An American Problemist I


American Chess Magazine, 1897.

Written by W. R. Henry for the first projected edition of "American Chess Nuts." [Note. This sketch appeared in Brownson's Journal for March, 1872, but can have been seen by only a few of our readers, and this seems to be an appropriate time to publish a tribute to one who was a patriot, as well as a chess genius.—F. M. T.]


   George Nelson Cheney was born in the city of Syracuse, N. Y., on Sunday, April 2, 1837. His family, unlike most American fiamilies, does not appear to be of a wandering disposition ; as it now resides next door to the house in which this important event took place. The young Cheney was sent to school at a very early age, and was found by his teachers to possess unusual talent. Mathematics was, from the first, his favorite study. When only thirteen years of age he mastered one of the most difficult elementary algebras in as many weeks. At eighteen, he entered the academy connected with the New York Central College, in Cortlandt County, where there were two classes in mathematics, one for beginners and one for advanced students. He joined both, and was excelled by one scholar only in the higher class. He was styled by the president of the institution "a natural mathematician." Cheney's acquaintance with chess began a year previous to this time. In 1854, Mr. L. H. Cheney, an elder brother, learned the moves from Chambers' Information for the People, and taught them to the subject of our notice. Another brother, still older, Mr. A. B. Cheney, and a sister, Miss Nellie M. Cheney, also joined in the play.   

   Either from having greater natural aptitude for the game, or from taking greater interest in it, Cheney speedily conquered all except his tutor, and, in the course of the year, rose above him also. While at college, he defeated one of the faculty, who was there considered an extraordinarily strong player, and to whom probably Mr. Morphy could not have given more than the Queen. In the latter part of 1855, he discovered the chess columns in one or two newspapers, and was stimulated thereby to the composition of his first chess problem. It was speedily followed by others which appeared under one or another of his various nommes de plume. In 1856, Cheney became acquainted, through his sister, with Mr. D. W. Fiske, while the latter was on a visit to his family in Syracuse. Mr. Fiske was then a second-rate player, but much stronger than any Cheney had yet encountered—winning about 18 in 20 of the games contested. 

   Through his new antagonist Cheney made the acquaintance of several Rook players ; and after the former's departure, he played, and solved and composed problems with renewed ardor. By this practice, his strength was so much increased that on Mr. Fiske's next visit in August, 1857, now become a first-class player, he succeeded in making even games with him. During this visit, Mr. Fiske's influence brought about the organization of a chess club in Syracuse. The members were mostly wealthy, and nothing was wanting to make the club successful but an interest in the game. From lack of this, the club-room was deserted as soon as Mr. Fiske returned to New York, and the dust upon the tables was scarcely disturbed until the date of his next visit in 1858. Mr. Fiske also induced the proprietors of the Syracuse Standard to insert a chess column, the chess type being furnished by the club. This department was conducted by Cheney for the first twelve numbers, when, his engagements being such that he could no longer attend to it, Mr. W. O. Fiske took his place and retained it until July, 1859, when Cheney again assumed the post until the discontinuance of the column, a few weeks later. In August, 1858, Syracuse received another visit from Mr. Fiske. On this occasion Cheney succeeded in winning a majority of games from him. About this time many telegraphic matches were played between Syracuse and neighboring cities, and the uniform success of the former was due solely to Mr. Cheney's skill. A year later, when in ill health, Cheney made a short visit to New York City, and made even games with its best player, Mr. Theodore Lichtenbein. Some twenty games were contested between them, the later ones, if we remember correctly, being all won by Cheney. Afterwards, when in better health, the latter was very much dissatisfied with these games, and greatly desired to have another encounter with the same player.

   During this visit he played two games with Morphy, at the Knight, of which he won one and lost one. Of his chess life, it only remains to be stated that he was the winner of three prizes in as many problem tourneys. tion and treatment, very puzzling to most solvers ; who are at as great a loss to understand the author's moves, afier they know them, as they were, at first, to find them. Why, for instance, a move or two could not be dispensed with, is often not at all clear, except in the observed result, to the majority of chess lovers. Mr. Cheney, in addition to his aptitude for chess and mathematics, was a natural, ready and witty writer. * * *

   Upon the breaking out of the great Southern Rebellion of 1861, in response to the President's call for volunteers, Cheney enlisted in the Onondaga regiment, and was killed in the disastrous battle at Bull Run. He was one of a very small number selected from his regiment to do skirmishing duty in that unfortunate engagement. He was last seen considerably in advance of his party, for, as skirmishers, they were fighting every man for himself. A companion observed that he was loading without being sufficiently
protected, and called out to him : "For God's sake, Cheney, get behind a tree; you'll get shot !" His only reply was, "Well !" He was soon lost sight of in the smoke of the battle, and was never seen afterward.

   A competent critic has said that Cheney "possessed the true spirit of chess in a greater degree than any American player after Morphy." He labored under the disadvantage of having few opportunities to practice with really strong players ; but what little practice of the kind he did have apparently proved him to be not inferior, even then, to any American player except Mr. Morphy. By the few who were acquainted with his natural genius for the game, he was regarded as the man of the future in American chess. His untimely death was a great loss to the chess world. As it is, Cheney will be principally remembered by his problems, of which he has left from 125 to 150. Many of them are remarkably original and beautiful; and all possess an individuality, difficult to define, but readily noticed. They show unmistakably that the themes were not laboriously sought for by the composer, but that they came to him. In some of them, there is a certain undemonstrative subtlety of concepIt has not been practicable to ascertain positively which of these were his favorites, although I have written to several of his old friends; but it seems fair to assume that he had a preference for some of those given on the following diagrams, as they were entered in problem tournaments, whilst most of the others have been commended to me by such connoisseurs as Carpenter, Cook and the late Capt. Mackenzie. Referring specifically to these problems, No. 1 is thought by Carpenter to be Cheney's most pleasing two-mover. It illustrates the theme sometimes termed "avoiding stalemate," rather a favorite idea with Cheney Problem No. 1.
   There can be no doubt that Cheney's early death deprived American chess of one of its most promising composers. Even as it it, his best problems will ever be a delight to the Student. - F. M. Teed.


Problem No. 1



White to p!ay and mate in 2 moves
(1. K—Kt 7, etc.)


 During the half year that Paul Morphy spent in new York after he returned from his triumphant European encounter in 1859, he played two games with George Nelson Cheney at Knight odds with Morphy winning one, Cheney winning the other.

Of the two games played, only Morphy's loss has been preserved.

Late in 1859, Morphy would return to New Orleans, but  July of 1861 would find Morphy and Cheney in the same place - Manassas, Virginia - where, on July 21, Cheney's chess career would come to a permanent halt during the first battle at Bull Run.