Most people even remotely interested in 19th century chess know about Mrs. John W. Gilbert and her extremely long announced mates. What seems to be less appreciated today is the sheer strength of this lady chess player. Part of the problem lies in the fact that so few of her games are available. So, I scoured old newpapers and magazines for her games and transposed them from descriptive to digital. I've managed to assemble 24 of Mrs. Ellen Gilbert's games which, mixed in with a little history, I want to offer in this presentation.
The Queen of Chess
Much of what little we know about Mrs. Gilbert unfortunately comes from her obituaries. This obituary reprinted from that in the "Hartford Weekly Times" gives a brief summation of her life:
"The Gazette and Farmers' Journal"
April 12, 1900
A CHESS MISTRESS
Mrs. Ellen E. Gilbert, wife of Mr. John W. Gilbert, who died on Monday at her house on Capitol avenue, was not only well known in this city, but had a wide reputation among chess players. She was the daughter of Dr. A. B. Strong, a physician of Leverett, Mass., who was also a naturalist of some repute and author of several books on birds and flowers. After receiving a liberal education, Miss Strong came to this city and taught at the South school until her marriage to Mr. Gilbert.
She was best known, however, for her talent in chess, being a strong player and excelling in keen analysis. She was one of the organizers of the famous Queen's chess club which flourished in this city in the sixties. She made her national reputation in the time of the correspondence tournament between England and America. Through the courtesy of Mr. John Belden, chess editor of the Hartford Times, she was invited to participate, although the only lady in the list. Mr. Belden had enough faith in her extraordinary powers to match her with Mr. Gossip of London, at the time the strongest correspondence player known. Other players feared the manager for America made a grave mistake by pitting this unknown player with one who far outclassed her, but she came out triumphant, winning every game and in one of them performing a before unheard of feat of announcing mate in thirty-five moves.
"The British Chess Magazine" also published her obituary in April 1900.
We much regret to record the death of Mrs. Gilbert, of Hartford, Conn., U.S.A., who was formerly the Lady Chess Champion of America for nearly 25 years, and certainly the most prominent Lady chess player in the world. Unfortunately, on searching the back numbers of magazines of that period, we can find no record of her performances when she was a member of the Queen's Chess Club, at Hartford, in the sixties. Afterwards, however, she developed into a most formidable correspondence player, and when in the British and American correspondence tourney, she was paired with Mr. Gossip, she defeated him by a clean score of four games, announcing in one of them a mate in 21 moves, and in another of 35 moves, which proved to be correct. In commemoration of this victory, she was presented with a handsome gold watch.
Memory of the Queen's Chess Club mentioned above seems to have faded into oblivion for the most part. In his nice little article on Mrs. Gilbert, the wonderful chess historian for the Pa. State Chess Federation, Neil Brennan wrote: "Mrs. Gilbert and her husband did establish a 'Queen's Chess Club' in Hartford during the 1860's, allowing members of both sexes to meet to practice the Royal Game." This may be accurate, but Mr. Brennan didn't leave us with any indication to the source, making it difficult to ascertain. The only other reference I was able to uncover came from Willard Fiske's "Chess Monthly" in 1860 with this peculiar note about the chess ladies participating in an archery contest:
"We learn from a Connecticut paper that an association called the Queen's Chess Club celebrated the Fourth of July in Babcock's Grove, near Hartford. More than sixty persons were assembled. The Declaration was read and toasts were drunk. But the feature of the day was a contest in archery by the ladies. The target distance was fifty feet. The first prize was a set of ivory chess-men, of the value of twenty dollars, awarded to Miss Lillie Lyman. The second prize, won by Miss Lizzie W. Olmsted, was a beautifully inlaid chess board of papier mache."
Her husband, John W. Gilbert was a builder in Hartford. One of his structures is now a historical building:
As already mentioned, Mrs. Gilbert was internationally known, and remembered today, primarily for her correspondence play and long mate announcements. This overshadowed her other achievements. While, although she never took part in public OTB tournaments, her over-the-board experiences were occasionally recorded, what isn't generally known is that she was a talented blindfold player. The "Hartford Weekly Times" on November 4, 1871 wrote:
We have had occasion at different times to speak of the chess playing accomplishments of a number of Hartford ladies, but more particularly of the skill exhibited by Mrs. J. W. Gilbert. We have published several games successively contested by this lady, some of which have been copied into papers out of this state, accompanied by highly complimentary remarks. Blindfold chess is a performance so difficult that only comparatively few players have ever undertaken the task. Mrs. G__ has recently played a number of games blindfold, and has almost invariably won them. We believe it is the first instance on record of a lady playing chess blindfold. Are we right? If any of our readers are informed to the contrary, we will thank them to let us know where, when and by whom the exploit was accomplished.
