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Sunday, January 01, 2006


Amongst other London chess clubs, one which should not be overlooked is the Ladies' Chess Club in Tottenham Court Road. It was founded early in 1895, and is now in a most flourishing condition. It has a long roll of members, and puts a team into the C division of the League competition. It also sends lady players to do battle against the strongest clubs, and, indeed, it is not afraid even to meet the "old City" itself in battle-array, though certain restrictions have to be laid down as to the strength of the opposing team. Not content with having a chess club all to themselves, the ladies conceived the idea of holding an international tournament confined to their own sex. The idea "caught on," as the Americans say, and the result was the holding of the Jubilee International Chess Tournament for Ladies in London, from June 23 to July 5, 1897. No fewer than twenty ladies took part in the play, representing various nationalities, the first prize being won by Miss Rudge, the second by Mrs. Fagan and the third by Miss Thorold.

To turn to another development of the chess club, it will be news no doubt, to many, that in London there are some fairly strong chess clubs entirely composed of youths under twenty-one years of age. For the most part they are real working London boys, belonging to the Federation of Boys' Clubs, most of which have a chess club attached. The strongest of these is the Willis Street (Poplar) Club, its members consisting entirely of East London working lads. This club was started in 1887 by Mr. H. Rodney, who had the assistance of the brother of Mr. W. M. Gattle, the well-known chess expert of the St. George's Chess Club. This gentleman took great pleasure in teaching the boys chess, and soon many of them began to show no little skill at the game. As a result, Willis Street Club won the cup of the Federation of London Boys' Clubs in 1803-4-5; it stood out in 1896, but won it again in 1897. It also won in the individual competition in 1893-4-5-6; and very proud are the boys of their chess trophies--several handsome silver cups arranged at one end of their chess room. So strong did the lads seem that Mr. Rodney entered them in 1893 for the C division of the League competition, and a team of the boys have continued to play regularly in that division since that date, scoring about fifty per cent. of wins. A very interesting match was played early in the present season, the competitors on one side being members of the Public Record Office Chess Club, chiefly University graduates, and on the other, genuine London working boys from sixteen to nineteen years of age belonging to the Willis Street Club. To their huge delight, and the great satisfaction of their instructors, the lads won handsomely.

There is always a great deal of excitement over a chess match, though it is kept so well control that the careless spectator would see no evidence of it. But the more experienced knows what to look for. Prospects of victory will be indicated by expressions of seraphic content, while rumpled hair and dejected looks foretell the imminence of disaster. Perhaps a brief description of one of these unemotional contests will be of interest to those whose knowledge of the game is confined to drawing-room play. As the City of London is the great fighting club, let us deal with one of its chief matches, as for instance its annual fight against North London, thirty players a side.

It is a fine sight to see the room set out for play. There are rows of tables, and at regular intervals the big boards with men not only large but loaded with lead to prevent them tumbling over at every impetuous movement. At the side of each board is the clock for checking the time, and two sheets of foolscap paper ruled for recording the game, the names of the players, the particular match, the date and the place of meeting. On each board reposes a piece of cardboard bearing the number of the board. The two secretaries have already paired their men. This is done by each secretary arranging his men in order of strength, as far as he can judge; the two lists are then exchanged, and No. 1 on the one side plays No. 1 on the other, and so on.

Before the match begins, the one person of any real importance (with all due deference to individual claims) is the home secretary, which in chess language means the secretary of the club where the match is played. For the "City" Mr. J. Walter Russell fills this honorary position, and upon him falls the somewhat difficult task of doing about twenty things at once. He has to introduce players to their opponents, give all kinds of directions, answer any number of questions, and see that press representatives have all the attention which is due their important office. And yet all these things are done well and with perfect good humor, for Mr. Russell takes the greatest possible pride in his work, and the more he can do the better pleased he seems to be.

Other preliminaries being settled, then comes the drawing for the move. The side which wins has the first move on board No. 1, and on all odd-numbered boards. There is, of course, a slight advantage in having the first move, but as fifteen players on each side have this privilege in any case, it does not much matter who wins the toss. This is just another illustration of the absolute fairness of the game.

As soon as opponents are face to face, the play begins, and the awesome silence is broken by the move of pawn or piece--often made with unnecessary noise--and by the peculiar clicking which accompanies the stopping and starting of the clocks. At first these noises are almost incessant, for, as a rule, the opening moves are played very rapidly for the sake of gaining time for the more difficult parts of the game. But play soon slows down, and brows become wrinkled as complications present themselves and combinations more or less deep are formed. Here and there is heard the aggressive word "check," sometimes almost whispered, but quite as often uttered in the most strident tones.

Then comes "first blood" in the shape of a won game--not always, as courtesy would suggest, for the visitors--and a steward rushes off to record it on the big scoring sheet. As the score on either side mounts up, interest centres on the unfinished games, and the released players crowd round to try and forecast the result.

Finally time is called, and all unfinished games are submitted to an impartial adjudicator whose verdict is final. When Mr. Blackburne is in London, he generally undertakes this office for the "City" matches, and rarely does he give a decision which can be called in question.

To be continued...


About the Author

This article by J. Arnold Green is from the journal, THE LIVING AGE (Sixth Series, Volume XVIII, April, May, June, 1898), which is in the public domain.


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