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John S. Hilbert, 44, a federal attorney and previously an English Instructor at Louisiana State University, was born in Moorestown, NJ. His degrees include a BA, MA, and Ph.D. in English, and a J.D. with practice experience in environmental and Social Security law. He has in the past served on the editorial board of The Henry James Review as well as The Buffalo Law Review. He currently lives with his wife, Linda, and young daughter, Robin, near Buffalo, New York, where he finds himself sinking ever deeper under piles of chess books, xeroxes of old chess columns, and photos of chess players. He is the author of Buffalo Chess Tournaments, 1901 and 1894 (Caissa Editions 1996) and Napier: The Forgotten Chessmaster (Caissa Editions 1997). He also edits a revived journal of chess history, Lasker & His Contemporaries (Issue 5 is now available through its publisher, Chessco), and is ever seeking new material for future issues. A third book, New Yor k 1940, a detailed story of the first United States Chess Championship under the auspices of the then-fledgling USCF, has been completed and with luck should be out within the year. Currently John is working with co-author and fellow chess historian Dale Brandreth on a detailed biography and game collection about the notorious Norman T. Whitaker, chess master and criminal. Readers who have recollections of Whitaker and would care to share them are invited to contact John at firstname.lastname@example.org.
by John S. Hilbert
Readers old enough to recall the series of popular nature and food books put out by Euell Gibbons should easily catch the allusion in the title. Though Gibbons was probably best known for his Stalking the Wild Asparagus, my own favorite is his work on surviving a seashore vacation in good gastronomic fashion, Stalking the Blue-Eyed Scallop. Who indeed could resist a book with chapters bearing such exotic and imaginative titles as "How to Cook a Sea Serpent," or the surprisingly more utilitarian, though no less exciting, "The Purple Snail or Dog Whelk"?
What fascinates me the most about Gibbons' book on searching for delightful edibles while beachcombing is the same thing that draws me to the search for the scores of long-forgotten chess games: the ability to make happy use of common, ordinary materials gathered at little or no expense. Just as Gibbons could turn largely ignored sea creatures into a gourmet feast, lovers of chess history can turn to their local libraries and, with patience, a little knowledge, and more than a little luck, find interesting treasures equally worthy of being "devoured." And all for the cost of some time and a dime for a xerox.
Sometimes the search for our chess past has unforseen consequences. I have written elsewhere in detail of finding three simultaneous exhibition games played by Alekhine that had long been forgotten ("Alekhine: Forgotten Games," Lasker & His Contemporaries, Issue 5, pp. 60-62). To briefly recount, I had learned from Donaldson, Minev, and Seirawan's Alekhine in the Americas that the then-world champion had played a 38 game simultaneous exhibition in my home city, Buffalo, New York, on November 16, 1932. A trip downtown to Buffalo's central library and a couple hours spent in examining local papers on microfilm had happily resulted in my finding some detailed reports, and game scores, from the event in the Buffalo Evening News. As it turned out, three of the four game scores I located were long forgotten by the chess community. I sent the scores to Kenneth Whyld, chess author, historian, and columnist for the British Chess Magazine. Not only did I get to know Ken, a pleasure in itself, as well as see one of the games published in his "Notes and Queries" column, but there was another benefit. Just last week I purchased Skinner and Verhoeven's massive, newly released 807 page work, Alexander Alekhine's Chess Games, 1902-1946 (McFarland 1998). Apparently Ken Whyld had sent along the three games I found to Skinner and Verhoeven, and there they were, games numbered 1549-1551, with my name given as providing them! I hope you'll forgive me the vanity of enjoying seeing my name associated, in ever so minor a fashion, with one of the greatest chess players the world has ever known.
While not every "find" will lead to your name being mentioned in the history books, that really isn't the point. My greatest pleasure from the experience was knowing that, no matter in how small a fashion, I had added to the sum total of our shared chess past, and that my efforts might one day give pleasure to someone else who plays over those games. And the same pleasure is mineand can be yoursevery time a small bit of chess history is unearthed.
I find the pleasure of stalking chess scores and chess history just as compelling when my efforts are directed to more local affairs. Buffalo is a city rich in chess over the past hundred years. In 1894, for example, the Buffalo Chess and Whist Club hosted the mid-summer meeting of the New York State Chess Association. A small double round tournament was held at that time. The winner, Showalter, beat none other than Harry Nelson Pillsbury in the final round, to assure himself first place. While Pillsbury in 1894 was not yet the Pillsbury of Hastings 1895, he was well-known in the United States, and was even referred to by some as "the Morphy of the North." I turned the coverage of that event, as well as of a similar one won by Pillsbury in Buffalo in 1901, into a book released by Caissa Editions in 1996.
And the stalking of chess scores can lead to some interesting finds, both for over the board play as well as correspondence chess. For instance, in searching for information in the now-defunct Albany Evening Journal, I unexpectedly ran across two Buffalo club correspondence chess games. The notes are by Pollock, who himself played a few months later at Hastings 1895, though hardly with Pillsbury's success:
Albany - Buffalo [B01] Correspondence Match (1), 1895
Not the greatest of chess, but entertaining nevertheless. For completeness sake, here is the other game of the inter-city match. And note the warning for all correspondence players in accurately keeping records!
Buffalo - Albany [C22] Correspondence Match (2), 1895
Correspondence chess games are even harder to research than most. No specific dates, as for tournaments, limiting the search through newspaper microfilm, are available to aid those stalking correspondence chess games. And such games are more likely than not to be informal affairs, not highly advertised or promoted. Yet finds still occur, and sometimes of a very local nature. For example, here is one correspondence chess game involving a player from a town very close to my own. The game was found while reading through a local paper's chess column.
R.S. Cantwell (St. Louis) - Vernon Gable (North Tonawanda, NY) [D36] Correspondence Game, 1946
And so, from games played by a world champion to the correspondence chess efforts of local enthusiasts, the stalking of historic chess game scores offers hours and hours of entertainment for the person with persistence, time, and interest. And game scores alone are not the reward. I have learned of local chess players, following their careers from a hundred years ago. I have visited the graveside of one local talent who played against Showalter, Pillsbury, and Albin here in Buffalo on those long ago summer days of 1894, after having learned from his obituary in a local paper about his cause of death, surviving family, and even which members of the Buffalo Chess and Whist Club acted as poll bearers for him. I suspect I have been the last person to visit his grave in at least fifty years. The trip was for me a pleasant outing, enriched by the knowledge of local chess lore earned by a few hours in the library.
And of course, that is the point: pleasure well earned, enriching and fulfilling in its unfolding. Why not try your hand at stalking the blue-eyed chess scores on your beach? You might be glad you did.
Copyright © 1998 by John S. Hilbert, all rights reserved
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