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"The Queen of Chess":
The Correspondence Chess of Ellen Gilbert

by Neil R. Brennen
(posted 7 November 2005)


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Ellen Gilbert, circa 1870

It used to be said that a woman's name should show up in a newspaper only three times in her life; namely, when she is born, when she marries, and when she dies. No female chess player ever violated that rule more spectacularly than Mrs. John W. Gilbert, the nineteenth century queen of correspondence chess.

Mrs. Gilbert was born Ellen E. Strong in Leverett, Massachusetts, on April 30, 1837. Her father was A. B. Strong, a physician and amateur naturalist. A literary man with a number of books on birds and flowers to his credit, Dr. Strong imparted to his daughter a liberal education, and most probably included chess as part of that tutelage. On her reaching adulthood in a world in which a single woman's career choices were extremely limited, Ms. Strong took a teaching position in Hartford, Connecticut, and continued to teach for a number of years at the South School of that city, until she met and married John W. Gilbert, a local builder and chess enthusiast.

While there were some "ladies" chess clubs in the nineteenth century, the typical chess club of that era was as much a gentleman's retreat as a room for chess playing. Mrs. Gilbert and her husband did establish a "Queen's Chess Club" in Hartford during the 1860's, allowing members of both sexes to meet to practice the Royal Game. However, Mrs. Gilbert was clearly the strongest player, and probably the strongest chess player in Hartford. Yet despite her evident ability, Mrs. Gilbert's name was absent from the membership rolls of the Hartford Chess Club; as a woman of social standing, with an illustrious writer as a father and a prominent businessman as a husband, it would be scandalous for her to attend a smoke-filled chess club either with or without escort. Also, by 1867 Mrs. Gilbert was expecting her first, and as it happened, her only child; chess would have to take a lesser place to home and family.

But Mrs. Gilbert loved chess, and strove to accommodate it as part of her life as wife and mother. As Rosalind in Shakespeare's As You Like It says, if you "make the doors upon a woman's wit, and it will out at the casement; shut that, and it will out at the keyhole; stop that, 'twill fly with the smoke out at the chimney." So Mrs. Gilbert's chess genius, limited by convention, family, and society from finding expression in over the board play, turned to correspondence contests to "fly out".

Among Mrs. Gilbert's earliest published experiences in correspondence play was her captaining a consultation team from Hartford for an 1870 telegraph match against Springfield, Massachusetts. As Miron Hazeltine reported in his December 28, 1872 New York Clipper chess column, Hartford, thanks to Mrs. Gilbert, won both games. And as Springfield had defeated Boston in a telegraph match, Hartford found itself, unofficially, the chess champion of New England.

 

Hartford - Springfield [C29]
Telegraph Consultation game, 1872
Annotations condensed from the Hartford Times
1.e4 e5 2.Nc3 Nf6 Old; 2...Nc6 or 2...Bc5 is best. 3.f4 d5 4.d3 dxe4 5.fxe5 Ng4 6.d4 Bb4 Seriously weak, giving Hartford ample time. ...e6, rather. 7.Bc4 0-0 8.Bf4 e3 9.Bg3 Nc6 10.Nf3 Kh8 11.Qd3 Ne7 12.h3 Nh6 12...Nf2 , rather; then deploy the light-squared Bishop. 13.Bf4 Decidedly better than taking the pawn at once. 13...Nef5 14.Bg5 f6 Dangerous, but the position is difficult. 15.Bxh6 Nxh6 16.e6 c6 17.0-0-0 Bxc3 18.Qxc3

18... Ng8 Should have tried to rid themselves of the troublesome advanced e pawn by ...e2, which might have proved advantageous, e.g.: 18...e2 19.Rde1 Nf5 20.Rxe2 (20.e7 Nxe7 21.Rxe2 Nd5 etc.; and if 20.Qd3 Ng3 , followed by ...Qd6 and ...Re8, having an apparently safe game.) 20...Ng3 21.e7 Nxe2+ 22.Bxe2 Qxe7 etc. 19.Qxe3 Ne7 20.Bb3 b5 21.Rhe1 Re8 22.Qc3 Qd6 23.Qc5 Qxc5 24.dxc5 a5 25.a3 Ra7 26.Rd6 Rc7 27.Red1 g6 28.Nd4 Kg7 29.Kd2 f5 30.Ke2 Nd5 Was not 30...Kf6 better? 31.Bxd5 cxd5 32.Rxd5 Everything is just about perfect, but did anyone suggest, now, 32.b4 ? - Hazeltine 32...Rxe6+ Better have dismissed the telegraph man to the bosom of his family. - Hazeltine 33.Nxe6+ Bxe6 34.b4 Bxd5 35.Rxd5 axb4 36.axb4 Kf6 37.Kd3 Ke6 38.Kd4 Ra7 39.c6 Ra2 40.Rc5 Ra8 41.Rxb5 and Springfield resigned. 1-0
New York Clipper, January 11, 1873

