Rosa Jefferson



Miss Rosa Jefferson  

 The champion women chess player of the world

Rosa B. Jefferson

   Although she was a significant historical figure in chess in America, Rosa Bradford Jefferson has remained largely unknown. Miss Jefferson edited a chess column for the Memphis Commercial Appeal for 30 years (as well a editing a music column). She won her games as a participant in simultaneous exhibitions given by Frank Marshall,  Emmanuel Lasker, Géza Maróczy and Harry Nelson Pillsbury. She devoted a great deal of effort to supporting chess in Memphis and chess as an educational tool. She was honored for her chess skills by Theodore Roosevelt who was staying at the Peabody Hotel during a visit to Memphis.
   Rosa's brother, who was almost two years older, was Bradford Jefferson. Bradford Jefferson won the city championship of Memphis in 1900 and the U.S. Open in 1913 and 1914. Bradford was born around 1875, while Rosa was born around 1876. Bradford died at the age of 88 on May 14, 1963; Rosa died at the age of 86 on September 5, 1962

The New York Times ran this article on Sunday, March 3, 1901

                      Woman Beats Pillsbury at Chess

                        special to the New York Times.

Memphis, Tenn., March 2. -- Harry W. Pillsbury [sic], the chess champion, was defeated here last night by Miss Rosa Jefferson, a young woman expert of this city. Pillsbury gave his customary exhibition of playing sixteen players blindfolded and simultaneously.   He had expected an easy contest from all, but, long after midnight,  Miss Jefferson declared a check on Queen and King, and Pillsbury bowed to defeat.

                                        Miss Rosa Jefferson, of Memphis Tenn., is
                                        visiting friends in Washington.  Miss Jefferson
                                        enjoys the distinction of being the champion
                                        woman chess player of the United States.  She
                                        also edits the musical and chess departments of
                                        the Memphis Commercial Appeal.



The New York Times also ran this article on Sunday, April 1, 1906

First Open Competition Ever Held in America Planned for May

   For the first time in the history of chess in America, women are to receive an opportunity to compete in an open tournament during the second week in May.  At the suggestion of a permanent member of the Women's Chess Club of New York. which has its headquarters in the Martha Washington Hotel, 29 East Twenty-ninth Street, invitations are being sent to the fair players of the country to compete in the tournament in this city for handsome prizes. Souvenirs are to be presented to all the competitors irrespective of the scores they may make.
   Among the better known women players here are Mrs. J. W. Showalter of Georgetown, Ky., wife of the former United States champion; Mrs. Harriet Worrall of Brooklyn, winner of the third prize in the women's chess congress held in London several years ago; Mrs. F. W. Lynn of Chicago, a regular competitor in the championship tournament of the Chicago Chess and Checker Club; Miss Rosa Jefferson of Memphis, Tenn.; Miss L. M. Séguin of New Orleans; Miss Estelle Whitney, formerly of the Brooklyn Heights Chess Club, and Miss Eva Brenzinger of Staten Island, daughter of the Treasurer of the Staten Island Chess Club.


The Charleston W. Va. Sunday Gazette-Mail of June 13, 1976 ran an article entitled, "Playing chess Against Men Might Aid Women Competitors," which included the following:

OUR GOOD FRIEND Robert Stoeve of Minneapolis has sent some games and bits of information about other women players:

An exhibition game a Mrs. Anderson won from Dr. Emmanuel Lasker at the London Women's Chess Club in 1898. An exhibition game won by Mrs. F. W, Lynn from Dr. Lasker in Chicago in 1902. An exhibition game won by Miss Rosa Jefferson from Frank J. Marshall in Memphis in 1904.
(She also won exhibition games from Dr. Lasker, Maroczy, and Pillsbury). We received additional information on Miss Jefferson from John Hurt in Memphis and from a reprint of a "New York World" article in a Sept. 1905, issue of "Lasker's Chess Magazine."
Indeed Rosa Jefferson deserves a whole column. Lineal descendent of Thomas Jefferson and widely known as a musician, chess was her recreation. The "World" referred to her as "the champion woman chess player of the world." Miss Jefferson advocated teaching chess in the schools as an aid to education, stating, "my knowledge of chess has made everything easier for me."


