Friday, January 22, 2016

Les Chesseurs Britanniques de Paris: Part 1 The Club

Apologies to our French readers: "chesseurs" is probably as maladroit in French as "chessers" is - strictly speaking - in English. But it is so much simpler than "joueurs aux échecs" (I wonder if the Académie Française would let it in). [But please see footnote added 24 January 2016]. And so we go cross-channel for a mini-series on the long-forgotten British Chess Club of Paris (BCCP) 1926 to c.1938, continuing an Anglo-French theme that emerged in War Game 9 (where we reported on Lt. Maxime Chauvet, a French soldier who played chess here in the early years of WW2).   

Before we go any further, though, I would like to express my gratitude - yet again - to Dominique Thimognier of Heritage des Échecs Français for the generosity that has made these posts possible. 

Not only has Dominique shared with me the material that he has been able to dig up in the French chess, and national, press on the BCCP, but he has also, with great courtesy and forbearance, put up with the mauvais français that I have occasionally inflicted on him by email (his English, by contrast, is impeccable). Having said that: all errors, imprecisions, and misrepresentations made, and liberties taken [especially with the French language - see footnote], in these episodes are the responsibility of the author on this side of la Manche.  

The story of the British Chess Club of Paris begins with a meeting "in a small first floor room of a café in a side-street close to the Opera" on March 12th 1926. The quote comes from a two page article in the BCM of April 1935, pp166-7, which gives an abbreviated history of the Club to that date - it was written by "A Correspondent". The article is, obviously, an invaluable source of information; however, it doesn't tell the full story. For that you will have to follow this mini-series...  

...which will piece it together from the article of 1935, other contemporaneous reports in the BCM and the French press to give, if not a definitive and exhaustive history of the BCCP, a more comprehensive contemporary account than is available elsewhere - because there isn't one - and I hope something more readable, too.  

The anonymous "Correspondent" was likely to be, I think, one of the more colourful members of the club: George Louis Alexis Langelaan (though, not quite the most - he is pipped by another). He was listed in the BCM of January 1936 as the club officer responsible for (ominously) "propaganda". Mister/Monsieur Langelaan had dual English and French nationalities, and a way with words (as we shall see) which also adds to my suspicion that he penned the BCM article. His exploits, and creative efforts, will be a recurrent motif in this account, and it was he who kicked-off the BCCP venture by issuing an invitation to 15 "English chessplayers" in Paris to form a club.

The first venue was the Café Trianon, 13bis rue de Mathurins, where they would meet every Thursday at 8.15pm (BCM Nov 1926). Pressed for equipment to begin with they played on linen "boards" (BCM April 1935) - maybe that was a nod to the check tablecloths down at the caff.

Where the BCCP began: 13bis rue de Mathurins (9arr) as it is today. 
"Le Carré" is nice: the common meaning is "the square".
According to that 1935 retrospective account, the club had around 25 members in its first couple of years - though the BCM of January 1927 reported 50 (also given in the Falkirk Herald of 2 Feb 1927, adding that the club had now bought 20 decent sets - and affiliated to the French Chess Federation). There were indeed wild fluctuations of support along the way, the "blackest year" being in 1930 when just five members kept the flame alive "meeting week after week with the persistence that characterises their play over the board, refusing to admit defeat" (BCM April 1935). But it resurged from this low ebb, weathered the economic recession of the 1930s, and claimed around 30 members near the end, 12 of them founder members (op cit).

The Club was to make its mark on the Paris chess scene, and more, but before we get on to that let's have a look at some of the personalities and internal club affairs, also noting its change of venue to "new and congenial surroundings" (and, at some stage, opening on Tuesday evenings as well) - as reported in the BCM of April 1931. This was also announced in La Stratégie of the same month.

