Lewis Carroll’s chess problem

13 July 2008 23:29 PM CET | Last modified: 16:39 | By Arne Moll  | Filed under: Columns | Tags: , , , ,

Lewis CarrollOne of the strangest books I’ve ever read is Bach en het Getal (Bach and the Number) by the Dutch authors Kees van Houten en Marinus Kasbergen. The main thesis of the book is that within the music of the great composer J.S. Bach, various messages, numerological clues and strange links hide just behind the surface. A recent article on the chess problem of Lewis Carroll that appeared on Susan Polgar’s weblog reminded me of this curious book on Bach.

By Arne Moll

Of course, there are countless books on numerology and esoterics. What’s the big deal? After all, who hasn’t enjoyed The Da Vinci Code or Foucault’s Pendulum? But there’s a difference. Dan Brown and Umberto Eco wrote fiction. The books on Bach and Carroll, on the other hand, are very serious indeed. In my opinion, this is surprising. I can barely understand musicians being fooled by bad research, logical fallacies, circular reasonings and wishful thinking, but chess players? Surely they would know better?

The problem

This month, on the 4th of July to be precise, Lewis Carroll fans around the world celebrate the 146th birthday of their favourite story, for that was the day on which the then thirty year old Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (the author’s real name) invented a curious story for the entertainment of three little girls, Lorina, Edith and Alice Liddell, on a boat trip near Oxford. Three years later, the story that was to make its author immortal, was published under its current name: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865). In 1871, Carroll wrote an equally brilliant sequel to the story: Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to babble at length about my love for Lewis Carroll, my visits to Oxford and Guildford or my Alice collection, however dear these subjects are to me. Chess is one of many themes in Through the Looking-Glass. In the story, Alice enters a giant chess board and meets several chess pieces. She is a White pawn herself, and she will become a Queen by the end of the story. The book even opens with a ‘chess problem’ and a real diagram. Here it is:

And so, in the chess problem, the story of the book is ‘told’ by the chess moves of ‘Red’ and ‘White’. As many have noted, the chess problem is seriously flawed from a chess player’s perspective. The problem has 10 moves, but Black and ‘Red’ moves don’t alternate, as Carroll himself admits in his preface to the 1897 edition:

The alternation of [the moves] is perhaps not so strictly observed as it might be, and the ‘castling’ of the three Queens is merely a way of saying that they entered the palace: but the ‘check’ of the White King at move 6, the capture of the Red Knight at move 7, and the final ‘checkmate’ of the Red King will be found [...] to be strictly in accordance with the laws of chess.

In earlier editions, Carroll had added a dramatis personae to the problem, in which all 32 pieces of the game were linked to characters in the story, but it created only confusion, and in 1897 (a year before his death) Carroll replaced it with the current preface and that seemed to be the end of it.

But of course, it wasn’t. Lewis Carroll and the Alice books have always been an extremely rich source for interpretation, whether sensible or not, and the chess problem proved no different. The problem was discussed in 1910 in British Chess Magazine, and in it, an entire alternative game was composed by Donald M. Liddell (not related to Alice!). The mathematician Martin Gardner dedicates several pages to the problem in his highly recommended The Annotated Alice.

Anatoly Karpov and a mysterious project

The article on Polgar’s site mentions a meeting in Lyon, France, on June 26 between former World Champion Anatoly Karpov, the artist Max Schoendorff and a Frenchman named Christophe Leroy.

Anatoly Karpov and Lewis Carroll? Okay, I figured one of these French guys probably knew Karpov personally, and invited him for dinner and a light discussion with a good glass of wine. But I did wonder what this ‘mysterious chess game’ was all about. I was in for another surprise, because it turned out Leroy has written an entire website on Carroll’s chess problem! The press release also published an English version of an article by Leroy on the problem.
Now I was genuinely fascinated: could it really be true that an entirely new light had been thrown on this 137 year old chess problem?

To start with, the website mentioned in the press release (in French) is itself rather mysterious. There’s some artwork, some photos of coloured chess pieces, and a lot of articles, press releases, and even diagrams, but no clear introduction or a project ‘mission’.
I looked around on the website a bit, and got the impression the site was made as a teaser to support a book by Leroy about the subject. But was it? The tone of voice of some articles seemed to be a bit tongue-in-cheek, as is the tone of the article mentioned in the press release. For instance, it says that Leroy is ‘bewitched’. It made me wonder if the whole project was perhaps just a joke or a parody, rather than a mystery.

I decided to send an e-mail to the English translator of the article, Sylvain Ravot, to ask what it was all about. Were these guys serious? It turned out they were. Ravot e-mailed back:

The only thing I can say in this first and quick answer is that the whole project is very serious.