Here is an example of her blindfold play from the "Hartford Weekly Times" Dec. 27, 1873:
The reader might notice an inexpilcable incongruity here. The blindfold game above was given in the "Hartford Weekly News" on Dec. 27, 1873 with the comment that it had been recently contested and that it was Mrs. Gilbert's first blindfold game. However, the previous excerpt from the November 4, 1871 issue of the same paper asserts that Mrs. Gilbert was already proficient in blindfold play. Clearly, either the game given wasn't "recently" played, or else it wasn't her first attempt.
On September 1, 1877, the "Scientific American" gave us this brief look at Ellen Gilbert:
Believing that a likeness of Mrs. J. W. Gilbert, of Hartford, Ct., would possess great interest to all lovers of chess in America, we take especial pleasure in gracing our gallery of this week with her portrait.
Wishing to avoid a plurality, or, as in the case of Morphy, a confusion of likenesses with but little resemblance in common, we acknowledge an international compliment, and reproduce from the Westminster Papers a picture which we are assured is a faithful likeness of the acknowledged Queen of Chess.
Mrs. Gilbert is generally admitted to be the most accomplished lady chess player living, and as a successful player of games by correspondence has achieved a world-wide reputation. The specimens of her play which we give this week surpass anything recorded from actual play, for brilliancy of problematical termination, that has yet come under our notice.
An international correspondence tournay was inaugurated during the early part of last year between twenty -nine american and the same number of Canadian players. The result has been a decided vistory by a score of more than two to one for the Americans.
Mrs. J. W. Gilbert took part in the contest and we are pleased to present her games to our readers as momentoes of this interesting tournament, as well as specimens of her remarkable talent.
Mate in 18!
According to the "BCM" in 1901:
Although she lived in Harford and seemed to interact with members of the Hartford Chess Club, she was never a member. The strongest member of the club was Capt. Patrick O'Farrell.
". . . Captain O'Farrell was formerly a member of the Belfast Club and holder of that Club's Championship Medal as far back as 1862, in which year he left Ireland for America to join the Union Army, in which he enlisted as a private, served throughout the war, and retired with the rank of Captain. After leaving the Army he settled in Hartford, Connecticut, resumed the practice of chess, and proved his ability as a player by winning the State Championship. He now for the third time again emerges a champion, in the 68th year of his age. He is an old friend and subscriber to this journal, and we trust that he will long be spared to enjoy many a chess fight before reaching the final life-game, which all must play and resign.
He had also lived in nation's capitol and won the Washington D.C. Chess Club championship at least 4 times between 1895 and 1901
Capt. O'Farrell and Mrs. Gilbert played an over-the-board match of 12 games in 1871 with O'Farrell eventually winning with 6 games to Mrs. Gilert's 5 and 1 draw.
I was fortunate to find three game scores from this match:
I found one more recorded game between O'Farrell and Mrs. Gilbert published in 1873. The paper didn't mention when the game was actually played.
In 1872-3 Mrs. Gilbert contested a few games with Mr. Samuel B. Weld of Connecticut, formerly of the Boston Chess Club. I couldn't ascertain whether these were postal games or over-the-board games (though most likley postal). Mr. Weld was a frequent contributor to Mr. Belden's chess column in the "Hartford Weekly Times." Sadly, Mr. Weld died in early 1873.
Here are two of those games:
Mrs. Gilbert played an interesting pair of games against three men from Uxbridge, Massachusetts. Mr. Weston, Mr. Robbins and Mr. Farnum weren't particularly strong players and being in consultation didn't seem to help.
