Crowley had one serious ambition, “to become champion of the world at chess”, and with this in view he lost no time in making contact with the university club, whose captain, W.V. Naish, was sufficiently impressed to take him on a visit to Peterhouse, there to try his skills against H.E. Atkins. With typical chutzpah, Crowley decided to disconcert Atkins with a novelty in the Muzio Gambit, but was routed. Of his subsequent performances while at Cambridge we know something from the BCM and other periodicals which report on the Varsity matches of 1896 and 1897. In the former match Crowley played on board 4, beating his opponent, H.N. Robbins, on time in what was probably a lost position. Crowley was frequently to express his exasperation at slow play, but on this occasion it worked to his advantage. By the following year Crowley had graduated to board 1 and the captaincy of the Cambridge team, but lost against E.G. Spencer Churchill.
Cambridge University records may yet be the source of further discoveries. They are likely, however, to be confined to the first two years of Crowley’s undergraduate career, since in the long vacation of 1897 he experienced a moment of revelation, following which all thoughts of chessboard eminence were forgotten. It occurred during the return journey from St Petersburg, where he had been learning Russian in preparation for a career in the diplomatic service. An international tournament was taking place in Berlin, and the Cambridge star and embryo world champion decided to break his journey in the German capital to look in on the play.
“But I had hardly entered the room where the masters were playing when I was seized with what may justly be described as a mystical experience. I seemed to be looking on at the tournament from outside myself. I saw the masters — one, shabby, snuffy and blear-eyed; another, in badly fitting would-be respectable shoddy; a third, a mere parody of humanity, and so on for the rest. These were the people to whose ranks I was seeking admission. ‘There, but for the grace of God, goes Aleister Crowley,’ I exclaimed to myself with disgust, and there and then I registered a vow never to play another serious game of chess. I perceived with praeternatural lucidity that I had not alighted on this planet with the object of playing chess.”……………
………A group photo taken at the Berlin Tournament of 1897 is to be found in Fred Wilson’s Picture History of Chess (1981). To outward appearance the assembled chess-masters are an unexceptionable bunch, solidly bourgeois both in dress and deportment. Perhaps this was the trouble. The outsider in Crowley, ever watchful for threats from the parental world of middle-class convention, expected real-life chess masters to embody the perverse appeal of Milton’s Satan. Sadly for Tchigorin, Charousek and the rest, the day-to-day existence of a professional chess player had little of the sulphurous splendour which would have commended it to a Great Beast.
Crowley left Cambridge in 1898 without taking a degree, and for the next twenty years devoted himself mainly to “Magick”. For most of this period the renunciation of chess remained intact, though he is known to have played casual games against acquaintances like the artist and writer Clifford Bax. “On the surface”, Crowley once remarked, “there seems little relation between Magick and chess”; however, there are sufficient hints in his writings of a symbiosis between the two realms to suggest that even at this period the game was seldom quite out of his mind. He was to claim, for example, that while in China in 1908 the ability to play three simultaneous games without sight of the board made it easy for him to summon up mental images of “astral temples” and perform acts of ritual magic in what today might be called virtual reality.
Chess returns as a regular preoccupation in the “Magical Diaries” which Crowley kept during the 1920s, firstly as a distraction while coming off cocaine (“I am absurdly interested in a game of chess I am playing myself”), and later during periods of exile in North Africa and Weimar Germany. Between May and September 1923 he was a frequent visitor to the Tunis Chess Club, where he defeated, among others, the local champion Ganouba. During these months chess and drugs continue to strive for mastery of the Crowley psyche. On 10 June it is the latter which are in the ascendant: “God! but the Beauty of Drugs! Nobody has seen it till this minute! They enable you to bring your wish to a single point…”. As for chess, “it’s a child’s game”. Two weeks after this, however, he pens a lucid and persuasive statement of the claims of chess to be considered an art form:
“Here is a language: it was in part ‘invented’ by some ‘genius’, in part developed by experience & an intelligent counsel of experts. We do not wonder how it has come to pass that it affords scope for such boundless ingenuity: we do not credit the ‘genius’ with foreseeing the event, or fall prone in adoration of his ‘praeterhuman’ creative wisdom. The fact is evidently that any ‘language’ if sufficiently elastic—in all dimensions—affords the poet a medium of creating masterpieces.”