That was clear enough. And the article itself, too, is rather serious:

In December 2006, 70% of the game were decoded. Convinced that this game was really poetic and deserved to be known and recognized, Christophe claimed: “I consider it as part of the ‘world literary inheritance’ with the feeling to have finally found a precious text of the English author …”

The enchanting power of numbers

Well, however charming Leroy’s enthusiasm, however well-promoted his book, however intriguing his thesis, I beg to disagree. The problem with his article and the whole project is the same problem that Bach and the Number suffers from. Both rely on weak interpretation, factual inaccuracies, wishful thinking and a highly naive belief in the power of numbers. For example, Leroy notes that 42 was Lewis Carroll’s favorite number. And he’s absolutely right, it was. But he then goes on to suggest that, among other things:

  • Carroll lived in Christ Church, Oxford, on number 6, where people could only access it through the 7th stairs, so that 6×7 = 42!

  • Carroll died in 1898 because he met Alice Liddell in 1856 (98-56=42!)
  • Carroll quit photography in 1880 because he met Alice Liddell in 1856 (80-56=24!)

And these are only three of dozens of “hidden, impressive signatures” within the chess problem. We’re actually supposed to believe Carroll choose his own year of death to give us, dear readers, a clue to the solution of his chess problem.

By the way, in Bach and the Number, similarly remarkable conclusions are reached. Bach knew his exact date of death and hid it in some of his works. The authors even calculate the exact number of days Bach has lived (23869) and derive all sorts of wonderful conclusions from it. I won’t go too deeply into all this, but interested readers can read a discussion on the book here. It reminded me a lot of some discussions on the existence of Atlantis or aliens. Like words, numbers can mean anything, as Humpty Dumpty would be the first to point out. I, for one, prefer Alice’s point of view:

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many things.”

Anyway, why should we multiply numbers in one case, and do subtraction or addition in another? But okay, perhaps these calculations were just a joke…?

Another remarkable discovery is the fact that Lewis Carroll hid his initials (LC) in the chess problem. Now why would he do that anyway? And wouldn’t he rather have put his real initials (CLD) in a problem that says something about his private life? But wait, let’s not start asking thorny questions yet. Take a look at the diagram again. Don’t we see a C-shape in the pieces on the bottom on the diagram: c1,d2, e2, f1? Never mind the C is rotated 90 degrees - we can’t be too picky in these matters. Now we’re going to find the L. That’s a little more difficult, but with enough will-power, we’ll manage. Draw a line from the White King on c6 down to the Black King on e4, then go up to the Knight on f5. c6-e4-f5, there you go! It sure looks more like a V-shape to me, but according to Leroy, it’s an L allright. And by the way, that pawn on d2, that’s Alice, right? Well, notice she’s on the fourth (d) file, on the second rank. 4 and 2, makes 42, you see?
(Apparently, sometimes we shouldn’t multiply or subtract numbers, but just put them behind each other, and the meaning will magically appear!)

The message

So what is the meaning, this hidden message of Carroll? The article says:

After many unsuccessful studies, everything appeared clear overnight: Christophe [Leroy] understood that each piece was actually a living person during Carroll's life.

Leroy then goes on to link not only Alice to the White Pawn on d2 (which is correct), but the White Knight to “a messenger sent by Lewis Carroll, trying to become Alice's dearest knight”, the White King to Alice’s father, the White Queen to Alice’s mother, and the Red Queen to nobody else but Queen Victoria. Oh, and the Red Knight embodies Charles Dodgson. (Note that Leroy mixes Carroll and Dodgson all the time, without explaining why.)

Leroy assumes (as many have done before him) that Carroll wanted to marry young Alice and proposed to her or her parents. In recent years, however, this theory has become under a heavy cloud. Leroy doesn’t seem to know this, and is happy to use the old assumption for his own theory:

Indeed, this sacrifice (he is taken by the white Knight: his double) permits him to do another proposal but with new clothes … White clothes, symbol of marriage …

So, Carroll hid the fact that he proposed to Alice within the problem. He may never have written anything about it in any of his thousands of letters, or in his books, or even in his diaries, but, by God, did he make it crystal clear in his nonsense problem!

Unfotunately, and needless to say, the whole ‘identification’ is flawed. For one, Carroll intended himself to be the White Knight, not the Red one, as was proven by Jeffrey Stern in 1990 ["Carroll Indentifies Himself At Last", Jabberwocky Summer/Autumn 1990]. What Queen Victoria has to do with all this, is utterly unclear.

All sorts of problems
Enough already! The article suffers from more general problems than the ones I mentioned above. Since we’re still assuming the theory is meant to be scientific or at least scholarly, here are a few of the most obvious questions that come to mind:

  • Can the theory be falsified? Since neither Carroll nor anyone else ever mentioned a possible hidden solution, by what criteria could we ever say, ‘okay, this definitely disproves the theory’?

  • Can the theory be tested?
  • Can the theory be accepted by someone who disagrees over the fact (such as that Carroll proposed to Alice)? Or does it take ‘faith’?
  • Why doesn’t Occam’s Razor apply to the theory?
  • Is there a method by which we can reproduce the ‘message’ or ‘meaning’ of the chess problem? Or was the solution found by intuition only?
  • What does it mean that by 2006, “70% of the game was decoded”? Which 70%? And what was the other 30%? How was the final 30% found? What, in fact, is the code of the game exactly?

