Mornington Crescent

And now for something completely lighthearted.

I know a lot of you have spent time in London, and are familiar with the London tube system.  And I assume that readers of this blog are cultured, thoughtful and educated people.  So I won’t bore you with a recitation of the rules of Mornington Crescent. A basic explanation is widely available.  If you’re in need of a refresher course, there are many websites you might consult.  This one, for starters.  Or, perhaps, this.

But I’ll make it easy for you:  standard-tube-mapThat’s basically all you need.

You may well disagree, but I do find it’s best if you play from memory.  I know that, officially, Americans are allowed to consult the map, provided their accents don’t suggest a Massachusetts or Vermont origin.  I just find myself too often at a disadvantage.  The Dearborn gambit, for example, essentially requires a quick Hounslow-Ealing-Gunnersbury maneuver, bound to fail if you mistake Hounslow East with Central, or leave off Ealing Common for North.  It’s worth the extra time to commit the blighter to memory.

Now, I certainly would not say that I am an advanced player, not by any means.  My current world ranking is third farchog, which isn’t half-bad for an American. But I’m a good sixty flaenau shy of argylwydd rank, more’s the pity.  I had hoped retirement would provide me with the leisure time needed to advance.  Sadly, my last two bouts have gone badly.  Last week, I fell for the Ruislip Manor gambit, an amateur move if I have to say so myself.  Then last night, I’d worked my way up from Maida Vale to Goodge Street, ready to engage in a bit of rook-forking with an opponent trapped in the Claphams, only to learn that I had inadvertently agreed to play by the 1894 Rowzleton Conventions, and I was fairly clupped in the gowers. And there you have it: femti poeen to the wide.

Mind the gap.

All right.  Mornington Crescent is one of the deepest London tube stations, accessible only via elevator, and one that’s nearly been closed on several occasions.  But it is also the name of an ancient and honorable game.  Ask one of your British friends how to play it, and they’ll put you off: ‘surely you are well familiar with it,’ or ‘the rules are easy to find. I shan’t insult you by telling you what you can more easily find on your own.’  Or they’ll say something like this:

There cannot be anyone in the civilised world who does not already know the basic rules of Mornington Crescent, so we shall not insult our readers by re-iterating them here. Suffice to say, if you have temporarily forgotten them, or if you come from, say, the uncivilised world, such as, for example, France, you will certainly pick them up as you go along. Beginners will discover that Mornington Crescent is a little like golf, a little like shove-ha’penny, quite a lot like watching your laundry in the tumble-drier, and most closely resembles feeling around in the dark for a pocketful of loose change dropped in an unlit, damp alleyway on a Saturday night after a few beers. That is to say: frustrating, hard on the right forefinger, disorienting, even more disorienting, sheer hell on the right forefinger, and frustrating… probably in that order.

The essence of the game is the strategic recitation of London Tube stops.  And whoever says ‘Mornington Crescent’ wins. But there are rules to it.  Random, confusing, ever-changing and eternally frustrating rules.  Such as:

Boxing out the F, J, O and W placings draws the partner into an elliptical progression north to south.

In a weak positional play, it is vital to consolidate an already strong outer square, i.e. Pentonville Road

The lateral shift decisively breaks opponents horizontal and vertical approaches.

Which sounds even more authoritative when said in a British accent.

One theory is that Mornington Crescent was invented for the British radio comedy show, I Haven’t got a Clue, around 1972.  One claim is that Geoffrey Perkins, a contestant on that show, invented it. Perkins denies it, however, and says it was derived from a game called Finchly Central, which dates from the 1960s.  But others say it is based on games invented by Roman soldiers, bored during their occupation of Britain.

I may as well come clean: in fact, of course, the whole thing’s a put-on.  There’s no such game.  Comedians on I Haven’t got a Clue invented this exceedingly complicated and esoteric sounding game.  They would soberly recite the names of tube stations, with invented learned commentary on the stratagems being employed.  Then someone would randomly say ‘Mornington Crescent,’ and the studio audience would go wild.  That’s where it started, and that’s how it continues today.  Ask about it, and you’ll be told wildly inventive stories of its history and tactics and classic matches from the past.  And it’s all completely made up.  Perhaps the most elaborate practical joke in history.

And its flourished since the arrival of the internet.  Google Mornington Crescent and find the various websites devoted to the game, which always include a link to an on-line version you can play. Usually, their software is down, or takes forever to upload.  Or has dire warnings about damage their game can cause to your computer if you don’t download it properly.  All part of the game.

It’s really great fun.  Sort of an intellectual version of Calvinball, where you make up the rules as you go along.  I’m very fond of it.  Just bear in mind; Mornington Crescent is best approached from the Belsize Park-Chalk Farm end of the Northern Line.  But if you find yourself at King’s Cross (just two stops away, you think optimistically), remember the Victoria Paradox kicks in, and you’re going to have to work your way all the way round again, to Charing Cross and the Bakerloo line round to (at least) Willesdon Junction. Always remember: there are no easy paths to Mornington Crescent.






Leave a Reply