SOME CHESS PLAYERS I HAVE MET - by Mortimer

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Jul 12, 2009, 5:39 AM |
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James Mortimer
James Mortimer

from the BMC, May 1905

 

SOME CHESS PLAYERS I HAVE MET.

     WE gladly embrace the opportunity to supplement the following interesting article by presenting our readers with a portrait of Mr. Mortimer, and some biographical records of his career. We also hope to have the pleasure of publishing his promised "thumbnail sketches" on an early date.

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     My earliest recollections of the fascinating game date from a far distant time. It is more than sixty years since I was taught the rudiments of chess. The first player I ever met was my father, and from him I learnt the moves when I was a boy of twelve. He was, I have reason to believe, a tolerably strong player. I remember once accompanying him to an exhibition of a famous "automaton chess player," who made a tour of the United States some time in the 'forties. From this apparently mechanical "master" my father won the game he played on that occasion, and I regret being unable to give the score to the B.C.M., or to compare its beauties (if it possessed any with those of the numerous masterpieces I have seen during the past fifty years. I do not know who was the deus ex machina of the automaton in question, but the memory of his exploits was brought back to my mind ten or fifteen years ago, when an ingeniously constructed automaton called "Mephisto" flourished in London, and gave battle to all comers in the neighbourhood of the Haymarket. This weird counterfeit presentment of his satanic majesty was worked by electricity, under the expert guidance of Mr. Gunsberg, Mr. Fenton, and, possibly, other flesh and blood players. Many a tilt have I had with "Mephisto" in those days, the uncanny effigy imperturbably exacting a "bob" for each game, whether he won it or not.
     My real introduction to the chess world and most of its modern celebrities dates from 1858, when I was an attache of the American Legation in Paris.
     It was at this period that I first met Paul Morphy, the young American chess genius, whose extraordinary talents had already astonished English lovers of chess, and were then causing amazement and admiration amongst the habitues of the Cafe de la Regence, the famous chess resort of the Parisians, and of all professional and amateur votaries of the game visiting the French capital at that brilliant and prosperous period of the Second Empire, following the termination of the Crimean war.
     In my hours of leisure, I went almost every day to the Regence, to do a little "wood-shifting" with some mazette (duffer) of about my own feebleness, or occasionally to pay half a franc for the privilege of being beaten at the odds of Rook or Knight by any professional " artist" or strong amateur who would graciously condescend (for fivepence a lesson! to show me "how it was done." l was Morphy's fellow countryman, and four years his senior. He had arranged to make Paris his headquarters for a considerable time, and it was not long before we became intimate friends. Paul was a native of New Orleans, and like all scions of the best Louisiana families, spoke French and English perfectly. The son of a judge of the Supreme Court of Louisiana, he was in every respect a gentleman by birth, breeding, and education. A lawyer by profession, he never regarded chess otherwise than as a pastime, and rarely played for any pecuniary stake whatever, unless at the express wish of his opponents. In physique he was of diminutive stature and aimost effeminate build, except the head, which was large and well developed. His face was that of a boy of fifteen, with as yet no single vestige of either beard or moustache. As his age was a few months over twenty-one at the time to which I refer, it is probable that at no period of his life was he destined to become "bearded like the Pard," or, indeed, ever to apply a razor to his boyish face. I remember his gloves were ladies' fives, and his shoes a child's size, into which not one woman in a hundred thousand could have squeezed her feet. From this brief description of Paul Morphy's outer man, when he quietly and modestly appeared among the throng of accomplished chess players who then congregated daily and nightly at the Cafe de la Regence, some idea may be formed of the interest and excitement created by his victories over all who challenged him to single combat, and playing blindfold simultaneously against eight of the best players in Paris. I was an eye-witness of these various exploits, and enjoyed Paul's triumphs far more than he did himself.