Finally, and most importantly, the theory totally lacks facts to back it up. Carroll never wrote about a possible hidden message, not did Alice herself or anyone else. Also, as the ‘dramatis personae’ from earlier editions shows, Carroll originally intended charcters from the book to resprest the pieces in the problem, not real life persons. As I wrote to Sylvain Ravot:

In my opinion, this fact alone disproves the theory of mr. Leroy, unless he can actually show that Carroll wrote it as a ‘decoy’ to distract attention from the ‘real meaning’.

So far, I have not received an answer.

This can only mean one thing: the project is a joke after all. It has to be. No chess player (and mr. Leroy is a 2200 player who plays for several French clubs) could ever believe this theory. It’s a charming, innocent joke, an artistic hoax in the spirit of the great dadaist Marcel Duchamp, who was also a chess player. Let’s hope it is. I leave it to the readers to decide whether they like the joke.

Alice LiddellYes, Carroll liked to invent puzzles, but he was not a cryptologist. Yes, he liked riddles, but he was not obsessed with it. He probably was something of a chess enthusiast, but he didn’t know much about the game. Yes, he was a romantic, and he was fascinated by young Alice Liddell, but he didn’t leave a desperate secret message of failed marriage and love for her in a chess problem. And Christopher Leroy and Sylvain Ravot must surely know this.

What if their not joking, though? We’ll be sure to hear more of it. Lack of evidence has never stopped astrologists, Atlantis mysticists or people who believe aliens control the U.S. government. And a book that claims Bach was even more obsessed by numbers than by fugues, can even be found in the best music store in The Netherlands, on the same shelf as the highly serious Interpreting Bach on the Keyboard by Paul Badura Skoda.

But serious interpretations will always be less popular than mysterious ones.


14 Responses to “Lewis Carroll’s chess problem”

  1. Robert on 14 July 2008 13:42 PM

    Very interesting and stimulating read. Thank you.

  2. Eric on 15 July 2008 9:37 AM

    The L and the C hidden in the chess diagram of course refer to Christophe Leroy himself!

  3. arne on 16 July 2008 10:59 AM

    Well, Eric, who knows. I also considered the possibility that Leroy himself somehow played a role in the ’solution’: after all, Le roy means The King, the most important piece in chess! What does that tell you? Besides, consider the following strange coincidence: take L of Le and R of Roy. Notice that L is the 12th letter of the alphabet, and R the 18th. 12+18=30 but since there are two Kings in chess, we have to do (2×12)+18. And lo and behold, that makes 42 ;-)

  4. Eric on 16 July 2008 11:02 AM

    And despite this abundance of evidence, you’re still sceptical? You just don’t *want* to be convinced, do you?

  5. Ron on 20 July 2008 0:56 AM

    Once upon a time I did some physics research. I plotted my data using a polynomial with 13 coefficients, that fitted really perfectly to the data. Eureka?! But my professor said: “Using that kind of functions, you could fit an elephant”. And that is just what Van Houten c.s. are doing.

  6. Sylvain Ravot on 26 July 2008 18:12 PM

    We wrote an answer in French on July 18th. We have finished the translation today.
    Therefore one will find our answer here :

  7. arne on 27 July 2008 1:14 AM

    Dear Sylvain and Christophe,

    Thank you for your answer. I will briefly respond to the points you raise:

    ad.2 It’s ironic that in answering my question about proof, you come up with statements that absolutely cannot be proven! For instance, you say: “Carroll wanted to give as few hints as possible” - how do you know this? And how do you know this is “very important”? Where did you get this idea? Also, how do you know the chess problem “necessarily recalls his famous diaries and especially the ones in which pages were cut by his niece”? These are just your speculations, based on far-fetched numerological deductions - it has nothing to do with proof of any kind.

    ad.3 It seems you don’t make any distinction at all between the fictional Alice and the real-life person Alice Liddell. This is a very common mistake in interpreting literature, but surely you’re aware of the difference. When Carroll is referring to the pawn on d2 as Alice, he means, of course, the Alice from the book (who is blond, and has long hair), and not Alice Liddell (who had dark, short hair). When you ask “who are the other pieces” you’re already making the assumption that these pieces have to represent real-life person, while in fact it’s much more natural to assume these pieces represent characters from the book.

    ad.4 The same applies to your point about the shop, the railroad, etc. Where did you get the idea that these must refer to real-life events, when it’s much more logical to assume they refer to events that happen in the story? And anyway, if these ‘annotations’ do refer to actual real-life events, what are we to make of the mention of Humpty-Dumpty and the ‘coronation’? Did the real Alice Liddell meet some real Humpty Dumpty? Was she crowned queen? You’ll probably reply that we must interpret some events symbolic, and others not. But how can we decide which ones to interpret literally, and which ones as symbolic?

    ad.5 I’m glad you don’t believe that Carroll arranged his own death 42 years after meeting Alice Liddell. However, your question “how can it be chance” supposes that it’s impossible that coincidences exist. Of course they exist. That’s why they’re called coincidences. The question is not whether coincidences exist, but whether there’s a pattern that connect the coincidences. In your theory, there is not. In once case, we have to add all the numbers to get to 42, in another, we have to multiply them, and in yet another, we add them again, though God knows why, but only up to a certain move, to get to 42. This is sloppy logic at best, and as we agree Carroll was not sloppy, certainly not in applying logic, it’s hardly likely that he intended to code his ‘message’ in this way.

