Blogs
The Inspiring Chronicle of a Blind Champion
How a visually impaired became a hero for blind chess players.

The Inspiring Chronicle of a Blind Champion

AstroTheoretical_Physics
| 32

The stories of successful people with disabilities have always inspired people due to the individuals being able to pull off personal triumphs over their limitations and achieve high. From the likes of Stephen Hawking, and Helen Keller to Stevie Wonder, each of them broke past their limits and emerged victorious in their respective fields. 

Professor Stephen Hawking during the 2008 NASA lecture series. Credit to NASA's official site.

In the case of our beloved game chess, there have been many inspirational stories. And in this blog, you will be presented with one of those such stories, about Reginald Bonham, the founder of the International Braille Chess Association and a champion player despite his deteriorating eyesight and visual impairment. If this story doesn't make you an optimistic individual, what will? 


Table of Contents


EARLY LIFE 


The non-metropolitan city of Cambridgeshire. Image credit: Britannica.

Reginald Walter Bonham was born on January 31, 1906, in St. Neots, Huntingdonshire, Cambridgeshire, England, into a family renowned for its success in the butchery trade. His father, William R Bonham, married to Edith Mary Ann Bonham, was a master butcher. Reginald had three siblings, Howard, Maurice, and Ernest. However, a prevalent condition of declining eyesight was observed in his family. 

The census of 1911 did not record any disability for Reginald. Like others in his family, Bonham was born with poor eyesight, which deteriorated further. At sixteen, his vision started to decline noticeably, and his attendance at the local schools was cut short. Therefore, he was unable to attend a mainstream school and attended the Royal Worcester College for the Blind (now known as New College Worcester) between the years 1922-25.

Worcester College for the Blind in the 20th century. Source: ncw.co.uk.

It was during his time at Worcester that he cultivated a keen interest in rowing and chess, which he learned in 1922.


CHESS PARTICIPATION AND TEACHING CAREER


The Saint Catherine's College, Oxford University. Source: ox.ac.uk.

In 1926, Reginald attended Saint Catherine's College at Oxford University, where he participated in rowing for the St. Catherine's Eight team and advanced to the final trials for the Varsity crew. In 1929, he won the Oxford Sighted Chess Championship and was eventually the University Chess Champion. 

The same year after becoming the Oxford University Chess Champion, he returned to Worcester, but this time as a teacher of Braille and mathematics. Aside from his pursuits in chess and rowing, he also engaged in amateur dramatics and bridge. Chess, however, was his area of expertise. He could play against 20 opponents without relying on tactile or Braille sets and established dominance in blindfold chess. Reginald effortlessly recalled moves in correspondence games mentally. 

Reginald Bonham, affectionately known as 'Bon' among his students, instructed every young male at the Worcester College of the Blind in chess. The college boasted four teams in the local league, as every pupil learned how to play the game. Thanks to Bonham's guidance, the school teams achieved top rankings in the league multiple times. 

In 1931, he won the Hastings Reserve Tournament. Reginald continued to teach at Worcester College and was recorded as a Mathematics instructor in the 1939 census until he entered the national chess scene in the late 1940s. He was married to Josephine Bonham and was later an ARP (Air Raid Precautions) Warden and a St. John Ambulance volunteer for the College.


CHESS AS A FULL-TIME PROFESSION


The streets of Worcester, the "smiliest" place in the UK. Image credit: Thesun.co.uk

Bonham had a formidable presence in the Worcestershire chess scene, securing the championship title an impressive 20 times. In 1934, he established the Braille Chess Magazine, which he authored and edited for 25 years (until the late 1950s), giving birth to the Braille chess system. Additionally, he played a crucial role as a founding member of the International Braille Chess Association in 1951 and was its president for 23 years. 


Braille Chess

A Braille chess set. Source: Chess House.

Braille chess follows the same fundamental rules of traditional chess but brings along certain adaptations for the visually impaired. The board features raised black squares to differentiate them from the white squares. Each square includes a central indentation to secure the pieces, minimizing the risk of displacement during play. Moreover, to enhance the distinction between black and white pieces, small pins are put on the heads of the black pieces. Players must verbally announce their moves upon executing them.


Post-War Chess Participation

He participated in international events after the war when few British players ventured “into Europe”. During the Great Britain-Czechoslovakia match in 1947, Bonham faced Czech master Ladislav Alster two times, drawing one of the games but playing handsomely in the other one.

This was seriously a perfect game for our protagonist, a flawless performance indeed. Reginald Bonham executed every move with precision and strategy. All he needed was the slightest of aids from his pieces which marked the collapse of Black's queenside pawns. This is a testament to Bonham's skill that he could produce absolute masterpieces like this despite his worsening eyesight. 


