Chess: As Elaborate a Waste of Human Intelligence as You Could Find Anywhere Outside an Advertising Agency

Raymond Chandler? Philip Marlowe? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: A famous writer of detective novels apparently described chess as an enormous waste of human intelligence. My memory is not precise. He may have been talking about poker instead of chess. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: Raymond Chandler’s 1953 novel “The Long Goodbye” contained a scene in which the protagonist detective Philip Marlowe set up a chessboard to reenact a memorable game from a past tournament. The exercise was a form of relaxation and contemplation for Marlowe, and the context showed that the iconic gumshoe viewed chess favorably. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:[ref] 1953 Copyright (1971 Reprint), The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler, Chapter 24, Quote Page 153, Ballantine Books, New York. (Verified with scans) [/ref]

. . . played a championship tournament game between Gortchakoff and Meninkin, seventy-two moves to a draw, a prize specimen of the irresistible force meeting the immovable object, a battle without armor, a war without blood, and as elaborate a waste of human intelligence as you could find anywhere outside an advertising agency.

QI has not yet located evidence that this game was played in the veridical world. The two chess masters apparently were fictional.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

When Raymond Chandler died in 1959 “The Ottawa Citizen” of Ottawa, Ontario, Canada published a piece reflecting on his life. The following passage was followed by an excerpt from “The Long Goodbye” that included all the text given above; hence, the quotation was further disseminated:[ref] 1959 April 4, The Ottawa Citizen, A Fashioner of Thrillers, Quote Page 6, Column 2, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

His principal character, Philip Marlowe, who manages miraculously to survive amid a welter of unsavory and sinister characters, is a brooding as well as active and articulate man. In interludes between being beaten up by hostile thugs or misunderstanding policemen, Marlowe likes to relax alone with a chess problem.

In 1987 “The Portable Curmudgeon” compiled by Jon Winokur featured a section listing chess quotations which included the two following items. The Chandler statement is slightly condensed with the omission of the word “anywhere”:[ref] 1987, The Portable Curmudgeon, Compiled and edited by Jon Winokur, Quote Page 62, New American Library, New York. (Verified with scans) [/ref]


Chess is a foolish expedient for making idle people believe they are doing something very clever when they are only wasting their time.
George Bernard Shaw

As elaborate a waste of human intelligence as you can find outside an advertising agency.
Raymond Chandler

In 1990 “The Observer” of London published a letter from a reader mentioning both poker and chess in conjunction with the condensed words of Chandler:[ref] 1990 September 16, The Observer, Section: Letters to the Editor, Letter title: Poker-faced, Letter from: M. Wilde of Surbiton, Surrey, Quote Page 44, Column 7, London, Greater London, England. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

Winston Fletcher, swanking about his old poker-playing companions (Letters, last week), suggests to me that poker is probably — to quote Raymond Chandler — like chess, ‘as elaborate a waste of human intelligence as you could find outside an advertising agency’.

In 1994 quotation collector Robert Byrne included a concise self-contained version of the remark within a volume of his series titled “Best Things Anybody Ever Said”:[ref] 1994, The Fifth and Far Finer than the First Four 637 Best Things Anybody Ever Said, Compiled by Robert Byrne, Quotation Number 403, Fawcett Crest Book: Ballantine Books, New York. (Verified with scans) link [/ref]

Chess is as elaborate a waste of human intelligence as you can find outside an advertising agency.
Raymond Chandler (1888-1959)

In 2009 the saying appeared in “The Man’s Book: The Essential Guide for the Modern Man”, but the subject was changed from “chess” to “poker”:[ref] 2009 U.S. Edition, The Man’s Book: The Essential Guide for the Modern Man by Thomas Fink, Chapter: Idling, Quote Page 165, Little, Brown and Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Verified with scans) [/ref]

Raymond Chandler • [Poker is] as elaborate a waste of human intelligence as you could find outside an advertising agency.

In conclusion, Raymond Chandler deserves credit for the words he wrote in “The Long Goodbye” in 1953. The opinion about chess was delivered by Chandler’s fictional character Philip Marlowe, and the novel indicated that the detective regarded chess positively.

Image Notes: Illustration of twelve chess pieces from OpenClipart-Vectors at Pixabay.

(Great thanks to quotation expert Nigel Rees whose comments on this topic led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. The discussion occurred in “The ‘Quote…Unquote’ Newsletter” issues of October 2012 and January 2013.)

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