Friday, February 12, 2016

Les Chesseurs Britanniques de Paris: Part 3 The Match

In the first post on this series about the long-forgotten British Chess Club of Paris (1926 to 1938/9) we looked at some of the personalities involved in its activities. Part 2 looked at its impact on the Parisian chess scene of the time. In this episode we will take the long view backwards to 1931. It was a good year for the Club: 5 years after its foundation it was the year when it made the headlines.

Well, a small one, anyway, on Monday 23 November. The reason? On Sunday 22 November 1931, "le club anglais" - our French friends were a little shaky on the British/English distinction - played a match against the Manhattan Chess Club. The BCCP team resigned on the 31st move. Not quite the headline the Club would have wished. But, any publicity...etc. They played in Paris. Their American opponents played in New York. The match was played by cable between teams of five-a-side in consultation.

In this episode of the series we tell the story of the "match", as it was invariably referred to (even though only one game was played; but as it was a team event I suppose we could let that go), and we will do so occasionally in the company of the inevitable George Langelaan, for it was he who was credited as the author of the account of the event in the British Chess Magazine of January 1932.

Fulsome though his report was, extravagant even, fortunately we don't have to rely on him alone. There was plenty of other press coverage; though we don't have access to all the "twenty front page stories" claimed by George. However, Dominique Thimognier (to whom this post is especially indebted) of Heritage des Échecs Français has tracked down the most significant. We can thus draw on reports in the general press from this both sides of the Atlantic, and also reports from the specialist chess press in the States, France and Britain (they are listed at the end of the post). Over here the match featured in a special report in the BCM at the time (with a photo), and was also mentioned in the retrospective 10 year progress report on the BCCP in the BCM of April 1935. The latter, we may suppose, was also penned by the talented Mr Langelaan, adopting, as his nom de plume "A Correspondent" in an uncharacteristic act of self-effacement (Part 4 of the series will treat further with his slippery visage).

Still on preliminaries: the motivation for the match was that the BCCP was desirous of contributing to the French Chess Federation's promotional effort "en faveur de ce noble jeu" (Le Journal 33 Nov 1931 - all references from that year unless stated otherwise). Nevertheless one feels a bit nervous, given the possible French readership of our Blog, of repeating the claim from the British camp that the match was responsible for breathing life back into a flagging domestic chess scene. "Many French players date the revival of chess in [France] to the organisation of the match...the large amount of publicity...which it obtained, had undoubtedly the effect of stirring up attention to the game" (BCM April 1935) asserted "A Correspondent". Maybe that was to try and salvage some honour after the BCCP's melt-down in the game itself.

The match was initiated by a challenge from this side of the Atlantic. The jocular manner of its reception on the other implies that it was perceived as an impertinence: "British chess players residing in Paris and spoiling for a fight, have thrown their hats into the ring...A distinct dare accompanied the gesture, whereby the owners of the aforesaid hats were separated from their covering" (Brooklyn Daily Eagle 12 Nov). The same column was later unabashed, on the 25 November, in trumpeting American superiority, as if the result had been a foregone conclusion: "The British chess players...were no match for the team representing the Manhattan Chess was quite plain that the overseas contingent had taken on more than they could conveniently manage...It created no surprise that victory should rest with the club that had brought out such experts as Kashdan, Kupchik [etc]." 

The French press was less partisan and generally supportive of their British confrères, with Le Matin and Le Figaro providing some in-depth coverage. They dwelt on the human interest angle rather more than the chess itself, perhaps because they were addressing a general readership - it was, after all, an eye-catching stunt intended to appeal to the le grand public. In fact le match was billed beforehand in le Petit Parisien of the 21st November: the BCCP team would play from the offices of the Commercial Cable Company 24, blvd du Capucines (the Manhattan CC would play from the Company offices in Broad Street, New York) - and the public would be admitted to watch.

