Saturday, March 12, 2011

Dropped and Forgotten Chess Pieces

Earliest Known Chess in Tennessee Cities and Towns
by Jerry Spinrad (with permission)
(also, with thanks to Peter Lahde for contributing material)

As part of my research on chess history for my column "New Stories about Old Chess Players" (at, I have collected a very large file with information on 19th century chess. I decided to make a little survey of the first reference I could find to chess players in the various cities and towns of Tennessee.

The first Bon Aqua Springs Hotel 1870
Bon Aqua Springs: This city was the site of one of the most bizarre chess matches of all time, and the event was sufficiently funny that the story was told in a number of papers. A "chess player" named JC Rightor of Helena, Arkansas was staying in Bon Aqua in 1887, and boasted that he had never been beaten in the game. Bon Aqua resident Felix N Moore arranged for this supposed champion to play AB Hodges, the best player of Nashville and perhaps of the entire South. Hodges, of course, beat him repeatedly, also while giving odds, playing blindfold, and in every way a person could show superiority; Hodges account of this "match" is quite amusing, and shows that sometimes a local reputation as a great player may be less impressive than it seems to be!

Brownsville; Brownsville had a flourishing chess club in 1884. There is a story in the Nashville American about an inebriated man coming by the club rooms looking for lodging for the night. The club members asked the man if he played chess and he said no, so they told him this was not the place for him; the inebriated man was completely confused, since he had never been refused a room for that reason before! Brownsville players of that time who were regularly mentioned in the chess column are PG Thompson and BA Mann.

Chattanooga, Tennessee
Chattanooga: I can find references to the Chattanooga Chess Club in the 1860s. An 1865 article mentions that there is a free lunch every day at Chattanooga chess club rooms, and that the proprietors of these rooms are Richards and Lodewig. However, the proprietors of the rooms may well not have been players. The first player from Chattanooga whose name is known to me is J Wassman, who is mentioned in various chess columns in the 1880s. It is not completely clear whether this player is the well known Joseph Wassman who was elected mayor of Chattanooga in 1899 (making him one of the most prominent Jews to win elected office in Tennessee in the 19th century), or whether the player was one of the 10 children of Joseph Wassman, several of whom also had 1st initial J.

Clarksville: The first player I can name from Clarksville was G. Patten in 1884. Patten, as well as a player who is called only by the inital A.T., appear occasionally in the columns of the Nashville American; Patten contributes a mate in 9 problem which occurred in actual play in a Clarksville game. A meeting too for a chess, checkers, and whist club in Clarksville is mentioned at this time.

Columbia: The oldest reference I have to chess in Columbia comes from 1866, when Columbia and Huntsville split a two game chess match. I do not have those game scores, but two games which Columbia lost to Huntsville are given in a Macon newspaper from 1867. The first players named in my sources come from a much later date; O.H.P. Bennett contributes a problem to the Lebanon Herald problem tournament of 1875. Bennett is responsible for fixing Tennessee's northern border with Kentucky, and was part of a very strange dispute in which he found a legal loophole which he believed allowed him to claim the land underneath Reelfoot Lake. Bennett is also mentioned in the Nashville American chess columns of the 1880s. The American of Feb 11, 1884 calls Dr TB Rains and Major Williams strong Columbia players.

Covington: The October 3, 1886 column of the Nashville American mentions that a chess club has been organized in Covington with 20 members, but no names are given.

Denison's Landing: This is sometimes given as the hometown of Dr. A.W. Hunt (see Linden).

Jackson: In the mid 1870s, Jackson Tennessee seemed to have something of a chess rivalry with Jackson Mississippi. We have various games played between the two cities in 1875 and 1876. The Mississippi city would seem to be a prohibitive favorite; it is bigger, and had a nationally known player (John A Galbreath) playing on its team. Jackson Tennessee held its own, however; we have games preserved in which each city wins. The Tennessee team was led by a player named O.F. Rice, who seems to be quite strong; he also has games won against anonymous Jackson Tennessee opponents in chess journals. Unfortunately, the name O.F. Rice is particularly hard to search for on-line, matching the phrase of rice; thus, outside the fact mentioned in St Louis papers that Rice once lived in St Louis, I know nothing about this player.