Rosa Bradford Jefferson

 Lasker's Chess Magazine,   September, 1905.  pp. 224-5

(From the New York World, August 27, 1905)
   Fads and frills in the school course are outdone! Miss Rosa Bradford Jefferson, the latest advocate of an addition to the curriculum, would have every child taught to play chess as part of the education given it by the State.
   But Miss Jefferson is no faddist. The gospel she preaches is one impressed by years of practice and result, for she is herself a "chess child," and it is from the height of her position as the champion woman chess player of the world that she is urging upon educators a list of reasons why chess should be essential of a practical public school training.
   Miss Jefferson will tell you all this in the most delightful of Southern voices, with the soft drawl that lends the last touch of piquancy to a girl from Dixie-land. A member of one of the foremost families of the old South, she is a lineal descendant of Thomas Jefferson; and in the maternal line counts the distinguished Gen. A. P. Bradford  [perhaps Major A. P. Bradford of the Thirteenth Tennessee Cavalry?]  among her forbears. As a musician she is widely know. Music is, in fact, her vocation and chess her recreation. But she declares with absolute conviction that it is to her skill in chess she owes a large share of her accomplishment in her art. She believes chess is the backbone of all other knowledge whatsoever and is prepared to demonstrate it to any doubting Thomas who strays her way.
   It was at the home of Miss Clay, No. 560 West End avenue, where she has been a guest for some days, that Miss Jefferson told the story of her chess life, in which the word "checkmate" has been so gloriously missing. With the defeat of such players as Pillsbury, Marshall and Lasker, Miss Jefferson has set the seal upon her genius in handling the chessman.
   Frank Marshall is the tournament champion of the world, having defeated all competitors at the St. Louis Exhibition's International tournament last year. Pillsbury's and Lasker's records are too well known to comment. But all three have laid down their arms in surrender before this cool, self-possessed little White Queen, who admits that she follows no system, but first feels the temper of her opponent and therefore studies to beat his game.
   "Men," said Miss Jefferson, slowly "are usually credited with being gallant where a woman is concerned, and allowing her to win. But that is not the case when it comes to chess. Somehow that is different." And a sudden smile discovered the dimples. "All my family were chess players, and, I suppose a bent in that direction came to me naturally. When I was six I already understood the game, and by the time I was eight I had defeated some of the leading experts of Mississippi.
Though I was born in Memphis, my early childhood was spent in Mississippi, and my first victories took place there. All my opponents were grown men. Were they amused to contest a game, avowedly scientific, with a child? Perhaps, but I assure you they took me quite seriously before we ended.
   "At the age of sixteen I laid low the then champion of Memphis, a player who was well enough known throughout the South. And from then on, I met and played many men with chess records.
"Except for the first few moves I rely on no set method. Everything depends on my antagonist. There is no such thing as chance in chess. It is all a matter of calculation. It is to the mind what physical culture is to the body, what manual training is to the hands. It inculcated accuracy and sharpens observation to a point that makes it photographic. Memory becomes a
series of pictures. The Germans are introducing it [into] their schools. Why [shouldn't] we do likewise ?
   "My knowledge of chess has made everything easier for me. It helped me in music to understand the principles of harmony. It is a help in arithmetic. It is a help in spelling. Just consider the intricacies of chess," continued the enthusiast.
   "The first move on either side can be made twenty different ways and the possible combinations after that are practically beyond computation. Success depends not upon luck, but upon brain. The attack, the defense and the capture are made before the eye of the enemy."
   The game with Dr. Lasker Miss Jefferson found the most interesting. It did not reach its conclusion, Lasker being obliged to leave after three hours play; but Miss Jefferson had the advantage and the judges awarded the game to her.
   This woman champion does not practice between games and has made no attempt to attain a professional standing, though she has won against the most noted professionals. She insists that in chess she is a dilettante - nothing more. Often she does not play for months together. All her meets with the experts have been at the Memphis Chess Club, of which she is an honorary member. Each of the celebrities has visited the city at the instance of the club, and, after others have been conquered, Miss Jefferson had invariably been called upon to defend the honor of the city.
   A year ago Miss Jefferson was entertained by President Roosevelt. She was introduced by her musical associate, Mrs. Theodore Carroll Reynolds, of Memphis, who gave a recital at the White House. But it was not as Miss Jefferson, the musician, but Miss Jefferson, the champion chess player that she was received. Mr. Roosevelt refused to consider her on any other basis than that of a scientist, for chess, he said, was a science, not a game.
    A brown-haired, gray-eyed young woman, with delicately modeled features and slight, graceful figure, Miss Jefferson is typically Southern in appearance. There is nothing in the softness of manner, which matches the voice, or in the little smile that plays so continuously about her lips, to suggest the solver of knotty problems. And all her chess battles have not succeeded in tracing a solitary line across her forehead.
   She is, however, tremendously in earnest in advocating chess as a study for public school children and hopes to see the experiment tried.
   "Once tried," she said, "it will prove it is all that is claimed for it - the best possible organizer of the mental forces."
   Miss Jefferson will leave soon for her home in the South. She has no chess contests in view at present, but will disregard no opportunity to prove her prowess.



According to Dwight Weaver, historian for the Memphis Chess Club:

This logo, used by Memphis Chess Club member Rosa Jefferson, introduced her chess news column each Sunday for over twenty five years. Rosa's column ran in "The Commercial Appeal" for almost thirty years with the first one appearing on December 6, 1903.