    ad.6 You ask me if I noticed that the fact that Alice and the Red knight meet off the board, and that this means “the end of the adult-child relationship between Alice and Charles”. You have definitely lost me here. What does ‘meeting off the board’ mean, and what exactly does the ‘end of the adult-child relationship’ refer to?

    ad.7 What do you mean by “the white rook is always observed by the white queen” and “that both knights are always watched by the white queen”? From a chess point of view, it’s true that on c1 and c4, the white queen ‘watches’ the rook on f1, but it then moves to c5, where it definitely doesn’t ‘watch’ the rook anymore, and it’s also not watching both knights, since, for instance, from c1 the queen doesn’t ‘watch’ the squares f5 and g8 at all. Anyway, even this was the case, what would this mean? Why would it matter?
    More importantly, the book certainly doesn’t end with the question ‘who was the red King?’ This is just a huge error in understanding. It ends with the question (to the reader) who it was that dreamed it all. While you are questioning the identity of the red king, a rather trivial question in my opinion, Carroll ask us to ponder the philosophical implications of what we perceive as ‘reality’. Carroll the author is interested in metaphysics, not in giving clues about his private life.

    ad.8 It is not relevant what is written in “history books”, since the only important things here are really facts and evidence. And this is where you simply have not done your homework. History comes only after the facts. The difference with Kasparov’s point of view, by the way, is obvious: Kasparov ignores many facts in favor of his own interpretation, whereas good historians want to create history by first analysing and discovering facts, and only then by interpreting them. Many books have been written about Carroll, and you cannot say that one book is wrong and another is right if you’re not prepared to look at all the facts. And these facts are not to be found in Carroll’s fiction, but in his non-fiction, such as his diaries or his letters, and in letters and memoires by others. Have you read them? Then you will know there is absolutely no evidence at all that Dodgson ever wanted to propose to Alice. On the contrary, there is much evidence that he didn’t really like Alice at the time he broke with the Liddells. It would be too much to go into this deeply, but I refer you to Karoline Leach’s excellent book ‘In the Shadow of the Dreamchild’ for the facts. Anyway, if you’re ignoring this book and others, and only focus on books that offer wild, unsubstantiated speculations, you’re sure to find what you want.

    ad.11 The problem with decoys is that they are impossible to disprove. Therefore, it doesn’t make sense to speculate about it. You cannot just ignore the fact that Carroll has already spelled out the ‘interpretation’ of the chess problem for everyone to see just because it doesn’t fit your theory. And how do you know Carroll ‘wanted to make the problem mysterious’? You can’t just assume this and move on.

    A final point that you have not addressed in your reply is the question what it all means. What IS the message Carroll has hidden in the problem? What does it all lead to? What is the ‘key’ of the chess problem? What is it that Carroll wanted us to know, but could only tell us in the most cryptical way thinkable? That he proposed to Alice? But why would he want his readers to know this? After all, if your theory is correct that he had written this in his lost diaires, there would have been no need to put it in a puzzle. Readers of later generations could have simply looked it up in his diaires. The fact that some pages are cut from his diary after his death in fact makes your theory weak, since Carroll obviously was not aware of this while he was alive. This leads me to the ironic conclusion that if Carroll had invented the problem after his death, I think you would have a much stronger case than you have now.

    Best regards,

  8. Sylvain Ravot on 27 July 2008 23:53 PM


    I sent my answer directly to Arne, but if some readers are interested :

    July 27th 2008

    Dear Arne,

    Thanks for your answer. Your position did almost not move since our answer. And this answer was too quick (about 5 hours): you did probably not take the time to play the game, sevral times, trying to have different viewpoints, trying to enter inside, to come closer to the author’s intentions. Apprently you don’t want it! And as we indicated in our answer, somebody who doesn’t really want to immerse oneself in this game has no chance to understand it. It’s one of the reasons which made this game mysterious for so long.

    Christophe is currently promoting chess 60 km far from Lyon. This added to the fact that in my opinion you have totally opposed viewpoints, leads me to decide to answer (on my own behalf).

    I think I have now understood why you systematically challenges our statements and explanations!

    In my opinion you consider this problem like a mathematics or logic problem. I think you mix Charles L. Dodgson and Lewis Carroll. You will probably answer me that it’s the same person! It’s obvious but I feel that you make the mistake to forget that he had 2 very different personalities! Dodgson the mathematics professor, neat, Deacon, politically correct, etc. Carroll the author of 2 best sellers among the most whacky, friend of children because getting down to their level, inventing games for them, always in the imaginary, etc. Of course sometimes a personality went into the other but I believe it was quite rare and generally speaking one could say from which personality came an action.