"A cordial welcome to the club is extended to all British chessplayers visiting Paris." (BCM Oct 31)

The Avenue Victor-Emmanuel III, in the adjacent 8th Arrondissement, was re-named the end of the war as the Avenue Franklin-D.-Roosevelt, but it still has a Café/Restaurant today at number 21:

Congenial still, but no chess sets now. (From here)
A stand-out player, though not one of the original 15 Englishmen, was the Scot Harris Kirkland Handasyde who joined later in 1926. He had been 1st equal in the 1915 Scottish Championship, and had been living in France from around 1923. He had represented Great Britain in the 1924 Paris Olympiad (albeit at the last minute, it would appear), and was already on the French chess scene - for example he finished equal 5-7th (along with Duchamp and Kahn) in the 1925 Championat de Paris (he was 10th in 1926, 8th in 1927, 11th in 1930 - so to say he was "invariably well-placed" [BCM April 35] is maybe a touch flattering). He also competed in the 1928 championship of the Cercle de Lutèce, "gaining 5th prize" (BCM May 1928). Handasyde died suddenly in 1935 in his French home in the 14th Arr. For want of a bit of chess, you can find his efficient defeat of the Irishman J.J.O'Hanlon in the 1924 Olympiad here.

Handasyde was elected the Club's first President, followed by (as listed by "A Correspondent" in 1935): G.W.Champion, R.W.Holmes, and "the present President" D.J.Collins. From the various sources we can also piece together the succession of Secretaries: J.E.Scantlebury (1926-27), D.J.Collins (1927-1931), G.L.A. Langelaan and M.Moseley (jointly in 1931); G.L.A Langelaan (1932); F.Farrington (1933); M.A. Bec (1934-5). It seems that Collins was Secretary again in 1938, when he is given as "Donal (sic?) Collins", of 25, rue St-Ferdinand, 17Arr., by the Bulletin of the French Chess Federation - this is the last reference we have found to the BCCP before the outbreak of the war in 1939.

There was clearly something of a merry-go-round of club officers, but "Donal" Collins (surely that should be "Donald") gets a special mention in despatches. Firstly, in the BCM of November 1934: "The appointment of D.J.Collins [as President] (who is also match captain and tournament secretary) has given much satisfaction, as since the club was founded in 1926 no one has done more for than he for its success." Then in the 1935 BCM article: "no praise could be too high for [his] fine services...", and listing all the offices he held since 1926, including match captain throughout.

Collins was a trouper at the board as well, with the 1935 article naming him as five times BCCP champion and referring to his draws with F.D.Yates (in a simul.), and Znosko-Borovsky (one-to-one), and wins against strong French players including A.Voisin, and E. Golbérine; the article also mentions success in BCCA postal competitions. In the BCM of June 31 he was reported as as being undefeated in BCCP matches against other clubs "for the third season in succession..."

It happens that two winning combinations played by D.J.Collins appeared in the BCM reports from the BCCP over the years. Their original text is transcribed below - retaining the descriptive notation to keep the period feel.

Transcribed from BCM April 1931
Transcribed from BCM April 1935
As with all the characters in the BCCP before it closed, one is curious about what happened to them afterwards. Take Donald J.Collins. There was a D.J.Collins competing in the Stevenson Memorial at Southsea in 1952 (reported in the Portsmouth Evening News 25 April 1952), with the added intrigue that another competitor had been the 1936 Female French Champion (when only 17 years old): Mme Chantal Chaudé de Silans who had also played in a BCCP club tournament the same year (BCM Nov 36). There was a D.J.Collins, graded 5b, playing for Middlesex in 1955 (buried in this ECForum thread), and one active in Harrow CC in the 1950s (see here). It would be interesting to be able to confirm that they all were, as seems plausible, the one and the same D.J.Collins.

G.W.Champion was often among the BCCP office holders, and was also in the running for the title of, well, Club Champion, which he held 4 years in succession up to 1932, before the reign of Collins set in (though Handasyde won it in 1933). There was also the eponymous "Champion" Trophy for the winner of the secondary tournament open to all members not competing in the club championship - or so it said in the BCM Nov 36, but this doesn't seem quite consistent with the second game fragment above - all a tad confusing. G.W.C. also played in the French Championship in 1935, coming 15th/18. He has his place in the history books as a victim of Alekhine in a blindfold simultaneous in Paris (on the 22nd November according to this source  - although others imply otherwise in view of Alekhine's movements between France and the Soviet Union). Here is the game. It's a cracker (and best viewed via Google Chrome).

