Chess in the Old North State

Nov 21, 2010, 6:46 PM |

THE GREAT STATE of North Carolina, one of the original 13 colonies, compared to even much later developed areas, was a little slow in  embracing chess. Book of the First American Chess Congress, 1859,  mentions chess clubs in Boston, New York, Louisville, Lexington  (Kentucky), San Francisco, Chicago, Philadelphia, New Orleans, Cincinnati, Yale, Minnesota, St. Louis and even in our Southern neighbor,  Charleston.

Yet, as late as 1881, The Chess-players Chronicle let the world in on our secret:
"Our worthy contemporary also announces, amongst other items of intelligence, that in the whole state of North Carolina there is not a  single Chess Club, and but a solitary Chess column, that in the Winston Republican, which is very ably conducted by Mr H. M. Ormsby;  that steps are being taken to organise a Club at Winston."  

Still, even with the absence of any sort of organized chess, it's evident through vicarious sources that some chess was being played in  North Carolina prior to the 20th century. 

In 1753 the authorities placed a ban on public games, hoping to discourage gambling.  Chess was specifcally singled out as an  exception to this ban:
"At a General Assembly, begun and held at New Bern, the Twenty Seventh day of March, in the Year of our Lord One Thousand Seven  Hundred and Fifty Three. Matthew Rowan, President.
.  .  .
"IV. And to prevent gaming at Ordinaries and other Publick Places, Be it further Enacted by the Authority aforesaid, That if any Person or  Persons shall, at any time, play in any Ordinary, Race-Field, or any other public Place, at any Game or Games whatsoever, (except  Billiards, Bowls, Back-Gammon. Chess, or Draughts) or shall bett on the Sides or Hands of such as do game, every such Person, upon  Conviction therof before any Justice of the Peace within this Province, by the Oath of one or more creditable Witness or Witnesses, or  by the View of such Justice, or the Confession of the Party accused, shall forfeit and pay Twenty Shillings Proclamation Money, to be  levied by Distress and Sale of the Offenders Goods, by Warrant under the hand of the Justice before whom such Conviction shall be, for  the use of the Poor of the Parish wherein such Offence shall be committed; and if the Person or Persons so convicted have no Goods or  Chattels that can be levied on, he or they shall be committed by such Magistrate to the County Gaol, there to remain until he pay his  Fine."

Fortunately, the American Civil War left us with a great deal of writings.  We can see that soldiers' lives, in this case in North Carolina,  involved chess. :

from The Anson guards Company C Fourteenth Regiment North Carolina Volunteers  by William Alexander Smith
"Books, passed from hand to hand, were devoured with avidity.  Chess, backgammon, checkers, games of chance with cards and dice,  beguiled the inclement days and long nights."

from The Civil War And Yadkin County, North Carolina  by Frances H. Casstevens
[Speaking about the 5th North Carolina Cavalry]:
"Between battles, the soldiers were often bored.  To pass the time, they played cards or chess, whittled, cleaned their guns, repaired  clothing, cooked their own ood, rested their weary bones, and reas their Bibles. There was usually someone in camp who could play a  musical instrument to entertain himself and his companions."

Even before this a most peculiar speculation involves chess-playing in N.C.
Napoleon's general, Marshall Ney, who, officially at least, was executed in France, was long believed to have escaped to the U.S.,  making his home in Iredell County, N.C.

from Historic doubts as to the execution of Marshal Ney    by James Augustus Weston in 1895
"Mrs. G. N. Beale, Washington, D. C. : "I knew Peter S. Ney ; have often played chess with him near Beattie's Ford, N. C. He was very  courteous and gentlemanlike, though rather brusque in his manners. One day, when slightly under the influence of wine, he said to Miss  Martha Graham, a niece of Governor Graham, ' You look like the Duchess of Argyle.' The Grahams were descended from the Argyle  family. Some years ago I attended an entertainment given in this city by a Professor Stoddard. It consisted of a series of movable  pictures, representing the principal events, etc., in the life of Napoleon Bonaparte. When the portrait of Marshal Ney appeared upon the  canvas I instantly turned toward my husband and said, ' There is Peter Ney, the man I used to play chess with.' ' Why,' said my husband  laughing, ' yon must be very ancient. You must have been born before the flood.' A few moments after this conversation occurred  Professor Stoddard said that the picture which he was then exhibiting was that of Marshal Ney, the ' bravest of the brave. ' It was a  perfect likeness of Peter S. Ney. Colonel ."
Peter Stuart Ney's grave, in Cleveland N.C. (between Statesville and Salisbury) can be seen here  as well as the inscription telling us "Peter Stuart Ney, a native of France and a soldier of the  French Revolution under Napoleon Bonaparte"

Then we have a wonderful little chess story from 1874 involving North Carolina:

Maryland Chess Review, May 1874.

Columbia, S. C.,March 16, 1874. Mr. Editor:—Chess in Columbia is almost at a standstill, and I have, therefore, no items of interest in  the chess line to furnish you with now, but in default of other and more interesting matter, I have concluded to send you the following  sketch of

How a Champion Lost His Reputation.

