Saturday, November 08, 2014

County Counting: 3. Striking Matches

When, in the previous episode of County Counting, we were following Isidor Gunsberg's surprising appearances for Surrey County in 1920 and 1921 (as recorded in the County Association's Match Books), we stumbled on a claim for the World Record largest-ever chess match: Kent v Surrey, Saturday 16 April 1921, played at the Central Hall, Westminster. It was detailed in a cutting lodged in the back endpapers of the first volume, and lists all 400 (near enough) players.  

Unusually, the cutting gives the club affiliation of many of the players. And at this point readers from Surrey and Kent will doubtless want to skip ahead (the match list is reproduced in full in an Appendix below, after the break), and begin crawling over the aforementioned cutting in the hope of spotting lost ancestors, ancient clubbers, and/or other skeletons outed from their cupboards.    

But - if you wouldn't mind waiting a minute - I was going to add that (a) the world record only lasted until September in the same year when a 400 board colossus cut April's 200 board effort down to size, and (b) it almost didn't happen anyway - its "fate...trembled in the balance up to the eleventh hour".  

The World's Record was established on a Saturday. Saturday 16th April. "Happy Saturday" as the assembled record breakers might have thought of it. That's the day after the day before: the notorious Black Friday - Friday April 15th 1921 - as the militants of the trade union movement knew it. And Black Friday, brothers and sisters (if, having been a union man myself, I may address you thus) was the day the Triple Alliance fell apart - "the dramatic change in the industrial situation" referred to in the cutting. 

In 1921 the mines were at last returned to private ownership after state control in WW1; any miner resisting the pay cut enthusiastically imposed by the resurgent owners was locked out. However, on Black Friday the other partners in the Triple Alliance with the miners' union - the railway and the transport unions - declined to vote for action to support the miners. They were unconvinced, it was said, that the mining unions themselves were committed to action. So, the threatened transport strike didn't materialise; and the world record was duly established - though, safe to say, the trade unions had other things on their mind. They were too busy licking their wounds for one thing, and, in the hope of doing better next time, galvanising our now familiar Trades Union Congress, for another.    

In spite of business as usual on the transport front there were, the report says above, 3 absentees (boards 6, 11 and 14 for Kent). But let's take a look at the other boards played, though not all 400 of them for obvious reasons. Here are the top 40 or so (the full match list is in Appendix 1).   

So, Gunsberg was board 1, where he lost to R.C.Griffiths - the editor of the British Chess Magazine, British Champion in 1912, and co-author of the revered and long-serving Modern Chess Openings. Thus Isidor gets a '0' next to his name - but not before a 'V.P'; meaning he was a Vice-President of the S.C.C.A., which suggests that in Surrey chess matters he had a bit more than a walk on part and may have played an active role of sorts in the Association's affairs - though you begin to wonder how much when you see a few more Surrey Vee-Pees listed: the Reverend Craig on board 21, Mr Morton on 28, and Mr Moore on 41. It was quite the fashion: not to be outdone Kent also fielded four (boards 5, 79, 84, 85). 

Kent had an M.P. as well: Major R.W. Barnett M.P (St. Pancras) on board 10, handy with a rifle (with which he represented his country at the 1908 Olympics) and Irish Chess Champion 1886-89. 
©  National Portrait Gallery
Richard Whieldon Barnett in 1929
I would be letting my prejudices show, comrades, if I suggested that the Major might have been of a bent happy to see the Triple Alliance go down the tubes and the miners forced to take a pay cut. But, he was another sort of Unionist - as in Tory fellow-traveller - after all. Be that as it may, he had arranged 33 boards of MPs and 5 of pressmen to play a simul against Capablanca at the House in 1919 (he lost his own game) and had even played a consultation game (with Bonar Law et al) against Capa at his own home in December 1919 (see Edward Winter's column here). Barnett was referred to at the time as one of the three strongest players in the House of Commons. He was also "the nurses' own M.P." feted by the profession which was largely antipathetic to trade union organisation (but - in the NHS today - is now being driven in that direction).             

Once again we may scour the Surrey lists for players from "the fair sex" almost in vain as there were only two: Mrs Michell on 49 (British Ladies Champion 1931, 32 and 35; wife of R. P. on board 2, whose spelling as "Mitchell" earns a sic), and Mrs Seale on 160. As for Kent, they had a decent number: Mrs Holloway on 29, Mrs Stevenson on 56 (we met them last time), and on boards 77, 83, 86, 89,142,162, 179, 183, 191, 198, 199, 200. That's 14 altogether; which is pretty impressive. As we are doing numbers, let's note that in the Surrey ranks there were 18 players from Brixton, (9 of the top 20 boards) and 8 from Streatham (but no ladies from either).   

As mega-matches were the order of the day, here is another, albeit more modest, effort over 175 boards: Surrey against Middlesex on 22 March 1924. Gunsberg doesn't appear, but L.P. Rees is still there, winning on board 3.  

Notice the two defaults on 6 and 11 for Surrey in the top boards. Now, to lose two games by default may be careless; but to lose 15 overall in the match...  

....suggests a transport strike - which this time actually happened. 

The match coincided with a stoppage of work, starting on the 21st, on London's trams and buses. Once again employers attacked their workers' pay, this time as a consequence of the drive to cut costs in an unregulated public transport sector; and naturally the unions reacted. The underground workers also threatened strikes and only the legislative regulation of services enacted by the minority Labour Government ended the dispute (information from here).     

Isidor didn't play, but (and this is the final reference to him turning out in his apparently amateur capacity) he did in the North of the Thames v South of the Thames monster bash  - 400 boards remember - reported by the BCM September 1921. And that's what I call a "World's Record". Gunsberg drew with V.L.Wahltuch on board 1; the North of the Thames won the match 217.5 to 182.5. "The metropolis was of course very strongly represented, Middlesex contributing alone 300 players, but recruits coming from as far as Birmingham, Wiltshire, Devon etc" said the BCM - one Devonian perhaps being Dr Dunstan on board 2 for the South, and a sometime Brixton man. 

A gem, secreted loose at the back of the Match Book, is this lovely souvenir team list got up specially for an earlier edition of the North of v South of the Thames contest on Saturday May 9th 1896 - 25 years previously in fact. It was a mere 100 boards.
Full list in Appendix 2
A nice touch is that our friend Dr Dunstan, on board 2 for the South in the anniversary match of 1921, had played back in 1896 on board 76, as you can see in Appendix 2. You'll also see, in 1896, some names familiar from the early Brixton CC days (and mentioned in Brixton Byways), for example: B.McLeod 27; J.Sargent 28; A.C.Nursey 62. 

Interestingly R.P.Michell appears also in 1896 - but then for the North of the Thames (board 19) - as did those other Surrey men, the Bros. Jacobs (3 and 42), presumably by virtue of their membership of the City of London Club. This promiscuous side-swapping anticipated the Stevensons who swung both ways for Kent and Surrey after the first war.      
As suggested at the top of the post, in among this avalanche of players of yore there may be someone of interest to your club, perhaps even to you personally. There are a few who we'll look at next time, even though they weren't a member of any Surrey club - or even, in some cases, any club at all.  

Previously in County Counting: 1 Preface; 2. More Isidor.
Appendix 1
The first "World Record Match" Kent v Surrey 16 April 1921. 
Appendix 2
North of the Thames v South of the Thames May 9 1896

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