|John S. Hilbert has previously contributed several articles to this web site. He is the author of Buffalo Chess Tournaments, 1901 and 1894 (Caissa Editions 1996) and Napier: The Forgotten Chessmaster (Caissa Editions 1997) and edits Lasker & His Contemporaries, a journal of chess history (Issue 5 is now available and Issue 6 will be coming out soon). Through his writings John demonstrates the joys of chess historical research and brings to life our rich chess past. His careful attention to detail in his thorough research is evident in the following entertaining article. He can be reached at email@example.com.|
by John S. Hilbert
How does the typical chess column of today stack up against its predecessors? How does today's chess coverage in newspapers match up with what the average person could find a hundred years ago? Doesn't international telecommunications provide extraordinary advances in coverage, including the latest results from current tournaments half-way round the world? Could there be any comparison at all with the much slower paced and hence less valuable coverage of days gone by? The answers may or may not surprise you, depending on how familiar you are with chess columns in general.
Let's look for a moment at what for sake of argument appears to be one of today's typical columns. The major newspaper in my city (why name it? The circulation and size are similar to dozens of others) runs a weekly chess column (why single it out? Many do not differ in essentials). It appears in its Saturday issue, which in turn shows up on my side steps in time for my breakfast. The chess column runs with the comics, which to the cynical mind is more than mere coincidence. It is nationally syndicated, written by a name I know. The column gives one game, usually fairly currentat least within the last month. No notes. A brief write up appears, usually related somehow to the game in question, and often telling some general points about the winner or else the tournament in which it was played. I know for a fact that the syndicated column offers a chess problem each week because, while visiting relatives out of state, I found the same column in their local paper. My local paper, though, does not run the problem, possibly to save space.
In the course of a typical month, then, my local paper runs four chess games, none with notes, no chess problems, and some general commentary. In the past few weeks a game Kasparov played on the Internet appears, no doubt because he lost, and then there was a game by Judit Polgar, and two others by players less memorable than either of these. In a month with five Saturdays my chess diet increases by twenty-five percent. I don't recall any coverage of chess appearing elsewhere in the paper during the past month. This, too, strikes me as typical.
So how does this probably typical monthly scenario measure up against the past? Hold onto your chess boards, ladies and gentleman, as we travel a hundred years back, back to the pages of the Philadelphia Public Ledger, a comparable paper for a nearly comparable town. More specifically, let's travel back to September 1897an ordinary month in an otherwise ordinary chess year.
The first point of comparison, and the first surprise, comes before the paper is even opened. In my town the press has been reduced, essentially, to one major paper ... not so Philadelphia around the turn of the century. The Public Ledger chess column, written by Emil Kemeny, had something my paper's column couldn't even conceive of: competition. Within a few years either way, the Ledger would face columns in the Philadelphia Bulletin (Reichhelm), the Philadelphia Inquirer (Walter Penn Shipley), the Philadelphia Item, and others. No, they didn't necessarily run all at the same, exact time, though a number of them did. But a second paper, much less a second chess column, hasn't published in my town for many years and certainly not three, four, five or more such papers and columns.
The comparisons come thick and heavy as soon as the actual columns are read. My town's paper runs a syndicated column, one butchered by the editorial office, as it is stripped of its chess problem, and runs it in with the comics. Every week I read chess across from Garfield, Peanuts, and the rest of the bunch. Not so for the Public Ledger, where Kemeny's column appeared with the restof the news, sometime the sporting news, other times politics (which, again, the cynical sort might say is just another flavor of the sporting news). Indeed, the physical placement of chess columns, now and then, are just about as far apart as the distance between good news and bad jokes.
But to return to the chess. Kemeny gave only one game in each of his columns. But Kemeny's column wasn't syndicated, and Kemeny lived with and played against many of the folks he reported about. Local players writing about other local players, at least at times. How refreshing! And to make the point even more bracing, Kemeny started the Ledger's chess coverage for the month of September 1897 on Friday, September 3, 1897, with a victory by a local player intake a deep breatha correspondence game. He introduced the game as follows: "An unusually interesting game in the late Continental Correspondence tourney between Messrs. J. S. Hale, of Canada, and Mordecai Morgan, of this city, resulted in a victory for the local player. The game was strongly contested, and not until the twenty-ninth move was Mr. Morgan enabled to obtain any advantage. At that point a brilliant play, apparently involving the sacrifice of a pawn, gave him a winning position. The play from this point to the end abounded in intricate complications, and it required skill and accuracy to force a win. Mr. Morgan succeeded in doing it; he won the exchange on the forty-second move, and five moves later his opponent surrendered, the position then being a hopeless one."