COLUMBIA, though it is proverbial for its beauty and genial climate, and, above all, for the intelligence anil morality of its inhabitants, has  never yet produced any chess magnates. A chess club was formed here about a year ago, and, in the course of a few weeks after its  organization numbered more than twenty members, some of whom were ambitious to excel in the royal game  and have since attained  some eminence; while others were egotistical in their ignorance, and have since abandoned the game; because as they say, "we have  no time to play chess now."   Among this latter class I mention Mr. B____  who was one of the first to propose the formation of a club  here.  He had just returned from a visit to the Old North State, and was covered all over with the honors of having vanquished the chess  magnates of the tar regions, and he imagined that it was only necessary to tackle the modest devotees of Caissa, in Columbia, in order  to subject them ro an ignominious defeat. This spirit of self-importance, was however, dissipated on the evening of his first visit to the  club rooms. It happened in this wise: Mr. H____, conscious of his invincibility as a Chess player, boldly challenged any member of the  club to contend with him over the board, but no one would accept the challenge; each one feeling that, to contend with such a scientific  practitioner, would only be subjecting himself to a sure and terrible defeat. At last however, a young gentleman sitting at the table  signified his willingness to accept the challenge so boldly tbown out by the North Carolina Champion, but the champion(?)  treated the  acceptance with scorn, coming as it did from a mere youth.

     "Do you think,"exclaimed he,"that I would play a mere child like you, when these gentlemen of experience have evinced a  disinclination to cope with me? No, I will give you the odds of a Rook, and perhaps a Knight too." The young man evidently unawed by  the presence of so distinguished a player, replied 'that he was sensible of his own insignificance compared to the gentleman who stood  before him, but that he would dare to contend, on even terms. "Well," said the champion, "come sit down and let me give you the  scholar's mate." . The players then sat down, amidst a crowd of interested spectators; the one a gentleman well advanced in years, who  had studied assidously from the works of Hoyle and Beadle, and who to use his own expression was thoroughly acquainted with the  science of chess both theoretically and practically; and the other, a modest young man who was apparently an unskillful and  inexperienced player.

    The lookers-on were led to believe, from the brave remarks and terrible style of the older player, that his unfortunate, young opponent  would be must mercilessly used up.

   The young player took the first move and played P to K 4 which was answered with P to K 4.

Then followed:—

     2. Kt to K B 3           2. Kt to Q B 3
     3. P to Q B 3            3. Kt to KB 3
     4. P to Q 4

This move on the part of the young man caused his adversary to exclaim, "Very bad! very bad! I see you don't know anything about the  theory of chess. Why, if you p!ay on in that style, I shall win directly." and he quickly followed up his remarks with, 4. K Kt takes K P
  Our young hero promptly answered,
         5. P takes P
   Whereupon the champion played his B to B 4, saying at' the time; "observe how I take advantage of weak moves, gentlemen." The  game proceeded,
     6. B to K3                   6. B takes B
     7. P takes B               7. Castles
     8. B to Q3                  8. Kt to B4
     9. Castles
   At this point the champion, after considering some time, played
                                              9. Q to K
     10. B takes  RP ch    10. K takes B
     11. Kt to K 5 ch
   Which caused Black to consider about twenty minutes, after which he moved his King to Kt square, and the young Columbian  announced to his opponent that he must be mated in two moves.
   The champion examined the position with fear and disappointment depicted on his contenance, and rising from his seat said, "yes,  that is a checkmate. I wonder how I made such an oversight. I could easily have won the game, if I had exercised any degree of care. I'm  in no condition to play chess today, as you all see, gentlemen. I can beat this young man every game, if I try to play. -- Why, I've beaten  the best players in North Carolina, You see that he does not understand anything about the theory of the game."
   At this point the bvstanders could no longer restrain themselves, and there .was a general outburst of laughter, which caused the  champion to become very indignant, and to exclaim,
   "You have all conspired together to cheat me out of the game!"
   Saying which, with a gesture of scorn he swept the chessmen'ofi-the board, and strode over Kings, Queens, Rooks and Pawns, out of  the room.
The day following this amusing occurrence, the secretarv, recieved a letter from the distinguished participant ot the" recent conflict,  signifying in unmeasured terms of censure, his disapprobation of the indignities that had been offered him, and tendering his resignation  as a member of the club.
   Though several months have passed since the memorable encounter, the champion refuses to touch a chessman. Injustice to the  youug man, I must say, that he bore his laurels of victory with a degree of modesty well becoming years. '
- Yours sincerely,   "MODENESE."


ASHVILLE N.C. boasts of the Biltmore House, but there is another estate located on the French Broad River called  Richmond Hill - named  after the owner-builder Richmond Pearson and the designer, James G. Hill.  Richmond Pearson was a close friend of Teddy Roosevelt  and helped establish the Ashville public school system. Pearson also organized the well-publicized transatlantic cable chess match between the U.S. Senate and the British House of Commons, which ended in a draw with each winning 2 ½ games.