The Three Sailors' Gambit
by Lord Dunsany
(Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett)

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

The Smart Set, August 1916

collected in —
Tales of Wonder
Gods, Men and Ghosts

February 2009


In a game as thoroughly defined and demarcated as chess, it is not easy to concoct a story that is interesting, enjoyable, and surprising. Lord Dunsany's famous little fantasy story "The Three Sailors' Gambit" is such a story.

Well, the sailors used to lower their heads almost as low as the table and mutter together before every move, but they muttered so low that you could not hear what they planned.

They lost three pawns almost straight off, then a knight, and shortly after a bishop; they were playing in fact the famous Three Sailors' Gambit.

Stavlokratz was playing with the easy confidence that they say was usual with him, when suddenly at about the thirteenth move I saw him look surprised; he leaned forward and looked at the board and then at the sailors, but he learned nothing from their vacant faces; he looked back at the board again.

Seeing the chess board involves recognizing the pattern of pieces on the squares, and then foreseeing ways in which the pattern may be forced to evolve according to the rules of the game despite the contrary pressure of our opponent's vision. The depth to which we truly perceive the pieces' layout and their potential reconfigurations, is an apparently clear task for the mind's eye, but almost infinitely subtle in practice.

There's a Norwegian folk tale collected by Asbjornsen and Moe, "The Trolls in Hedale Wood", from which I hear a distant echo (I do not say resemblance) in "The Three Sailors' Gambit" ... See what you think; they're both quite short. But read Dunsany's first.


© 2009 Robert Wilfred Franson

"The Three Sailors' Gambit" at Chessville.

"The Lads Who Met the Trolls in Hedale Wood" at Trolltale.

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