United States Chess Clubs

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Sunday, January 08, 2006


Provincial chess, prior to 1887, was in a very unorganized condition. Isolated clubs flourished all over the country, but they were not much in touch one with another. Now all that is changed. Between 1888 and 1890, county associations were formed in rapid succession, and the process has gone on until there is no considerable county which does not possess its own association. Another step was taken in 1893--which seems to have been a very active year in chess matters--when the whole of the south of England became federated under the name of the Southern Counties Chess Union. The chess clubs of the north of England are also closely linked together, though they are not yet united in actual federation.

As a natural result of this county organization, the number of inter-county chess matches has greatly increased; and though they have not yet acquired the popularity of county cricket matches, they are followed with a great amount of interest. Apart from the regular twenty-a-side county matches, Surrey and Kent often settle the question of supremacy with a hundred men on each side. On these occasions the smoke--for nearly all chess-players smoke--is apt to become inconveniently thick.

Chess having advanced to a point when inter-county matches became imperative, there seemed to be no good reason why its progress should be arrested. Accordingly, in that fateful year 1893, we find the north of England in a monster match of one hundred and six a side at Birmingham. How the south, with sixty-seven of her players hailing from London and the home counties, won the match by one game is now a matter of history. The following year a return match was held in London, the south, with the advantage of playing at home, winning by a much more substantial majority--64 1/2 to 43 1/2; and now the match is looked upon as an annual fixture.

If it be wondered how anyone can win half a game at chess, it must be understood that a drawn game counts half a point to each player. Probably more drawn games are recorded in chess than in any other pastime, excepting draughts, where--given two expert players--the difficulty seems to be to produce any other result.

Notwithstanding the great chess awakening throughout the country, it has to be confessed that British chess is at present without a national association. It may be argued that so is cricket, but the cases are hardly parallel. Cricket is a peculiarly English institution, and we need no national association to help us assert our supremacy. But in chess a very different state of things exists. Americans, Germans, Frenchmen, Austrians, Hungarians and Russians can all play, and play supremely well. Hence a national organization is distinctly called for, to keep in touch with the chess life of other countries and to promote international contests.

Nowadays it is not necessary to bring the players face to face, and matches can be played between teams who may be hundreds of miles apart. Indeed, a cable match between the United Kingdom and the United States is now one of our annual fixtures. Sir George Newnes having given a valuable silver cup to be competed for year by year. The last of these matches was played on February 12 and 13, 1897, the English representatives being Messrs. Blackburne, Locock, Atkins, Lawrence, Mills, Bellingham, Blake, Jackson, Cole and Jacobs. The United States team included the young champion Pillsbury, Showalter, Delmar and seven others whose reputation is better known on the other side of the Atlantic.

The play lasted for two days; everything proceeded without a hitch, and in the end the British team won by 5 1/2 to 4 1/2. This result was eminently satisfactory, for the team was almost entirely composed of amateurs, and the selection had been subjected to much sharp criticism.

The process of conducting such a match is a very simple one. A wire connected with the cable is brought direct into the room where the players are seated. Each player declares his move as he makes it on his board, and this move is forthwith "flashed across the sea" and is made known to the opposing player, on whose board a corresponding move is made. This process goes on until all the games are finished and the match completed. Of course the moves are not sent at length, but a most ingenious code is used, by which in fact several moves can be communicated simultaneously. So rapid is the transmission of the moves that, on one occasion during the late match, not more than fifty-five seconds were necessary for cabling a move and its reply.

A similar match was played on May 31 and June 1, 1897, between five members of the British House of Commons playing in London, and a similar number of members of the U.S.A. House of Assembly playing in Washington, the result being a draw of 2 1/2 each. In this match a record of time in cable matches was established, twenty moves being cabled in twenty-one and a half minutes, one move going to and from Washington in forty seconds.

Matches are also occasionally played by telephone, and as lately as December 18 the City of London Club measured its strength in this way with that of the Yorkshire Association. One end of the telephone line was carried into their club in Nicholas Lane, the other end being at the Yorkshire headquarters in Leeds. Tossing for the move caused much amusement. "You call," said London. "Heads," came the reply from Leeds. But it was tails. "Are you quite sure?" said Leeds. "Yes; your umpire was looking," was the reply.

As the evening came on a band began playing in the vicinity of the Yorkshire club, whereupon a prompt request went over the wire from London to have the music stopped. The "City" won the match, securing three games and drawing the other five.

Of blindfold and simultaneous play we have no space to say more than a word. Mr. Blackburne will play eight fairly strong players without seeing either board or men. The moves are conveyed to him as they are made by word of mouth, and he dictates his replies. How he can carry the eight constantly changing positions in his mind without getting them hopelessly mixed is a mystery which can only be solved by those who have a like power. Simultaneous play is not so difficult to understand, and most of the masters, and many leading amateurs, too, can play from twenty to thirty games at once. But a very great mental strain is involved in the feat, as any young player can find out by attempting to carry on two games at the same time.

There are many other points of interest in connection with this most wonderful game, but even an article on chess must have its limits. Still, every writer is entitled to a last word, and ours shall be this: The difficulty of learning the game is much overrated.

One often hears the remark, "Oh, it takes a lifetime to learn chess." As a matter of fact, a lifetime is much too short to "learn" it perfectly, but perfection is happily not necessary for enjoyment in any walk of life. The moves can easily be grasped in half an hour, and after a week's practice any intelligent learner will be able to play a game good enough to afford him pleasure. He will by that time also see something of the possibilities of the game, and if he ambitious his play will improve by leaps and bounds. Countless hours of the keenest enjoyment are then in store for him, and happy indeed is the man who can find his recreation in the finest and most intellectual of all games.

For most of the data in this article, the writer is indebted to Mr. James G. Cunningham, whose fund of information on all chess matters is inexhaustible.


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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