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Neil Brennen

Following is an original article written by Neil Brennen. It was previously published in Tennessee Chess News in a highly edited version. Though it doesn't deal with correspondence chess, the main focus of this web site, I considered the article of high quality and deserving to be published as written, without excessive editorial meddling. Thanks to CJA award-winner journalist Neil Brennen for providing this interesting article on our chess history.

Chess Reconstruction: Jacob Elson in Memphis
by Neil R. Brennen
(posted 20 December 2004)

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Jacob Elson (1839-1909) was one of the strongest American amateur chessplayers during the second half of the 19th century. And in individual games, he could hold his own with the best. An example is the following game, in which Elson pokes a hole in a Steinitz sacrifice.

Wilhelm Steinitz - Jacob Elson [C00]
off-hand Philadelphia, 12.1883
1.e4 e6 2.e5 d5 3.exd6 Bxd6 4.d4 Nc6 5.f4 Nf6 6.Nf3 0-0 7.c3 Nd5 8.g3 b6 9.Bd3 Bb7 10.0-0 Nce7 11.Ng5 h6 12.Ne4 Rc8 13.Qe2 c5 14.dxc5 Bxc5+ 15.Nxc5 Rxc5 16.Nd2 Nf6 17.Nf3 Qd5 18.Be3 Rcc8 19.Rad1

19...Qxa2 20.Ra1 Bxf3 21.Rxa2 Bxe2 22.Bxe2 Rc7 23.Rfa1 Nfd5 24.Bd2 a5 25.Kf2 Rd8 26.Ra4 Nb4 27.Be3 Nbd5 28.Rd1 Rcd7 29.Bc1 Nf6 30.Re1 -
Philadelphia Times, December 16, 1883

In addition to nicking the World Champion for a half-point, Elson beat in level games an assortment of the century's prominent masters: Henry Bird, Gustavus Reichhelm, James Mason, Eugene Delmar, and George Henry Mackenzie all fell before him at one time or another. He rose to be one of the elite of Philadelphia chess during the period when that city was considered the second-strongest chess center in the United States. And Jacob Elson remained a fixture in the Philadelphia chess community until his death on January 28, 1909.

But it wasn't just as an over-the-board chessmaster that Elson maintained a high reputation. He was renowned as a problemist as well, earning a reputation for world-class work in composition. Here is one of his early problems:

Mate in Three - Jacob Elson

Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, August 25, 1865

The key to this problem is at the end of this essay.

Elson's problem, although it was composed by a Philadelphia problemist and appeared in a Philadelphia newspaper, was most probably not composed in the Quaker City. For Jacob Elson was not living in Philadelphia during this time, but instead was residing in the city of Memphis, Tennessee, arriving in the spring of 1865 and staying through 1866..

While Elson's connection to Philadelphia would prove to be lengthy and deep, Pennsylvania's largest city was not his first home. It wasn't even his first home in the United States, for Elson was born on April 8, 1839 in Bavaria. When he, and presumably his relations, came to the United States, they first settled in the "Jewel of The South", the then three-decade-old city of Memphis. The Tennessee city was a primary port of call for German immigrants during the 1840's and 1850's, and the Elsons could find many of their countrymen in Memphis.

However, Jacob Elson was not inclined to stay on the banks of the Mississippi. In 1858 he moved to Indiana, and by the end of 1859 he was in Philadelphia, the city that was to be his home for the remaining fifty years of his life. It was in Philadelphia Elson settled, opening his jewelry shop and practicing his lifelong trade as a watchmaker. And it was in the Quaker City that he crafted his chess game with a watchmakers's care.

However, there is one period of Elson's life in which it is documented he was very far from the City of Brotherly Love, at the end of a period of brotherly warfare.

Like all Americans, Elson was unable to remain unaffected by the American Civil War. Tennessee was a border state in the conflict between North and South, and armies fought real battles, not chessboard ones, over much of the terrain. Unfortunately, Tennessee, unwilling and unable to discard the shameful practice of slavery, chose to align itself with the Rebellion, and after the Battle of Memphis in 1862 that city had to suffer the hardship of occupation by the Union Army. There were clashes between the citizens of Memphis and the Union soldiers, and the city was under martial law much of the time.

However, by 1864 the Rebellion was collapsing, and some Northerners were willing to brave the dangers to travel to the liberated Southern territories. Many of these "carpetbaggers", as the locals contemptuously called them, came south to profit from the reconstruction of the Southern economy in the post-slavery era. But not all visitors to the South were looking for financial gain. Many traveled south to look for friends and relations they hadn't seen since the conflict began. Among these hardy souls was a German-born chessplaying watchmaker from Philadelphia.