    And in my mind the main mistake you make is to believe that it’s Dodgson who invented the chess game whereas it’s Carroll. Therefore this is not a mathematics or logic problem that one could solve with a scientific or mathematical method, but a literary work, poetic, symbolic, where logic is sometimes hidden. My studies were scientific but I am convinced that it’s impossible to find the sense of this game and to understand its messages searching scientifically (like some people did, Le Lyonnais for instance).
    Christophe is more like Carroll than Dodgson, he is very creative. One just has to look at the way he works: he achieves to treat quantity of information almost without any order nor method. Would he work scientifically, his works would be in general more precise but he would only have the time to do half of it! The choice is easy: it’s better (in this job!) to work twice as much, even if it’s a little less precise. But I get lost!
    So, Christophe is very creative and you seem to be very scientific: it’s understandable that the communication is difficult!

    What is the conclusion of this first part? In order to understand the chess game, at least two conditions are needed. The first: to be longing to search, understand, enter inside it. The second: to do it with an imaginative, literary and not scientific spirit.

    It seemed paramount to me to bring up this point.
    Now I will try to answer some questions.

    How do we know that Carroll wanted to give as few hints as possible?
    Using the fact that the game stayed totally unexplained during more than 130 years! Even if it’s not a satisfactory deduction for a scientist.

    Why do we say that what is written in the preface is very important?
    When we read this preface we understand clearly that Lewis Carroll, 25 years after the 1st publication of the book, felt it was necessary to make things clearer about the chess game! Reading this preface like if nothing happens and missing this major clue is a serious mistake.

    Why the chess problem recalls the missing diaries?
    It’s a little complicated. But as this game is like a letter let by the author, in an encrypted way, one can make the link with the missing diaries and cut pages. Of course the pages were cut after his death, so he didn’t want that and didn’t know that, but these pages may contained harmful elements for the Dodgson family, reason for which pages would have been cut. Moreover, it’s possible that Dodgson himself intended the disappearance of diaries 1, 3, 6 and 7 in his will. About this subject, it’s true that these are assumptions. This subject may become clearer in the future, in the light of new facts.

    Why thinking that pieces represent real-life persons?
    If you don’t see the link between the Alice of the book and Alice Liddell, there is a problem! Do you know that Alice’s adventures in wonderland was inspired by Alice Liddell?! But that’s enough jokes.
    Pieces represent characters of the book, that’s exact. But all is connected: pieces are connected to characters and pieces represent real-life persons. Then in a way one can also says that characters represent real-life persons.
    Alice of the book represents Alice Liddell. ‘Represents’ doesn’t mean that Alice’s real life is related and that she has therefore to have dark and short hairs!! It’s literature, with metaphors, symbols, representations. Thus for example, the fact that Alice becomes a Queen symbolizes the fact that she becomes a woman, etc. For details, I invite you to look at the book.

    The difficult thing is actually to sort the book’s elements which represent real events and which are purely fictional, because it’s a mix of the two. It’s a mistake to believe that the book is either fictional, or not fictional. Fortunately literature is more complicated than that!

    About coincidences and ways to reach 42.
    Yes, of course coincidences exist. If there would have been only 4 or 5 coincidences in all in this chess game, we could have thought that it was actually chance. The problem is that when it reaches 15, 20, 25 coincidences, it has absolutely nothing to do with chance anymore!
    You consider as sloppy logic the fact of sometimes adding to reach 42, sometimes multiplying, using several different ways, etc. In fact it’s a serious mistake to think that Carroll would and could hide his favorite number always the same way! Again it’s not a mathematics problem on additions or multiplications or anything else, it’s a literary message, it heightens a lot the field of possibilities.

    About the meeting off the board between Alice and the red Knight.
    The fact that you got definitely lost here points to the distance you are from beginning to understand this game. It’s one of the main codes. I invite you to read again the paragraph 4.8 of this document:
    and to look again at the diagram. One of the most poetic signatures of literature …

    About pieces who watch themselves.
    ‘Always’ didn’t mean during all the game… The white Queen watches the white Rook (which means that Mrs Liddell watches the Victorian society) from c1, c4, f8 (indirectly) and at the end from a6, which is 4 squares out of 6 where she moves. And she watches one Knight or the other, or both, several times: c4, c5, f8 (both), c8 (both), which is again 4 squares out of 6 (Mrs Liddell keeps an eye on Carroll messengers, and we know that a messenger represents the person sending the message, therefore it’s like if she kept Carroll himself under surveillance).

    About the book’s end.
    You are right, we were a move ahead! The book ends actually with the question who it was that dreamed it all. Alice thinks that it must be either her or the red King. Let us let the reader think about it. But the identity of the red King is, on the contrary, a major question! And it’s one of the rare hints let by Carroll.
    Moreover I don’t doubt that Carroll achieved at the same time to let philosophical questions dealing with the tale and at the same time to do the link with the chess game.

    About Christophe’s references related to the facts.
    As you indicate, a good historian creates history by facts and only then by interpretation. If History books we spoke were written by good historians, everything is going well. Concerning Christophe’s sources, he can indicate them to you in details. But I know that one of his main references is « Lewis Carroll: a biography » by Morton Cohen, which he read again before writing his book; and at the beginning it was an exhibition from the NOAO organization (2 years of work, based on numerous books).
    Nevertheless we will order the K. Leach very soon.