Five years later, Mrs. Gilbert was to again be involved in a consultation game by electronic correspondence, but under somewhat less serious conditions than the match with Springfield. A new device, less than two years old, called a "telephone" was being installed in a few homes in Hartford, and Mrs. Gilbert, along with John G. Belden, the chess editor of the Hartford Times, and two other local chessplayers were invited to use the private line of a local doctor for a game. "A good deal of fun, besides chess, was indulged in", wrote Hazeltine in his January 19, 1878 Clipper column, "which, probably, somewhat reduced the standard of play. It was a Petroff's Knights Game, with many interesting positions, and at the thirty-sixth move was left unfinished, the lady and her partner having the better position versus the antagonist's one pawn more."

But such consultation games were a comparative rarity for Mrs. Gilbert. Most of her chess energies were devoted to playing individuals through the mails. When Miron Hazeltine's chess column in the New York Clipper celebrated its "Millennium", or one thousandth column, there were two guest contributors of games: Louis Paulsen, the celebrated German master, and Mrs. Gilbert. Her win over South Carolina champion Isaac Edward Orchard featured detailed notes by Miron Hazeltine, probably based on her own comments although the column doesn't identify the annotator. Both this win over Orchard and the following victory over Hotchkin, annotated by Zuckertort, demonstrate just how much "book-learning" of the openings Mrs. Gilbert had acquired, as well as how much her play was respected.

 

Isaac Edward Orchard - Ellen Gilbert [C45]
Correspondence, 1875
Annotations by Miron Hazeltine
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 exd4 4.Nxd4 This form of the debut is worth more than a passing notice. Walker as far back as 1837 marked this "bad, though frequently played", and indicated the proper counter-march (as above) as one "recently introduced to the notice of the chess world by a member of the London C. Cc." The Handbuch, 5th edition, p.145, informs us that this was Mr. Pulling. 4...Qh4 5.Nf3? For what? If anything can be said to be best where all is bad, it is probably 5.Qd3 . But how little vitality is left, even in this, is well shown in the Handbuch, e.g.: 5...Nf6 (better than 5...Nxd4 ) 6.Nxc6 dxc6 7.e5 (7.Nd2 would make Black's win more difficult.) 7...Bc5 8.Be3 Bxe3 9.Qxe3 Ng4 10.Qe2 Qe7 11.f4 Qb4+ with a winning game.; The move in the text is said to be Fraser's, but the attack may try Horwitz's move 5.Nb5 , for if 5...Bc5 (but if 5...Qxe4+ 6.Be2 Bb4+ (if 6...Bc5 there is a striking variation, showing how really futile is White's threat to take the c pawn: 7.Nxc7+ Kd8 8.Nxa8 Nd4 9.Nc3 Nxc2+ 10.Kf1 Qf5 11.Bf3 Nf6 12.Rb1 Re8 13.Bd2 Ng4 and wins.) 7.Nd2 or 7.Bd2, and, in any case, Black obtains the superior game.) the attack speedily gets a superior position by 6.Qf3 Nd4 7.Nxc7+ Kd8 8.Qf4 (For this fine move we are indebted to the genius of Mr. Staunton.) 8...Nxc2+ 9.Kd1 Qxf4 10.Bxf4 with the better game. 5...Qxe4+ 6.Be2 Qe7 7.0-0 Qd8 8.Bc4 Nf6 9.Re1+ Be7 10.Nc3 0-0 11.Bg5 d6 12.Qd2 Bg4 13.Qe3 Bxf3

14.gxf3 This shows on what Mr. Orchard hangs a last desperate hope. 14...Re8 15.Kh1 Nh5 16.Qd2 Bxg5 17.Rxe8+ Qxe8 18.Qxg5 Qe5 19.Qh4 Nd4 20.Qg4 Nf6 21.Qg2 Nxc2 22.Rg1 Of course; but how completely useless! 22...g6 23.f4 Qxf4 24.Qxb7 Re8 25.Qc6 Nb4 Furnishing as neat and compact a win as could be desired. 0-1
New York Clipper, February 15, 1876

