May 21, 2009, 9:06 PM |


A selection of games at chess actually played in London by the
Hon. Secretary to the Westminster Chess Club


The loss sustained by English Chess Amateurs in the recent death of Mr. Alexander M'Donnell, is the heavier from its having been so totally unexpected. At the comparatively early age of thirty-seven, during the last three years of which he had ranked as the best player in Great Britain, Mr. M'Donnell was suddenly snatched away from the circle of friends, in which he was with so much justice equally esteemed for his talents and beloved for all the fine qualities  "that may adorn a man."

In attempting to do justice to Mr. M'Donnell's skill as a player, I shall abstain from any thing like an invidious comparison with his contemporaries. To detract from their just claims would be at the same time to lessen his renown. During the last three years of his life, Mr. M'Donnell devoted his leisure time almost wholly to Chess, his favorite location in its pursuit being the Westminster Chess Club. Here he played continually, here he sustained the memorable contest with the great La Bourdonnais, and here it was he so distinguished himself in one particular branch of Chess, the giving of large odds. In this department it is probable Mr. M'Donnell had not his equal throughout Europe. It is certain that the first players of both France and England shrunk from offering such liberal advantages to their opponents. Men who had ranked as first-rate players in America and the Colonies were astonished at finding Mr. M'Donnell could win of them at the rook; and the veteran who had played perhaps thirty years, was equally surprised at seeing in his conqueror a man hardly yet arrived at the meridian of life. |t is right to add that Mr. M'Donnell was as liberal in imparting his science as he was skilled in its practice ; he took pleasure in satisfying the enquiries of beginners and facilitating their improvement. When I commenced occasionally taking down games as I saw them played in the Westminster Club, I was curious to ascertain whether the fact was as I had so generally heard it represented to be, impossible for any one to win at such odds as were given by Mr. M'Donnell. The ingenuity shown by many of the players in accounting for their defeat, and the readiness with which these excuses were admitted by fellow-sufferers, tended greatly to encourage that opinion.

On shewing these games afterwards to the best judges, many fresh beauties were pointed out which had escaped my observation. The victory was shewn not to be the result of any particular inadvertence on the part of the loser, but to arise from the clearness and precision of Mr. M'Donnell's calculations, by means of which he brought about combinations only discovered by his adversary when it was too late. Being thus confirmed in my opinion of the merits of these specimens, I assiduously persevered in availing myself of every opportunity to enlarge my collection.

About this period an occasion presented itself, perhaps as favorable as any the long annals of our ancient game had afforded; I allude to the arrival of the acknowledged best player of France, Mons. de la Bourdonnais, who was attracted to London by the high reputation of Mr. M'Donnell. I recorded minutely the whole of their matches, being occasionally relieved at my post by Mr. Lewis, and Mr. George Walker, the well known writers on Chess.

Having at the time no intention of publishing these games myself, I gave fifty of them to Mr. Lewis, who printed them in a small volume, and the remainder (of which several friends had procured from me m.s. copies,) appeared from time to time in that excellent newspaper Bell's Life in London, though not furnished directly by me. Four of them have also been given by Mr. George Walker, in his last book on Chess, entitled, "Chess made Easy"  I may add that the difficulty which stood like "a lion in the way"  of learners, being in a great measure removed by this and similar works for beginners, volunteers will of course enter; and, with a little drilling, be soon able to act with the regular troops.

Shortly after the death of Mr. M'Donnell, his friends began to wish for some substantial and impartial memorial of his skill, and 1 was strongly urged by them to collect such of his games as had already appeared in print; and, adding them to the great number I had myself in M.s., together with such as might reasonably be expected from the memoranda of some of our chief players, to form the whole into one comprehensive volume. To Mr. George Walker, I am particularly indebted for much kind assistance, bestowed with his usual liberality, at various intervals during the long preparation of this work, as well as for the direct gift of a number of M.S. games played by himself and others with Mr. M'Donnell. Of the great number of games here collected, perhaps the most generally interesting are those at the odds of the Rook and Knight. In these many new openings are brought forward by Mr. M'Donnell, and so much fertility of resource is every way evinced that they are particularly valuable to students. Being short, too, is another recommendation. In the games at the odds of the Pawn with one or two moves, our best players agree that the style of play evinced by Mr. M'Donnell resembles much that of Philidor. To good players the games with M. de la Bourdonnais will form a study worthy of their utmost attention, and as being sounder than those in which the odds of a Rook or Knight are given, they become models of skill worthy of two of the first players of the age.

Mr. M'Donnell at the commencement of this celebrated match, laboured under the disadvantages naturally consequent upon meeting a player of so much greater experience than himself. The daily opportunities of practice long enjoyed by M. de la Bourdonnais with the famous Des Chapelles, the worthy successor of Philidor, had given that finish to his play not to be acquired by any other means. In the favorite French opening, the King's Pawn one square game, comparatively but little understood in this country, Mr. M'Donnell relied, I have heard our first players agree, too much, and persisted too long in a system he had found to answer, giving odds, though it proved inefficient against the well-analyzed combinations of the great French player. The latter has borne, however, honorable testimony to Mr. M'Donnell's skill which was to be expected from his own high acquirements ; since M. de la Bourdonnais,in his new Chess Magazine, the Palamedes,*describes Mr. M'Donnell as having been with the single exception of M. des Chapelles "Le plus habile amateur d'Echecs qu'il a connu." I cannot dismiss the consideration of this interesting match by our English champion with La Bourdonnais, without adding that Mr. M'Donnell many times expressed himself, not only in his own private circle, but in the public rooms of the Westminster Chess Club, as to its being his intention, at some future day, to print the whole of these games himself, with copious notes, not liking a mere selection. How unfortunate was it that this idea was not carried into effect.

On the various opinions ventured by me in the shape of short notices respecting the players receiving the Knight and shorter odds, I have often compressed the spirit of observations made on the subject by Mr. M'Donnell himself. I have made these remarks with great diffidence, not pretending myself to rank higher than a devoted lover of the game ; but I have aimed at strict impartiality, and, should I give offense  in the most trivial matter, am beforehand in this assurance of its being unintentional.

Such is the natural progress of players possessing a genius for the game, that several of the gentlemen here recorded as receiving the piece are now amongst our best amateurs. By the advice of my friends, I mention no names ; but to all gentlemen frequenting the Metropolitan Chess Clubs, it will not be difficult to fill up the stars between the initials by which every player is denoted.

The greater part of these games were played during the last two years, when Mr. M'Donnell was at the top of his strength ; some of his earlier games have been introduced when their merit warranted that distinction. Many that I had preserved have been thrown out on the suggestion of several first-rate players being lost on the part of Mr. M'Donnell's opponent, through some gross error.

In conclusion, I have merely to state that it would have been foreign to the nature of this work to introduce details of the biography of Mr. M'Donnell and his personal relations with society. He was the son of Dr. M'Donnell, of Belfast, and for many years filled the honorable situation, in this metropolis, of Secretary to the Committee of West India Merchants. Mr. Alexander M'Donnell was also the author of various works on political economy, distinguished, as might be expected, for their originality of thought and depth of research.


Hon. Sec. to the Westminster Chess Club.

July, 1836.

* The Palamedes is published in Paris on the 15th of each month, the subscription for the work is 25 francs per annum ; four numbers have already appeared, which have met with very great approbation. In addition to the well known talents of the Editors, MM. de la Bourdonnais and Mery, several of the most eminent chess-players in the different capitals of Europe will be found as contributors to its pages.