Book Review: My One Contribution to Chess, F. V. Morley

The Crossroads chess club provides me with the entertainment of watching chess games, along with the discussion that is natural to accompany such. Only rarely does my excessive kibbitzing force me to accept a challenge to play; though I have been practicing with such books as 1001 Brilliant Ways to Checkmate, my ability is somewhat lacking (too much mathematics, perhaps, which spoils one by allowing one to easily retract errors). My feeling is that chess is like football. It’s relaxing to watch a game but far too much effort to play. If I’m going to endure an hour of aggravation, memorize sequences of play and their likely chance of success, suffer nervous sweat until it drools down from my armpits to my belt, and run up my heart rate, I’d like to reach orgasm at the end of it. And with much better odds than the (under) 50% I achieve at the chess club.

Anyway, while observing a game, Nathan Jermasek (perhaps with the object of quieting my comments) handed me a slim book by F. V. Morley, “My One Contribution to Chess,” the subject of this book review. It should probably be noted that F. V. Morley and his book are supposed to be fictional creations of Stephen Potter in his famous 1952 book on gamesmanship, at least according to Wikipedia’s entry on fictional books:
Wikipedia entry on Stephen Potter\'s \"Gamesmanship\" showing F. V. Morley\'s book as fictitious
You can’t buy My One Contribution on Amazon at the moment, but you may be able to find a used copy if you look around a bit. Perhaps eBay once caught a whiff of one.

Does the book exist or not? It’s hard to say, and certainly I’m not going to “correct” wikipedia on this. But the choice of the name F. V. Morley is interesting in that it leads to some mathematics which might vaguely have something to do with the physics we’re working on around here.
F. V. Morley\'s one bad idea about chess

The book is purportedly about a modification of the chess board to allow new openings while keeping intact the old openings. The less said about this bad idea the better. Most of the book is about the author’s father Frank Morley, who died in 1937 and was known for his ability at chess. His name is immortalized in mathematics as a series of miraculous equilateral triangles. The book discusses the English mathematics scene between the wars, the Cambridge mathematical tripos and various other topics. But it does have a few things to say about chess:

I started with the notion that chess when studied seriously is no longer an innocent, friendly game. That seemed to me a pity. The philosophy of having innocent fun is not the same as the philosophy of having superior technical equipment and a first axiom of having fun is that a little knowledge is a good thing and too much knowledge isn’t. On that, so far as chess goes, a number of experts and duffers agreed. It seemed to me to illustrate the point to explain how my father and I, who were much in sympathy, and who in other realms created things together, at chess were separated not merely by his superior power, but by his learning. I asked the question why, at chess, should we be so separated. If anybody could have tempered his knowledge to the occasion, Doctors [his father] would have done so. But that is what you can’t do. The second and concealed axiom is that if you can play you must play, and you must play as hard as you can. What emerges from that axiom is that the game may demand from the players perhaps more than the players wish to demand from the game. What emerges is that chess is not merely a game but a dromenon.

That could have been stated without so much elaboration. It is obvious that both parties to a chess game play not merely against the human opponent, but also to make the best abstract use of the position of the pieces. Chess in its lesser part is a matter of traps, temptations, devices against the mortal frailty of your opponent. In greater part it is something demonstrated by both players against the setting of the universe, the chaste stars, the army of unalterable law. It is when the patterns of power, breaking and reforming as in a kaleidoscope, when pressures half revealed and half perceived manifest themselves and melt and shift, when there is imagination, elegance and accuracy not merely in the combinations — accuracy in the relationships which are invariant although the combinations differ — then and then only do the pieces come to life; then and then only to the players make together something which is both a battle and a ballet, and which in its unearthly beauty entirely transcends the little bits of carvings advancing and retreating on the parti-coloured board.

Chess is a dromenon. That’s why it is inexorable. You can’t play down to a weaker opponent.

You can’t really play chess, that is, mutually create a good game, with anyone who is on a different level. A first-class player can’t play chess with a second-class player; second-class can’t play with third; and third can’t play with steerage. More precisely, steerage cannot create a good enough game with third-class, third-class with second, second with first. The players can beat or be beaten, but unless they are of the same class they cannot together create a game of chess which comes alive, which is worthy of ballet and battle in the sight of the chaste stars, the universe, and unalterable law.

