Bird’s Reply – The Chess Masters of the Day, Impartially Considered by an Old English Player

BCM v7 (Apr 1887) p147-155

(Bird’s reply to Hoffer’s Fortnightly article – text colors added by this ed.)


[An article appeared in The Fortnightly Review of December last bearing the signature of L. Hoffer, Secretary of the B. C. A., entitled “The Chess Masters of the Day.” We are informed that the British Masters who have read it are unanimous in condemning its tone and spirit, and a short letter of protest has been inserted in the March number of the same magazine, from H. E. Bird, specifying their principal objections to it. In a letter to us Mr. Bird incidentally mentions that the article bears the semblance of having been prepared by more than one writer, and he suggests that a confusion of ideas may account for the discrepancies in it. He then proceeds to question Mr. Hoffer’s authority for adding B. C. A. after his name, presumably for the purpose of giving weight to the article which it is contended does not meet with the general approbation of members of the British Chess Association, or other real lovers of Chess and friends to its cause and advancement. The remarks of Mr. Bird, which we understand are heartily concurred in by all the British Chess Masters, we give precisely in his own words.—Editor.]

However entertaining and amusing the article which appears in The Fortnightly Review, entitled “The Chess Masters of the Day,” bearing the signature of L. Hoffer, may prove to the general reader, there are reasons why it is not likely to pass the more observant Chess friend and true lover of the game without grave misgivings and deep regret, and it is probably not very rash to predict that notwithstanding the smile that may be evoked here and there at the expense of the unhappy lampooned Chess Masters, the feeling most predominant at the close of reading the article will be very near akin to extreme disappointment.

It is but fair at the outset to observe that the writer does not seem to claim that his article is a disquisition on the game of Chess; that it is not so may at once be granted, but it is unfortunate that even as a record of what it purports to be, viz., “The Chess Masters of the Day,” a few lines will suffice to show that it is not sufficiently connected, reliable, or complete to form a chapter in Chess history, or to be of any lasting interest from a descriptive Chess Master’s point of view.

Having first generalised the main contents of the article, we may then proceed to point out its shortcomings, as well as the more serious objections to it.

Of the 18 pages and 588 lines to which the article extends, more than three-fourths are devoted to foreign players; that apportioned by the author to panegyric of his present colleague, Zukertort, and to sneers and personalities bordering on vituperation of his past friend, the World’s Champion, Steinitz, being about equally balanced.

To the English Chess Masters mentioned, four in number, Bird, Blackburne, Burn, and Mackenzie, the space allotted is less than a fifth of that given to four foreign Masters, Zukertort, Steinitz, Rosenthal, and Lowenthal, the writer himself also figuring somewhat conspicuously.

The reason for the introduction, and at such length, of the name of the distinguished Hungarian player, Lowenthal, into an article presumably by title intended for living Masters, is not at all apparent—he died in 1876. Anderssen, far more successful, if not far greater as a Chess-player, considered by many, including the writer of this article, as King of all Chess-players, who lived till 1879, is not even mentioned. The selection may seem to have been made for effect, and for the purpose of reproducing certain too oft repeated jokes and quaint notions commonly attributed to Lowenthal; that highly agreeable and justly popular gentleman having apparently been regarded (if the expression may be permitted) as a very convenient peg on which to hang some funny sayings and ideas.

Horwitz, who died in 1884, is also in the article, supplying further pleasantry. There will not be wanting, however, many Chess-players who will consider a description of Anderssen’s play, and great Championship and Tournament victories of 1851, 1862, and 1870 of at least equal interest.

Rosenthal of Paris, next to Steinitz and Zukertort, absorbs the largest space among living players, more in fact than all the British Masters combined; here again supposed witticisms and pleasantries open up at the expense of the volatile and amiable Polish player; no other plausible explanation appears to offer for the prominency and length of space devoted to Rosenthal. The name of a much greater though more demure Master, happily still in the flesh, Von Heydebrand Der Lasa, considered by many, including Morphy, as the finest Chess-player of his time, and certainly one of the most distinguished of foreign writers, is not even mentioned.