    What is the message that Carroll hid in this problem?
    It’s a very scientifical approach to think that there must be a message in particular that Carroll wanted to pass on with this chess game. Knowing the way he insists heavily on moves 6 and 7, one could actually imagine that it’s Christophe’s conclusion, the proposal. But I think that Carroll did not necessarily want to pass on only one message, and that we can hardly summarize this game because it’s like a big letter, so containing several messages. I think as well that everybody can make his own idea about these messages, after having understood the chess game.
    This leads me directly to the fact that we feel that very interesting things will again happen next years, in particular with the opening of the debate to the English-speaking world, partially thanks to your contributions.

    I take advantage of it to indicate the link of our new page:

    To end.
    We agree well on the fact that Lewis Carroll was very concerned about details. We have difficulties to imagine him choosing the moves of this game randomly, don’t you? Doesn’t it disturb you that the alternation white/black is not respected? That the pawn doesn’t promote immediately in Queen? That the white King stays in check during 2 moves? Simply nonsense for you? It’s true that it’s easier to conclude this, like quantity of persons did during 128 years …

    Best regards,
    Sylvain Ravot

    P.S. Tomorrow I am lucky to go to play an international tournament of one week. So see you in August.

  9. Sylvain Ravot on 27 July 2008 23:54 PM


    I sent my answer directly to Arne but I tried to post it too. I am not sure it worked, so here is the link to find it :

    Best regards,

  10. arne on 29 July 2008 20:30 PM

    Hi Sylvain,

    Thanks for your reply. I am glad you now say that the ’solution’ to the chess problem is mostly artistic, rather than scientific. This is in fact what I tried, perhaps not entirely fair, to interpret your theory as a ‘hoax’ or an artistic joke in the spirit of M. Duchamp. I fully accept this, and if that’s all there is to say about it, then you have my blessings.

    But somehow I’m not convinced yet. What still makes me wonder is if you actually believe that Carroll (or let’s call him Dodgson, after all the problem was composed by a real person, in real time) did in fact had a clear-cut ‘hidden message’ in mind - with all the 42-references, the allusions to the Liddell family and Queen Victoria, and a purpose behind every move in the problem? Did he or did he not deliberately put those into it? Or did he in a way create an intuitive problem, a sort of ‘empty canvas’ where things simply seem to ‘emerge’ without any clear purpose by its creator, but perhaps perceptible to someone who also likes to use his creativity or intuition (such as you)? You seem to imply both at the same time, and that’s why your explanation doesn’t convince me (yet). It reminds me of people who say that religion is not science, but still make real claims about real events that occured in real time (such as miracles performed by saints.) To say that Carroll and Dodgson are not the same person is really too easy - everything that was written by Carroll was also written by Dodgson. Surely you’ll agree there’s no way to escape this fact.

    So far, you’ve suggested that you do think that Dodgson wanted to hint in this problem to some ‘events’ that had to do with the Liddell family, and that he also wanted to put all those 42-references in the problem. If this is indeed the case, then your approach is not art alone, but also science, I’m afraid. To repeat, you’re making real claims about a real person (Dodgson) inventing a real chess problem. You cannot hide behind an ‘it’s only art!’ defence if you’re also suggesting that you’ve discovered something real about Lewis Carroll and the way we ought to see him.

    Well, let me treat your theory seriously, then. Perhaps not scientific, but at least with common sense. Where to start?

    The problems I have with your approach manifest themselves on various levels.

    It is easiest to show this for the known facts about Charles Dodgson and Alice Liddell. You seem to have drawn your biographic information of Dodgson mainly from Morton Cohen’s 1996 biography. Since Cohen wrote his biography, however, important evidence has appeared about the Alice-Dodgson relationship. Significantly, it makes it highly unlikely that Dodgson was (sexually) ‘interested’ in ‘little girls’ in general, and Alice Liddell in particular, except as a model for his photography and, in Alice’s case, as the heroine of his stories. In fact, there is some evidence that Dodgson was more interested in Alice’s older sister, Lorina, or, some say, even in her mother, Mrs. Liddell. You can discover many of these facts when you read Lewis Carroll’s letters and diaries, and also the book ‘In the Shadow of the Dreamchild’ by Karoline Leach. Perhaps you will not agree with all Leach is claiming, but you cannot simply declare that you’re going to rely on Cohen without knowing all the available facts.

    In this reply I want to focus on another, less easy to explain, but more fundamental type of problem in your reasoning. This is about the fact that the chess problem contains any hidden messages at all.

    In order to demonstrate the fallacy of your hypothesis, let’s assume for argument’s sake that what you’re saying is absolutely correct: let’s assume Carroll actually intended to hide a message in the chess problem. What follows from this?

    The first thing to note is that you say that he didn’t want the message to be decoded too easily. The first question you have to ask is: why? However, you do not answer this obvious question - which, in my opinion, is a sign of weakness.