While I love and appreciate the above description of chess (and a good definition of “human” is “the creature that plays games” so these lines apply to far more than chess), at the time I read them I did observe a bit of a violation of the conclusion. Moderns have the additional advantage of the clock, and one can span a few classes of players by giving the weaker player more time on the clock.

The Friday I saw the book, the 2007 Washington State Champion and blitz [high speed chess] specialist, Ignacio Pérez, played a half dozen games with a much weaker player, an excellent child prodigy who shows up at the chess club. To even the matches, Ignacio gave himself 30 seconds on the clock to the youngster’s 5 minutes. This was perhaps 2/3 the time required for Ignacio to win, though I did see him make his first 2 moves before his clock had registered the first second.

Getting back to physics, the miracle equilateral triangle (which is obtained as the intersection of the trisectors of an arbitrary triangle) reminds me of triality a little. Draw an equilateral triangle, such as the red triangle illustrated above. Draw another point well outside of the equilateral triangle. This point will be one point of the large triangle. Duplicate the angle subtended by the equilateral triangle on either side. These three angles will, together, make up the large triangle corner and its trisection. It’s easy to see that you can now determine the other points of the larger triangle (if such exists).

In choosing an equilateral triangle, we need one degree of freedom, its length. Placing the first point of the larger triangle uses up two degrees of freedom. We’ve used three degrees of freedom, all the degrees of freedom of an arbitrary triangle. It’s not too surprising that this is necessary and sufficient to define the larger triangle. But it is still surprising to see the construction (which in this way of describing the situation does not require a trisection), walks around the equilateral triangle and returns exactly to the first choice of arbitrary triangle. This is a requirement of self-consistency, can it be so far from the physics we’re discussing here? Kea will know.


Filed under book review, chess

12 responses to “Book Review: My One Contribution to Chess, F. V. Morley

  1. jaja yes I agree, playing can be too stressful!

  2. Doug

    Hi Carl,

    This “miracle equilateral triangle” appears to be a angle trisection variant of the bisected angle Fano Plane which can also produce nested equilateral triangles.

  3. carlbrannen

    Very good, Doug. You beat Kea!

  4. nige cook

    “My feeling is that chess is like football. It’s relaxing to watch a game but far too much effort to play.”

    Chess can’t possibly require as much effort as the mathematics you’re doing!

  5. carlbrannen


    Chess requires as much effort as one can possibly apply to it. It is, as the electrical engineers say, “an infinite sink”.

    Furthermore, a $10 computer program running on a typical laptop can slaughter the best human player on the planet. So studying chess is hopeless.

    But there are a few things of beauty in the game. One of my few claims to competency is that I can mate with knight and bishop against the lone king. There is a prescribed method of doing this, so I’m thinking of blogging it.

  6. For surely, of all the drugs in the world, Chess must be the most permanently pleasurable. Assiac
    Combinations the Heart of Chess

  7. John R Ramsden

    In the UK some years ago BT (British Telecom) ran a series of adverts involving an old guy traipsing round bookshops in a futile search for a book called “Fly Fishing” by J R Hartley, and when he returned home his daughter found in BT’s Yellow Pages phone directory a bookshop with a copy.

    Needless to say the book was fictitious, but some enterprising author soon wrote one with that title and author, and made a mint off the back of the publicity which BT had given it! [see

  8. carlbrannen

    Yet another mystery is why I had to rescue John R Ramsden’s post from the spam bucket.

    And Nathan regularly kicks my butt on the chess board, but I like him anyway. His handwriting is among the most elegant I’ve seen.

  9. The game humiliates me. But, perhaps that’s a good thing…

    Your introductory paragraph elicited a healthy guffaw from my stodgy self. As always, a joy to read.

  10. carlbrannen

    “My One Contribution to Chess” has been removed from the “fictional book” list on Wikipedia.

    The foul deed was performed by at 15:27, 27 July 2008.

    I’ve no doubt that my blog post caused the deletion as the errant entry dates to September 2006, while the deletion came only 2 weeks after my pointing out the error.

  11. Frederick Rhine

    Morley’s statement about strong players not being able to “play down” to weaker players is also refuted by the availability of material odds. Before the chess clock came into common usage, material odds were the standard method of equalizing the chances in games between players of different strengths.

  12. Frederick Rhine

    Having now read part of Morley’s book, I see that he was well aware of material odds, which he discusses at pages 52-54 of the book. The book is available online at;seq=7;view=1up

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