Friday, November 27, 2015

Played On Squares 6: Empire Days

This is an unplanned supplementary to the series tracking the chess playing tendencies of the Bloomsbury Group in the first half of the twentieth century. Earlier posts examined Maynard Keynes, Roger Fry and Leonard Woolf, and much chess was played by them, albeit of a social sort. Keynes's father, though, had played seriously for Cambridge University in the 1870s and was President of its chess club; but he could hardly be said to have been a Bloomsberry. The only real chesser in the Group - one who played, for example, in proper chess tournaments - was Marjorie (aka "Gumbo") Strachey (1882-1964). It was a pleasure to be able document her participation in Margate in 1936 and 1938, and Hastings 1935/6, and to show her in a tournament setting.

From LSE Women's Library; Ref TBSH/6/3/80
Also in the National Portrait Gallery
Marjorie provided the subject for what was to have been the last episode of the series, one which finished on an ominous note: that if more turned up about her chess you would be the first to know. In fact, just a few days later, your blogger stumbled upon Marjorie once more: in rather interesting chess company, and claiming a remarkable scalp, one that implies that she could really play. So we have an excuse to return once again to our favourite Bloomsberry.

This subsequent, and unexpected, encounter with Marjorie was in the British Library, and it serendipitously encouraged the pursuit another of our guilty secrets, as shared occasionally on the Streatham and Brixton Chess Blog: the savouring of near-forgotten chess magazines. A couple of years ago we told the story of the Streatham and Brixton CC Knightmare! - appearing for three issues only from 1977-79 in a series beginning here. Also close to home geographically, if not so much historically, was the West London War-time Chess Gazette - its hey-day was 1941 to 1948: we told its story here.

Now Marjorie gives us the pretext to rescue from obscurity The Social Chess Quarterly. This short-lived journal - it ran from 1930 to 1936 - provides evidence of certain form of Edwardian chess-life, one that is now (unless I am missing out on something) extinct. It also speaks of an ambitious project that anticipated the ill-fated National Chess Centre by nearly a decade. The story of the SCQ is one that deserves to be told on its own account, but it also a necessary lead-in to our fresh encounter with Ms Strachey, who we will get to in Episode 7, together with another old friend.

Perhaps this episode 6 sits rather uneasily in the Played On Squares sequence, but I couldn't think of anywhere else to file it.

The first issue of the SCQ, in October 1930...

...proclaimed itself as the organ of the Empire Social Chess Club (ESCC), the opening of which had been trailed in the BCM of September. The proposed new club "had attracted widespread interest" said the SCQ in its first issue (happily quoting the BCM). Its Editor was Arthur Firth, and Vera Menchik was Assistant Editor.

Vol 1, Number 1 of the SCQ, October 1930, also reported that the ESCC had its HQ "in the spacious lounge adjoining the restaurant at Whiteley's" (the department store in Bayswater, West London)...

From here
...which was "crowded to overflowing when the opening ceremony was performed by Lady Margaret Hamilton-Russell, supported by Lord Dunsany and Colonel Sir Umar Hyatt Khan". (Would that have been an Empire Day?). Among the throng of  "many well-known figures" the following are maybe still familiar names today as sometime British Champions: Messrs M. Sultan Khan, F.D.Yates and R.C.Griffith (also Editor of the BCM). Also E.S.Tinsley (Chess Editor of the Times) was there, and British Ladies Champions Mrs Holloway and Stevenson.

Lady Margaret declared the Club open, adding how grateful the chess world should be to Messrs Whiteley, whose generous provision of a venue meant that subscriptions would be nominal. Lord Dunsany "alluded to the value of chess as a mental recreation for busy men". He was followed by Sir Umar Hyatt Khan who repaired the noble Lord's inadvertence by referring to the "the international freemasonry of chess" (his disconcerting figure of speech for "players of both sexes, sisters and brothers all the world over").

Thus the ESSC/SCG "business model" (as we would say these days) was premised on a market of social players (those at entry level and a bit above - the ladies definitely included - "who are not really experts") attracted by an offer of a regular quality magazine tailored especially for their needs, congenial club events led by the best domestic players, and a decent - subsidised - venue: all for a modest two shillings and six pence per annum.
From the SCQ  
By issue number 3 of April 1931 the ESSC/SCQ venture was off to a flying start, claiming members in 19 different countries and attracting glowing notices in the press - which, naturally, it quoted. Here is an example from the Yorkshire Post: "Both the Club and the Periodical seem to be meeting a need in the Chess world…and the attractions of the Club are manifold, and the Quarterly is a marvel." By issue 7 in April 1932 it was moving to a larger room at Whiteley's. It reported 1600 members/subscribers by the end of its first year.