    Another question that you don’t answer is: why did he only give us ‘clues’ more than 35 years after the first publication of the problem? Why did he not leave any hints (if you want to call his 1896 preface a ‘hint’, that is) before that time, if he was so concerned in passing on a ‘hidden message’ for readers of the future? It’s a highly problematic issue, but you seem to ignore it happily.

    Another problem is you say he invented the ‘dramatis personae’ in the first editions of ‘Through the Looking-Glass’ as a decoy. This was actually a joke of mine since it is what many believers in conspiracy-theories claim when they are confronted with evidence that directly contradicts their claims. The big advantage is that this argument trumps any counter-arguments. It’s just too easy.
    Anyway, you seem to think it was true. So, according to you he deliberately and cleverly linked all characters from the book to the pieces in the chess problem in order to make the problem more difficult to decode.
    Let’s for a moment consider the ‘decoy’ theory is true. In itself, this would already be a very impressive achievement by Carroll. You have to admit he could easily have made the ‘dramatis personae’ casually, sloppy - after all it was only a decoy! - but in fact we know that the decoy (the dramatis personae) , too, makes sense in itself. We then need to stress Carroll’s extraordinary achievement in creating a chess problem that works on two completely different, not-related levels at least: the level of the ‘dramatis personae’, and on the level of the message you claim to have decoded.
    In itself, this is already such a formidable job that it may well be compared to the famous ‘Babson-task’, the most difficult chess problem of all time. (And I have even ignored the amazing feat that he also inserted his own initials in the problem!)

    Let’s also assume that what you say is true about Carroll being very ‘concerned about details, especially the details of the chess problem. From this it follows that all pieces and their arrangements in the problem must have been equally important to Carroll - because otherwise the ‘message’ wouldn’t make sense and could never be decoded, however hard one was willing to look. Nevertheless, the first thing that strikes the observer who looks at the original diagram, is the poor quality of the diagram and the pieces. Indeed, the website of the Lewis Carroll Society ( says this about the chess problem:

    “Despite Lewis Carroll’s concern for the quality of his books, the chess diagram and moves are not well printed, and the pieces standing on black squares are particularly difficult to distinguish. In the first reprint, 12th thousand, some of the page numbers corresponding to the moves have become faint. And in the 25th thousand (1872), the white kings disappeared from the diagram without Lewis Carroll or anyone else noticing. Lewis Carroll finally pointed out the omission in August 1878 (the 42nd thousand) (…)”

    If what you say is true and Carroll was so concerned about details, and if the message was so important - then how is it possible that he didn’t notice such obvious omissions as the White king missing for 6 whole years? This is very hard to imagine indeed. Isn’t it easier to imagine that he didn’t care much about the chess problem, and that he had only put it in as yet another nonsense thing? It would at least explain why the moves do not alternate properly, why checks are ignored, etc. Anyway, again, Occam’s razor applies.

    Let’s now turn to the infamous ‘coincidences’ about the number 42. This deserves some elaboration.

    Now, either all these ‘references’ in the chess problem to 42 are pure coincidences, or they were actually intended by the author. I believe I’m correct when I say that you believe that he did. Now, the first question we have to answer is, how do we define whether something is a ‘coincidence’ or not? Since you claim that these references *cannot* be coincidences, you will need to give an estimation as to the probability of all these references occurring by *chance*. However, hou have not done this. You merely claim it’s impossible without backing it up.

    But perhaps we need not do this. There’s another option: it’s also possible 42 simply happens to be a number that can easily be found anywhere you want. Let’s consider this for a while. Certain things start to make sense: 42 has no less than four factors (other than 1) below 10 (2,3,6 and 7), whereas most numbers below, say, 64 (a nice number in chess), have two or three factors below 10 (such as 32: it has factors 2,4 and 8), or zero (such as 23 or any other prime). It’s also important to note that 42 has both odd and even factors.

    You seem to think that all these ‘hints’ at 42 in the chess problem are due to Carroll’s inventiveness, while in fact it is the other way around: you have simply discovered that the number 42 can easily be found when you start puzzling with numbers below 10. In fact, the reason why Carroll chose 42 as his ‘favourite number’ in the first place is probably because of its versatility. To ram the point home: the fact that the number 42 pops up so often when you’re dealing with numbers below 10 (which is always the case on a chessboard!), is simply a fact of mathematical nature, and has nothing to do with Carroll’s (or your) cleverness. Your theory just shows you’ve got cause and effect hopelessly confused. It’s not that Carroll inserted 42 everywhere - it’s the other way around: Carroll liked 42 because it can be found so easily everywhere!
    By the way, Wikipedia even notes that it’s possible to make a 3×3x3 ‘magic cube’ from the number 42.
    Just to show you how easy it really is to ‘get to 42′, let me give you an example: the day on which Dodgson broke with the Liddells is June 27, 1863 (27/6/63). Now, in order to get to 42, all we need to do is: 63-(27-6)=42. Now I ask you, how can that be a coincidence?!)

