Surrealist sportsmen

by Henry Farrell on December 11, 2003

“Eugene Volokh”: blogs on an interesting biathlon, involving both chess and boxing, two competitive endeavours that are usually pursued in isolation from each other. There’s some fictional precedent though; the eponymous hero of Maurice Richardson’s _The Exploits of Engelbrecht: Abstracted from the Chronicles of the Surrealist Sporting Club_ proves to be a dab hand at both activities. Engelbrecht is a boxer by profession, and like all Surrealist boxers, he’s a dwarf who fights clocks. Grandfather clocks to be specific (they fight dirty). In a succession of short stories, Engelbrecht also shows his prowess not only in beating clocks to a standstill, but at a variant of chess (in which the pieces are Boy Scouts and nuclear weapons), at kraken wrestling, at pike fishing, at Surrealist golf (the first hole is several thousand miles long), and at Plant Theatre. In my favourite story, Engelbrecht plays in the Earth vs. Mars rugby game; the Earth team is several thousand strong, and features such luminaries as Friedrich Engels, Origen, Nebuchadnezzar, Attila the Hun, the Venerable Bede, Luther, Ethelred the Unready, and Judas Iscariot. Heliogabalus, Bishop Berkeley and Aubrey Beardsley score for Earth; Engelbrecht wins the game at the last moment by cunningly concealing himself inside the ball.

The book came out first in 1950; I’m awaiting delivery of a first edition, and you can’t have it. Sorry. You can however, purchase the “Savoy Books”: edition, which I also own, and which is handsomely illustrated by Ronald Searle among others. You can even browse the “first chapter”: for free on their website. But you should, as they say, read the whole thing. Wonderful stuff.



Sam Dodsworth 12.11.03 at 8:47 am

It’s a nit-pick, but I think you’ll find “The Day We Played Mars” is actually about Rugby – at one point, the forwards have their sentence of death commuted to Life in the Scrum.


Henry 12.11.03 at 8:54 am

Thanks – goof corrected. And nice to see that I’m not the only Engelbrecht fan out there.


Sam Dodsworth 12.11.03 at 10:15 am

I first read it when I was twelve – the small blue paperback edition with the (I think) original illustrations. My copy’s pretty battered now, so I’ll probably be buying the new Savoy edition. I think my favorite story is the fishing one, but it’s hard to choose.

The most prominent Englebrecht fan I can think of is Michael Moorcock – he’s said favorable things about it in print several times – which may explain why Savoy are publishing it.

And on the subject of chess and boxing… I remember reading in a book of chess variants that Alan Turing and one of his friends devised a combination of chess and running. After a move, you had to get up and run around the building and your opponent had make their move by the time you got back. This added a new strategic element: if you ran fast, your opponent had less time but you’d be too fatigued to concentrate on your own move…


John Isbell 12.11.03 at 7:40 pm

I see I’ll have to read that. Thank you. For my part, I can put a brick to sleep.
I’ve played various sports, and chess is the most ruthless. I was also more exhausted after a chess match than a cross-country match.


JP 12.11.03 at 8:06 pm

I vaguely remember reading an article on a year or so ago, talking about how Lennox Lewis and the Klitschko brother he boxed recently are both very avid chess players. I believe Klitschko challenged Lewis to exactly this type of competition, but it seemed to be mostly in jest.

By the way, I don’t know that this biathlon is any more bizarre than the real life biathlon in the Winter Olympics. Skiing and shooting? Who came up with that one?


dipnut 12.11.03 at 8:54 pm

“The biathlon, which combines cross-country skiing and rifle shooting, originated in Norway as a training exercise for soldiers. The first known competition took place in 1767 between companies of guards who patrolled the border with Sweden. Late in the 19th century, local rifle and ski clubs in Norway and other Scandinavian countries practiced the sport to keep their members prepared for combat.

An early form of the biathlon, called “military ski patrol,” was a demonstration sport at the first Winter Olympics in 1924, and it was a medal sport in 1928, 1936, and 1948.”


“Skiing played an important role in military defense. Stories of ski used in military activities dates back to around 850, when a battle was fought in the northern parts of Norway between local settlers and an army division from the south. The southern army division fought on foot, and were defeated by the local settlers who fought on their skis and had undoubtedly a strong advantage due to their maneuverability and speed.

History describes many wars fought by men on skis, from the Scandinavian countries to the rough terrain in the Alps. Ski patrols were often used in reconnaissance missions, and could cover long distances in a short amount of time. A letter from the Swedish king in 1536 describes how a good ski troop was capable of covering 185 kilometers in one day.

Norwegian men on skis reconnited before the Battle of Oslo (1200). Ski troops were also used in Sweden in 1452, and from the 15th through the 17th century skis were used in warfare in Finland, Norway, Poland, Russia, and Sweden. Captain Jens Emmahausen wrote the first skiing manual for Norwegians in 1733. From 1767 there have been military ski competitions with monetary prizes. Military skiing persisted into the 20th century where snow conditions and terrain favored their use for scouts and for a sort of mounted infantry with first-strike advantage against small objectives.”


Hey, you asked!


Erik 12.29.03 at 11:44 pm

I think someone mispelled skeet shooting.

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