Not bad. Now I have a clear sense of the game, even without notes. Did someone say without notes? Guess again, then read 'em and weep:
J.S. Hale - Mordecai Morgan
Had this column shown up on my side step IN Saturday morning's paper, chances are I'd still be playing the game over at lunch. And maybe again the following day. Is it any wonder so many players kept scrapbooks a hundred years ago, with material like this to collect? Is it any wonder those scrapbooks wereoften very heavy?
With this kind of coverage, not only of a local player but of a correspondence game, one can easily imagine Kemeny building quite a following waiting for his Friday columns. Those who did wait for his Friday columns would have been disappointed, however. Why? Because they would have missed a good deal of coverage.
In fact, they better have finished up playing over the Hale - Morgan game from Friday's paper, because the next day, Saturday, September 4, 1897, Kemeny was right back in action, reporting on a seven player, double round robin event being played in town at the Steinitz Chess Club, a minor club that actually played its games, at least for this tournament, at the city's most prestigious chess location, the Franklin Chess Club (which survives to this day, by the way, in merged form, as the Franklin-Mercantile Chess Club). The game from the Steinitz Club tournament was also annotated, and two chess problems accompanied that column.
Imagine two columns in one week with the kind of detailed notes given in the game above. Can you imagine it? Okay, now imagine three. That's right. With Sunday off, Kemeny was right back on duty Monday, with a September 6, 1897 Ledger column devoted to a consultation game (now there's a lost art, consultation play). This time the game selected was from out of town, though just up north, at the Brooklyn Chess Club. And who were the lucky unknowns selected for these honors? Why, the New York State Junior Champion, some one named Frank Marshall along with a fellow named Chadwick formed one team. And who did they beat? Just a kid, one named William Ewart Napier, playing with another fellow, this one named Elwell.
Chadwick and Elwell were both well-known members of the well-respected Brooklyn Chess Club. Their contributions are well beyond the score of this article as are, for that matter, their rather better known companions Marshall and Napier. Suffice it to say that of the latter two, one became champion of the United States (1909), while the other, and younger, became first British Chess Federation champion (1904). The consultation game was annotated in detail by Kemeny, just as he had annotated the games for his two previous columns of that week.
By now the happy, though winded, chess playing subscriber to the Public Ledger no doubt needed a break. And no doubt so did Kemeny, as one assumes he indulged in most normal habits, at least on occasion, such as eating, sleeping, and earning a living. The next column did not appear until Friday, September 10, 1897, when Kemeny annotated a game between Schieffelin and Stuart from the New York - Philadelphia inter-state contest played at Thousand Islands, New York, the previous month. Three days later, on September 13, 1897, Kemeny gave Schelecter - Thiring, Vienna 1897 the same treatment. Another three days passed before a game from a local match between Ferris and Voigt appeared.
Then, on the following day, Friday September 17, 1897, readers of the Ledger were once more treated to Kemeny's handling of a correspondence game. This one, too, was from the Continental Correspondence Tournament (which, by the way, had been initiated by local players including Walter Penn Shipley). If anything, the notes were longer and more detailed than in the Hale - Morgan game given two weeks earlier.
Once again, Kemeny gave a useful introduction to the game. Another distinction between now and then was that a hundred years ago some politeness was shown in introducing the protagonists, a lesson long forgotten though perhaps worthy of remembrance: "Mr. Julius A. Kaiser succeeded in defeating Mr. J. S. Hale, of Canada, in a splendidly contested game in the final round of the Continental Correspondence Tourney, which was finished last week. Mr. Kaiser selected the Queen's Gambit, which was declined by his opponent. Soon an interesting struggle ensued on the kingside, and, though the attack looked quite threatening, Mr. Hale was enabled to hold his own. The game abounded in interesting complications, and the play on both sides was of a high standing. The end game was a particularly instructive one. Mr. Hale missed a drawing chance, and his opponent quickly took advantage of it. Mr. Kaiser's sixty-fourth move, which won the game, is especially noteworthy."
Julius A. Kaiser - J.S. Hale
Playing over this one I would have missed my breakfast and lunch. Dinner would have been in serious doubt. My newspaper boy would have been seeking disability payments for the hernia he had developed carrying around bags of newspapers weighed down with the ink devoted to chess annotations. And neither of us would have had a chance to catch our breath, as Kemeny and the Ledger the next day, Saturday, September 18, 1897, would offer an annotated game recently won by Baron Rothchild in Paris. Two more chess problems graced the pages of the Saturday edition, as they had the previous week.
