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Correspondence Chess
"On the Square" Article

Olimpiu G. Urcan

Olimpiu G. Urcan is a 27 years old Romanian-born historian. He holds BA, MA in History and was accepted as PhD candidate at Centre of Excellence, Medieval Studies (Bergen University, Norway) in 2003. He declined the offer in favour of Singapore where he is working at the moment. Columnist at the late Correspondence Chess News internet magazine, he also authored chess articles in national and international chess journals (Gambit, Sah!Chesspress, Chess Mate, Chess Caf, Chessbase, Quarterly for Chess History) and this year his first book was published Chess Fathering a Nation: Adolf Albin (1848-1920) and Georg Marco (1863-1923), Moravian Publishing House, 2004. Presently he is working on finishing a chess biography of E. E. Colman as a part of a Singapore chess history project.

The Saddle of Correspondence Chess
An episode from Old Singapore 1900-1902

by Olimpiu G. Urcan
(posted 24 September 2004)

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In the late medieval and modern era, the space of a chess civilization was sketched by historical evolutions. It was drafted basically on the lines of the European continent and later on - North America. There chess geniuses appeared, immortal games were played, precious treaties were written or world chess title championships were played. Western Europe and America were to the places to be for any chess player dreaming of riches and fame. Today's globalization, fast-paced connections and world interdependence changed the big picture. They re-mapped the evolution of chess making it global. We offer a short voyage into a time with a chess chore and a chess periphery. Let's remember how gruelling a correspondence game used to be more than 100 years ago at the periphery of chess civilization: South-East Asia. In our research on our future book on a history of chess in Singapore we have encountered the episode that follows.

A place largely dominated by mangroves and jungle - surrounded by waters infested with the Malay pirates - yet with its first roots of a cosmopolitan centre, at the edge between centuries (1890s-1900s) Singapore was a bliss for the Caucasian communities camped here. As any colonists - preferring rather the label of 'civilized gentlemen' - next to Golf, Cricket, Whisky and late night parties or losing the track of time at the brothels resplendent with welcoming Asian or Eastern European hostesses, sooner or later they would bring along their game of chess. Tournaments appeared - even cable matches with the neighbouring European overseas possessions. In 1901 Singapore players proposed a cable match to Batavia (today's Djakarta), the latter being known for its Dutch experienced chess players. The Singapore line-up was made out of J.B. Elcum (a fervent chess enthusiast who later became Director of Education and authored several precious articles on the chess among Malays), P.A. Reutens (the local chess champion) and Chittenden (a passionate yet ephemeral player from the Straits Settlements). Batavia put forward a team lead by the chess editor of the column from Batavia's Java Bode - Dr. van Eck, seconded by Kloos and Knoch. Even if the first game lasted for months surely enough both parties had in mind more than one game.

Singapore - Batavia [C28]
Cable Match, October 1900 - April 1901
Notes by J.B. Elcum

"The following moves had been made in the cable match between Batavia and Singapore, the game having been somewhat interrupted by the holidays."

1.e4 e5 2.Nc3 Nf6 3.Bc4 A safe variation, which leads to a slow game. 3...Nc6 Perfectly sound. More enterprising would be 3...Nxe4 but White has several good replies. 4.d3 Bb4 5.Ne2 Of doubtful value. It is not clear whether it would not be better to lay 5.f4. This would give White a strong attack, at the expense of some disarrangement of pawns. 5...d6 6.O-O If now 6.f4 then 6...Ng4 7.h3 Qh4+ 8.g3 Qh5 etc. 6...Be6 In the Hastings Tournament with Walbrodt, Pollock played 6...Bg4 and drew. 7.Nd5 Bxd5 This exchange scarcely seems to benefit Black. 8.exd5 Ne7 9.c3 Bc5 10.d4 exd4 11.Nxd4 h6 Batavia do well to avoid exchange the strong King's Bishop, and see through the little trap laid for them if they try to win the d5-pawn. Thus, if 11...Nfxd5 12.Bxd5 Nxd5 13.Nf5! and wins. 12.Bb5+ Kf8 Probably best. The alternative was 12...Nd7 giving White a choice of moves. A strong continuation would be 13.Ne6!!