Another club member who also played in the 1935 French championship was Henri Reyss (who finished 12th). He appeared to play in Rotterdam in Easter 1932 (or someone else with his name did), as there is a game by an H.Reyss here, as reported in an Australian newspaper of the time. He lost spectacularly. Alas, so far we have found no published wins by the British Club chessers.

In the next episodes we'll meet some more members and will also look at the club's engagement with the French, and wider, chess scene; but to round off this episode we'll document the high jinks in which our not-so-buttoned-up compatriots indulged. Englishmen abroad. Off the leash. In Paris. You'd expect them to have some fun with their games.

Their preferred watering hole - that is to say, the one that is officially documented - was the Hotel Pétrograd (as it was known at the time; it has now reverted to "Hotel St-Petersbourg" as it was in the ancient photo below).  

From here
This is where they toasted the winners of the club championships when convened for the annual dinner - including in 1931, on April 9th, in relation to which Dominique Thimognier has unearthed this:
From L'Ex-Libris March 1931 
Vraiment drôle, n'est-ce pas? Employing to good effect that internationally acknowledged "humour anglais" - even though the members of this "club célèbre" were regarded as "fort sérieux" (on account of being chesseurs, I suppose). The republican French obviously liked the handiwork of Monsieur Langelaan junior (that's our man George - Langelaan père, Gérard, was also a member) and his irreverent pastiche of the Royal Coat of Arms, for which he was, let's hope, fêted by his colleagues at the "Merry Annual Dinner".

But it gets worse. In 1932, again at the Hotel Pétrograd, on April 5th to be precise, certain members of said celebrated Club could be caught cross-dressing - in an after-dinner entertainment penned by George Langelaan (him again): a "burlesque performance of Faust" (as they reported, without any apparent embarrassment, in the BCM of May 32).

 "Faust und Mephisto beim Schachspiel " 19th Century
Artist unknown
Pic by Anonymous (, via Wikimedia Commons
The dramatis personæ  for the, ahem, "performance" were: George Langelaan as Mephistopheles (who else?), Donald Langelaan (his brother) as Marguerite, Max K.Staub as Dame Martha, M.Mosely as Valentine, and D.J.Collins as Faust. Avec beaucoup d'humour anglais one imagines.   

This text of Faust à la Langelaan has - as far as I'm aware - not survived. But much of the rest of his œuvre has, as we shall see; but next up: the British Chess Club of Paris v the French Chess Clubs of Paris, and more.

Footnote added 24 January 2016:  "Joueurs aux échecs" (sic) is poppycock on my part. Actually - and thanks here to a correspondent from France, who has kindly put me straight - the French is properly joueurs d'échecs; or even échécphiles ("possible, but rare" he says). Thanks! I really should stick to English. 

Not forgetting - as we invariably do - to thank the BCM, the chess magazine of record for the period.

History Index

Forward to Part 2 The OppositionPart 3 The Match; Part 4 The Beast; Part 5 The RobotPart 6 The Addendum  


Richard James said...

DJ Collins:

Could be Donal - a not uncommon Irish first name. I can't find any plausible BMD records so he could well have been Irish.

There was a Donald J Collins on the electoral roll in Harrow between 1946 and 1965 (when the online records stop) who might or might not be the 50s chess player. I can't find a death record for him. It's possible he was still alive in 2005 when the online records stop. No birth records in the area but there was a Donald J Collins born in Farnham, Surrey in 1913 which would be a plausible age for the Harrow chesser but too young for the Paris chesser.

Sadly there doesn't seem to be any particular reason to suspect that the French and Harrow players were the same person.

Martin Smith said...

Thanks Richard.

So near; so far.