Saturday, November 5, 2011

Memphis' Stellar Chess Player

Article from an August 6, 1972 Commercial Appeal, by Paul Coppock:

As Bobby Fischer brought the rook-pawn language back into the daily news, it revived a few long memories of another era, when Memphis had its own champion.  There was even the remarkable August of 1914 when chess news moved out of Memphis by telegraph instead of coming in from Iceland.

The Memphis Champion was Bradford B. Jefferson, who had his own real estate firm.  When the Memphis Chess and Checker Club was established in 1900, he won the city championship at 25, and he repeated winning every year.  In 1913 he entered the Western (Open) Tournament at Chicago for the first time and won it.  The "West" of chess included New York State, except for New York City, and outstretched through Omaha.

It was a title that carried prestige although bigger chess news was then being made by J.R. Capablanca and Dr. Emanuel Lasker.

Another fine Memphis player, Robert Scrivener, played at Chicago in 1913 and was elected president of the Western (Chess Association) group.  Jefferson and Scrivener brought the 1914 tournament to Memphis.

A week of play was scheduled, opening August 10, 1914.  There was a morning session from 9 to 1 and a night session from 7 to 11 with the afternoon reserved for adjourned games.  As the number of challengers was usually large, (19) players from Tampa to Toronto and from Syracuse to Kansas City, most of them state champions.  Mississippi was represented by Ed Hill of Cleveland, Mississippi.

The schedule had to be stretched over to include Wednesday of the following week when the result was an astounding four-way tie.  Scores of 14-4 were held by Jefferson, E.F. Schrader of Syracuse, H. Hahlbohm of Chicago, and G.H. Wolbrecht of St. Louis.  Wolbrecht twice won the Western title and four times represented the United States in annual matches with England, winning them all.

So a playoff was held, and it resulted in another tie between Jefferson and Wolbrecht.  Another playoff was set up.  The second full week had been used up for a one-week tournament.  These players were amateurs paying their own expenses, but most of them had stayed to see who was the best player, and how he deployed his forces on the chess board.

In the second playoff, Jefferson and Wolbrecht played to a draw on Sunday.  The Monday meeting was indecisive.  On the third Tuesday of the meet, they met again and Jefferson, playing with a disadvantage of black, won 2½ to 1½.

1900-14 Western Open Trophy
1914 Western Brilliancy Trophy
The principal trophy was a silver loving cup which had changed hands annually during the 15 years of the Western Open title play.  All the time it was offered as the permanent possession of the chess master who could win the title two years in a row.  B. B. Jefferson of Memphis was the first man to do so, and he did it in his home town.  Jefferson continued to be the undisputed champion among Memphis players. (Editor: Bradford Jefferson also won the Brilliancy Prize trophy, offered by the Business Men's Club, for the best game played at the 1914 Western Open.)

The Memphis Chess and Checker Club originally was an offshoot of the Business Men's Club, predecessor of the Chamber of Commerce.  The business men met for lunch weekly in their own building at 79-81 Monroe, and some stayed after lunch to play chess.  The Business Men's Club was the scene of the 1914 battle.

When the Chamber of Commerce moved, the Chess and Checker Club rented space on the 10th floor of the Falls Building.  They paid $15 a month.

Bradford B. Jefferson
B. B. Jefferson's obituary  (died May 14, 1963) recalled his Western Open titles and the fact that he once beat Lasker.
It also mentioned the death, only five months before, of his remarkable sister, Miss Rosa Jefferson.  She was long considered the best woman player in the South although competition between women chess players is rare.

She was best known as the .  .  . (Chess News) columnist for the Commercial Appeal.  Each Sunday issue (starting on December 6, 1903) until about 1932, her name appeared over a column that usually included a problem,  the solution of the previous week's problem, and the play of some game by a master.

Rosa's column was well established when her brother won (the Western Open) in Chicago and reports on the Memphis tournament was given generous space and good position in papers overflowing with huge headlines, maps and news analysis of the start of World War I.  The Kaiser had just invaded Belgium.  The Commercial Appeal even found space for a four-column picture of all the (tournament's chess) players.

The 1914 Western Chess Association's Western Open Tournament players, Memphis, TN, hosted at the Business Men's Club (B. Jefferson: 2nd person standing from the top far left (cigar in hand) G. Wolbrecht: 2nd person seated from far right side)


The Jefferson home was at 609 Vance when the Chess and Checker Club was young.  In later years, they lived at 1352 Vinton.  These Jeffersons were distant relatives of President Jefferson himself.

More importantly, they were children of John Wesley Jefferson, a good chess player, and grandchildren of Silas Jefferson, who came from Virginia with such appreciation of the game of kings and queens that he taught the children how to play with a chess set he had carved out of potatoes.