     Though the famous French chess player, Philidor, had, many years previously, shown the possibility of conducting two or three games without sight of board or men, to play eight games blindfold was at that time regarded as an amazing feat of memory, accomplished only by Morphy himself. Since then the number has often been equalled by Blackburne, and far surpassed by Maczuski, Zukertort, and several others; notably by Pillsbury, who has, I believe, undertaken thirty games blindfold ! At the Regence it was known that, a few weeks previously, Morphy had played blindfold chess at Birmingham, his eight opponents being Lord Lyttleton, the Rev. Mr. Saimon, Mr. J. Kipping (hon. sec. of the Manchester Chess Clubl) Mr. Avery (president) and Dr. Freeman (hon. sec. of the Birmingham Chess Club), Mr. Carr, Mr. Rhodes, and Mr. W. R. Wills (hon. sec. of the British Chess Association), the blindfold player winning six, losing one, and drawing one.
     In Paris, the contending team was composed of Messrs. Boucher, Bierwirth, Bornemann, Guibert, Lequesne, Potier, Preti, and Seguin, all of whom I remember as strong Parisian amateurs. On this occassion, Morphy beat six of his adversaries and drew with the remaining two.
     Soon after this exploit, a match of seven games (draws not countingl was arranged between the young American and Mr. Harrwitz, an expert of European reputation. Mr. Harrwitz was a deformed little man, whose manners were by no means refined, and who, after winning the first two games of the match, took no pains to conceal his contempt for Morphy's abilities as a chess player. This want of appreciation, however, turned out to be rather "previous." Harrwitz scored no more games after the first two, and lost five in succession, when he resigned the match, on the plea of illness. I saw this match from beginning to end, and have never forgotten the grotesque contrast between Harrwitz exultant and Harrwitz crestfallen.
     In the following December was played the Celebrated match between Morphy and Professor Anderssen, then esteemed the greatest of European players. The score of this match was: Morphy 7. Professor Anderssen 2, and two drawn games. The match was commenced at the Hotel de Rivoli, where Morphy was residing, and I helped him to rise from a sick bed to play the first game—-which he lost.
     Early in 1859, Mr. Mongredien, president of the City of London Chess Club, came to Paris for the express purpose of playing a match with the redoubtable young American. The result of this series of games, played at the Hotel du Louvre was: Morphy 7, Mongredien 0, drawn 1.
     During the four years preceding the Morphy era, and long after his return to America. I met in Paris, at the Cafe de la Regence, all the noted chess players of the time, some of them destined to make their mark in the future. There were also not a few vastly amusing cranks who fancied they played well and were really the hopeless victims of the professional players, who lived in a cheap way on the vanity and credulity of the mazettes, at the modest toll of fivepence a game. As they have all probably joined the majority, they may now, for ought I know to the contrary, have resumed chess playing in some convenient nook on the other side of the Styx. During fully fifteen years the Regence was the rendez-vous of two chess playing fanatics as widely separated as the Poles, but both revelling in the delusion that they were good players. One of them, a Tunisian with gleaming white teeth, was known under the sobriquet of "Abdel Kader," in allusion to his oriental origin and manners. His bald head, always covered by a Turk's fez, pushed rakishly back in critical positions of the game, his head swaying to and fro like a Chinese image in a toy shop, Abdel Kader was a droll and original character of whom, in the days that are gone, I have often heard a gentleman now holding an influential position in the chess world give excruciatingly funny imitations. The other odd personage was a rough and ebullient sailor, whose boisterous tones sometimes seemed to make the glasses rattle on the cafe tables, and frightened the dame du comptoir half out of her senses. This bluff old sea-dog, for some reason I never discovered, was invariably called " Madame Dufour," and responded to the nick-name with gracious condescension.
     Of the chess celebrities I met during my residence of nearly two decades in Paris, one of the first was the poet, Alfred de Musset, who has been aptly called "the French Lord Byron." He came aimost daily to the Regence, in 1855-6, and always sat at the same corner table, playing chess and sipping the pernicious draught which finally wrecked his life. At a later period, the famous Russian novelist, Tourguenieff, was also a daily visitor, and played a remarkably good game. Another strong amateur was M. Grevy, then a Parisian barrister, out of political life since the coup d'Etat of 1851, but destined in the future to become President of the French Republic. M. de St. Amant, who had been, under the reign of Louis Philippe, chess champion of France, and, in a historic match, was vanquished by the late Howard Statmton, came often to the Regence, but confined his visits to the small room where smoking was prohibited, and never ventured to breathe the clouded atmosphere of the estaminet or general cafe. M. de St. Amant was a dignified old gentleman, with bushy white hair and distinguished appearance, and usually played with some old admiral or general, to whom he easily accorded the odds of Rook or Knight.