The brown door at 24 blvd du Capucines
Interested spectators were warned, though, that game could take several hours, and with a start time of 14.00 in Paris a pertinent speculation surfaced in the pages of Le Figaro (22 Nov) attentive as it was - in the Gallic manner - to matters alimentary. At 14.00 the équipe anglaise would have had time for a decent lunch; but the Americans, starting at 09.00 local time, would barely have had time for breakfast, a hurried one if at all. Pondered Le Figaro: would this be an advantage, or not, for les Anglais (sympathetically adopting their perspective)? Note, however, that an hour's adjournment was scheduled for 18.00 should the teams have felt a little peckish.

Le Figaro raised yet another practical issue, though of lesser moment. What about colours? As if conversant with the finer nuances of chess etiquette, it pointed out that who had white was determined, when playing "dans un café", by the toss of a coin. But "à travers l'Atlantique"? The solution was simple. On the Friday morning before the match each side simultaneously transmitted a number from 1 to 10. If the sum was even Manhattan CC would take white. It was the only thing they got wrong. As to the technical side: French readers were provided with exhaustive detail. The moves were transmitted along 6,786 kilomètres of cable - no more, no less - (Le Petit Parisien 21 Nov, confirmed by Le Figaro 22 Nov), sinking to a more rounded 9,000 mètres "dans les profondeurs atlantiques". In spite of these prodigious dimensions, the moves would reach the other side in a mere six seconds. It fell to Le Matin (23 Nov) to make another startling exposé: that at 15 francs a move the match cost in total nearly 1000 francs of cable-time; though I don't suppose that the Commercial Cable Company minded too much.        

It was agreed that neither side would field masters or professional players (Brooklyn Daily Eagle 12 Nov, also BCM Jan 32), furthermore the two sides would play "dans le plus strict incognito" (Le Matin 23 Nov) - a handicap that may have also have afflicted the spectators in Paris peering through the fug to make out the home team enveloped by "une fumée olympienne" as the jouers sucked "solemnly" upon their pipes. But if it was intended that the teams should remain secret it was one badly kept: the Paris fans could have discovered the identity of the Americans in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle which revealed all in their 12 November issue, 10 days before the match...

This is how they squared up. For the BCCP: N. Baliol Scott, G.W.Champion (captain) D. J. Collins, C.C.Curtis, and R.W. Holmes - invigilated in Paris by Joshua Crane of Boston CC (Le Journal 33 Nov), who may also have been the "match umpire" (as given by the BCM Jan 32); and for Manhattan CC: L.B.Meyer, A. Pinkus (captain), L. Samuels, A. Schroder and R. Williams. The observer in New York was Dr. N. Lederer (New York Evening Post 23 Nov) who may or may not have been the English representative sur place mentioned by Le Matin 23 November. In contrast to its premature disclosure of the Manhattan team, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle omitted to mention, in any of its coverage, that the event was graced by a rather significant figure in the chess world: Alexander Alekhine, the world champion. He was engaged to adjudicate if the game was unfinished after the nine (!) hours of cable time alloted. Alekhine offered his prediction (so reported Le Journal 23 Nov) that the match would be hard fought ("rude"), and was, in his estimation, unlikely to conclude in a draw.

Langelaan, who was credited in the BCM of January 1932 as the organiser of the event, gave a explanatory commentary "avec un sens admirable de l'humour" elucidating "un jeu simple et clair" that takes only half an hour to learn, and an ordinary game only 45 minutes to play (as reported Le Matin 23 Nov). The spectators in Paris could follow the game itself on "un immense tableau" (Le Journal 23 Nov)

Remarkably there are photographs from both ends of the cable, though of differing quality, united here for maybe the first time.