The actual logo from Rosa Jefferson's column

Mr. Weaver also offered this article that appeared in  Memphis Chess Club's "Mid South Advocate," Vol. 1, No.6 October 1976,  written by Oran Quintrell and Dan Mayes in their Memphis En Passant column:

     Rosa Jefferson announced with "pride and pleasure" the opening of the Memphis Chess Club, located on the second floor of the Exchange Building, in her first column concerning the Memphis Chess Club in the Commercial Appeal on January 1, 1904.
     But it was a sad opening as far as she was concerned because she criticized the "home players" as having "manifested little interest. . . in match contest in outer chess circles." As a result of this she believed that Memphis Chess Club players, who were excellent chess thinkers and "downright" good at scientific chess, remained obscure on the national level instead of winning distinction for their play.
     "The greatest chess celebrities of the world have visited the club 'with sorrow' tested the strength of its players--never yet has one left the city without sustaining a loss," she said.

     Rosa Jefferson, who was considered women's world champion caliber at this time, had defeated Pillsbury and fought with Dr. Lasker to a three hour draw (in a game which he refused to reopen the next day). "When I played Dr. Lasker," she said, "there were 15 or 20 peopled standing around waiting to see the lamb--which was me--led to the slaughter. Naturally I was a little excited, you know, he is considered to be a master of the deepest method of playing. But Dr. Lasker's hands shook so toward the last of the game that the pawns rattled."
     "I suppose it was a bit unsettling to be baffled by a mere woman before so many people," laughed the fair champion. "Perhaps he accepted the challenge--and by the by how many friends did laugh at me for throwing down the glove to the great man--just to take me down for my audacity and put me in the corner. But what he may have considered a 'pink tea' performance turned out to be, for him, three hours of strenuous life."

     Rosa Jefferson also defeated Pillsbury in what became a six hour battle of wits. "It was a veritable Trojan war," she later recalled.

     During the time she belonged to the Chess, Checkers and Whist Club, which then had a membership of 100 and was located over the then Southern Express office. She announced her intention to enter the American Chess Congress Tournament which was meeting in St. Louis during the 1904 World's Fair, and the Commercial Appeal expected her to "narrow her championship until it is qualified only be the adjective phrase 'of the world'."
     While writing her chess column for the Commercial Appeal she would publish chess problems submitted to her by interested readers."

In a later edition of the Memphis Chess Advocate and the Memphis En Passant column Dan Mayes would write:

               "In her weekly chess column Rosa Jefferson set out to bring her Memphis readers
          the latest news and most interesting games and problems from around the world. But
          since The Commercial Appeal carried her column to points far from Memphis as well,
          Miss Jefferson would occasionally bring to the chess world the latest news, games and
          composed problems from the Memphis Chess Club." (Here is more from her column
          on Jan. 17, 1904.)

               It is with pride and pleasure that I wish to direct the attention of all chess players
               to the Memphis Chess Club. The spacious rooms of the club are located on the
               second floor in the Exchange Building, and right here many of the most notable
               games take place. Chess at the club is varied and interesting--you will find some
               bowed in profound silence over single games, while others are engaged in
               simultaneous exhibitions and blindfold chess.
                    The club numbers among its members some of the brightest intellects of the city.
               Dr. D.D. Saunders, the president, has been closely identified with Memphis chess
               for years and his zeal in the cause has been an inspiration to Southern players.
                   Brilliancy and aggressiveness are the chief characteristics of his game and for such
               it bears a reputation at home and abroad. In a recent communication to this column a
               celebrated chess player paid the following tribute to Dr. Saunders: "I played with Dr.
               Saunders many years ago; his game is stubborn--it is powerful."  Messrs. Jefferson,
               McDonald, Peres, Poston, Levi, Harris, Coleman, Dockery, Darnell, and Rabbi
               Sainfield are shining lights in the club. Jefferson has made a reputation for himself by
               his games with Pillsbury, the American champion. He defeated Pillsbury on two
               separate occasions and the last game was said to have been the strongest ever
               played in Memphis. McDonald's great move on the board of chess fame was the
               game he played Dr. Lasker last winter. After the fortieth move Lasker resigned in
               favor of McDonald. H. Peres has had a drawn game with Pillsbury. Dr. Posert owes
               much of his chess excellence to the skill with which he maneuvers his pawns. There
               are many other strong players in the club but not being sufficiently acquainted with
               the style of their game, it is impossible to make intelligent comments at present, but in
               due time each player will be weighed in this chess balance and given a just rating.



Rosa Jefferson's name faded into oblivion only to resurface after her death in 1962 when her brother accused her care-giving of extorting her considerable estate. The nurse, Ethel Dorris, claimed Miss Jefferson was an alcoholic at the time she was hired and that she had cured Miss Jefferson of her addiction. No resolution to the case could be found. However, Ethel Dorris' name turned up again in a 1968 lawsuit  of an unspecified nature.