Crowley, it is sadly evident, carried as a legacy from his childhood an inability to commit himself permanently to any intellectual goal, or any normal human relationship. By September chess was reduced once again to the status of one among several pathetic-sounding distractions proposed as a means of weaning himself from addiction: “Cards, Chess, or light reading and a travelling companion capable of keeping me amused…”.
Tunis was to be only an interlude, and in the winter of 1930-31, after a period of nomadism, Crowley turns up in Berlin with his mistress of the moment, a 20-year-old artist named Hanni Jaeger (‘Anu’ in the diaries, for reasons which will not be mentioned in these chaste pages). He was also playing a good deal of chess, both with Hanni and at the Romanisches Café, a regular haunt of Weimar chess players. By February 1931, however, the relationship with Hanni was near to breakdown, not helped by her deficiencies as a chess player (“She studies a position. ‘I want to make a sacrifice’. ‘In this type of position there is no basis for one’. ‘How can we live together if you are always quarrelling?’ !!! Typical.”). However, there were consolations. In April, a month when according to his biographer John Symonds he had four mistresses, he also found time to play regularly at the Wiener Café, drawing twice against Paul Johner and paying a mark a game for the privilege of meeting Kurt Richter (no known relation to Hanni) over the chessboard. Another compliant young lady, Louise Zschaetzsche, was no better at chess than her rival for Crowley’s affections (“…a really hopeless idiot & quite unteachable. Liable to burst into tears if she loses a pawn — oh God! These damned feminine women are the limit”). All Crowley’s women were treated with the same casual brutality (“The foul hag insulted Regardie at the luncheon table & I laid her out”): it’s amazing, by the way, how much of this kind of thing Crowley’s apologists are able to put up with. A similarly unsavoury side of the Beast, his anti-Semitism, comes out in a passage from a 1944 letter referring to this period: “In Berlin, I used to play chess with the Swiss champion, Johner, in a café. Jews used to crowd round, and wrangle about our game! One had the impudence one day to touch one of my pieces!! That roused the British Lion — it was short and sharp; but I had no further trouble.”
Crowley remained in Berlin through the autumn of 1931, playing casual chess against a succession of mostly obscure opponents (“Beat Dr Bett all to blazes, despite headache & the infernal cats’ concert he makes when playing”) and starting a relationship with a new mistress, Bertha Busch, who for the next few months was to be his “Scarlet Woman” and partner in sexual magic. (“Sat. 24 Oct. An entirely new kind of orgasm!”) And there were other excitements. On 14 September: “Played Dr Mieses. Made two very fine combinations to recover a pawn lost early. He only won in each game by the luck of the simplified position. Was nervous, very, or could have drawn”. Crowley finds a variety of excuses for lost games, but does not often offer nervousness as an explanation for his failings: clearly “Meister Mieses” was an opponent outside his usual run of experience. Johner too provided the occasional opportunity to boost the Crowley ego. After a night of S & M with Bertha from which he was “recovering all day”, he “played a very good game against Johner & only lost through trying to win too soon”. And at the end of the year events moved to a satisfying climax, in a chess sense at least: “Wed. 2 Dec. Dr. Mieses to dinner. Won 1st game from Mieses!”………….
……..The final months of Crowley’s stay in Germany saw him absorbed in matters other than chess, but the game re-emerges as a focus for his energies in September 1932, by which time he was in London and may already have joined the West London Chess Club. First there is a reference to a session of analysis with William Winter and M.A. Sutherland, both of whom were to become regular opponents. Crowley’s friendship with the former was to lead to a bizarre episode which united two of the Beast’s regular preoccupations, chess and sex. The following account is taken from John Symonds’ biography The King of the Shadow Realm:
“Winter told me that Crowley was a ‘first-class chess amateur’. Before the war, they played many matches together in Winter’s house; Crowley would be invited for the week-end…
When Mrs Winter first met Crowley, she exclaimed, ‘What a lovely man! Do you think he would sleep with me?’
‘Why don’t you ask him?’ Mr Winter replied.
At a suitable moment during Crowley’s next visit, Molly Winter did ask the Beast if she might join him in his bed; and when the last game of chess was over, or postponed, they went to bed together.
‘Did Molly say anything in the morning?’ I asked.
‘She said he was a marvellous lover,’ Winter added: ‘The trouble was, though, that it became difficult to get rid of him when he came for a week-end’s chess.’”