Left - from the New York Evening Post 23 November 1931: left to right seated - Samuels, Willman, Pinkus, Schroder, and Meyer; standing Lederer (referee). "The players are just receiving a cable play from Paris"
Right - from the BCM January 1932: "The scene at the Paris end...with the World Champion in the centre."      
The Manhattan picture looks a little posed (two clocks?) in spite of the caption, but at least you can see all the participants, whereas its Parisian counterpart has a charmingly improviste quality, and a haphazard approach to showing off the players (though there's a decent display of pipes). The latter also shows the ingenious arrangement adopted by the Brits to make efficient use of the available brain power. So: whereas in New York it would appear that the team clustered around a single board to thrash out their move, in Paris - according to Le Matin (23 November) - "each studied the move on their own board...and from time to time they would assemble around the master-board" (and now back to the French) "pour discuter à voix basse" (and back again) "surrounded by a mute wall of engrossed spectators".

At "2-2 p.m., Paris time" (BCM Jan 32), on Sunday 22 November 1931, the captain of the BCCP team, D.G.Collins, pushed a pawn to Q4 (or 4D). It was converted into a code "javanais" (Le Matin 23 Nov) - for which my dictionary offers "double Dutch" - and passed to the operator. "The keyboard trembled"..."the needle flickered" (it sounds so much better in French), "un boy" (better evidently in English) raced down the corridor - thus the move arrived, acknowledged by "un laconique O.K.!" All this coming and going, by the way, was overseen at each end by the two observers as "serious and correct as if at an assembly of the League of Nations" (Le Matin's reportage again).

And so it was that game unfolded - with a time control of 30 moves in 2 hours, then 15 moves per hour thereafter (Le Journal again) - finishing after six and a half hours play with an American victory duly confirmed by the world champion (Le Matin 23 Nov), whose adjudication "services were not called upon" (BCM Jan 32). The Brits offered their congratulations, and left it to Langelaan to make their excuses.

The game score was circulated widely and, in the days before algebraic standardization, in the preferred notation of each country.

Left: The Brooklyn Daily Eagle 25 November 1931. Right: La Stratégie November 1931.

Indeed, both sides gave their view of the game, but naturally this technical stuff only appeared in the chess press. First, the American take, from the chess column of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle of 25 November 1931:
"Not alone were the Anglo-Parisians outranked in advance in paper but they made matters worse by venturing upon an experiment costing a pawn without any return. The New Yorkers followed the Howell variation in the Queen's Gambit and, after accepting the gift of a pawn, proceeded to develop along natural lines. The pawn was never relinquished and eventually figured in the denouement preceding resignation. A little earlier the sacrifice of a knight by the allies in Paris was a mere flash in the pan."      
In the BCM of January 1932, Langelaan did his best:
"An unfortunate lapse occurred when White deferred until the 10th move a move that they had intended to make on the 9th, and this cost them a Pawn. In the effort to transfer the play vigorously to the King's side before Black could make the most of their preponderance on the Queen's, White lost much time and the 6 o'clock adjournment came after White's 16th move [sic - the 15th according to La Stratégie - MS] White having taken an hour and 39 minutes. On the resumption of play, therefore, they had to get through 14 moves in 21 minutes. With two minutes to go and still 3 moves to make, White in desperation offered the sacrifice of a Knight to get a momentary attack, but without avail. Although 30 moves were accomplished on the stroke of time, the resulting position was hopeless...."
So: forgotten preparation, time trouble...we've heard it all before. But it's not the winning, it's the taking part that matters, as we all know - though winning now and then would be nice... In the BCM Langelaan made much of the press interest: "the 'big' French Press on Monday morning and the local and regional Press all took it up". He claimed a higher level victory: for the game of chess itself.  

The next episode in the series will introduce a member who we have not yet met, and show how Langelaan himself remained in the public eye after 1938.

General press reports identified: French - Le Petit Parisien 21 November 1931; Le Figaro 22 November;  Le Journal,  Le Matin,  Le Petit Parisien 23 November 1931; American -  New York Evening Post 23 November 1931.
Chess press/columns: French - La Stratégie November 1931; American - Brooklyn Daily Eagle 12 & 25 November 1931; British - British Chess Magazine January 1932 & April 1935.

Part 1 The Club; Part 2 The Opposition; Part 4 The Beast; Part 5 The RobotPart 6 The Addendum  

History Index

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