 

Mr. Hotchkin - Ellen Gilbert [C51]
Correspondence, 1874
Annotations by Johannes Zuckertort, condensed from The Westminster Papers.
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.d5 Na5 10.Bb2 Ne7 11.Bd3 0-0 12.Nc3 Ng6 13.Ne2 c5 14.Qd2 Bc7 15.Ng3 f6 16.Kh1 Rb8 17.Rac1 b5 18.Nf5 c4 19.Be2

19... Qe8 All the preceding moves are played according to the best specimens of this variation of the Evans. After having shown a good knowledge of the theory of this opening, Mrs. Gilbert devises a novelty which is by no means easy to meet. 20.Ng3 A retreat is generally not favorable, but in an attacking opening like this, retreat is identical to defeat. The course Mr. Hotchkin ought to have adopted here was 20.N3d4 Qxe4 21.Bf3 Qe8 22.Ne6 Bxe6 23.dxe6 and though two pawns minus we prefer his game. 20...Nb7 21.Nd4 Nc5 22.Rfe1 Ne5 Mrs. Gilbert now conducts the game to the end in a most vigorous style; every move brings a new piece into action. 23.Rc2 Ned3 24.Bxd3 Nxd3 25.Re2 Bb6 26.f4 Bg4 27.Nf3 Qc8 28.Nf1 A blunder, but the game was lost anyhow. If 28.Bc3 a5 29.a3 b4 , etc. 28...Nxb2 0-1
New York Clipper, January 16, 1875

Just as her games attracted a Zuckertort or Steinitz to annotate them, so did Mrs. Gilbert's games attracted the attention of organizers of postal matches, who sought her out for their teams. In 1877 Mrs. Gilbert twice beat the Canadian chess player A. Hood, winner of the second Canadian Correspondence Championship in 1875. In both of the games with Hood, Mrs. Gilbert indulged in a pleasurable but undoubtedly laborious activity common among correspondence players of the era, and announced a lengthy forced mate, one in eleven moves, the other in twelve.

 

A. Hood - Ellen Gilbert [C25]
Correspondence, 1876
Annotations by Miron Hazeltine
1.e4 e5 2.Nc3 Nc6 3.f4 exf4 4.h4 Be7 5.Nf3 d6 6.d4 6.Nd5 would have been better. 6...Bg4 7.Bb5 Bxh4+ 8.Kf1 Bf6 Anticipating the advance of d pawn. 9.d5 9.Bxc6+ was quite as strong. 9...a6 10.Ba4 10.Bxc6+ looks better. 10...Bxc3 11.dxc6 b5! 12.bxc3 bxa4 13.Qd4 f6 14.Bxf4 Ne7 15.Qxa4 0-0 16.Nd4 Ng6 17.g3 Ne5 18.Kf2 18.Kg2 would have been better. 18...Qe8 19.Rab1 g5 20.Bd2 f5 21.Bxg5 fxe4+ 22.Ke3 Weak, but probably nothing would have averted defeat. 22...d5 23.Bf4 Nc4+ 24.Kf2 e3+ 25.Kg1 e2 26.Re1

and Mrs. Gilbert announced mate in 12 moves! 0-1
New York Clipper, September 8, 1876

 

Ellen Gilbert - A. Hood [C70]
Correspondence, 1876
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 b5 5.Bb3 Bc5 6.c3 d6 7.d4 exd4 8.cxd4 Bb6 9.Bd5 Nge7 10.Nc3 Nxd5 11.Nxd5 Ba7 12.Qc2 Bb7 13.Be3 0-0 14.0-0 Rc8 15.Rad1 Ne7 16.Nf4 Qd7 17.Ng5 h6 18.Ngh3 g5 19.Nh5 f5 20.Qb3+ Kh7 21.Bxg5 hxg5 22.Nxg5+ Kh6 23.Qh3 Kxg5 24.Rd3 Kg6 25.Nf4+ Kf7 26.Qh5+ Ng6 27.Nxg6 Ke6 28.d5+ Kf6 29.Rf3 Kg7 30.Nxf8 Rxf8 31.Qg5+ Kf7 32.Rxf5+ Qxf5 33.exf5

and Mr. Hood resigns, but one move too late, for Mrs. Gilbert, "The Queen of Chess", now announces mate in 11 moves. 1-0
New York Clipper, November 11, 1876

Her penchant for analysis, so suited for correspondence chess, flowered when it came to announcing checkmate. Perhaps her first public display of this talent was in a struggle with a Mr. Berry of Massachusetts in 1874. As the game was first published, Mrs. Gilbert claimed a mate in nineteen moves. She later corrected her announcement, showing that mate could be forced in eighteen moves instead - and incidentally showing how determined she was to get to the truth in a position.