     At the Regence, also, I made the acquaintance of M. Arnous de Riviere, then a tall aristocratic looking young fellow, and a very fine chess player, as many of his recorded games, particularly his off-hand encounters with Paul Morphy, abundantly attest. I have enjoyed the personal friendship of M. de Riviere during fifty years, and am glad to find him still hale and hearty, quite capable of gallant'y holding his own with the best players of the present day, and able to undertake the arduous duties which have devolved upon him for the past four years, of directing the successful international chess tournaments organised by the Cercle des Etrangers of Monte Carlo.
     The late Baron Kolisch may be said to have risen to rank and fortune over the chessboards of the Cafe de la Regence, where he made his first appearance in the 'sixties, and for a long time was content to delve among the mazettes at half a franc a game. He was a jovial and amusing companion, and had the good luck to make a friend of a stockbroker fond of chess, who gave Kolisch an opening as a coulissier, or commission agent. at the Paris Bourse. Here his business talents attracted the attention of the Rothschilds, and his future career was assured.
     It was in the 'sixties that the late S. Rosenthal came to Paris, and, as a chess player, established his head-quarters at the Regence. He claimed to be a Polish "refugee," though it is doubtful if his departure from Poland had any connection whatever with the Russian tyranny over that unhappy country.  Rosenthal, as a young man, was already a sound and painstaking chess player. He was also frugal, sober, patient and conciliatory, and succeeded in making a modest living from chess alone. At all events, I never knew him to have any other occupation. Gradually he rose to an important position in the chess world, and was justly regarded as a leading exponent of the game. Little by little, he amassed a comfortable independence through chess playing and chess teaching—the only instance of the kind I have ever known. But, though Rosenthal spent the last forty years of his life in Paris, he never learnt to speak or write French with the most distant approach to fluency or correctness, and his innumerable malapropisms were a source of keen enjoyment to all who heard and could appreciate their drollery.  His French solecisms are unfortunately not translatable into English, but I will quote one of them here, and endeavour to make it fairly intelligible. Playing one day at the Regence, he inadvertently left a piece en prise, and lost the game. ' Ah, well," said he, philosophically, "j'ai fait un boulette : il faut l'expirer." Meaning, "I have made a blunder and must expiate it." The substitution of the verb expirer (to expirel instead of expier (to expiate) is worthy of Mrs. Malaprop herself.
     In 1865, I first met Leopold Hoffer, then a mere lad, brought to the Regence by a relative. Since then, 40 years have elapsed, and during that period Hoffer and I have fought an untold number of desperate battles on the checquered field of the chessboard, always bloodthirsty opponents, but nevertheless excellent friends. In the Paris International Tournament of 1867 young Hoffer was the organiser of all the important details, and even at that early period of his career evinced the aptitude for the direction of chess competitions, and the general management of the business connected with tournaments open to all nations, which he has repeatedly displayed on similar occasions in recent years, in London and on the Continent.
     During this tournament of 1867, won by Kolisch, I first met Steinitz, Winawer, and Loyd, whilst among the other principal competitors were De Vere (who, had he lived, would have been a great player), de Riviere, and Rosenthal.
     I have already far exceeded the space assigned to me by the editor of the B.M.C., and reserve for a future article a few thumb-nail sketches of the chess players I have met in more recent years. Having myself taken part in seven international tournaments and many national contests, I have measured swords (generally to my own discomfiture) with all the chess celebrities of the last twenty odd years. In the splendid London Tournament of 1883, I had the good fortune to win a game each from the late Dr. Zukertort, M. Tchigorin, and the Rev. Mr. Skipworth, drawing with Steinitz, Bird, and Mason, meeting also in this tournament Mr. Blackburne, Captain Mackenzie, Herr Winawer, and other fine players. In later competitions, and in many offhand names, I have encountered Lasker, Maroczy, Schlechter, Tchigorin, Pillsbury, Hoffer. Gunsberg, Showalter, Mieses, Marshall, Marco, Janowski, Teichmann, von Barteleben, Tarrasch, Alapin, Schiffers, Wolf, Schallop, Taubenhaus, Napier, Lawrence, Albin, Tinsley, Van Vliet, Guest, Lee, Leonhardt, Atkins, Bellingham, Tattersall, Loman, Trenchard, Locock, Muller, Wainwright, Gunston, Blake, e tutti quanti.
     Tinsley and the Russian player, Schiffers, have passed away, but, with these two exceptions, all these masters and amateurs are alive and, I hope, in good health. Amongst them, perhaps, some one may be destined—who knows ?—to contribute bye and bye to the B.C.A1. a few choice "reminiscences " derived from recollections of the writer of these random souvenirs.