Knoxville: The earliest reference I have to chess in Knoxville comes from 1859, when a player given only by the initials J.J.C. writes to the Charleston Courier that a chess club is being formed in Knoxville. The San Francisco Bulletin mentions a chess match of 100 games between two prominent Knoxville gentlemen in 1871, but the names of the players are not given. The first name of a Knoxville player occurs in 1886. Miss Nannie Scott played in a tournament which, although it was extremely small, has some historic interest. Isaac H Trabue, an eccentric populist from Louisville, gave over some of his land in Florida to permanently support a tournament off proceeds of fruit grown on the land; the tournament was open to everyone except lawyers who compromise with their client's adversary without the consent of their client. Miss Scott played in the second Trabue tournament, which drew only two players. The other player was Trabue's wife, who beat Nannie in a 35 minute game; the rules of the tournament emphatically declared that it must be a one game knockout tournament, to teach you that a single mistake can be costly in life. Despite the single game, you can argue that this is the first known all-female tournament in the United States. Nannie Scott was the granddaughter of the Honorable Hugh L. White, the Whig candidate for president in 1836. The Nashville American mentions a chess club in Knoxville in 1885. JE Wilcox was one of the leaders of this chess club, and correspondence games of Wilcox are available; some of these were played on a team with fellow Knoxville players Slocum and Sneed.

Lebanon, Tennessee
Lebanon: Lebanon had the first newspaper chess column in Tennessee, started in 1875. The column was run by John G. Nix and Dr. Robert L.C. White. Two Lebanon players, L.B. Settle and R.L.C. White, played for the United States in an 1876 correspondence chess match versus Canada; the scores for these games are known. There was a chess club called the Donoho Chess Club in Lebanon; we have games played by the club, and a list of club officers (Settle, White, and Major H.T. Norman). J.C. Taylor of Lebanon contributed a chess problem in the Lebanon Herald problem tournament of 1875. White's accomplishments are worthy of a much longer article; he was a noted doctor, educator, historian, author and publisher, as well as being a strong chess player. Among many other achievements, White rediscovered the original state seal for the state of Tennessee, which had gone missing for nearly a century.

Linden: A chess club was formed in Linden in 1883, with the chief organizers given as Dr. A.W. Hunt and W.A. Edwards.

Maury County: The birthplace of the colorful R.M. McIntosh is given simply as Maury County, Tennessee.  (R.M. McIntosh was) an eccentric musician and chess player of the 19th century.

Maxwell: W.C. Knott of Maxwell receives a reply from the chess editor of the Nashville American in a column in 1887.
McMinnville, TN 1896
McMinnville: F.R. Davis of McMinnville contributed a problem to the Lebanon Herald problem tournament of 1875.

Memphis: Memphis had a rich chess history in the 19th century. The first names I can find associate with Memphis chess come in 1859, when Morphy passed through Memphis on his way to New Orleans. His arrival was not announced, but when it was discovered the Memphis chess players sent a delegation consisting of Dr. Taylor, H.S. King, and George Chapman to ask Morphy whether he would play chess in the city; Morphy declined since he had to return to New Orleans. The first player of note associated with Memphis was Frederick Bock. The Westminster Papers of 1873 mocks the statement from an American newspaper that "F. Boch, an actor in Memphis, is spoken of of as the best chess player in the country." Despite the mockery, Frederick Bock was an actor and extremely strong player, who won multiple games against U.S. champion Mackenzie and finished a strong third in an American chess congress. Bock nearly made a great contribution to chess by translating the famous German Handbuch des Schachspiels into English; unfortunately, this translation was lost in the Chicago fire shortly before it was to be printed. However, I feel that Bock should really be viewed as a Chicago player rather than a Memphis player. The first strong player who is regularly associated with Memphis was Dudley D. Saunders, a very prominent physician who was considered for many years the de facto champion of the state. An extremely strong player named S.L. McCalla also lived in Memphis for a short period of time. I will leave off my discussion of Memphis chess here. . .

(Blog Editor:  
September 1877, Vol II, No. 4
{pg. 59 of an Annual Bound Edition}

"Memphis Chess Club.—A Chess Club has organized in Memphis, Tenn., and now has a large membership. The officers are as follows: Dr. D. D. Saunders, President; Edward L. Topp, Vice-President; Jabob J. Peres, Secretary; Thos. T. Pritchitt, Treasurer; Executive Committee, Minter Parker, Adolph Reis and Hugh T, Pettit. The Club meets on Wednesday and Saturday nights for play, though open at all times. Visiting Chessers cordially invited to call. The Memphis Club desire to play by correspondence with other Clubs. There are some strong amateurs to be found among the Memphians, and they will make it interesting for whoever accept their challenge. Drop them a postal card, giving your first moves, and let play begin at once.")

Milan: M.D.L. Jordan was a solver of problems in some Nashville American chess columns in 1884. Jordan was a prominent doctor with wide-ranging interests in medicine and in other fields.

Mitchellville: C.M. Hamblen of Mitchellville was a regular solver of problems in the Nashville American column of 1886.