 

Ellen Gilbert - Mr. Berry [C80]
Correspondence, 1875
Annotations by Miron Hazeltine based on comments by Ellen Gilbert
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.0-0 Nxe4 6.Re1 Nc5 7.Bxc6 dxc6 8.d4 Ne6 9.dxe5 Not book, but seems equally good. 9...Qe7 We prefer 9...Bd7 10.Nc3 Bd7 11.a4 0-0-0 12.b3 f6 13.Qe2 13.exf6 would isolate Black's pawns, but it would also prove damaging to her own game by opening a file for a strong attack on her right wing. 13...Qf7 14.Ne4 Rg8 15.c3 h6 16.b4 f5 17.Ng3 g5 18.Nd4 Nxd4 19.cxd4 Re8 Better than 19...Bxb4 , for if the latter, Mr. Berry would lose a piece. 20.b5! cxb5 21.axb5 Bxb5 22.e6 Qg6 23.Qxb5 f4

And Mrs Gilbert announced mate in 19 moves. 1-0

Mrs. Gilbert's announced mate at first ran 23...f4 24.Rxa6 bxa6 25.Qxa6+ Kb8 26.Qb5+ Kc8 27.Qd7+ Kb8 28.Bxf4 gxf4 29.Qb5+ Kc8 30.Ra1 Ba3 31.Rxa3 Qb1+ 32.Qxb1 Rxe6 33.Ra7 Kd7 34.Qb5+ Rc6 and at this point she found that she could have mated a move sooner by playing d5. Her analysis appeared in the September 18, 1875 issue of the New York Clipper chess column. 35.Nf5 (The corrected announcement ran 35.d5 Rgg6 36.dxc6+ Rxc6 (If 36...Ke6 37.Qf5+ Kd6 38.Ne4+ Kxc6 39.Ra6+ Kb7 40.Nc5+ Kb8 41.Qf8#) 37.Ne4 f3 38.Qd5+ Rd6 39.Qxd6+ Ke8 40.Qxc7 fxg2 41.Ra8#) 35...Re8 36.Qd5+ Kc8 37.Nd6+ Kd7 38.Nxe8+ Ke7 39.Qxc6 Kf8 40.Rxc7 Kg8 41.Qg6+ Kf8 42.Qf7#

Her greatest challenge, however, and the one which keeps her name alive in books on chess history, was the International Postal Card Match of 1878 between the United States and Great Britain. The match organizer was John G. Belden, chess editor of the Hartford Times. Being very familiar with Mrs. Gilbert's skill in analysis, he invited her to play for the American team. She was paired with British master and chess writer George Hatfield Dingley Gossip for a series of four games.

Chess writers from his own time to ours have often reviled Gossip, but at his best he was a minor master capable of first-rate play. Whether he underestimated his fair opponent or not, Gossip was thoroughly crushed in the four games. Mrs. Gilbert's four points led to the American team winning the match by a margin of twenty-seven to twenty-three. Gossip's play also allowed Mrs. Gilbert to exercise her love of analysis by giving her the chance to announce a mate in twenty-three moves in one game, and a mate in thirty-five in another. These two announced mate positions are frequently given in books and on the Internet; not desiring to recycle them yet again, we present instead two of the match games, with annotations from the New York Clipper chess column.

 

Ellen Gilbert - George Gossip [C80]
International Postal Card Match, 1877
Annotations condensed from the Hartford Times
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.0-0 Nxe4 6.Re1 Nc5 7.Bxc6 dxc6 8.Nxe5 Be7 9.d4 Ne6 10.Be3 0-0 11.Nc3 f6 12.Nd3 f5 13.Ne2 Bd6 14.f4 b5 We are of the opinion that Black had a better move at his command. 15.Rc1 Bb7 16.c4 Taking immediate advantage of Black's weak fourteenth move. Mrs. Gilbert threatens to advance on the Bishop, causing it to retreat, and hemming in the Bishop on b7. 16...bxc4 17.Nc5 Better than 17.Rxc4 at once. 17...Bc8 18.Rxc4 Rb8 19.b3 Qf6 20.Qd3 Qg6 21.Ra4 Nxc5 22.dxc5 Be7 23.Nd4 Kh8 24.Qc2 Bh4 25.Bf2 Bxf2+ 26.Qxf2 Re8 27.Nf3 Bb7 28.Ne5 The Knight, supported as it is, proves a tower of strength. 28...Qe6 29.Rc4 Rbd8 30.Rc3 Qf6 31.Rce3 Rf8 32.Qe2 The key to the winning combination. 32...Rd4 Imagining, perhaps, that White would be compelled to support the pawn - overlooking the powerful continuation. 33.Qh5 g6 Having no time for 33...Rxf4 as White's 34.Rh3 would win a piece. 34.Qh6 Rdd8 35.Rh3 Qg7