The Prussian Masters are entirely omitted; Paulsen, most modest and distinguished, one of the greatest players, certainly, and not second to any but Blackburne as a blindfold artist, why is he forgotten? Bardeleben, winner of the Vizayanagram allcomers’ Tournament, Criterion, London, 1888, is another unaccountable omission. Where is the incomparable Schallopp, the present Prussian champion? His welcome visits from Berlin, and performances unsurpassed for brilliancy at Hereford in 1885, as well as London and Nottingham this year, are still pleasurably remembered by us all. The absence of Paulsen, Bardeleben, Schallopp, and Riemann, all living Masters of the highest excellence, has the effect of excluding Prussia altogether, and makes a portentous void, as it would do in any article on Chess.

Tschigorin of St. Petersburg would probably at the present time be equal favourite against any player in the world except perhaps Steinitz. Though behind the Champion in Tournament record, the young Russian player has been successful against him in three out of four individual contests.

Tschigorin is leader of the Russian Chess Committee in the St. Petersburg Chess Club now conducting the telegraph match against the British Chess Club. His absence from a list of the greatest living Masters is a grave oversight, and this most likely is accidental; the omission of the only great Russian Chess representative we have had the honour of welcoming to our Chess Circle could hardly have been intended.

Coming to players of the past in our own country, Great Britain is made to occupy a very far back seat, and in this respect at least Russia, Prussia, and England, through their representatives, may join in mutual sympathy and condolence.

There can be no jealousy where all are ignored. We are tempted to ask “What can be thought or said of an article which, professing to portray and describe Chess Masters, devotes near a page to Lowenthal and more to Rosenthal, yet not a line to Staunton or to Buckle?” Can the Reviewer have forgotten that Staunton and Lowenthal were contemporary, if not, what can be the explanation of such an omission?

Howard Staunton’s name is certainly not second to any, however illustrious; ever known in Chess he will ever be remembered as the greatest Chess-player of his day, and was the most vigorous and entertaining of Chess writers. Having witnessed his play during 1846 to 1849 when he was still in full force, deep impressions remain with us of his extraordinary powers of combination, his soundness and accuracy. Although comparisons of Chess-players who lived or were in practice at different times appear of little use or value, we yet have been tempted once more to compare Staunton’s, Anderssen’s, Morphy’s, and Steinitz’s best games without arriving at any conclusion except that Anderssen’s style still appears more inventive and finer than any other, while Steinitz is pre-eminent for care and patience.

H. T. Buckle, writer and author, who died in 1862, was for many years the strongest amateur player, mostly considered a shade weaker than Staunton, but regarded by many as equal, like Steinitz in style, sound and safe, running no risks, exactly the reverse of that of Bird, who became his opponent on equal terms in 1852.

All Chess admirers, not in this country alone, but throughout the world, would like to have seen the names of Staunton and Buckle, and the more recent ones of Boden and Wisker as much as those of Lowenthal and Horwitz. Less convenient for facetious observation, it is yet more than probable that the grand Chess researches, works and sayings of the English champion and Shakespearian Editor, and the Diary Chess Extracts of the highly accomplished author of “The History of Civilization” (in which reference is made to the relief and enjoyment afforded by Chess), would have interested the Chess public fully as much as the description of Lowenthal’s shirt front, Rosenthal’s grammar, Winawer’s inodorous and unsavoury cigars, or the fact that the author had played billiards with M. Grevy, the President of the French Republic, and that he was in a position to contradict the statement that Zukertort came over in two ships. There are many old players and admirers, and perhaps some young ones, who would have felt both gratified and interested at a brief descriptive sketch of De La Bourdonnais and MacDonnell, and their great and never to be forgotten contests; Staunton and St. Amant’s championship match, England v. France, which occasioned more genuine interest and enthusiasm than any other Chess event of this century, would also have been a welcome and pleasing addition.

Coming to English players, the absence of the name of the Rev. G. A. Macdonnell, one of the most accomplished writers, experts, and masters of the game, cannot be satisfactorily explained. He is (though rarely practising) full of vigour. Independently of his skill as a player he is regarded as a living institution in Chess. For a quarter of a century, with the late Mr. Boden, and Bird, still living, he has been one of the foremost amateurs ; as a writer he has contributed as much to the amusement and edification of Chess readers as any author known. He always has been, and is still highly popular, with many intensely so; his geniality is so great, as well as his wit, that his society is eagerly sought, and always enjoyed. The omission of the name of such a notable and worthy representative and general favourite, is alone sufficient to detract from the value of the article to no inconsiderable extent if really intended as a trustworthy narrative and record of the world’s Chess Masters.

