The game of chess was a major influence on Samuel Beckett’s early writings. Around the time of his 1938 novel Murphy (in which Murphy and the suicidal Mr. Endon play a crazed chess game), chess became one of Beckett’s abiding passions. He frequented Parisian cafes where the best chess players congregated, and he followed his friend Marcel Duchamp’s chess column. He also read Duchamp’s Opposition and Sister Squares Are Reconciled, his contribution to chess literature that deals primarily with the endgame.
Beckett’s Endgame makes several references to the game in the text, including the title of the play itself. The endgame is the third and last division of a chess game. During a game’s opening, strategies are set in motion by the positioning of key pieces; during the middle game, opponents organize their moves, readying for an assault on the king.
During the endgame, explains Beckett biographer Deirdre Bair, “there is either a conversion of the advantage into a win, or else an attempt to nullify the disadvantage incurred in the middle game—also in search of the win. Usually in the endgame, there are no longer enough pieces left on the board to initiate an attack upon the king. This is when both kings are free to come to the center of the board, to confront each other, seemingly uncaring, as they execute the few limited moves still possible.”
Beckett argued, according to Bair, that “once the pieces are set up on the board, any move from then on will only weaken one’s position, that strength lies only in not moving at all. . . . From the very first move, failure and loss were inevitable.”
The chess motif is introduced on page 2 of the play. Hamm says “Me to play.” The line suggests the opening of a chess match, on the analogy of ‘white to play.’ “Hamm is the king in this chess game lost from the start. He knows from the start that he is only making senseless moves. For instance, that he will not get anywhere at all with his gaff. Now at the last he’s making a few more senseless moves, as only a poor player would; a good one would have given up long ago. He’s only trying to postpone the inevitable end. Each of his motions is one of the last useless moves that delay the end. He is a poor player,” Beckett said.