Sunday, January 18, 2015

Chess, Esperanto, and Evolution

Chess and Esperanto master
I am, at best, an indifferent chess player. Actually, I’m a pretty lousy chess player. There are small children out there who can doubtless beat me as chess, and I’m not talking chess prodigies. A newspaper chess column is not actually going to be my choice of reading material.[1] The word is, however, one of the words that Zamenhof included in his initial list of words, while a word for “poker” (in the sense of the card game) didn’t make the list.

So, if someone wanted to play chess in Esperanto, the vocabulary was there from the beginning, and an article in the Omaha Daily Bee of January 18, 1914 shows that there were some early takers. One of these chess players was Martin Sitera, of Omaha, Nebraska.

The chess column of the Daily Bee gives some details:
Martin Sitera, a member of the club is engaged in a correspondence game with Joseph Turcsanyi of Budapest, Hungary. The game was begun about the time President Wilson was inaugurated, and Martin, being of a sanguine temperament, hopes to bring it to a conclusion before Bryan takes the chair. Mr. Turcsanyi knows no English and Martin knows no Hungarian, but that circumstance presents no difficulties to these two masters of Esperanto.
When the Daily Bee wrote about this, Wilson’s inauguration hadn’t quite passed beyond human memory, as he had been inaugurated in March of the prior year.[2] About nine months, but we are talking about deciding on a move, writing it into a letter (who needs Esperanto? you could just use standard chess notation), and sending it to another country. I hope they included a deadline for making a move.

As for Mr. Sitera’s hopes for a future presidential election, these were to be dashed. There was never a Bryan inaugural, and the game may have ended by Wilson’s second term, and if not that, then by the time of the Harding administration. I’m pleased that Bryan didn’t make it to the White House, as he created enough damage without becoming President. After all, Bryan is the guy we have to tanks for the Scopes trial. Wikipedia notes that
Bryan opposed the theory of evolution for two reasons
but it really goes deeper than that. Bryan didn’t believe that evolution had occurred. I’ve long felt that this is the point where biologists fail on educating the people about evolution. There’s evolution and there’s Darwin’s theory of evolution, just as there’s gravity and there’s Newton’s theory of gravity. Newton’s theory of gravity is a proposal of how gravity works, not a speculation that on whether or not there is gravity. Newton could be completely wrong, and gravity remains a fact. Evolution is an observation about living things: life (when looked at by populations) change over time. Evolution = change over time. How does that work? Darwin had a theory.[3]

Williams Jennings Bryan really didn’t reject Darwinism, but the whole concept that evolution wasn't even real. In Bryan’s view, schools should not have even taught evolution. But, although Bryan had run for President previously, he did not run in the 1916 election, and even campaigned for Wilson. This must have been a disappointment to Mr. Sitera.[4] But I digress.

Sitera was not some old fogey when he was engaged in the international chess match. He was born in November 1887, making him just a few months younger than Esperanto. He himself could not run for President, as he was born in Bohemia and was a naturalized citizen. He emigrated to the United States in 1900. The 1930 Census lists his native language as “Bohemian,” though today we would say Czech. He worked as a Linotype operator at a newspaper.[5]

It seems that Czech, English, and Esperanto were not his only languages, despite that the Daily Bee noted that he did not speak Hungarian. A 1905 article in the Columbus Journal notes:
Boy a Master of Languages.
Martin Sitera, an A. D. T. boy in Omaha, speaks five languages—Bohemian (his own), English, French, German and Spanish—and hopes ere long to gain some mastery of Greek and Latin. He was born in Cernikov, a small village of Bohemia, but came to this country about four years ago. Though 14 years old, he is an omnivorous reader, devoting every spare minute to his books.
This corresponds to our chess player in every way but one: his age. According to the 1930 Census, Mr. Sitera was born in 1887 or 1888. His World War I draft registration confirms the 1887 date (unfit to serve, due to a weak heart) and gives the birthplace as Cernikov (or more properly Černíkov). But in 1905, he couldn’t have been just fourteen years old, but sixteen. Perhaps the story originated when he was fourteen, but continued to be used as filler as Sitera aged past it. We can guess that he learned Esperanto sometime between 1903 and the 1913 chess match, though he is not listed in the 1907 list of members of the Esperanto Society in the North American Review.

When he was engaged in this chess match, Mr. Sitera was still a decade away from getting married, which he did at the age of thirty-seven to a woman who was also from the same area. (Martin Sitera emigrated from Bohemia. His wife, whose name is not given in the census, emigrated from Czechoslovakia. According to the Census, they both spoke Bohemian.)

Although his name shows up in both typography and chess magazines (including one where he challenges typesetters to chess), the only Esperanto reference I have found for Mr. Sitera is that he joined the British Esperanto Society in 1920 (from Omaha, Nebraska). Nor do we know how the chess game came out, though that might not have finished. After all, in January 1914, they were only a few months away from the start of WWI. While we know that Mr. Sitera did not serve, there’s no indication what might have happened to Mr. Turcsanyi.

Mr. Turcsanyi was not Mr. Sitera’s only attempt to play chess in Esperanto, though he may have been his only Esperantist opponent. In February 1914, a play based on Robert Hichens’s novel The Garden of Allah came to Omaha. In the troupe were (to quote an advertisement in the Daily Bee), “Sheik Hah-Med and 20 Tribesmen in Native Costume.” The Bee also addressed the question of where the thirty-four Arabs would be housed, noting that one member of the troupe was a butcher, “and no good member of the aggregation would think of eating meat that was not prepared by Ben Tata.” He was doubtless the only halal butcher in Omaha in 1914.

The Omaha Chess and Checkers Club attempted to challenge members of the troupe to games of chess. The Daily Bee reported on this on March 1, 1914:
The “Garden of Allah” company has come and gone, and none of the club’s trophies are missing; neither does the scalp of any Arab grace an Omaha wigwam. The advance posters of the “Garden of Allah” pictured from fifteen to twenty sons of the desert in connection with the show, and everyone anticipated great doings at the club. Harry Reed had reserved the smallest Arab for himself; Martin Sitera had engaged to play four or five simultaneously provided they spoke Esperanto; J. G. Fort had bespoken the fiercest-looking of them all for his opponent, and everything was in readiness for a bloody conflict and no quarter.[6]

It turns out, however, that not all Arabs are born chess players; moreover, that this particular gang had not been chosen for their skill at the royal game, but rather for their ability to manage a camel, and that of the entire number only one knew how to play chess—and he had been sent east before the company arrived in Omaha.
Yes, but how many spoke Esperanto? Sitera couldn’t have really thought that this group of people would comprise five Esperanto speakers. That would be one out of every seven. Did Mr. Sitera really believe that 14% of the Arab population spoke Esperanto? Your move, Mr. Sitera.

  1. I mean, the bridge column would be worse, because at least I know the rules of chess, but I wouldn’t bother to read either of them.  ↩
  2. The Presidential inauguration wasn’t switched to January until 1937.  ↩
  3. Arguments over whether light is a wave or a particle don’t call into question whether there is such a thing as light. Honestly, this is the sort of thing that needs to be pointed out whenever some moron says, “evolution is just a theory.” Evolution is an observable phenomenon. Darwin’s theory of natural selection is a well-founded explanation for how evolution happens. (There will be a quiz.)  ↩
  4. Tough luck.  ↩
  5. Not the Daily Bee though. One city directory notes that he worked at the Daily Drovers Journal. They might not have had a chess column.  ↩
  6. We are talking about a chess match. The Nebraskans probably anticipated no actual blood.  ↩

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