Mrs. Gilbert's next opponent is one of those intriquing men chess seems to attract. Since he performed the surprising task of beating Mrs. Gilbert in two of the three games I found, he deserves some attention. William Henry Harrison Hotchkin was presumably named after the man who was running for the president at the time of Hotchkin's birth, and who eventually won though he only survived a month in office. Maybe this burdensome name guided Hotchkins towads his future law career. On that road he had been a quartermaster during the Civil War serving at the First Battle of Manassas, a Keeper at Auburn State Prison, a reporter for the World and finally, at age 32, a lawyer. He was elected Justice of the Peace in Watertown, N.Y. in 1879 and served in that capacity until 1883.
An odd thing happened in 1883. Mr. Hotchkins, who had been in ill health, left his home allegedly to take a train to NYC to collect a debt. He was never heard from again.
Looking for examples of Hotchkin's play, I found a game in the The City of London Chess Magazine in 1876 which Hotchkin won against the Iowa College Chess Club in consultation. According to The Chess Journal, edited by O. A. Brownson, Mr. Hotchkin offered his services to make all the arrangements for the Correpondence match between Canada and the US. in which he was a contestant (and in which Mrs. Gilbert played Mr. A. Hood of Wroxeter, Ontario in the games shown earlier). Mr. Hotchkins was also the chess editor of the "Watertown Reunion."
In the first game, Mrs. Gilbert found herself on the wrong side of an announced mate !!:
Mrs. Gilbert's win:
Mrs. Gilbert's last opponent for this section is one of the strongest players in South Carolina, Isaac Edward Orchard. An impressive name to be sure, but his friends just called him Eddie.
-"The Salt Lake Herald," May 17, 1891 -
I. E. Orchard of Atlanta is said to be the ablest chess player in the south. One critic even asserts that he is the legitimate successor from that section of the great Paul Morphy. He is at present chess champion of the south having defeated Professor A. F. Wurm, a well known player who had defended the championship for five years. Young Orchard was born thirty us ago at Columbia S. C. He Showed a wonderful aptitude for chess early in life and when only fifteen years of age could blindfold himself and play a number of games simultaneously. He entered a great tournament conducted by McKenzie in 1876 and
creditably acquitted himself, although very young, by defeating a number of experts including Bird, Easor, Delmar andothers. Orchard is a newspaper man.
Orchard was born around 1853 and died suddenly on May 8, 1908. Most places list his age at that time as 54. He died in NYC and the "New York Times" gave his age as 55.
I'd written two short articles on Orchard - here and here.
Here the "Champion of the South" loses to the "Queen of Chess":
John C. Romeyn sent the following problems to Potter's "City of London" chess magazine dedicating them to Mrs. Gilbert. The magazine published them with this commentary:
We give below, diagrams of two Problem sent to us by the composer, Mr. J. C. Romeyn, of Rondout, N.Y., U.S.A. As contructive curiosities we think they will be found interesting, the principle being that the simple displacement of a Pawn, which it will be seen is the only alteration in the second position, gives a totally different solution. No. 1 is a really difficult Problem.
Mr. Romeyn desires that they should be dedicated to Mrs. J. W. Gilbert, of Hartford Conn., whom he states is unquestionably the strongest lady player in the United States. Gallantry to the lady permits us to mention the author's desire, but on principle we object to dedications, for we consider that, putting aside exceptional cases, they serve no useful purpose. A Problem, like a road, is dedicated to the public, and though a composer may naturally wish to show his esteem for a particular friend, yet the readers of a Magazine cannot be expected to feel much interest in that matter, and it is for them, not for a particular friend, that Problems are published. However, we do not propse at present to enter into reasons for or against such inscription. For the most part, in fact, we think they are sufficiently obvious. By the bye, a very interesting contest would be a correspondence match between Mrs. Gilbert, representing the lady players of America and Miss Rudge, as the champion of those in this country. Does Mr. Romeyn think such an event coud be brought off?? Though, without any authority to speak, yet we doubt there being any objection from this side.
Romeyn seems to have been well acquainted with Mrs. Gilbert.