The Amateur Masters are not so numerous that they need have been passed over. The Rev. W. Wayte is alike distinguished for his honorary writings in support of Chess, and his brilliant victories at times against the finest players extending over a long period, not very far short of the experience of the writer of these lines. He is, in addition to his many well-known scholarly qualifications, a very distinguished amateur Chess master, a liberal supporter of the game, and by many looked up to as the head of the circle. His name would grace any article. Mr. Minchin’s national and international services are too well-known to require comment and he would deprecate any reference to them; still I must express the opinion that he has earned the gratitude of the entire Chess-playing world for his disinterested services in promoting and so largely contributing to the success of great and popular gatherings. Mr. Thorold’s eminence as an exponent, and modesty and courtesy as an opponent are known to all; whilst Mr. Watkinson, though now out of practice, was an equally forcible player, and has rendered inestimable benefits to the cause of Chess by conducting for many years a journal of the highest class, which has never wounded the susceptibilities of a member of the circle. The life-long services of the Rev. Mr. Skipworth ought not to be forgotten; he is when free from his official duties quite formidable as an adversary, and is ever ready and willing to test conclusions with the best of players. The Rev. C. E. Ranken too, a very strong player and analyst, has in many ways been of great service to the cause of Chess.

Should the reader’s stock of astonishment be at all limited, heavy draws will have been already made upon it, yet another call, however, remains, and that the most recent and in many respects the most unaccountable. The advent of a new Chess master after a lapse of twenty years is in itself an event of considerable interest in the Chess world. W. H. K. Pollock was early last year admittedly a master, in the opinion of many considered competent to judge. In August of last year he won the first prize in the “Irish Chess Association one game Master Tournament,” winning from Blackburne, Burn, and six leading Irish players. He is most modest and very chivalrous, always ready to play on convenient occasions for pure love of the game and credit of victory alone. This is truly a strange omission.

The author’s assertion with regard to Morphy is that “He was head and shoulders above the players of his time.” What precise degree of superiority that may imply in Chess is not easy to define, and must be left to the imagination of the reader. As a matter of fact Mr. Hoffer never saw Morphy, and his statement is based upon his published games and public Chess opinion, which it is true mostly awards Morphy the highest place in modern Chess History; his title, however, is principally based upon his victories over Anderssen and Lowenthal, the former in bad health, and not in his best form at the time. Staunton and Buckle, the best English players of their day, never encountered Morphy. Against Harrwitz he won five to three, and fourteen to six against Barnes. Morphy’s record, though great, is not superior to Staunton’s before, and Steinitz’s after him. There do not appear sufficient grounds for estimating one more highly than the other. Foreign critics sometimes as well as English ones have been apt for purposes of inferential comparison to exalt one player and proportionately disparage another; thus Chess critics with whom Staunton does not stand in the highest favour in the past, or Steinitz in the present, too often indulge in the most extravagant statements as to Morphy’s immeasurable superiority not based on conclusive grounds when the games and evidence are closely and impartially tested.

The rapidly advancing Chess skill of so many young amateurs in the present day is a great stimulus to the rising generation of Chess-players, especially to such as aim at a high state of proficiency, and though this may be regarded as one of the most interesting and popular features in the pursuit, the author of the article in question makes no reference to this branch of the subject. The gradual introduction of the game as a mental recreation into seats of learning and industrial establishments, and the formation of many Working Men’s Chess Clubs are now well known; the result is that for the first time within the recollection of present players several amateurs have come to the front scarcely inferior in force to the new Master, Pollock, whilst some in style may compete with him. Anger, Donisthorpe, Guest, Hooke, Hunter, Jacobs, and Mills, with the most successful of the past University Chess teams, Chepmell, Gattie, Gwinner, Locock, Plunkett, and Wainwright, are names scarcely less familiar than those of the half dozen older masters left, who form the remnant of the little band of twenty recognised masters living in 1854.

Chess has become far more general than it formerly was because it is better understood. Old fashioned notions that it was too serious and necessitated an unreasonable absorption of time, are passing away. A well-known amateur whose games please the public much and are greatly admired in Professor Ruskin’s letters, has played many of his best specimens within an hour, some in half that time. This same player states that he recurs with great interest (though melancholy in its character) to some games he has played with those afflicted in various ways, on account of the solace and consolation as well as pleasure it has been found to afford them. The excellent contests some blind boys made against him with their raised boards, and the enjoyment they expressed and felt as conveyed to him by the Master of the Asylum, is vivid in his remembrance. Chess has proved highly beneficial to such of the lower classes as have been fortunate enough to resort to it in place of more exciting and expensive indoor games. The mental exercise called into play is of the most healthy character, and those who interest themselves in the welfare of their less fortunate brethren may benefit them, and society, by assisting to diffuse a better knowledge of its advantages for those at present uninterested in it.