13...fxe6 14.dxe6 c6 15.exd7+ Qxd7 16.Bd3 with a better game. 13.c4 Qc8 14.Nb3 The first of several ill-judged moves, which tie up the Queen Side pieces and neutralise and positional advantage Singapore may have gained. The Knight eventually makes his way to Nf3, where he might have gone direct. It is of importance however to bring the Bc1 into play as soon as possible. 14...a6 15.Ba4 Ba7 16.Nd2 Qg4 17.Qb3 Still further blocking the Bishop. Almost anything would have been better than this. White appears for some reason to dread an exchange of Queens, but 17.Bc2 was to be preferred whether Black exchanged or not. 17...Rb8 18.h3 Qg6 18...Qe2 would be at least as good. 19.Qc3 Nh5 20.Bc2 Qg3

21.Nf3 Nf4 22.Bxf4 "In this position, being Batavia's turn to play, Singapore wired that if 22.Qxf4 their reply would be 23.Rae1 , but a telegram since received reads : ' Illness excuse delay'." 22Qxf4 23.Rae1 c6 24.Re4 Qf6 25.Qxf6 gxf6 26.Nh4 cxd5 27.cxd5 Rc8 If 27... Nxd5 then 28. Rd1 and White recovers the pawn with a decisive advantage. 28.Bb3 Rg8 29.Rfe1 Rc7 30.Kf1 Bc5 31.a3 Rg5 32.f4 Rg3 33.Bc4 Re3 34.R1xe3 - And a draw was agreed on. There is nothing else in the game, the latter part of which was admirably played by the Batavia representatives. Had Black played 33...b5 White might still have hoped to win: 34.Bxb5 axb5 35.Rxe7 Rxe7 36.Rxe7.

Source: The Singapore Free Press, May 15, 1901, p.3


It appears that Batavia's chess players were demolished by such a demanding experience as a simple chess correspondence game with their neighbours. Interesting notes follow as how chess was becoming something too serious for the daily rhythm of the upper and middle class gentlemen:

"Batavia players do not appear greatly to relish chess by correspondence. Referring to the recent telegraphic contest between with Singapore, 'Java Bode' - we translate freely - says the playing committee of the Batavia Chess Club were all agreed that one game was quite enough. A second was too much for busy men to undertake, involving too much time and worry by far. As it was the players had first to analyse the moves at home and afterwards to meet in consultation at the Club. Played under such conditions chess ceases to be a game. Accurate analysis may all be very well for masters, but for the average amateur, with whom mistakes are of no great consequence, this is surely waste of time. Indeed, some of the principle of 'once bitten, twice shy', Dr. van Eck, the editor of the chess column, and a member of the playing committee in the recent contest, vows that he will never venture on chess by correspondence again, even supposing that no tangible opponent were to be found within miles of home ". [The Singapore Free Press, May 21st,1901, p.3]

The way the correspondence took place in old Singapore

In the next year the Singapore chess enthusiasts met an even stronger opposition in their cable match against Hong Kong. The presence of the British P.W. Sergeant in the team of Hong Kong is an argument in itself not to mention de Souza - a very active player in the Colony.


Singapore - Hong Kong [C39]
Cable Match (1st Game), 1902
Singapore: J.B. Elcum, W. Craig, S. Rosembaum and P.A. Reutens;
Hong Kong: P.W. Sergeant, T.H. Reid, M.J. Dannenberg, E.J. Moses and P.C. de Souza

1.e4 e5 2.f4 exf4 3.Nf3 g5 4.h4 g4 5.Ng5 h6 6.Nxf7 Kxf7 7.d4 f3 8.gxf3 Be7 9.Bc4+ d5 10.Bxd5+ Kg7 11.O-O g3 12.f4 Nf6 13.Nc3 h5 14.f5 Ng4 15.Kg2 Bxh4 16.Rf4 Nf2 17.Qf3 Qg5 18.e5 Nc6 19.f6+ Kg6 20.Ne4 Nxe5 21.Nxg5 Nxf3 22.Bf7+ Kxg5

The Singapore team now telegraphed the unusual line: 23.Rxf3+ Kg4 24.Rf4+ Kg5 25.Rxf2+ Kg4 26.Rf4+ Kg5 27.Rf1+ Kg4 28.Bc4 Re8 29.f7 1-0
Source: La Stratgie, 17 September 1902, pages 277-278. The magazine took the score and notes by J. B. Elcum from the Singapore Free Press's chess column.


