Birmingham Congress (1858) — a first look



1st CA Meeting – Birmingham Congress (1858)          Aug 24 – Sept 23, 1858.
                                                                                                 1st – Loewenthal,   2nd – Falkbeer

                                                                                                 Sixteen player, KO format, international tournament.

                                                                                                 (Three two-win preliminary rounds, three-win final round.)


This tournament is as famous for the 8-board blindfold simul that Morphy gave on Friday, August 27th as it is for the actual tournament games.  Held during the 1st Meeting of the newly named Chess Association, it represented the efforts of this organization to encompass all of Britain in sponsoring world-class chess.


(Click on image to enlarge)

The tournament was won by Lowenthal. The recently arrived American, Paul Morphy, had initially signed up to play in the tournament, but withdrew before it began. Due to the unfortunate timing of this withdrawal, and the lack of available players, no replacement was found and so Morphy’s name was included in the initial lot drawing. His first round games were therefore forfeited to his opponent, Mr. C.F. Smith, who had agreed to participate only to complete the needed 16-players. In fact, Mr. Smith himself withdrew from the tournament the very next round, without ever playing a single game.


(Click on image to enlarge)

Before giving the synopsis for the tournament, let me comment that the above xtabs were prepared from a PGN file that includes stub games to reflect the correct tournament results – 4 forfeits (mentioned above) and 21 missing games.

Description This was the 1st Meeting of the Chess Association, which was the name adopted in the Manchester (1857) meeting of the formerly named Northern and Midland Counties Chess Association¹. The tournament was international in character, involving leading players from Europe and America. It is the 4th major tournament listed in the Fifty Tournaments of G. Reichhelm². Although Morphy did not participate in the main tournament, his 8-board blindfold simul given at the tournament was widely acclaimed³.

This tournament marked a high point in Loewenthal’s tournament career. On the other hand, Staunton’s 0-2 elimination by Loewenthal essentially marked the end of Staunton’s career, revealing him to have fallen permanently out of the world’s most powerful players. The same could be said of St. Amant, although, being ten years older than Staunton, expectations were less.

When  24th August – 23rd September, 1858. The Congress itself went from 24th to 27th August, after which the unfinished games were played in London.

Where  Queen’s College, Birmingham³ and London (Philidorian Chess Rooms and St. Georges’ Chess Club)⁵.

Format  16 player, 4 round Knockout format (see Scoring). Loewenthal won 1st place, Falkbeer 2nd.

Time control  No time controls were in place.

Scoring  Draws didn’t count, only decisive games did. The first three rounds decided by first to win two, the final round decided by first to win three.

Tiebreaks  None, only the two finalists won prize money.

Prizes  First place, Loewenthal,  was sixty guineas, second place, Falkbeer, twenty.   (£1 / 1858 ~ £102 / 2016)

Comments  The players were drawn from all of Britain, France, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the United States. Loewenthal, though from continental Europe, was firmly ingrained in British chess at this time. The rules followed are presumed the same as <London (1851)>, which presumably followed those advocated by Staunton (formally published in his <Chess Praxis (1860)> book). Specifically noteworthy was the common practice of keeping the move after a draw. It should be noted that move and color were chosen by lot – so color didn’t have the modern usage as Black could move first.

This tournament took place during Morphy’s time in England, and the press coverage of his games vastly overshadowed  those of this tournament. Additionally, much of the tournament wasn’t published due to copyright restrictions at the time. Staunton was responsible for publishing the tournament proceedings, but unfortunately never did. These factors go far in explaining why so many of the tournament games are missing.

In effect this was a transitional tournament, marking the triumph of Morphy, though he never played in the tournament itself. Most of those who did were on the downslope of their prowess.

It is worth noting, that due to the British convention that colors are retained after a draw, Falkbeer had White 5 times out of the first 6 games of his match with Loewenthal. I believe, somewhat speculatively, this example provided some impetus for the British to eventually adopt the Continental convention of switching colors after each and every game in a match.

Sources As already discussed, no tournament book ever appeared. Many of the games are lost, apparently. Those that do exist were a restricted set that appeared in contemporaneous newspapers, or in Staunton’s <Chess Player’s Chronicle>, or in his <Chess Praxis (1860)>. I used the games published by <365chess>, also compared with <CG>, to make a complete, stubified tournament. (I will hopefully return to fill in the sources).

  1. <> edited by, published in
  2. <Chess Player’s Chronicle v Series  (18-18) pp > edited by H. Staunton
   (1) See NCCU History article by Steven Mann for a very good description of this somewhat
       complicated history.
   (2) ACM v2 N3 (Sept 1898) p120
   (3) The Chess Congress of 1862 p xxvii-xxxi / 40-43 (unfortunately no 1858 tournament book
       was ever issued)
   (4) Birmingham (2), 1858    (
   (5) Various contemporaneous reports, see also the Löwenthal chapter in Tim Harding's 
       Eminent Victorian Chess Players (2012), and on McFarland.
   (6) Historical value of the pound calculator
   (7) Political map of Europe - 1858 and also
       Map of Europe (1848-1871).





One thought on “Birmingham Congress (1858) — a first look

  1. Pingback: First Look – look here first | Zan Chess

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