Most people even remotely interested in 19th century chess know about Mrs. John W. Gilbert and her extremely long announced mates. What seems to be less appreciated today is the sheer strength of this lady chess player. Part of the problem lies in the fact that so few of her games are available. So, I scoured old newpapers and magazines for her games and transposed them from descriptive to digital. I've managed to assemble 24 of Mrs. Ellen Gilbert's games which, mixed in with a little history, I want to offer in a series of presentations.
Much of what little we know about Mrs. Gilbert unfortunately comes from her obituaries. This obituary reprinted from that in the Hartford Weekly Times gives a brief summation of her life:
The Gazette and Farmers' Journal
April 12, 1900
A CHESS MISTRESS
Mrs. Ellen E. Gilbert, wife of Mr. John W. Gilbert, who died on Monday at her house on Capitol avenue, was not only well known in this city, but had a wide reputation among chess players. She was the daughter of Dr. A. B. Strong, a physician of Leverett, Mass., who was also a naturalist of some repute and author of several books on birds and flowers. After receiving a liberal education, Miss Strong came to this city and taught at the South school until her marriage to Mr. Gilbert.
She was best known, however, for her talent in chess, being a strong player and excelling in keen analysis. She was one of the organizers of the famous Queen's chess club which flourished in this city in the sixties. She made her national reputation in the time of the correspondence tournament between England and America. Through the courtesy of Mr. John Belden, chess editor of the Hartford Times, she was invited to participate, although the only lady in the list. Mr. Belden had enough faith in her extraordinary powers to match her with Mr. Gossip of London, at the time the strongest correspondence player known. Other players feared the manager for America made a grave mistake by pitting this unknown player with one who far outclassed her, but she came out triumphant, winning every game and in one of them performing a before unheard of feat of announcing mate in thirty-five moves.
The British Chess Magazine also published her obituary in April 1900.
We much regret to record the death of Mrs. Gilbert, of Hartford, Conn., U.S.A., who was formerly the Lady Chess Champion of America for nearly 25 years, and certainly the most prominent Lady chess player in the world. Unfortunately, on searching the back numbers of magazines of that period, we can find no record of her performances when she was a member of the Queen's Chess Club, at Hartford, in the sixties. Afterwards, however, she developed into a most formidable correspondence player, and when in the British and American correspondence tourney, she was paired with Mr. Gossip, she defeated him by a clean score of four games, announcing in one of them a mate in 21 moves, and in another of 35 moves, which proved to be correct. In commemoration of this victory, she was presented with a handsome gold watch.
Memory of the Queen's Chess Club mentioned above seems to have faded into oblivion for the most part. In his nice little article on Mrs. Gilbert, the wonderful chess historian for the Pa. State Chess Federation, Neil Brennan wrote: "Mrs. Gilbert and her husband did establish a 'Queen's Chess Club' in Hartford during the 1860's, allowing members of both sexes to meet to practice the Royal Game." This may be accurate, but Mr. Brennan didn't leave us with any indication to the source, making it difficult to ascertain. The only other reference I was able to uncover came from Willard Fiske's Chess Monthly in 1860 with this peculiar note about the chess ladies participating in an archery contest:
"We learn from a Connecticut paper that an association called the Queen's Chess Club celebrated the Fourth of July in Babcock's Grove, near Hartford. More than sixty persons were assembled. The Declaration was read and toasts were drunk. But the feature of the day was a contest in archery by the ladies. The target distance was fifty feet. The first prize was a set of ivory chess-men, of the value of twenty dollars, awarded to Miss Lillie Lyman. The second prize, won by Miss Lizzie W. Olmsted, was a beautifully inlaid chess board of papier mache."
Her husband, John W. Gilbert was a builder in Hartford. One of his structures is now a historical building:
As already mentioned, Mrs. Gilbert was internationally known, and remembered today, primarily for her correspondence play and long mate announcements. This overshadowed her other achievements. While, although she never took part in public OTB tournaments, her over-the-board experiences were occasionally recorded, what isn't generally known is that she was a talented blindfold player. The Hartford Weekly Times on November 4, 1871 wrote:
We have had occasion at different times to speak of the chess playing accomplishments of a number of Hartford ladies, but more particularly of the skill exhibited by Mrs. J. W. Gilbert. We have published several games successively contested by this lady, some of which have been copied into papers out of this state, accompanied by highly complimentary remarks. Blindfold chess is a performance so difficult that only comparatively few players have ever undertaken the task. Mrs. G__ has recently played a number of games blindfold, and has almost invariably won them. We believe it is the first instance on record of a lady playing chess blindfold. Are we right? If any of our readers are informed to the contrary, we will thank them to let us know where, when and by whom the exploit was accomplished.
Here is an example of her blindfold play from the Hartford Weekly Times Dec. 27, 1873:
The reader might notice an inexpilcable incongruity here. The blindfold game above was given in the Hartford Weekly News on Dec. 27, 1873 with the comment that it had been recently contested and that it was Mrs. Gilbert's first blindfold game. However, the previous excerpt from the November 4, 1871 issue of the same paper asserts that Mrs. Gilbert was already proficient in blindfold play. Clearly, either the game given wasn't recently played, or else it wasn't her first attempt.
On September 1, 1877, the Scientific American gave us this brief look at Ellen Gilbert:
Believing that a likeness of Mrs. J. W. Gilbert, of Hartford, Ct., would possess great interest to all lovers of chess in America, we take especial pleasure in gracing our gallery of this week with her portrait.
Wishing to avoid a plurality, or, as in the case of Morphy, a confusion of likenesses with but little resemblance in common, we acknowledge an international compliment, and reproduce from the Westminster Papers a picture which we are assured is a faithful likeness of the acknowledged Queen of Chess.
Mrs. Gilbert is generally admitted to be the most accomplished lady chess player living, and as a successful player of games by correspondence has achieved a world-wide reputation. The specimens of her play which we give this week surpass anything recorded from actual play, for brilliancy of problematical termination, that has yet come under our notice.
An international correspondence tournay was inaugurated during the early part of last year between twenty -nine american and the same number of Canadian players. The result has been a decided vistory by a score of more than two to one for the Americans.
Mrs. J. W. Gilbert took part in the contest and we are pleased to present her games to our readers as momentoes of this interesting tournament, as well as specimens of her remarkable talent.
Mate in 18!
According to the BCM in 1901:
Although she lived in Harford and seemed to interact with memebers of the Hartford Chess Club, she was never a member. The strongest member of the club was Capt. Patrick O'Farrell.
". . . Captain O'Farrell was formerly a member of the Belfast Club and holder of that Club's Championship Medal as far back as 1862, in which year he left Ireland for America to join the Union Army, in which he enlisted as a private, served throughout the war, and retired with the rank of Captain. After leaving the Army he settled in Hartford, Connecticut, resumed the practice of chess, and proved his ability as a player by winning the State Championship. He now for the third time again emerges a champion, in the 68th year of his age. He is an old friend and subscriber to this journal, and we trust that he will long be spared to enjoy many a chess fight before reaching the final life-game, which all must play and resign.
He had also lived in nation's capitol and won the Washington D.C. Chess Club championship at least 4 times between 1895 and 1901
Capt. O'Farrell and Mrs. Gilbert played an over-the-board match of 12 games in 1871 with O'Farrell eventually winning with 6 games to Mrs. Gilert's 5 and 1 draw.
I was fortunate to find three game scores from this match:
I found one more recorded game between O'Farrell and Mrs. Gilbert published in 1873. The paper didn't mention when the game was actually played.
This concludes Part 1.
Mate in 35
The Indominatable Ellen Gilbert