The "BCM" published his obituary in 1886:
Mr. John C. Romeyn, of Kingston, N. Y., who was at one time quite a prominent problemist and player in the ranks of American Chess, died in that city on the 22nd May. Mr. Romeyn was a native of Kingston, having been born Aug. 30th, 1844, and was, therefore, only in his 42nd year at the time of his death. He first learned Chess in 1864, and must have possessed both considerable natural capacity and enthusiasm for the game, for, within a few months, he was able to contend on even terms with the strongest players of his locality, and in June of the following year he began the publication of a Chess department in the Kingston Journal. In the early part of 1867 Mr. Romeyn, in conjunction with Mr. E. B. Cook, of Hoboken, N. J., undertook the publication of the now famous "American Chess Nuts," which after the death of Mr. W. R. Henry, its projector, in 1865, had remained in Mr. Cook's charge in a state of incompletion and abeyance. Mr. Romeyn progressed as far as the 405th problem in an edition of 500 copies, when ill health compelled him reluctantly to abandon tho task. Subsequently, however, he was a most helpful coadjutor to Messrs. Cook and Gilberg in the final labour upon the work prior to its going to press in 1868, aiding largely in collecting the problems dating after 1861, and personally re-examining over a fourth of the multitude of compositions contained in the volume. From about this period Mr. Romeyn seems to have virtually abandoned tho field of practical Chess play, devoting himself almost exclusively to problems, in the construction of which he was a frequent, though not a prolific composer. For a long time past, however, he appears to have given up even this branch of the game, the latest composition of his that we have been able to find being tho following little three-mover from the Holyoka Transcript, in the early part of 1878. . . Mr. Romeyn was, we believe, a practical newspaper man, being at one time editor and part proprietor of the "Kingston Journal," and subsequently of the "Courier," of the same city.
I found Mr. Romyn's compositions in "The City of London" chess magazine, the "Dubuque Chess Journal," and the "Hartford Weekly Times."
Here is a game contested between Mr. Romeyn and Mrs. Gilbert:
In addition to being a correspondence player, William J. Berry of Beverly, Mass. was also a problemist - 3rd in Bretano's Problem Solution Tournay 1881 - and a blindfold player. His game against Mr. Gilbert was published on July 24, 1875 in the "Hartford Weekly Times" with the following comments:
A Remarkable Game!
The correspondence game published below, which was contested by Mrs. J. W. Gilbert, of this city and Mr. W. J. Berry, of Beverly, Mass., in some respects is the most remarkable game that ever came under our observation. A game wherein mate is announted in nineteen moves is so extraordinary it is worthy of something more than a mere passing notice.
In analyzing the position at the point where mate is announced, the student will find much to interest him; and the mental labor he has to perform before accomplishing his purpose will be immense. None but those who have tried it can begin to appreciate the difficulty of the task. The lady who performed the feat of studying out the mate in nineteen moves acknowledges it was the most severe intellectual task she ever undertook. To our eye there is nothing in the position of the pieces to warrant the belief that mate could be forced, and yet, Mrs. Gilbert was so strongly impressed with the idea, she set to work and actually accomplished her purpose. All the way through Black has so many moves at his command it would seem as if the player would despair of ever forcing a mate, but in all ways, except the one in the text, mate would follow in less that the stipulated moves. Black's best play cannot prolong it beyond nineteen moves. Upon announcement, Mr. Berry gracefully acknowledged defeat as follows:
"No doubt you have heard the story of the Russian who played chess
with the devil. The Russian says, 'I now thought I had him, and in
careful consideration resolved on a bold push. No sooner had I moved
than my adversary with a grim smile commenced counting on his
fingers and then said:
'My excellent friend, I shall checkmate you in exactly twenty-one move.'
'Gracious Heavens,' I said, 'that is a whole game. You must be the devil.'
'I just am,' answered the other"
I was forcibly reminded of the above little anecdote by your announcement; but of course, you will understand that it is told in fun, and above all that there is no danger of my making the very unpleasant reflection which passed through the mind of our excellent Russian friend. - Wm. J. Berry"
John G. Belden was the chess editor of the Hartford Weekly Times for 17 years. He was also a probleminst with one example published in the "American Chess-Nuts." Like Mr. Romeyn, he died in the Spring of 1886. He was 55.
Belden was a big supporter of Mrs. Gilbert. He sponsored Mrs. Gilbert in the 1877 "International Postal Card Chess Tourney" which pitted England against America, was severely criticized for his pairing up of the experienced Gossip, playing for England, against a relatively unknown female homebody.