Hong-Kong - Singapore [C65]
Cable Match (2nd Game), 1902
Notes from Hong-Kong Daily Press

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Nf6 4.O-O Bc5 This defence is attributed to Alapin. It was tried in Singapore Chess Club's championship last year, which no doubt accounts for its adoption in the present game. Its combination with 6Qe7 soon gives Black a very cramped position. 5.Nxe5 Nxe5 6.d4 Qe7 7.dxc5 Qxc5 8.Nc3 O-O 9.Be2 For Black threatened 9Nxe4. 9Qe7 This invites White's ensuing attack. 10.f4 Nc6 11.e5 Ne8 12.Nd5 Qd8 13.Bd3 f5 14.Bc4 Inconclusive. 14.Qh5 is best followed perhaps by g4 when occasion offers. White loses valuable time by the many moves of his King's Bishop. 14...Kh8 15.Qh5 15.b4 is worth consideration now that the Queen's move has been delayed. 15...Nd4 16.Bd2 c6 If 16...Nxc2 then 17.Rac1 Nd4 18.Bc3 Ne6 19.Rf3 and White's attack is irresistible. 17.Ne3 d5

18.Bd3 Qe7 19.c4 dxc4 20.Nxc4 Be6 21.Bc3 Nb5 Getting rid, by the ensuing capture, of a piece most valuable for White. 22.Ne3 Nxc3 23.bxc3 Nc7 24.Nxf5 White has temporarily won a pawn, but his attack is no longer effective. In fact but for the resource offered by this 27th move and 29th moves he would be unable to hold his own. 24...Qc5+ 25.Nd4 Bg8 26.Rad1 Nd5 27.e6 Qxc3 28.Qe5 Nf6 29.f5 Rfd8 30.Bb1 Rd5 31.Qf4 Rad8 32.Rd3 Qb4 33.Rfd1 c5 34.Ne2 Rxd3 35.Bxd3

"Singapore here wired 35...c4 36.Bc2 Rxd1+ 37.Bxd1 Qe1+ 38.Qf1 Qd2. Hong Kong has not yet signified their acceptance of this line of play. Comment, however, would be premature." [Singapore Free Press, August 28, 1902, p.3] 35...c4 36.Bc2 Rxd1+ 37.Bxd1 Qe1+ 38.Qf1 Qd2 39.Ng3 White cannot save the remaining pawn on the Queen Side. 39...Qxa2 40.Nh5 Qd2 41.Nxf6 gxf6 42.Qe2 Qxe2 Black here offered a draw, which was declined. 43.Bxe2 b5 44.Kf2 44.Bf3 is also playable. 44...a5 45.Ke3 a4 46.Kd2 Kg7 47.Kc2 Kf8 48.Bf3 b4 49.Bd5 White in turn offered a draw which Black after four more moves accepted. 49...c3 50.e7+ Kxe7 51.Bxg8 a3 52.g4 h6 -

White Bishop cannot touch the Black pawns and Black cannot advance to the assistance of his Queen's side pawns without White breaking through on the King's Side.

Source: Singapore Free Press, October 3, 1902, p.3

The reaction of the Hong Kong players is not much different from that of the players from Batavia a year ago. It seemed that playing correspondence chess one hundred years ago was quite an exhausting act, since Hong Kong Daily Press printed the following lines in conclusion of the match with Singapore:

"The second cable game against Singapore has reluctantly been abandoned by the Hong-Kong players as a draw, and as Singapore won the first game this gives our southern neighbours the match. The Singapore representatives played well and are to be congratulated on their victory. The Hong-Kong players suffered from dwindling numbers owing to the departure from the Colony, business calls, and sickness, so that only three of the original match committee were left at the end. We do not, however, mention this as an excuse for Hong-Kong's defeat, but merely to record a fact." [Hong Kong Daily Press quoted by the Singapore Free Press, October 3rd, 1902, p.3]

It wasn't easy for the Singapore chess players to find opponents that could essentially complete or sustain long and dramatic cable matches in the area. However, the relatively fresh chess community of Singapore did not give up and with their youthful chess enthusiasm proposed more correspondence matches with Surabaya, Calcutta, Bangkok and other cities in the upcoming years. Many studies had been dedicated to the chore of the chess civilization. Perhaps more efforts in the future should concentrate on the peripheries as well: wouldn't be enriching to find out the historical trends of chess evolutions from Central Africa, Middle East, or Far East for example?

© 2004 Olimpiu G. Urcan. All rights reserved.

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