By Monday, however, after his day of rest, Kemeny had another correspondence chess offering. This one, though, instead of extending through a difficult and very instructive endgame like the game above, proved a miniature. The column, entitled "One of the Shortest and Best Games of the Continental Tournament," once more included a nice synopsis of the play: "The game played in the recent Continental Correspondence Tourney between Messrs. L'hommede, of Chicago, and Webster, of Boston, was a short one, but very brilliant, and resulted in a victory for the former. Mr. Webster did not select the best opening moves, and his opponent had a chance to establish a powerful attack by means of a brilliant piece sacrifice on the ninth turn. The continuation from this point was a lively one. Mr. Webster might have escaped defeat, but his fourteenth and seventeenth moves were inferior, and his game soon became hopeless. The battle might have been prolonged by means of a piece sacrifice on the eighteenth move. Mr. Webster, however, endeavoring to save the knight, got in a position where he could not escape immediate defeat, and on his twentieth turn he surrendered."
Hollis Webster - L'hommede
Surely now the pace and frequency of chess columns would slow down for the hard-breathing reader. Not true ... the very next day, Kemeny annotated another nice miniature, this time a game from the Southampton tournament for the Sir George Newnes Amateur Challenge Cup. The winner, H. E. Atkins, would go on to win the British Chess Federation Championship many times starting in 1905, and was also become a regular player on the British Cable Match team. His opponent in the Kemeny column, W. H. Gunston, would play in one cable match, that of 1903, where on ninth board he defeated Brooklyn club player and future American Chess Bulletin annotator, Clarence Seaman Howell. The Atkins - Gunston game is a nice specimen of Atkin's early play, and a game not readily available today.
On Wednesday, September 23, 1897, the day after the Atkins game appeared, Kemeny annotated another correspondence chess game, though one not taken from the locally run Continental Chess Correspondence Tournament. The fireworks are quite pretty, and once more Kemeny's annotations allow the average player to witness much of the game's hidden beauty.
Dr. Michaelson - H. Caro
Thursday, September 24, 1897, the very next day, Kemeny treated his readers to his own victory over Eugene Delmar from the inter-state chess match played in August at Thousand Islands. I should mention that both this game, as well as the Schieffelin - Stuart game from the same event published in the Ledger for September 10, 1897, are exceedingly difficult games to find. I know. I've been trying to locate as many Thousand Islands 1897 chess games as I can for a bit of future writing.
Finally, on Saturday, September 25, 1897, Kemeny took at least a partial break. The Ledger ran the chess column, as usual on Saturdays, but no annotated game, or any game, appeared. The usual two problems were present, however, as well as some information about the Brooklyn Chess Club asking the Franklin Chess Club of Philadelphia for some assistance in the next cable match. Monday, September 27, 1897 saw Kemeny return with renewed vigor, annotating Blackburne - Cohn from Berlin 1897. Just before the end of the month, on September 29, 1897, Kemeny annotated one other game, this one Walbrodt's victory over Charousek from the same tournament.
So ended chess activity in the Philadelphia Public Ledger for September 1897. Kemeny had contributed an astonishing fifteen chess columns during the month, including fourteen deeply annotated games. Need more be said as to how now and then compare when it comes to chess columns?
And before anyone thinks I'm taking unfair advantage by selecting Kemeny's column from the Ledger, think of this: as remarkable as it was for Kemeny to contribute fifteen columns during a thirty day month, by today's standards it is even more remarkable that a general circulation newspaper would run all fifteen of them. Kemeny's annotations were more extensive than most during the period, but his coverage of events, both locally and nationally, was not. Indeed, his coverage of events was mostly non-existent, and certainly so when compared to other chess columns of the times, including Hermann Helms's long-running column for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. That column ran from 1893 with only a few relatively minor interruptions until 1954, when the paper foldedan incredible sixty-one years. And both columns, Kemeny's and Helms's, used about the same column space, though for somewhat different purposes.
The real point of my comparing chess columns between now and then, however, isn't to bash the syndicated columns of today, but to suggest just how entertaining, informative, and fascinating a local column, written by a local player, could once more be in just about any major metropolitan area. Such a column would be extraordinarily refreshing, a major boost to local club play, and well worth saving by breakfast readers like myself.
There are very good chess columns today, just as there were horrible columns one hundred years ago. And the costs of publishing, including paper, printing and payment for local coverage, just to name a few areas, are ever so much higher today than in times past. But those facts don't change the basic point: by and large we have lost much more than we have gained in terms of extensive, detailed chess coverage with highly entertaining material appearing on our steps for consumption along with cereal and eggs.
Of course, it need not be that way. To be fair, especially in terms of cost, one might better examine the availability of local, state, and regional chess coverage through today's ever-growing medium: the Internet. After all, where are you reading this column? Yes, the future in all likelihood does not bode well for detailed chess coverage reappearing in the daily print press. Perhaps the continued growth of Internet chess coverage will offer readers the same detail, delight, and wonder as did the chess columns of so long ago. Whether that coverage dissolves into the plain and tranquil waters of international syndication, or maintains individual identity, both in writing and in subject matter, is a question only time will answer. Then it will be time for another comparison of chess columns, now and then.
Copyright © 1998 by John S. Hilbert
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