Belden also consulted with Mrs. Gilbert in one of the first chess games ever played by telephone. According to the "Chess Player's Chronicle" of Jan. 1878:
The "Hartford Times" of January 3d , contains the account of a game played at
Hartford, Conn., by telephone, between Mrs. Gilbert and Mr. Belden on one side, and Messrs. Lincoln and Olmsted on the other, the distance between the combatants being several miles. The "Times," however, is mistaken in saying that this is the first game on record played by the telephone, the first being that alluded to in our last issue, which was played somewhere near New York, and published, we believe, in the "Turf, Field, and Farm."
The first game played by the agency of the telephone in this country came off on 25th Jan., between F. Thompson, Esq., Chess Editor of the "Derbyshire Advertiser," and John Cooper, Esq., at the Milford and Belper Mills, near Derby.
This is a present day photo of the house on 21 Capitol St., Hartford, Conn. (directly to the right of the streetlight) where Mr. and Mrs. Gilbert lived.
The highpoint of Mrs. Gilbert's chess career arrived between 1877 and 1881 during what was termed the "International Postal Card Chess Tourney." This was a correspondence match between England and the US. The American team included several of the people we've already met, such as I. E. Orchard, John C. Romeyn, William. J. Berry and even C. G. Lincoln who was on the losing side of the telephone game. It also included better-known names such as Eugene Delmar and Max Judd.
Mrs. Gilbert, who was relatively unknown internationally, was selected to enter and was matched against George Hatfeild Dingley Gossip who was about four years her junior but who had tournament experience in England and had won a strong correspondence tourney arranged by "Chess Player's Chronicle" in 1873 (his prize was £1, 10s, 0d.).
Pairing Mrs. Gilbert with Mr. Gossip gained Mr. Belden some criticism, but Mrs. Gilbert vindicated his choice by not only winning all four of her games, but by announcing in one of the games a record-setting and attention-getting mate-in-35 moves and mate-in-21 in another game.
It's said (in the OCC) that Mr. Gossip dedicated his 1891 book, "Theory of Chess Openings," to Mrs. Gilbert, but in looking at a 2nd edition, also published in 1891, Mrs. Gilbert's name appears in the subsciption list and nowhere else.
Concerning the British-American Postal Match, the "Brooklyn Eagle" wrote on May 22, 1877 -
Mr. Belden has been selected to pair the players, and he requests all who desire to enter the lists. . .
The rules of play wil be as follows:
First - Play to be conducted according to "Chess Praxis," by Staunton.
Second - Intending players allowed one month from date of publication of the announcement to enter. Envelopes to be marked "Chess, " and addressed to the editor of the Times, Hartford, Conn.
Third - The editors of the News of the Week, and the Hartford Times wish each applicant to state their experience in such contests so that the pairing may be as even as possible on that basis.
Fouth - The time to elapse between receiving and getting replies to be two lawful days ; in all cases the moves and date on which the moves are recieved to be alluded to in the peplies and the dates to be given in a record of the game at the close.
Fifth - If six weeks elapse and no reply be received, the player not receiving such reply may make a claim for the unfinished games by appeal to the editor under whom he entered l but the illness of a player or his departure for another country will be deemed a sufficient reason for cancelling such unfinished games.
Sixth - The players of each country to have the frst move in two games, and they will arrange to number them 1, 2, 3, 4. The players representing "the old country" will have the first move in Nos. 1 and 2, and it is suggested, in order to save about six month's time, that ten or a dozen of the opening moves on both sides be made up to a point where neither side has the advantage and the party who selects the opening moves permits his opponent to take choice in positions.
Seventh - If at the end of two years any unfinished games remain the players shall furnish copies to the editors under whom they entered and give a diagram of the positions, onthe editors will which they shall give an analysis, showing draws or wins; the editors will communicate with each other, and should they not agree, such games will be canceled.
Referring to Rule Sixth - Intending players when they enter are expected to send the opening moves of their two games. These, with the full addresses of each, will be posted to Europe.
Here are the four games between Ellen Gilbert and George Gossip:
After the International Postal Card Chess Tourney, references to Mrs. Gilbert dry up. Her failing eyesight might have convinced her to give up the game. Ellen Strong Gilbert, a true turn-of-the-century lady, died on February 12, 1900.