There may be something in the author’s opinion that no extraordinary mental power is needed for Chess excellence, but his views probably would have been more valuable if less general, and expressed with such qualifications as the history of its masters suggests; his idea, however, that any one of average capacity may play average Chess, is not in accordance with experience, if indeed it is not decidedly in opposition to it. Some of the finest players may appear to Mr. Hoffer to possess but average intellect, but whether he is right or not one thing is certain, that many with the greatest endowments and known powers of calculation and thought have failed at it, and some have been candid enough to admit that they abandoned the game because dissatisfied with their own progress and skill at it. Buckle in his opinion given by Macdonnell in “Life Pictures” (the amusing and interesting work of the latter) considers imagination and calculation necessary, but discards any idea of superior mental capacity.

It is clear, however, that the qualifications necessary to be met with cannot well be defined. We have never found any successful attempt to do so. Franklin did not attempt it. We find by experience that a likely man fails and an unlikely one succeeds. Stock-brokers have been very successful—mathematicians quite the reverse. Twenty or thirty eminent players, barristers and solicitors, may be quoted to four engineers and accountants, the latter, however, including one of the Masters. The Church has been very prolific as well as medicine.

From the programmes of our more recent tournaments we find the most distinguished names of supporters, and the British Chess Association is honoured with those of Lord Tennyson, Lord Randolph Churchill, Professor Ruskin, and Sir Robert Peel on its presidential list. The late Prince Leopold was Patron of the St. George’s Club, and President of the Oxford University Chess Club. The late J. P. Benjamin, Q.C., and formerly, Sir C. Russell were among its admirers and supporters. Sir H. James and Sir H. Giffard also honour the list; and a very brilliant amateur in past days (scarcely inferior to John Cochrane and Mr. Daniels), W. Mackeson, Q.C., still honours the Chess clubs with an occasional visit, willingly taking a board and invariably running a hard race of combination with the best performers. Earl Granville, the Marquis of Hartington, the Marquis of Ripon, and the Right Hon. H. C. Childers, M.P., have also appeared as patrons and supporters.

Blackburne, Steinitz, and Zukertort, our three greatest Professional Players, will not feel highly complimented to hear for the first time that their excellence arises from twenty years hard labour, and that inferentially their capacity otherwise is but common. Memory, a quality not mentioned by the Reviewer or by Mr. Buckle, must be essential in the playing of Chess for hours without sight of board or men; it must be also advantageous in the ordinary game when many variations have to be worked out, or the earlier combinations might be forgotten when the latter are maturing.

Steinitz is now residing in New York (this fact might well have been stated), and the attacks upon him in his absence moreover, can hardly interest or gratify Chess readers. These attacks are in the worst possible taste, and calculated to lead to controversy with his friends and supporters, who are still numerous, both here and abroad. They will arouse a well merited and just sense of indignation, for despite his faults of temper and a disposition at times prone to be touchy and contentious, Steinitz is a true Chess artist, a painstaking, careful, conscientious, and impartial annotator, whilst as a describer of play he is unrivalled [sic]. Willing at all times to render full justice to the skill, style, and play of others, he has been frequently heard to observe that the difference in force between the six leading Chess-players is so slight, that the result of a contest between two of them would be always uncertain.

As a Chess-player he is far from lacking modesty. No “head and shoulders” comparison or claim of superiority has ever been made by Steinitz. He is exceedingly courteous to young aspirants, and fairly communicative to all; he is, when vexed, as likely (or more so) to offend his best friends as strangers. With all his shortcomings, however, it is doubtful whether any real admirer of Chess from its highest aspect will feel aught but regret at the remarks applied to him; the space devoted to these attacks (exceeding that allotted to all the English players) might well have been devoted to Chess in its social aspect, to its advantages and prospects, or to some more agreeable phase of it than extreme personality. Even another page or two of Chess-players’ jokes and eccentricities would have been less objectionable.

The personalities and lack of impartiality in the article cannot but be regarded as very serious drawbacks; it is not written in a tone which is likely to benefit Chess or advance its cause, and it is to be feared that it will afford but little instruction or lasting interest and pleasure to its readers.


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