'Bon' was not your regular everyday chess enthusiast, holding his own against nationally renowned sighted players. He claimed the Midlands Champion title thrice and secured victory in the Birmingham Post Cup (reserved for title holders in the West Midlands) on two occasions. Moreover, he participated in the British Chess Federation championships five times, achieving his highest score of 5½ points.


Reginald Bonham during the British Championship 1949. Source: British Chess News.
Participants of the 1949 British Chess Championship. Reginald Bonham standing second from left in the lowest-standing group. Credit to Blogspot. 

Living an Author's Life

Two books authored and written by Reginald Bonham along with R. Wormald. Source: British Chess News.

Together with RD Wormald, a fellow player from Worcester, Reginald Bonham authored two concise, short yet valuable books aimed at enhancing the skill of the reader: Chess Questions Answered" (1945) and "More Chess Questions Answered" (1948), both published by Jordan and Sons in London. 


1950s and 1960s: DECADES TO REMEMBER


During the post-war era's initial stages, after establishing the International Braille Chess Association (IBCA), Reginald Bonham took up correspondence chess. He founded the first correspondence chess tournament for the blind in 1951. Before doing so, he was already a three-time British Correspondence Chess Champion (1943, 1947 and 1951). 

In 1956, Bonham won the first English Blind Chess Championship. In 1958, Bonham achieved first position in the Inaugural Braille Chess Championship and was now the World Blind Chess Champion, but not before having up-to-the-mark performances in the 1953 and 1955 British Chess Championships. 

In 1957-58, the first World Blind Correspondence Championship began. It was eventually won by our protagonist and founder of the prestigious event, Reginald Bonham, who emerged victorious despite facing strong opposition from players in Eastern Europe. He won the event again in 1959, 1961, 1964 (jointly) and 1966 (a total of six times). 

The precursor to the Blind Chess Olympiads was a tournament held in Rheinbreitbach, Germany, in 1958. The champion of this tournament was Reginald Bonham, the founder of IBCA. The initial Chess Olympiad for the Blind happened alongside the second IBCA Congress, organized by the West German Chess Association for the Blind, marking the latter's tenth anniversary.

The town of Meschede, Germany. Credit to Sauerland.com.

Eight teams of four competitors took part, with Yugoslavia emerging as the winner after a total of 122 games. This event, the largest gathering yet in chess history for the visually impaired, concluded with a celebration that included musical performances. Reginald Bonham was one of the participants as well as one of the most respected individuals on this occasion. 

In 1964, the organization of the International Braille Chess Association would be affiliated with FIDE, the governing body overseeing national and international chess organizations globally. 


THE LEGACY OF A LEGEND 


The photo of Reginald Bonham along with a Braille chess set. Source: British Chess News.

During the closing ceremony of the 4th Chess Olympiad for the Blind in Pula, Yugoslavia (April 6-18), the International Braille Chess Association bestowed R.W. Bonham with the title of Correspondence Grandmaster of the Blind, in recognition of his achievement of winning the Postal Championship on more than three occasions.

Reginald Walter Bonham died on March 16, 1984, at the age of 78, in Worcester, where he had dedicated many years as a Master at the Royal Worcester College for the Blind. Bonham was a great man with a brilliant mind and a great teacher. Many blind and sighted chess players esteemed him for his chess achievements and his teaching dedication.

Numerous seasoned and veteran players will recall how Bonham methodically handled and contemplated over his unique board before announcing his move and inspecting his clock, with its markers outside the glass face. Apart from his contributions to chess for the blind and teaching methods, he is also remembered for his generosity, enthusiasm, energy, and great passion. Even today, passion appears to be a continuing source of inspiration for players.

Bonham was awarded an MBE for his services to the blind, especially in chess. Bonham has been one of the most famous blind chess players of all time, and to me, one of the greatest as well. One of his students, Peter White, described Bon in his autobiography See It My Way. 

See It My Way, Peter White, 1994. Source: British Chess News.

CONCLUSION


Reginald Bonham is one of the most inspirational characters in chess history, and it was my honor to present his story before the chess community. Bonham continues to inspire the present generation of blind and physically disabled chess players, a legend indeed. 

This will be the end of this blog, thanks a lot for reading. If you find any loopholes in the blog, for example, regarding information or anything else, feel free to comment in the comments section. 

Here are the sources used for writing the blog: British Chess News, Wikipedia, Reading Eagle, A short biography on Reginald Bonham by Ray Collett, and OlimpBase

Once again, thanks a lot for reading this blog. And to let you all know, I am also pulling a @Nimzo-IndianaJones (if you don't know what I am talking about, read @Nimzo-IndianaJones's latest blog), no cap. 

Regards, 

@AstroTheoretical_Physics