Thursday, September 29, 2011

Chess is Making a Comeback

While meandering around the rare book section of one of my favorite used book stores, I came upon John W. Collins' work, My Seven Chess Prodigies. This was one piece of literature that I had never taken the time to read until now.  The book was hardcover, retaining its paper cover, and was in near mint condition, but it was the contents that were quite the discovery.  I though I might have been a chess fanatic at one time, until the pages of this book enlightened me to those who were and are intrinsically dedicated to the game.  John "Jack" Collins introduces the reader to the Hawthorne Chess Club that he founded which met at his parents' home in the mid 1920s.  Moving forward to the 1950s, the homemade chess club was still going strong, and was visited and joined by some of the greatest names of chess: Bobby Fischer, Robert & Donald Byrne, William J. Lombardy, Raymond Weinstein, Salvatore Matera, and Lewis Cohen–all of whom Mr. Collins covered in his book.  

Memphis had its own home-grown chess clubs back in the 1960s.  Below we examine how the Memphis Chess Club contributed to this city's continuing chess culture from a Memphis Press-Scimitar article reprint.  

Quotes from newspaper articles from 1965:

The Gifford Family

A young chess group meets weekly at the Randolph branch library.  About 25 children, ages 8 to 18, turn out regularly for instruction and small-scale tournaments.

Mrs. Gifford has been mothering the chess club for the past two years.  "Neighborhood children began dropping by the house to play, and when the group grew to 21, it just got too hectic, and we headed for the library."

Mrs. Gifford isn't the only member of the family who has helped spread interest in chess throughout Memphis.  Her son Charles, 15, is president of the Catholic High School chess club.

A daughter, Jean, 17, is a tournament player in the Memphis Chess Club, which Mrs. Gifford serves as secretary.

Other members of the family, all of whom have their own chess boards, are Kathy, 6; Bill 8; Theresa, 10; Mary 12, and Betty, 19.  Several have won trophies, as has Mrs. Gifford.
Thomas Cutlif

"I think chess is wonderful training for children," she said, "it teaches them to concentrate and plan ahead.  And they all enjoy it."  Mrs Gifford feels almost any child can learn to play by the time he's 6.  "Some will like it more than others and really pursue it, but nearly all can and will learn to play."  The chess bug also has been spread by Frank Garner, president of the Memphis Chess Club, and John Hurt, president of the Tennessee Chess Association.

Both Mr. Hurt and Mr. Garner make visits to high school clubs at Frayser, Catholic, Tech, Messick, Christian Brothers and Central High Schools.

Although most of the clubs have been organized in recent months, Central has had one for several years and a senior student –– Mark Gilley –– was city co-champion a year ago.  He was state junior champion in 1963.

C. Pasley
Young Gilley, incidentally, is one of eight Memphians rated by the United States Chess Federation as the top 15 chess players in Tennessee.  The others are Eddie Middleton, Hunter Weaks, James Wright of Millington, Troy Armstrong, Dale Simpson, and John Hurt.

"There is increased interest among youth."  Mr. Hurt said, "and already several very fine chess players have developed from these programs."

Chances are, the chess board won't ever compete with the Little League baseball diamond and the combo dance band.  Or will it?

Quotes from the Memphis Press-Scimitar Wednesday March 25, 1964:

Good Evening!
by Robert Johnson

Kathy McDanel
Know what the kids do besides wondering about Ringo (Starr) and the mountainous problem of going to college, which involves many from the 10th grade on?  Well, a lot of them are getting mental exercise playing chess.

"The ancient game is having a terrific rejuvenation," Mrs. Charles W. Gifford tells me.  "Last summer, just after school was out, I started a club for the neighborhood children, one night a week.  We had 23 members, and were straining the walls in my living room, when John Hurt and Frank Garner of the Memphis Chess Club, in conjunction with the Northeast Memphis Optimist Club, organized the Youth Chess Club.  We affiliated with them and began meeting at the Randolph Branch of the Public Library on Tuesday nights 7-9."

"Our group is still meeting there every Tuesday, and John Hurt has another group of about 14 who meet Tuesdays at Highland Library.  There are a few adults in the group, but the oldest in ours is my daughter, 16.  We have four other girls."

Richard Bennett
Mrs. Gifford said clubs have also started at Richland Junior High, Colonial Junior High, and Catholic High.  The Park Commission got interested, and on Saturday mornings 9-12 at Kingsbury High, Charles Savery of the Memphis Chess Club teaches the Kingsbury group, and Mrs. Gifford's daughter, Jean, instructs at the Frayser Community Center.

The Northeast Memphis Optimist Junior Chess Club started its championship tournament last night.

Mrs. Gifford said it's a pleasure "to watch the younger generation think!"  She said any one of them would be happy to take me on in a game of chess, "from 7 year-old Bill on up."

What interested me most: "They're so quiet," she said.

Quotes from the Commercial Appeal September 2, 1965:

Chess Players to Vie 6 from Memphis Chess Club to Seek State Crown

The Memphis Chess Club at the Young Men's Christian Association in 1964

The annual Tennessee Open Chess Championship in Nashville this weekend will draw six members of the Memphis Chess Club.

The Tournament at the Albert Pick Motel, will start at 2 p.m. Saturday and will end Labor Day afternoon.

The six members to compete are R.S. Scrivener, 84 of Nesbit, Mississippi, former city champion and Master Emeritus; John Hurt, current chess city champion; Frank Garner, president of the Memphis club; Mark Gilley of Memphis, current Memphis high school chess champion and Tennessee junior chess champion in 1964, who graduated from Central High School in May, Louis Weis, and Bobby Churchill of West Memphis.

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