Mr S.J.Holloway MBE had joined the management of the ESCC in July 1931. It was announced loudly in the SCQ editorial pages. He was a BCF grandee, and according to the SCQ that month "has long seen the need for of a Home Centre [for chess] in London." It continued: "Mr. Holloway...sees in the 'EMPIRE SOCIAL CHESS CLUB' opportunity which exceeds his greatest expectations, and he has joined us to give his assistance in realising OUR IDEAL of making the Club into a permanent National Centre, which will some day be looked upon as the 'Mecca of the Chess World' ". Ambitious stuff, indeed.      

As for content, the SCQ had a regular editorial that invariably entreated its readers to sign up yet more members. In a rare editorial comment that ventured beyond Bayswater it opined (October 1935, vol 6, no. 21) that the new international body (FIDE) should take control of the World Chess Championship - the then current unregulated challenge system being unsatisfactory. Perhaps the hand of the Holloways was at work here: they had been BCF delegates to the FIDE foundation Congress in 1925 according to this, from the BCM that year:

Edith Holloway (1868-1956) is unmistakable. 
Mr Holloway is end of back row, right.
See here for another, clearer, version of the photograph. 
Otherwise there were substantial articles with "Tips for Novices", and advice on the openings - by Vera Menchik -  giving a basic repertoire (Giuoco Piano etc, Caro-Kann, KID etc); basic endings (by Miss Menchik again); middle game tactics and strategy (Znowsko-Borowski, and Menchik); and problems (Brian Harley), etc. And there were pieces that advocated the educational virtues of chess, for boys (in private schools, anyway), and girls, and for blind students.

There were, of course, instructive games: "Modern Games" from the masters, and also "Social" or "Novice Games" i.e. short games with eye-catching combinations, sometimes by club members and other amateurs. One such was Blackburne's not so modern 12 move destruction of De Vere in 1868.

From the first number of the SCQ 
I draw attention to this game solely as an self-indulgent pretext for a mention of Tim Harding's recently published, and exhaustively comprehensive, biography of the Black Death himself, in which the game is, of course, given (page 67). This magnum opus is noteworthy for, among many things, its generous mention of our Blog (pages 4 and 559) - i.e. the post that will lead you to Blackburne's grave in Brockley Cemetery. There are also passing references to the ancient Endeavour Club of Brixton.

The ESSC/SCQ club/magazine combo seemed to offer weekday opening (from 10.00am to 6.00pm), always "in comfortable surroundings" - such day-time convenience may say something about the social demographic of its clientele - and an evolving programme of events and competitions for its readers/members, including simuls on Tuesdays and Friday afternoons by the likes of William Winter, Znowsko-Borowski, Menchik, Sultan Khan, Yates, etc. Tuition was offered by Mr Winter: of which "a number of members have availed themselves...and some of these are making remarkable progress in the finer points of the game" (SCQ February 1931). Koltianowski gave yet another of his famous blindfold simuls. The club also ran a monthly competition for the Club Challenge Cup in which the "ex-boy's champion of London" was competing: i.e. Brixton's very own "Harry Golembek" (sic). The programme was rounded-off with a summer all-play-all over three months, a Girls' tournament, and a year-round "Ticket Tournament" (a sort of handicap/challenge/ladder affair). Quite a prospectus.

There were also matches: including for the Ladies (there are references to matches against the Ladies' Lyceum Chess Circle in 1932, and "the first match of the season" of 1933); and against scratch teams such as the one got up by the above-mentioned, and honorifically well-endowed, Colonel the Hon Nawab Sir Umar Hyatt Khan. In due course a Women's Championship Tournament was contested - first reported in April 1933 (SCQ, No 11). It had two groups of seven players, but alas Marjorie Strachey was not mentioned - in contrast to Mrs Holloway who won the tournament that year ahead of, among others, Olga Menchik, and Miss Hooke (who had competed in the London International Ladies Tournament of 1897!).

In February 1932 Whiteley's hosted the second week of a "Sunday Referee" tournament (it was a sporting paper with a chess column by W. Hatton Ward; it fielded correspondence chess teams) that had begun in the Central Hall, Westminster. It was an impressive affair, won by Alekhine, ahead of - among others - Sultan Khan (=3rd/4th), Miss V. Menchik (8th).  According to the BCM, Arthur Firth was there, with other "chess notabilities", at the opening ceremony.

With the suitability of Whiteley's for major chess events now evident, Firth and friends pulled off a major coup when the BCF (as it then was) accepted an invitation to hold its August 1932 Congress there, and a great success it seemed to have been. In addition to generous playing space, Whiteley's offered access to the Roof Garden where "players could sit about in the shade of numbers of large umbrellas, enjoying their coffee and smokes". The British Championship was won by Colonel etc Hyatt Khan's protégé Sultan Khan.
The opening of the 1932 BCF Congress.
  Tylor finished 5th; Golombek 10th/12. Colonel Hyatt Khan looks on.
With thanks to John Saunders at Britbase who scanned the picture from BCM 1932.   
The Ladies' resulted in a triple tie including the indomitable Miss Hooke, who can be seen, I think, above, peeping over that chap's shoulder to the right. There is also a photograph in the BCM* in 1930 which is noteworthy for showing, dimly, Miss Hooke - see crop below.

