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Neil Brennen

Neil Brennen is Historian for the Pennsylvania State Chess Federation, and is editor of the PSCF's award winning magazine The Pennswoodpusher. He is a columnist for Correspondence Chess News. Aside from CCN, his articles on chess history have been published at The Chess Cafe, and in Quarterly for Chess History, California Chess Journal, Illinois Chess Bulletin, and other publications. Neil's first book, a biography of American master Sydney T. Sharp (1885-1953), will be published later this year by Moravian Chess.

The Light Within; Or, Let Us Now Praise A Good Man
Neil Brennen
(posted 22 February 2003)

Walter Penn Shipley: Philadelphia's Friend of Chess
By John Hilbert.
Hardcover. McFarland and Company
ISBN: 0-7864-1317-4 464pp. frontispiece,
photographs (23 glossy photographs), 246 diagrams,
bibliography, index $45 library binding (7 x 10) 2003

Author John Hilbert

In essence, all of John Hilbert's books are self-recommending. Not just for the quality of the author's research and writing, but also because they deal with subjects that cover unexplored territory in chess history. Had anyone given William Ewart Napier more than a passing glance before Hilbert's 1997 biography of the "forgotten chessmaster" was published? Or, aside from a chapter in the Arnold Denker and Larry Parr book The Bobby Fischer I Knew and Other Stories... had the colorful and criminal Norman Tweed Whitaker been profiled anywhere before the publication of Shady Side?

If Shady Side was a good book about a bad man, Hilbert's latest tome is a great book about a good man. Walter Penn Shipley has been almost entirely forgotten by the chess world since his passing in February 1942. Aside from a two page article by Andrew Soltis in the Summer 1974 issue of Overboard Chess Magazine, an article containing nearly as many errors as it does sentences, there has been next to nothing on this prominent organizer, correspondence and over the board player, chess writer, and companion to the great and near-great. And during Shipley's lifetime he was lauded for all of these accomplishments, and described as the "Dean of American Chess" by no less a figure than Hermann Helms. Hilbert, working with records, photos, and other memorabilia provided by the Shipley family, has constructed a richly textured account of not just a chess master, but a man as well.

Part of the "rich texture" described above is a discussion of Shipley's faith. Walter Penn Shipley was a life-long member of the Society of Friends, better known as the Quakers, a peace church that stresses individual efforts being put forth for the common good, and according to Hilbert a prime motivation for much of Shipley's chess activities. Hilbert's description of Friends' thought on the value of the individual is a good description of his own writings on chess history. "Friends believe that every human being is endowed with a divine spark, a Light within..." is a quotation from Friends' literature on page 11 in the book, and Hilbert follows up with his own thoughts on the subject: " In Friends thought, the Light Within endows all human life with a sacred quality..."

This respect for the "sacred quality" of a chessplayer's life is a hallmark of Hilbert's chess writing, and explains why his books are such a parade of fascinating characters. Unlike many chess writers, who view the dry technical side of the game as all-important, and who reduce our magnificent game to a list of dates and a database dump, Hilbert views the individual and his interaction with the game of chess as the important factor in his books. Under Hilbert's pen, the individual, in all his complex humanity, becomes a light, much like the lights in the following quote from the Gospel of St. Matthew: "A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid. Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works..."

Hilbert carefully prepares us for the theme of the book in the first chapter by quoting the deathbed words of Shipley's father to him: "Walter, be a good man." And the author then illustrates this theme throughout the book, for aside from some minor failings such as using his Philadelphia Inquirer chess column to promote one Philadelphia chess club above others, Shipley was a good man, the "Friend" of chess in the book's subtitle. His "Light Within" was not kept "under a bushel", but was instead on display, to give light to all. By the end of the book, the reader agrees we could use a few more such cities "set on a hill" as Walter Penn Shipley in our modern chess world.

A member of a prominent Quaker family in Philadelphia, the Quaker city, Shipley became active in chess in the late 1870's, and rapidly became one of the strongest players in America's second-strongest chess community. Shipley managed to take games from such figures as Henry Bird, Harry Nelson Pillsbury, Max Weiss, Emanuel Lasker, as well as the many lesser masters that played in New York and Philadelphia. His over the board tournament successes included the championships of New York State and Pennsylvania, as well as Philadelphia. The following game serves as a good example of both his over the board play and his life-long love affair with the French Defense. The loser, Sydney T. Sharp, was Pennsylvania Champion for 1908. The annotations are Shipley's own, from the August 1909 American Chess Bulletin:

Sydney T. Sharp - Walter Penn Shipley [C12]
PSCA Tournament Playoff, 1909
1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.Bg5 Bb4 This constitutes the McCutcheon Defense which was worked out by the late John L. McCutcheon, of Pittsburgh, an exceptionally original and enthusiastic chess player. Prior to this innovation the masters all continued 4. ...Be7, which gave Black a cramped and precarious game for many moves. 5.exd5 This continuation was first played by H.G. Voigt of Philadelphia and later was brought into prominence by Lasker in his match with Marshall. Lasker stated that he believed this to be the only move against the McCutcheon variation which yields White an advantage, although this advantage is slight. 5...Qxd5 Black's best reply. Pillsbury, in one of the Monte Carlo tournaments, experimented with 5. ...exd5, but the game which resulted was not satisfactory. 6.Bxf6 gxf6 7.Qd2 Bxc3 8.Qxc3 8. bxc3 is superior to the text move. 8...Nc6 9.Nf3 Rg8 10.g3 Prettily played. At first glance, it looks as if Black could reply 10. ...Nxd4, threatening Qxh1 if White replies 11. Nxd4. White, however, probably would have replied 11. 0-0-0, and then if Black played 11. ...Qxf3, have retalitated 12. Qxd4, with a powerful game. 10...Bd7 As Black has only to draw to secure the championship, this is unquestionably his best reply. He could, however, have continued with 10. ...Qe4+. 11.Bg2 Qa5 After the exchange of Queens, although Black's pawns are not so advantageously arranged as those of the White forces, he should nevertheless draw without much difficulty. 12.Qxa5 Nxa5 13.0-0-0 Bc6 14.Nh4 Bxg2 15.Nxg2 Rd8 16.Rhe1 c6

17.Re4 White could now have played 17. Ne3, threatening to win the knight by b4. This would have compelled Black to advance the b-pawn. Sharp, however, directs his attack against Black's isolated h-pawn. 17...Nc4 18.Rh4 Rg7 19.Rh6 With the intention of eventually planting the knight at h5. 19...Ke7 20.b3 20. Nf4 would have been better, although this would have allowed Black to play 20. ...Rdg8, and then, if White replies 21. Nh5, Black can safely play 21. ...Rg6. 20...Nd6 21.Nf4 Nf5 22.Nh5 Fatal error. White overlooks the fact that Black will imprison the knight, which cannot be released with the loss of one or two pawns. 22...Nxh6 23.Nxg7 Rd5 The winning move. The White knight cannot now escape without serious loss. 24.f4 Kf8 25.c4 Ra5 26.d5 Desperate, but played in the hope that Black might seize the knight, in which case White would have advanced d6, with apparently a winning game. His best reply, however, is 26. b4, which would have released the knight. Black would then have been forced to play 26. ...Rxa2, winning eventually. 26...cxd5 27.cxd5 Kxg7 28.d6 Rc5+ 29.Kb2 Rc8 0-1

But Shipley's prowess was not confined to over-the board play. More than ten percent of Hilbert's biography is devoted to Shipley's involvement in the organization of American correspondence chess, an involvement completely passed over by Bryce Avery in his Correspondence Chess In America. Shipley was both an enthusiastic correspondence player and a distinguished spokesman for the postal game. His writings on postal chess are marvelously quotable, and accordingly are quoted extensively, including in one case a letter describing his own approach to postal play in its entirety. Among Shipley's writing on postal chess is the comment that "the greatest pleasures of chess are in the field of correspondence play... the pleasures of correspondence chess are by no means confined to the analysis of the games; the side remarks of one's opponents are often most entertaining, and add spice to the heavier work.". As Hilbert writes, "Clearly Shipley enjoyed the associations generated by his love of chess, and not the mere playing of the games themselves."

One such "association" was a friendship with Canadian postal and over the board champion James Narraway. And it's fitting in a way that in 1906 Shipley and Narraway found themselves on opposite sides of a postal match, this one for the championship of North America, as run by the Pillsbury National Correspondence Chess Association. The two friends also found themselves on opposite sides of a dispute over the publication of the games in progress in the American Chess Bulletin. The November 1906 issue at p. 220 noted "W.P. Shipley has won one of the two games with J.E. Narraway in the PNCCA master's tournament referred to last month. Although there is ample precedent for the publication of pending positions in games of this character, Mr. Narraway is not disposed to regard the Bulletin's comments in good taste. It is due to Mr. Shipley to say that, whereas he furnished the scores as printed, he at the same time stipulated that he preferred no comments to be made on the final positions, but rather that the readers be left to judge for themselves concerning the outcome." Narraway, evidently annoyed that the two games in the match for the championship were published before they were finished, managed to drag out the second game for an additional 26 moves before conceding the draw that gave Shipley the title. Here is the decisive game from the match:

Walter Penn Shipley - James Narraway [C79]
PNCCA Playoff, Game, 1906
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.0-0 d6 6.d4 Probably 6. Re1, followed by c3, etc., gives a more lasting attack. 6...Bd7 7.Nc3 b5 8.dxe5 Nxe5 9.Nxe5 It is now an open question whether White should capture the knight or retreat the bishop. 9...dxe5 10.Bb3 Be7 11.Qf3 0-0 12.Bg5 c6 13.Bxf6 Bxf6 14.Ne2 Qc8 15.Ng3 Bg4 16.Qe3 Be7 17.c3 c5 18.h3 Bd7 19.Bd5 Rb8 20.Rfd1 Rb6 21.b3 Rf6 22.c4 Bxh3 A most unexpected and unusually deep sacrifice. At first sight the combination appears pointless, but a careful examination shows that White has but one line of defense, and the moves must be timed most accurately. In over the board play we believe that Black would have won. 23.gxh3 Qxh3 24.Qe2 The only move. 24...Rg6 25.Qf3 25. Qf1 would have given Black at least a draw. 25...Bh4 26.Rd3 Bxg3 27.fxg3 Kh8 28.Qg2 Qc8 29.Rf1 f6 30.Rf5 b4

31.Qd2 Apparently with the object of preventing the Black rook from going to g5, but also with the more subtle line of play in view that follows. Had White now continued with g4, we believe Black had almost a certain draw in hand by playing ...Rg5. A careful study of the position will show that Black can afford to trade off both the rook and Queen and, although White has the extra piece in hand, he cannot break through on either wing. 31...h6 But here, we think, Black failed to fully grasp the force of White's thirty-first move. A stronger line of play for Black, apparently, would have been 31. ...Qc7. 32.Bf7 Rg4 It was Hobson's choice. Had Black continued 32. ...Rg5, then 33. Rxg5, followed by Rd7 and Qd5, should win for White. 33.Rxf6 Rf4 34.Be6 1-0

But Narraway was not the only such chess association of Shipley's. The Quaker lawyer from Philadelphia cultivated a wide range of friendships, including Wilhelm Steinitz, Lasker, Capablanca, and Marshall. He ghost-wrote chess columns for both Gustavus Reichhelm and Harry Nelson Pillsbury during their final illnesses, so as to not deprive these masters of their only source of income. His authority as a chess figure led to Shipley being involved in settling chess disputes ranging from the publication of games in progress in postal games to the organization of world championship matches to establishing the "line of succession" of the US Chess Championship title. In the latter case, his arguments in favor of the US title reverting back to Jackson Showalter after Pillsbury's death in 1906 carried the day in the court of public opinion, and led to Frank James Marshall arranging a match with the Showalter for the US title in 1909.

As you may be able to tell from my descriptions thus far, the book is heavily researched. Nearly 260 Shipley games are included for the chess fan, many with contemporary annotations. As always with a Hilbert book, there is a large amount of previously unknown material, both in the form of chess games and context, for the reader to enjoy. Such is the depth of Hilbert's research that it seems churlish to mention some minor errors. But for the record, here are my findings: Reichhelm wrote for the Philadelphia Times, but is listed as Editor of the Item at one point;; there was no newspaper called the "Ledger", but there was a Public Ledger; Hilbert pointedly states that there was no exhibition game before Capablanca's May 26, 1926 simul, despite newspaper sources crediting Capablanca with a 19 move win over William Stewart on that occasion; and finally, a mistake contributed by the reviewer in response to a research query from Hilbert, a photo of an aged Shipley and Capablanca was not taken on the steps of the Union League club, as the caption reads.

The physical production of the book itself is in the finest traditions of McFarland & Company. The library quality binding, glossy photographs from the Shipley family archives (including some never-before seen photos of Capablanca), and beautiful layout speak louder than words of the care put into the production of this volume. Fortunately, the contents of this book are as wonderful as the production. Hilbert's books are self-recommending, as I wrote in the first paragraph of this review. Nothing changes that statement in his latest book. This would make a fine addition to any library on chess, chess players, and correspondence chess, and is a worthy contribution to the literature of the game of Kings. And it serves as a reminder that our world of chess would be a better place if we all, like Walter Penn Shipley, strove to be to "a city that is set on a hill", and to let our "light within" shine forth.

© 2003 Neil Brennen, All Rights Reserved.

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