The Queen of Chess, Part III


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.


John C. Romeyn sent the following problems to Potter's City of London chess magazine dedicating them to Mrs. Gilbert. The magazine published them with this commentary:
We give below, diagrams of two Problem sent to us by the composer, Mr. J. C. Romeyn, of Rondout, N.Y., U.S.A.  As contructive curiosities we think they will be found interesting, the principle being that the simple displacement of a Pawn, which it will be seen is the only alteration in the second position, gives a totally different solution.  No. 1 is a really difficult Problem.



Mr. Romeyn desires that they should be dedicated to Mrs. J. W. Gilbert, of Hartford Conn., whom he states is unquestionably the strongest lady player in the United States.  Gallantry to the lady permits us to mention the author's desire, but on principle we object to dedications, for we consider that, putting aside exceptional cases, they serve no useful purpose.  A Problem, like a road, is dedicated to the public, and though a composer may naturally wish to show his esteem for a particular friend, yet the readers of a Magazine cannot be expected to feel much interest in that matter, and it is for them, not for a particular friend, that Problems are published. However, we do not propse at present to enter into reasons for or against such inscription.  For the most part, in fact, we think they are sufficiently obvious.  By the bye, a very interesting contest would be a correspondence match between Mrs. Gilbert, representing the lady players of America and Miss Rudge, as the champion of those in this country.  Does Mr. Romeyn think such an event coud be brought off??  Though, without any authority to speak, yet we doubt there being any objection from this side.

Romeyn seems to have been well acquainted with Mrs. Gilbert.
The BCM published his obituary in 1886:

Mr. John C. Romeyn, of Kingston, N. Y., who was at one time quite a prominent problemist and player in the  ranks of American Chess, died in that city on the 22nd May. Mr. Romeyn was a native of Kingston, having  been born Aug. 30th, 1844, and was, therefore, only in his 42nd year at the time of his death. He first  learned Chess in 1864, and must have possessed both considerable natural capacity and enthusiasm for  the game, for, within a few months, he was able to contend on even terms with the strongest players of his  locality, and in June of the following year he began the publication of a Chess department in the Kingston  Journal. In the early part of 1867 Mr. Romeyn, in conjunction with Mr. E. B. Cook, of Hoboken, N. J.,  undertook the publication of the now famous "American Chess Nuts," whioh after the death of Mr. W. R.  Henry, its projector, in 1865, had remained in Mr. Cook's charge in a state of incompletion and abeyance.  Mr. Romeyn progressed as far as the 405th problem in an edition of 500 copies, when ill health compelled  him reluctantly to abandon tho task. Subsequently, however, he was a most helpful coadjutor to Messrs.  Cook and Gilberg in the final labour upon the work prior to its going to press in 1868, aiding largely in  collecting the problems dating after 1861, and personally re-examining over a fourth of the multitude of  compositions contained in the volume. From about this period Mr. Romeyn seems to have virtually  abandoned tho field of practical Chess play, devoting himself almost exclusively to problems, in the  construction of which he was a frequent, though not a prolific composer. For a long time past, however, he  appears to have given up even this branch of the game, the latest composition of his that we have been  able to find being tho following little three-mover from the Holyoka Transcript, in the early part of 1878. . . Mr. Romeyn was, we believe, a practical newspaper man, being at one time editor and part proprietor of the Kingston Journal, and subsequently of the Courier, of the same city.

I found Mr. Romyn's  compositions in The City of London chess magazine, the Dubuque Chess Journal, and the Hartford Weekly Times.

Here is a game contested between Mr. Romeyn and Mrs. Gilbert:




In addition to being a correspondence player, William J. Berry of Beverly, Mass.  was also a problemist - 3rd in Bretano's Problem Solution Tournay 1881 - and a blindfold player. His game against Mr. Gilbert was published on July 24, 1875 in the Hartford Weekly Times with the following comments:
A Remarkable Game!
The correspondence game published below, which was contested by Mrs. J. W. Gilbert, of this city and Mr.  W. J. Berry, of Beverly, Mass., in some respects is the most remarkable game that ever came under our observation.  A game wherein mate is announted in nineteen moves is so extraordinary it is worthy of  something more than a mere passing notice. 
In analyzing the position at the point where mate is  announced, the student will find much to interest him; and the mental labor he has to perform before  accomplishing his purpose will be immense.  None but those who have tried it can begin to appreciate the  difficulty of the task.  The lady who performed the feat of studying out the mate in nineteen moves  acknowledges it was the most severe intellectual task she ever undertook.  To our eye there is nothing in  the position of the pieces to warrant the belief that mate could be forced, and yet, Mrs. Gilbert was so  strongly impressed with the idea, she set to work and actually accomplished her purpose.  All the way through Black has so many moves at his command it would seem as if the player would despair of ever  forcing a mate, but in all ways, except the one in the text, mate would follow in less that the stipulated moves.   Black's best play cannot prolong it beyond nineteen moves.  Upon announcement, Mr. Berry gracefully  acknowledged defeat as follows:

            "No doubt you have heard the story of the Russian who played chess
            with the devil.  The Russian says, 'I  now thought I had him, and in
            careful consideration resolved on a bold push.  No sooner had I moved
            than  my adversary with a grim smile commenced counting on his
            fingers and then said:
                 'My excellent friend, I shall checkmate you in exactly twenty-one move.'
                 'Gracious Heavens,' I said, 'that is a whole game. You must be the devil.'
                 'I just am,' answered the other"
 I was forcibly reminded of the above little anecdote by your announcement; but of course, you will  understand that it is told in fun, and above all that there is no danger of my making the very unpleasant  reflection which passed through the mind of our excellent Russian friend. - Wm. J. Berry"





John G. Belden was the chess editor of the Hartford Weekly Times for 17 years. He was also a probleminst with one example published in the American Chess-Nuts. Like Mr. Romeyn, he died in the Spring of 1886. He was 55.

Belden was a big supporter of Mrs. Gilbert. He sponsored Mrs. Gilbert in the 1877 International Postal Card Chess Tourney which pitted England against America, was severely criticized for his pairing up of the experienced Gossip, playing for England, against a relatively unknown female homebody.



Belden also consulted with Mrs. Gilbert in one of the first chess games ever played by telephone.  According to the Chess Player's Chronicle of Jan. 1878:

   The Hartford Times of January 3d , contains the account of a game played at
Hartford, Conn., by telephone, between Mrs. Gilbert and Mr. Belden on one side, and Messrs. Lincoln and Olmsted on the other, the distance between the combatants being several miles. The Times, however, is mistaken in saying that this is the first game on record played by the telephone, the first being that alluded to in our last issue, which was played somewhere near New York, and published, we believe, in the Turf, Field, and Farm.
   The first game played by the agency of the telephone in this country came off on 25th Jan., between F. Thompson, Esq., Chess Editor of the Derbyshire Advertiser, and John Cooper, Esq., at the Milford and Belper Mills, near Derby.


This concludes Part III.
Part I
Part II
Part IV

Related Links:
Mate in 35
The Indominatable Ellen Gilbert