If Elson gave an explanation for his taking the arduous trip from Philadelphia to war-ravaged Tennessee, it has been lost. However, simply concern for his family and friends in the German sections of the city would have been enough of a motivation for most men to travel to the newly-liberated city. But it is Elson's work in reconstructing chess in Memphis, and not his desire to see his relations, that we are interested in today.

The word "reconstruction", weighted with historical meaning in the American South, does not accurately describe the renewed interest in chess that took hold following the Civil War. "Revival", as used by Elson's friend Gustavus Reichhelm in his chess column in the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, is a better fit. "There is" Reichhelm wrote, in his September 29, 1865 column "a very manifest revival of Chess interest in various parts of the country since the termination of the war. Chess Columns and Chess Clubs are springing up, almost as fast as they did in 1858, after the impetus given to the game by the exploits of Morphy." Reichhelm then cited two examples of such revitalized chess centers, Dubuque, Iowa, and Boston, Massachusetts. But he could have mentioned a third, for games from Memphis had been showing up in the Bulletin chess column. The arrival of a player of the strength and reputation of Elson could only have invigorated the local chess community. And the evidence of the renewal are the gamescores, five in all, that Reichhelm published.

In fact, it is largely due to Elson's friendship with Reichhelm that we know anything of Elson's movements at this time. Aside from Reichhelm's practice of noting in his column where a game was played, thus allowing the historian to place Elson in Memphis, the Evening Bulletin columnist also noted some of Elson's coming and goings. Thanks to Reichhelm's column of August 11, 1865, we know that Elson had returned from Memphis to Philadelphia for a visit. As the notice in the Evening Bulletin column put it, "Mr. Jacob Elson arrived in this city a few days since. He has since played some games with Mr. Reichhelm." Here is one of the offhand encounters from Elson's return visit to Philadelphia that Reichhelm published.

Gustavus Reichhelm - Jacob Elson [C51]
Offhand Game, 1865
Notes by Gustavus Reichhelm
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Bc5 4.b4 Bxb4 5.c3 Bc5 6.0-0 d6 7.d4 exd4 8.cxd4 Bb6 9.Nc3 Bg4 10.Qa4 Bxf3 11.d5 Bg4 12.dxc6 bxc6 13.e5 13.Bxf7+ is recommended by the Handbuch, but the move made is more attacking. 13...Bd7 14.Bxf7+ A daring sacrifice. In another game Mr. Reichhelm played 14.exd6 followed by 15.Ne4. 14...Kxf7 15.Qf4+ Ke8 16.exd6 Nf6 17.Re1+ Kf8 18.Bb2 h5 19.Re7 cxd6

20.Nd5 The attack is carried on with great vivacity, the position is exceedingly interesting. 20...Rh6 21.Rxg7 If 21.Qxd6 Nxd5 22.Re6+ Kf7 etc. 21...Kxg7 22.Nxf6 Rxf6 23.Qg5+ Kf7 24.Qxh5+ Kg7 25.Qg5+ -

Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, August 25, 1865.

Most of Elson's activities in Memphis chess during 1865-1866 remain to be discovered. However, to judge from the games published in the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin chess column, Elson probably outclassed all the local players. While we have no indication where in Memphis Elson played his chess, we do know the name of at least one of his opponents. His primary competition was a "Mr. Littleton", described by Reichhelm as the strongest "Western" player. It's hard to judge the chess ability of Littleton from these three games, in the absence of any other of his games or his match results. However, these contests probably were entertaining to the combatants, just as they are entertaining to us one hundred forty years later.

Reichhelm, when he published the first of Elson's games with Littleton, noted that it was played in Memphis "last Spring".