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     James Mortimer- journalist, diplomat, editor, playwright, and master chess player—is a citizen of the great American Republic. He was born April 22nd, 1833, at Richmond, Yirginia, and was educated at the High School, Rochester, New York, and University of Yirginia. He commenced his commercial career as a journalist, and at 22 years of age he was chief editor of a Philadelphia newspaper. In the same year—1855—he was appointed attache of the United Slates Legation in Paris. In the following year he was sent as U.S. Vice Consul at Civita Yecchia, the port of Rome, then the capital of the Papal .States. Three years later—in 1859—he was appointed second secretary of the American Legation in St. Petersburg.
     He left the diplomatic service in 1860 and returned to Paris, where he was domiciled for the next ten years, resuming his profession of journalist as correspondent of the New York Express and other American journals. He left Paris in May, 1870. for London, where he founded the London Figaro, of which he was editor and proprietor until 1882, when he sold the property to a company.  Under Mr. Mortimer's guidance the Figaro enjoyed quite a first-class reputation, which is not surprising, as he possesses a rare knowledge of men, manners, and things; has a ready pen, and is an excellent wit, as some of the chess fraternity who have enjoyed his inimitable after-dinner speeches can testify. It will probably be a surprise to some of our readers to know that Mr. Mortimer has written upwards of thirty plays produced at the following London theatres: Drury Lane, Adelphi, Globe, Olympic, Haymarket, Duke's, Criterion, Princess', Royalty, Court, Yaudeville, Strand, Lyric, Avenue, Terry's, Gaiety, and others. His plays include "Heartsease," "Gammon," "Little Cricket," "The School for Intrigue," "Two Old Boys," "Gioriana" (now known as "My Artful Valet"), "Truthful James," -'A Gay Deceiver," "Dorothy's Stratagem," "Wifey," "Oh Those Widows!" are amongst Mr. Mortimer's best known pieces. Doubtless many of our readers will have favourites in this list. Mr. Mortimer's connection with British chess may be said to have started in the year 1870, when he was elected honorary member of the St. George's Chess Club, which then met in King Street, St. James'. He was proposed by the late Mr. N. W. Strode, whom he has often met in Paris, at the Cafe de la Regence. One result of the personal friendship between Mr. Strode and Mr. Mortimer was that the former gentleman invited the Empress Eugenie to take up her residence as his guest at Camden Place, Chislehurst, after the Revolution of September, 1870, and the flight of the Empress from Paris. On her arrival at Hastings, the Empress telegraphed to Mr. Mortimer, and it was thus through his acquaintance with Mr. Strode, a fellow chess player, that the exiled Imperial family fixed their place of refuge at Chislehurst. During his long residence in Paris, Mr. Mortimer had the good fortune to render some literary services to the late Emperor Napoleon III, whose confidence and friendship he enjoyed until the death of the Emperor, at Chislehurst. in 1873. Mr. Mortimer possesses the following Orders, all of which were conferred during his diplomatic caree , with the exception of the Cross of the Legion of Honour, which was conferred by the Emperor personally in 1869. Orders of Charles III and Isabella (Spanish) The Christ of Portugal and Lazare, Crown of Italy. The Legion of Honour.
     Chess has never been to Mr. Mortimer other than a fascinating pastime, he was therefore so n quite at home in London chess circles. One of his earliest chess friends was Herr Lowenthal—and to the 'gentle Hungarian' he gave the charge of a chess column in the Figaro, thereby probably incurring the displeasure of Staunton. For a period Mr. Mortimer's interest in chess was not very manifest—doubtless owing to the presence of more important matters—but in the year 1883 he took part in the Master Tournament of the great International Chess Congress of that year, and from that time his interest in his favourite pastime has not abated. As a player Mr. Mortimer is of the bold, dashing, and brilliant school, well able, if occasion requires, to play very serious chess indeed—as many a master player has found to his cost. In playing over some of his'best games, one feels conscious of strong individuality, which seems ever searching for something original in both attack and defence. We should not like to say how many games Mr. Mortimer has lost by seeking out novel lines of play and testing their merits against a strong opponent. But by such methods he has certainly enriched the theory of the game with many original variations in several openings, the most notable of these being the well-known Fraser-Mortimer attack in the Evans Gambit. His chief weakness in actual play is a tendency to undue haste; with him caution seldom marks the guarded way, and in this his play strongly resembles that of Mr. H. E. Bird.
     In the opening stages of the 1883 tournament he met with a series of reverses, but the second round saw a marked improvement in his score, and it is characteristic of Mr. Mortimer that on the eve of playing his second game against the late Dr. Zukertort, winner of the tournament, he declared himself confident of being able to hold his own if not indeed to win the game. His defeat of Tschigorin in this tournament was also a fine performance, and the results of these two ganrtes alone show what Mr. Mortimer was capable of in his younger days. Since 1883 he has taken part in quite a number of important tournaments, amongst which we recall London, Bradford, Manchester, Paris, and Monte Carlo. He played for the South in the first North v South match, at Birmingham, in 1895, and defeated his opponent. Of all the prizes won in chess tournaments, perhaps the one which he values most is ttee complete set of John Ruskin's works, which he received from the author on the occasion of his winning the Ruskin prize at one of the meetings of the British Chess Association. During later times Mr. Mortimer has competed in the tournaments promoted at open meetings held at Folkestone, Tunbridge Wells, Norwich, Plymouth, Brighton, City of London, Hastings, .Sic., and we hope to see him at the forthcoming National Congress at Southport, hale, hearty, and in good form for chess and Northern hospitality.