There is unfortunately no direct reference to weekends with the Winters in the Crowley diaries. However, Symonds’ account has a certain plausibility. Whatever his relationship with Molly, Crowley continued to play chess with her husband, beating him at least once in “a very good game”. Other opponents mentioned in diaries of the thirties include E.G. Sergeant, W.H. Watts, Ernst Klein and A. Louis, all of them strong players. Crowley’s record against such opponents was respectable, and his continuing enthusiasm for the game is expressed in passages of typically lyrical prose: “Very good chess v. Metropolitan. A. Louis Board 3 one of the very best games I ever played. Note the thunder of his attack cleared suddenly, & the instant appearance of my clear and irresistable [sic] lightning. I never managed this before so beautifully.”
The game against Louis has not been traced,
Crowley’s acerbic side is also much in evidence in his diaries of the 1930s, the opening of the National Chess Centre in November 1939 occasioning a characteristic piece of rudery, this time at the expense of Vera Menchik:
“Stop! Look! & listen! ere you enter the grand new National Chess Centre.
For there you will find as manag’ress
The most unGodly cow in chess.”
By the following year London had become an uncomfortable place of residence, and in September—the month in which the National Chess Centre was destroyed by German bombing—Crowley fled the capital for the safer surroundings of Torquay. Here he made himself obnoxious to the members of the local chess club (“There is now no real opposition to me in the club, no one is Alpha at all, capable of genuine original play”) and mounted a characteristic campaign against breaches of playing etiquette: “Lost the last game through culmination of rage at the dotard babblings of the unsoaped sub-simian non-player at the next table… This time I threatened a public scandal, & woke up the secretary”. All this is horribly reminiscent of 1894 and Eastbourne. By 1940, however, Crowley was himself not unfamiliar with public scandal, and fresh controversy threatened when the “Abbey of Do What Thou Wilt” which he had established in the nearby village of Barton Cross became a centre for heroin abuse and sadistic sex. He was also at some risk of arrest for what his diary describes euphemistically as “hunting”, a pursuit in which he now enjoyed only limited success. As John Symonds notes, “He was sixty-five, overweight, short of breath and money, with glaring, angry eyes — not exactly an attractive proposition for a lonely female”. Around this time, however, his passion for female company found sublimated expression in a series of chessboard encounters with the former British Ladies’ Champion Mrs Holloway, whose play he treated with a measure of respect………..
………The Abbey of Do What Thou Wilt proved as short-lived as most of Crowley’s schemes for magical and sexual self-realisation, and in the summer of 1941 he was back in London. A regular guest and opponent at this time was M.A. Sutherland, a slow and unenterprising player who bored his host off the board. Sutherland’s antics become for a time a recurrent theme of the diary:
“Sat. 18 April 1942. M.A.S. here for chess. While he fumbles and grumbles and mumbles and rumbles, he has a very good chance of beating me: did so to-night in fact by dint of muttering and puttering and spluttering and uttering moans and groans in undertones.”
The rhetoric of such a passage, quite as much as its content, supplies an index of a personality at the end of its mental tether.
Plagued by a variety of physical ailments, and with his psychic and sexual batteries hovering around empty, Crowley retreated in January 1945 to “Netherwood”, a boarding-house on the Ridge, a mile or so outside Hastings. His diaries for 1945 and 1946 provide us with our final glimpses of this “life in chess”.
In retirement at Netherwood, Crowley’s chess career seems to have come full circle. Once again, as at Eastbourne in 1894, he presents himself as a big fish in a small pool, in this case the Hastings Chess Club. Once again he finds himself surrounded by a gallery of grotesques, characterised variously as “idiots”, “duds” and “duffers” (had Crowley never come across the wise words of the master, “In life we are all duffers”?). In his first few weeks at the club he encounters an infant horror, a fussy little ass, a Queer Old Bird, a super-dud, and a “snailish dud”: as we have seen, Crowley could not abide slow play. There was also—another familiar theme—the “ghastly jabber of dud idiots” to contend with. By September 1945, matters had deteriorated to the point where raised voices were to be heard in the club: “Monday 17 September. Row at Chess Club, those deaf duffers shouting at each other. Upset badly enough to lose a game”.