Littleton - Jacob Elson [C22]
Offhand game, 1865
Notes by Gustavus Reichhelm
1.e4 e5 2.d4 exd4 3.Qxd4 Nc6 4.Qd1 Nf6 5.Bd3 Bc5 6.Nf3 d6 7.0-0 Bg4 8.Bg5 h6 9.Bxf6 Qxf6 10.Nbd2 0-0-0 11.h3

11...h5 12.hxg4 Overlooking Black's 13th move. 12...hxg4 13.Nh2 Ne5 And White cannot possibly save the game. 0-1

Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, August 18, 1865

Littleton - Jacob Elson [C58]
Offhand game, 1866
Notes by Gustavus Reichhelm
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Nf6 4.Ng5 d5 5.exd5 Na5 6.d3 h6 7.Nf3 e4 8.Qe2 Nxc4 9.dxc4 Bd6 10.Nc3 0-0 11.Nd4 c6 12.h3 cxd5 13.Nxd5 Nxd5 14.cxd5 Qa5+ 15.c3 Qxd5 16.0-0 Qe5 17.f4 Qe7 18.f5 Qh4

19.Qf2 To avoid, at any rate, Black's contemplated movement of ...Qg3. 19...Bg3 20.Qe2 b6 21.Be3 a5 22.Bf2 Ba6 23.c4 Bxf2+ 24.Rxf2 Rad8 25.Qe3 This is well-played. 25...Bxc4 26.f6 Qg5 27.Qxe4 Rfe8 28.Qf4 Qxf4 29.Rxf4 g5 30.Rg4 Be2 31.Nxe2 Rxe2 32.h4 Rd5 33.hxg5 Rxg5 34.Rxg5+ hxg5 And White, foreseeing the loss of his f pawn, resigns the game. 0-1
Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, November 30, 1866

Jacob Elson - Littleton [C52]
Offhand game, 1866
Notes by Gustavus Reichhelm
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Bc5 4.b4 Bxb4 5.c3 Ba5 6.0-0 Nf6 7.d4 0-0 8.d5 Ne7 9.Nxe5 Nxe4 10.Qf3 Nf6 11.Bg5 Ng6 12.Ng4 Mr. Elson conducts the attack very well, and the play throughout is highly creditable to his Chess skill. 12...d6 13.Nxf6+ gxf6 14.Bxf6 Qd7 15.Qh5 Qg4 16.Qh6 Nf4 17.g3 Nh3+ 18.Kg2 Qg6 19.Qh4 Bf5 20.Nd2 Rfe8 21.Rfe1 Bb6 22.Re2 Rxe2 23.Bxe2 Re8

24.Bh5 Nf4+ 25.Qxf4 Qxh5 26.Rg1 Re2 27.g4 Prettily played. The position is somewhat singular. 27...Bxg4 28.Kh1 Rxf2 29.Rxg4+ Kf8 30.Bg7+ Ke8 31.Qe4+ Kd8 Mate in three. 1-0
Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, December 21, 1866

Of course, Littleton wasn't the only game in town for Elson. Like all 19th century masters, he often had to stoop to conquer weaker opponents by playing at some form of piece odds. In the following two games, Elson gives the odds of his a1 Rook to his unnamed combatant, and then proceeds to offer his b and f pawns in a "Double Gambit". These games were, like the previous games with Littleton, annotated by Reichhelm in the Evening Bulletin column.

Jacob Elson - Amateur
Odds game, 1866
Remove Rook a1 1.e4 e5 2.Bc4 Bc5 3.b4 Bxb4 4.f4 exf4 5.Nf3 Nf6 6.c3 Bc5 7.d4 Bb6 8.Ba3 Nxe4 9.0-0 d5 10.Re1 Bf5 11.Nbd2 c6

12.Nxe4 dxe4 13.Ne5 Bg6 14.Rxe4 and wins. 1-0

Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, April 20, 1866

Jacob Elson - Amateur
Odds game, 1866
Notes by Gustavus Reichhelm
Remove Rook a1 1.e4 e5 2.Bc4 Bc5 3.b4 Bxb4 4.f4 exf4 Taking the second pawn is dangerous. 5.Nf3 d6 6.c3 Bc5 7.d4 Bb6 8.Bxf4 Nf6 9.0-0 0-0 10.Bg5 h6 11.Bh4 Nbd7 12.Kh1 c5 13.e5 dxe5 14.dxe5 g5 15.Nxg5 Nxe5 16.Nxf7 Well played. 16...Nxf7

17.Qc2 and wins. 1-0

Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, April 22, 1866

Jacob Elson did not stay in Memphis, but eventually returned to Philadelphia, spending the rest of his days at his jewelry shop and his nights polishing his chess game. The historical record is silent on any trips to Tennessee Elson may have made after 1866. But his one documented trip was important enough, for not only did it show that a Northerner and Southerners at the end of the Civil War could engage in civil combat at the chessboard, but, in some small way, Elson's visit to Memphis helped rebuild chess activity in the Volunteer State - the best reconstruction any chessplayer can undertake.

Key to Elson Problem:

© 2004 Neil R. Brennen. All rights reserved.

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