Murfreesboro: Although I have initials of another Murfreesboro player, the first full name is A. Loeb, who was mentioned in various chess columns in the years 1859-1860; one problem of Loeb's is published in the Charleston Courier of 1859. Loeb moved to Chicago in 1873; in the late 1880s and early 1890s W.E. Mitchum of Murfreesboro is listed as a solver of chess problems in a number of different chess columns, and an occasional composer of problems.

Nashville: As Peter Lande notes in A History of Tennessee Chess, a very early game was played by telegraph between Nashville and Louisville. Chess Monthly of 1857 says the game was played "some seven or eight years since;" the New York Herald of Nov 17, 1858 says that "a number of games were played between these cities by telegraph in 1846-47," while an article in Chess Life of 1949 gives the date (without citing a source) as 1849. Unfortunately, while the names of the Louisville players are given, the Nashville players are unnamed, and the imprecise date makes details on the game relatively hard to search for. The chess club of that period died out at some point, since during the Morphy boom in 1858 there is mention of a chess club being formed in Nashville; this club lost a two game correspondence match to Vicksburg in 1859. A correspondent from Nashville using the pseudonym C Hess published a problem in Frank Leslie's chess column in 1857. The problem is dedicated to J Welkin, but I have no knowledge as to whether Welkin was a chess player, and whether Welkin was from Nashville. In 1858, we get news of submission of a chess problem to the same column using the initials J.B.C.; he later submits another problem using (at last) a traceable name, J.B. Craighead. Eventually, one of these problems is published, with the name given as James B. Craighead. Craighead came from a very prominent family; his father was an intimate friend of both Andrew Jackson and James K. Polk, and James Craighead himself graduated from Harvard law school.  .  . Craighead has also been called the pioneer of homeopathic medicine in Tennessee. The general topic of Nashville chess in the 19th century is too broad to cover here; the greatest player of the time was A.B. Hodges, the subject of a new biography by John Hubert and our own Peter Lande. The Nashville American of Jan 15, 1888 has a fascinating historical document, a description of the leading chess players of Nashville, with pictures of each. I will close this section with the random observation that 25 of the 27 men whose pictures are given in the article have beards, moustaches, or both. I note that according to some sources, the term "bald-faced lie" comes from the fact that businessmen in the 18th and 19th century wore beards to make it easier to disguise their facial expressions while making deals (whereas you must be particularly good at lying to do it "bald-faced".) Perhaps this works in chess as well; maybe if I grow a beard, my opponents could not tell when I am setting a trap, which must be worth a few rating points!

New Providence: 0. 0. Watts of New Providence solves some of the chess problems in the Nashville American of 1887.

Ripley: James Oldham of Ripley is a solver of some of the Nasville American chess problems in 1888.

Shelbyville: A player with the initials R.A.C. from Shelbyville wrote to the Sunday Delta chess column in 1858. The Nashville American chess column of 1887 mentions that a chess club has been formed in Shelbyville, with members meeting at each other's residences, but no names of players are given.

Tennessee Insane Asylum: I am assuming this is a joke, but one problem solver of the Nashville American column in 1885 gives his name and address as J.P. Jones, Tennessee Insane Asylum.

Tucker's Cross Roads: John G. Nix was a 19th century chess problem composer with an international reputation. Although he is primarily known for chess problems, Hodges writes that he played a number of games with Nix and found him to be an excellent player, also that Nix "has quite a fund of chess reminiscences and is fond of relating them."

Tullahoma: My only record of a 19th century chess player from Tullahoma
is L.T. Holland MD, who is listed as having solved problems in exactly one Nashville American column in 1885.

Union City: Nashville's leading player of the first half of the 20th century, James McClure was born in Union City in 1871, and his address for his first great victory in correspondence chess in 1904-1905 is given as Union City. McClure's chess accomplishments are discussed in Peter Lande's A History of Tennesse Chess. The careers of the Nashville players James McClure and Peter Lande spans three centuries. McClure is listed in the American Chess Magazine of 1898 as playing for Vanderbilt, and was a regular part of Nashville chess until his death in 1957. In 1954, he won a match with Peter Lande, who continues to be active in the 21st century, and shows every sign of planning to play his way into the 22d century as well.

Wartrace: Three Wartrace residents were in regular contact with the chess editors of the Nashville American and the (Atlanta based) Sunny South in the years 1884-1887; J.W. Smith, B.F. Cleveland, and M.G. Plumlee. All three of these had problems published in at least one of the two papers, sometimes individually and sometimes in combination with each other.

Waverly: Levi McCollum of Waverly was an occasional correspondent to the Nashville American chess column in 1887, and would solve some of the chess problems in the column.

1 comment:

  1. Dr. Spinrad's summary of the earliest known chess references throughout Tennessee is an excellent addition to this already fantastic site.