Mrs. Gilbert announced mate in 21 moves. 1-0
New York Clipper, August 31, 1879

 

George Gossip - Ellen Gilbert [C42]
International Postal Card Match, 1877
Annotations by Gustavus Reichhelm
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.Nxe5 3.d4 or 3.Nc3 are really more subtle and dangerous attacks. This game, a fine contribution to the opening, affords a striking illustration of the power of Mrs. Gilbert's play. 3...d6 4.Nf3 Nxe4 5.d4 d5 6.Bd3 Nc6 7.0-0 Be7 8.c4 Be6 9.Qb3 White pursues his attack in accordance with the general theory of the opening. 9...0-0 Best. Black now threatens ...dxc4 and ...Na5. 10.Bxe4 If 10.Qxb7 , then the defense rejoin with ...Na4 and ...Nxc4 with the preferable development. By the move in the text, Mr. Gossip opens the d file which he expects to use to the detriment of Black's interests. 10...dxe4 11.d5 exf3 12.dxc6 b6 I must for once take issue with this beautifully conducted defense and counterattack. I prefer 12...bxc6 with the view of, at the proper moment, utilizing the b file. 13.Rd1 Qc8 14.Nc3 A grave error. White's only move here is 14.Bf4 14...Bd6 From this point the Lady Champion assumes the counterattack and conducts it with such remarkable accuracy and force that her noted adversary is soon forced to strike his colors. 15.gxf3 Qe8 16.Qa4 f6 17.Qb3 Qg6+ 18.Kh1 Qh5 19.Kg1 Bxh2+ 20.Kf1 Qxf3 21.Nd5 Qh1+ 22.Ke2 Bg4+

23.Kd2 Mr. Gossip might have resigned hereabouts with perfect propriety. 23...Qg2 24.Kc3 Be5+ 25.Kc2 Bxd1+ 26.Kxd1 Qxf2 27.Bd2 Rad8 28.Kc2 Qf5+ 29.Qd3 Qxd3+ 30.Kxd3 Bxb2 31.Rg1 Be5 32.Bh6 Rf7 33.Be3 Rd6 34.Rb1 Rxc6 0-1
American Chess Journal, July 1879
New York Clipper, July 14, 1879

The results of the games, as well as the announced mates, caused a sensation in the chess world. Her townsman and friend John Belden declared the games against Gossip "stamp Mrs. Gilbert with the impress of genius." Steinitz annotated two of Mrs. Gilbert's games for The Field; poetry, good and bad, was written to the new "Queen of Chess", and at least one chess problem composed in her honor.

 

Mate in Three - J. Zim
"Q", 1879

Q - dedicated to the Queen of Chess, in honor of her first victory in the International Tourney. 1-0
New York Clipper, July 19, 1879.

 

Unfortunately for Mrs. Gilbert, this victory over Gossip appears to be the high mark for her chess career. The Queen's reign was indeed a short one. Her name is missing from the list of entrants to the prominent correspondence tournaments of the 1880s, and she did not participate in the next major correspondence match, against Canada in 1887. Aside from playing one move in a "circulating game" in 1883 her career ends with the wins over Gossip. Her obituary notice mentioned "loss of sight" in "late years"; she was forty-two when she defeated Gossip, and perhaps she was already suffering the early symptoms of blindness.

Ellen E. Gilbert passed away on February 12, 1900. Aside from a brief obituary in the British Chess Magazine, little notice was made of her death by the chess world. The Hartford Times in an obituary called Mrs. Gilbert "a lady of fine character, much esteemed by her friends, and as modest as she was kind." Unfortunately, the modesty in which she conducted her life applied to her chess, and it remains in control of her chess legacy. We are indeed fortunate to have the games we do from her chess career, when society and family forced Mrs. Gilbert's chess to the field of correspondence play.

Problem Key: 1.Rc5

© 2005 Neil R. Brennen. All rights reserved.

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