‘The Three Sailors’ Gambit’

Here are some notes from our first book club meeting. We discussed “The Three Sailors’ Gambit” by Lord Dunsany.

The story is about three sailors who succeed at chess through the use of a demonic crystal ball, which they inherited from their captain, Bill Snyth, who had sold his soul to the devil for it in exchange.

The choice of chess–a game of pure reason, pure logic, pure science–as a subject for a story about the deepest spiritual matters–the devil and eternal damnation–is ironic. In the story, the sailors even push reason and logic to limits:

“But then they [the three sailors] took to liberties such as giving their queen when playing first-class players. And in the end one day when all three were drunk they played the best player in England with only a row of pawns. They won the game all right. But the ball broke to pieces. I never smelt such a stench in all my life.”

Is is possible to win a chess game–at a high level of play no less–after giving up a queen, or with only a row of pawns? The breaking of the glass ball suggests the sailors’ ridiculous play has pushed it to its limits or even beyond; to win such a game lies at the very boundary between what is possible and impossible.

The idea of selling one’s soul to the devil is provocative and unsettling. It strikes a primal chord and imparts a sense of dread, even to modern readers who tend to be rational and unspiritual, or even atheistic, as Dunsany’s would have been, and such an idea is not easily dismissed.

The origin of the crystal is also notable. It was in Cuba, a place far away from London, where Bill met the devil and sold his soul. The remoteness of the exchange is part of what makes it possible. While such things cannot happen in London, perhaps they still could at the fringes of civilization, the reader might wonder. Perhaps there are places where spirits and religion, angels and demons, still have power.


About Joseph Burke

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