America's 1st Notable Black Chess Player


Chess Problems

by Theophilus A. Thompson

Either to play and mate, or compel self-mate in four moves

 - above depicts the frontpiece to the book

CHESS PROBLEMS. By Theophilus A. Thompson. Dubuque, Iowa: Printed by John J. Brownson, 1874. 63 p. ill., mounted photo. NOTES: Published by the Dubuque Chess Journal.


Theophilus A. Thompson


Theophilus Augustus Thompson, a freed black slave, had no formal education and first learned chess in April 1873  from observation only. 14 months later he will have composed enough chess problems of such outstanding quality to have his book published. His talent was recognized by John K. Hanshew when Thompson traveled to Philadelphia to show him his artistic endeavors. Hanshew first had Thompson's work published in the Dubuque Chess Journal, a periodical owned by John J. Brownson and edited by Orestes A. Brown, also a composer.



                                              Below is the book's preface:

T. A. Thompson (colored ) was born in Frederick City, Maryland, on the 21st day of April 1855. At 13th [sic] years of age he left his native city and went to live with a family in Carroll County in the capacity of house servant. In 1870, he returned to Frederick, where he has lived ever since. He saw a chessboard and men used for the first time in April, 1872, when he witnessed a contest between Mr. S. of Ohio and Mr. H. of Frederick City. Although he could not understand the game and dared not ask questions for fear of  annoying the players, he watched every move with the closest attention. The party finished, he went home, fully determined to learn the game.

Mr. H. having heard of his ardent desire loaned him a chessboard and a set of chess men, gave him some instructions, and left him a few two-move problems to solve. Thus, thanks to the kind assistance of John K. Hanshew, our hero became possessed of the open sesame to Caïssa’s gardens of ever increasing intellectual delights.

Hearing last summer of the Dubuque Chess Journal, he soon be came a subscriber, a student, and a  contributor. Hereto, accumulating the following rich store of chess compositions that are offered for perusal to the general chess reader with great pleasure and much confidence by the proprietors of the Dubuque Chess Journal— Dubuque, June 1st 1873


Besides being a problemist, Thompson was also a strong player of Correspondence chess. Below is a game against C. H. Blood



After the publication of his book, Thompson more or less disappeared from the chess scene and most public records.  He is known to have still been living in 1920.


This short article exists only to raise the awareness of lesser-known players of the past and in this particular case, a black player during a time when luxuries such as chess were generally denied any human of that race. I would encourage everone to read a more detailed, finely-researched account of Theophilus Thompson's life and chess at the Chess Drum in an article entitled  The Caged Bird: The Story of T. A. Thompson by Neil Brennen, a wonderful chess historian for the Pennsylvania State Chess Federation. 




Solution to Frontispiece:

I -  White (W) or Black (B) to mate:

(W) 1. NxQ B-N5ch; 2. K-K2 RxN; 3. R-B7 and mate next move cannot be  prevented.

If 2. ... R-B7ch; 3 NxR and 4 Q-N8 mate.  If 1. R-B8ch; 2. KxR P-K7ch; 3. KxP any  4. Q-N8 mate. (b) 1. R-B8ch KxR;  2. Q-B6ch K-K1;  3. Q-B7ch and 4. Q-Q7 mate.

2 -  White (Q) or Black (B) to compel self-mate

(W) 1. Q-N8ch  QxQ; 2. O-O-O R-Q5; 3. R-B8ch RxRch; 4. N-B6ch RxN mate. (b) 1. B-N5ch R-B3
(if I. ... RxB; 2. R-B8ch KxR; 3. Q-Q8ch RxQ mate) 2. BxRch PxB; 3. R-B8ch KxR; 4. Q-Q8ch RxQ mate.


see: . “Theophilus Thompson: Recognized Chess Player,” by Robert R. Radcliff,
Negro History Bulletin, 45, No. 1 (January-February-March 1982)