Worse than any of this, however, was the challenge to Crowley’s mental equilibrium posed by an elderly female member, first mentioned in August in the laconic note “crazy woman in hullabaloo”. The crazy woman—who is, perhaps fortunately, never named—soon comes to occupy the place in the Crowley demonology once occupied by his Eastbourne bête noire, Martin. In September he gets to play her on two occasions (“Wednesday 12 September. Crazy chess with crazy old cow”) and finds that she is “quite nice when not gabbling”, but the honeymoon, such as it is, does not last. In November she upsets his concentration at a crucial point in a game against the club’s president, P.J. Morren, and he confides to the diary: “that gabbling old cow came & spouted worse than ever. Difficult end-game too. Why can’t they enforce discipline?”. Small wonder, perhaps, that his heroin habit became more deeply fixed during these months, causing occasional embarrassments in the club. On one occasion he committed the indiscretion of leaving his daily supply in the gents, but fortunately it was returned to him by an understanding fellow member and no questions were asked.
Gabbling cows and deaf duffers, asthmatic attacks and wartime rationing (“not a biscuit in sight!”): none of these stopped Crowley from coming, even on days when there was no car available to take him to and from the club. The Beast did not enjoy bus travel (“Friday 29 March 1946. By bus!!! To printer, barber, bookseller, Chess Club. By bus!!!”), and must have been an uncomfortable travelling companion for residents of the Ridge who used public transport as their usual way of getting about. Clearly the Hastings Club, however Crowley might impugn its comforts (“beastly cold in Ch Club”), or rail against the antics of its members, offered a necessary solace at a time when such long-term preoccupations as sex and “Magick” had lost their power to charm. Chess had always been the third force in Crowley’s life, and the diary contains sufficient tributes to the game—“devised a really fine combination, aesthetic … charmingly simple mate in 2, Q sacrifice … a problem mate of really great elegance”—to remind us that this was a sphere in which he needed only a more single-minded approach to rank among the strongest of amateurs.
That his qualities as a player were apparent to the club’s officers is clear from the fact that he was asked to play in several matches during 1945 and the first months of 1946, scoring two or three good wins. Even in decline, Crowley was not an opponent to be taken lightly, his over-the-board skills being reinforced by a skull-like visage, “satanic” glances and an occasional flash of scarlet from the lining of his emblematic black cloak. To such costume accessories must be added the “peculiar sweetish smell” which signalled his presence, and which, according to John Symonds, was “due to his use of the holy consecrating oil of Abra-Melin, the oil which was said to have run down Aaron’s beard”. Interviewed in 1990, one member of the Hastings Club recalled that Crowley believed that this “unguent” made him irresistible to women. Faced with such weaponry, it is hardly surprising that some of Crowley’s opponents were frightened into submission. More robust temperaments, on the other hand, considered the Great Beast to have become little better than a clown.
Crowley’s last recorded visit to the club was on 22 November 1946, though he lived, in a condition of increasing physical debility, until the end of the following year. The Beast took his final bow on 1 December 1947, the funeral taking place a few days later in the nondenominational chapel of the crematorium at Brighton. The ceremony, it is reported, was punctuated with “ecstatic cries of ‘Io Pan !’ from devotees”, and there were readings of familiar texts from the Crowley canon, including his best-known formulation, “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law”. Did Crowley consider that he had been true to that precept, or even that it had been a sufficient guide during a life conducted with scant regard for convention? One acquaintance, at least, considered that “in some moods he could see that his life had been worthless”. Be that as it may, a modern reader, and certainly a reader of a magazine like Chess Monthly, may be permitted to wonder whether the ambition to become “champion of the world at chess”, however unlikely of fulfilment, would not have constituted a more worthy aim than those which the Great Beast was to make his own.
As a final illustration of Crowley’s potential as a player, here is his draw against Blackburne in an 1894 simul at the Eastbourne Chess Club. Crowley played Blackburne on more than one occasion, and at least one of these encounters resulted in the worsting of the master. There is a vivid account of this meeting in the Confessions: “I was being beaten in the Sicilian defence. The only chance was the sacrifice of a rook. I remember the grand old master coming round to my board and cocking his alcoholized eye cunningly at me. ‘Hullo,’ said he, ‘Morphy come to town again!’ I am not coxcomb enough to think that he could not have won the game, even after my brilliancy. I believe that his colossal generosity let me win to encourage a promising youngster.” Sadly, the game referred to is lost, but the following encounter, also a Sicilian, shows the young Crowley to have been an ingenious and technically astute player, with the courage to achieve equality in a game in which at one point he is under severe pressure.