    And as if that’s not enough, remember, in your reasoning, if we find 24, that also counts. Or if we find 2 and 4, say, in a chess coordinate, or as a combination of chess two pieces, it also counts. Or 6 and 7 (6×7). Or 21 and 2 (21×2). Or 14 and 3 (14×3). Even more conveniently, it’s also fine if we find 5 (=4 from Black’s point of view!) and 7 (=2 from Black’s point of view). Also, we can use the numbers 1 (the value of a pawn, i.e. Alice) and 10 (the value of a Queen, i.e. Alice) to do addition if we want. If we like, we can also, of course, use 8 (Rook+Knight), or 9 (Rook+Knight+Pawn). So now we conveniently have the numbers 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10 to calculate with! Of course, many fascinating things can be done with these numbers…

    Anyway, let’s forget all that for a moment. Let’s forget that 42 may be a special number by nature, and let’s assume it’s not so easy to find other numbers inside the chess problems. Suppose we want to prove that, for example, the number 32 (1832 is the birth year of Charles Dodgson) does NOT play an important role in the problem, because that role is reserved for 42. Would we succeed?

    I don’t think we would. You see, Carroll, according you, is both the Red and the White Knight, in alternate forms. Knights are worth 3 pawns, but there are 2 knights, so 3 and 2 makes 32!
    Also, if we add the value of all the pieces in the beginning position of the problem, we get Queen (10) + Queen (10) + Rook (5) + Knight (3) + Knight (3) + pawn (1) = 32!
    And what about the fact that the White Knight is on the f-file (6th), on the 5th row, the Red Knight is on the g-file (7th), on the 8th rank, and that Alice is on the d-file (4th) on the 2nd row? Well, what do you get when you do 6+5+7+8+4+2? That’s right: 32!
    And what about the fact that in chess there are 32 pieces? Surely ‘just a coincidence?’

    Well, I found these ‘coincidences’ after 5 minutes of searching with ‘imaginative, literary and not scientific spirit’. Imagine what I could find in half a year! And it probably can be done with any other number that as a few convenient factors. Would you like to try it? It’s quite fun until it becomes boring. It also proves absolutely nothing, and, in my opinion, has nothing to do with art or creativity - I have a higher regard of those, and I hope you agree with me.

    The most important question that you need to address is: did Carroll or did he not *deliberately* put all these 42-clues into the chess problem? Do you still believe this?
    Or did he, perhaps, intend the number 32 to be inserted into the problem? How can you prove that you’re right and I’m wrong? The answer: you can’t. And this is exactly my problem with your ’solution’. It’s a classic case of ‘look and ye shall find’: I’m sure if I looked a little longer, perhaps in “intense periods of searches” as you say mr. Leroy did, I could find tens or even hundreds of ‘references’ to 32. I’m sure it’s a fun occupation, but what’s the point? It doesn’t say anything about what Carroll intended at all. You’re not finding any clues, you’re finding what you’re looking for.

    Now, what’s more likely: that Carroll composed a truly astonishing chess problem with all these hints to 42 in it, or that 42 is simply a number that can be found pretty much anywhere you want?

    Finally, I think I will leave aside your strange suggestions that the Red Queen stands for Queen Victoria, the White King stands for Henry Liddell, the White Rook stands for a prison in London (why London?). On what basis do you conclude all this? I could just as well say that they stand for Mrs. Liddell, Dodgson’s father and the tower of Christ Church, and it would be equally nonsensical (in fact, I think, less so.)

    Really, Sylvain, let’s face it: all this has absolutely nothing to do with science. It’s just common sense.

    Best regards,

  11. Johny on 22 September 2008 16:35 PM

    The ‘discovery’ of Ravot and Leroy is very similar to the following recent news item about a ‘hidden message’ in a dictorionary:

    This event led to the discovery of consecutive words whose dictionary meanings formed an incredible message that reads like a timeline of man and earth.”
    “When I realized what I had discovered and what the message was revealing I was in a dazed shock,” said Williams. “Inside the Divine Pattern reveals many intriguing patterns discovered through years of studies on ancient and modern people, places, and events,” added Williams. A decade long journey has led the author to many discoveries authenticated jointly by today’s scientists and yesteryear’s philosophers.
    Studies of specific numbers and letters have led Williams to, “unusual findings hidden within lost knowledge and ancient mysteries.” The author added, “Inside the Divine Pattern helps to uncover the meaning of the mysterious number phenomena known as 11:11, and the significant new understandings of science’s eleven-dimension universe. The book gives the reader a new understanding of life at this significant time in our history.”

    Read the whole article here:

  12. Sylvain Ravot on 25 September 2008 19:52 PM

    I am sorry but you really can’t compare with that !!

  13. arne on 26 September 2008 9:25 AM

    Perhaps not by subject, Sylvain, but I was amazed by the similarity of style in presenting the ‘discovery’. In this case I think Johny has a real point.
    Words like “incredible message”, “intriguing patterns discovered through years of studies”, “a decade long journey”, “studies of specific numbers” etc., seem to come straight from your own article!
    Apparently, such ’spectacular’ discoveries can still have a lot in common, even when they are about completely different topics. (Actually, this was one of my points by making a comparison with the Bach book.)

  14. Worldtimer C1 on 23 March 2009 17:11 PM

    Is there a way to become a content writer for the site?