The complete picture (in the Appendix) also shows the two Khans mentioned above, and Dr. Graham Little MP who is mentioned below as a Patron associated with another ESSC/SCQ project, the Empire Chess Association. The photo records participants from The Imperial Chess Club. Notice that the otherwise ever-present Vera Menchik is elsewhere on this occasion.

According to Tim Harding's Blackburne biog (page 501) the Imperial CC was founded in 1911. Its sometime London address was 62, Brooke St., (see here), and it had hosted an "International Tournament" in 1927. There was in fact a match between Imperial CC and the ESSC in 1932. Even the first issue had acknowledged the Imperial CC and the good work of its founder Mrs Arthur Rawson: "in the direction" of "chess for girls" for "the past two years or more".

This interconnectedness of things is remarkable, with a continually shifting kaleidoscope of personalities (including some in, or well-connected to, the political establishment), and affiliations, and, likely as not, rivalries. This seemed to be endemic. But how there came to be an Imperial Club, and an Empire Club merits elucidation - but not, I regret to say, in this post.         

In January 1933 the ESCC/SCQ responded to "a number of requests" to form a Bridge section - which was to get its own room at Whiteley's - and in October it made a new offer to players who could not easily get to London: "The Solo Chess Supplement; for the teaching and encouragement of 'The Home Chess Player'". Vera Menchik wrote about "Solo-analysis" in January 1934, and provided a self-study game with questions - though not yet the 'guess the move and score points' that we know today.

The SCQ's emphasis on chess problems now took on a new significance. The magazine had had them aplenty from the outset - one movers, two movers, three movers, "novice problems", technical expositions etc., etc., and now they were promoted as a form of enjoyment of the game alone and single-handed, even as a means of learning it prior to actual play OTB. Accordingly a postal solving tournament was organised for such "solo players". "The Menchik School of Chess" was editorialised - "our system for the help and encouragement of the 'Home Player'" - offering, mysteriously, "Diagram Cards" for sale to students.

The ambition of the ESSC/SCQ project seemed to know no bounds (it had already offered "Life Membership", as if its future was assured) and in July 1933 it also promoted a "Social Service Bureau": which is to say free access to Whiteley's own Hotel, Rooms and Theatre ticket booking service to assist out-of-towners, especially "those resident abroad". In 1932 it had the idea of an Empire and International Chess Association for members and clubs affiliated to their National Federation - in any country, and not just in the British Empire. However the ESSC/SCG trimmed back on this bid for global domination and contented itself with the more modest "Empire Chess Association", which later sported a prestigious list of Patrons including five cabinet ministers (though one wonders about their chess), including Sir John Simon who was pictured above in August 1932.

From The Social Chess Quarterly January 1936
Sir Ernest Graham-Little MP is the President 
In January 1935, apparently oblivious of the impending existential shock, the ESSC/SCG proposed yet another initiative "a series of competitions for School boys...through problems...a stepping stone to the game", in which it was encouraged, so it said, by the Editor of The Boys Own Paper who offered a number of cash prizes. In a "new room" at Whiteley's - but not now trumpeted as an even larger one (was that a portent?) - Sonja Graff competed in the Women's Club Championship. Which provides the opportunity to show this picture from the BCM of July 1935 of the exquisitely ambiguous Fräulein Graff who appears to have dropped by from a Berlin nightclub.
And then, in the SCQ of July 1935, the readers were given the bad news. In an editorial letter Arthur Firth wrote that "the very exceptional arrangement which I was able to make with Messrs. Whiteleys in September, 1930, for the accommodation for the Club has now come to an end, and the Club will be closed...I am obliged to raise the Annual Subscription to 4/-".

A shocker, though one wonders whether the no-rent deal had, in fact, always been for 5 years only, and that the end was not such a bolt from the blue for Firth and his inner circle. But was this the end for the ESSC/SCQ project? Would the members desert them now that Whiteley's comfortable room - and the subsidy - was no more? Did they have contingency plans for another venue? Would the Empire strike back?  Find out in the next episode, when we will finally meet Gumbo and other friends again, and say a bit more about Firth, Arthur Firth.

From BCM* 1930
Those marked * are from the BCM's Anthology 1923-1932.
Tim Harding (2015) Joseph Henry Blackburne: A Chess Biography. McFarland & Co. Jefferson, North Carolina.
The Social Chess Gazette 1930-36 is on microfilm in the British Library.

History Index   7. Miss Strachey's Feeling For Snow.


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