I had a brief, though quite interesting, exchange with a gentleman not long ago. It started with a query concerning Louisa Matilda Ballard Fagan, the Italian born English chess player who scored 2nd in the Ladies' International Chess Congress of 1897. The query really had little to do with chess, but rather about Mrs. Fagan's involvement in the Fabian Society, a group, founded in 1884, that promotes socialist ideology. In the course of the exchange, the gentleman brought up the tasty thought that Mrs. Fagan may have known her contemporary English countryman, Wordsworth Donisthorpe, and discussed social issues with him.
Wordsworth Donisthorpe early 1880s
Donisthorpe is best known today as a pioneer in motion pictures. He invented a device, patented as Kinesigraph, capable of recording a succession of film photos with the help of his architect cousin, William Carr Crofts. Certain insurmountble problems prevented the full development of their invention.
Also with Crofts, Donisthorpe participated in the founding of the Liberty and Property Defence League and Donisthorpe edited the league's newsletter, "Jus: A Weekly Organ of Individualism." Unlike the Fabian Society, this organization was anti-socialist; unlike the Fabian Society which exists today, the League dissipated shortly after WWI. In fact Donisthorpe himself formed the State Resistance Union to battle socialism.
Donisthorpe, the author, wrote "Principles of Plutology" (1876), "Claims of Labor" (1880), "Liberty or Law" (1884), "Democracy: A Lecture of State Structure" (1886), "Socialism Analyzed" (1888), "Individualism, a System of Politics" (1889), "Law in a Free State" (1895), and "Down the Stream of Civilization" (1898).
Like Mrs. Fagan, George Bernard Shaw was also a socialist and a member of the Fabian Society, the organization that seems diamertically opposed to Donisthorpe's political philosophy. Unlike Mrs. Fagan, Shaw had a disdain for chess that he expressed in this famous quote: "Chess is a foolish expedient for making idle people believe they are doing something very clever when they are only wasting their time." Shaw also expressed a mitigated admiration for Donisthope.
Although his is hardly a household name among chess players, even those interested in the history of chess, Donisthorpe, like Mrs. Fagan, played some important roles in the development of British chess. And it's chess we're here to discuss - chess and Donisthorpe.
The Nov. 1886 issue of "Chess-Monthly" tells us:
Mr. W. Donisthorpe is notorious for his eccentricities. He is fond of trying obsolete variations, and so frequently starts with a disadvantage in the Opening. He often recovers in the mid-game the ground lost in the debut; but his forte is the end-game, and there he shows to advantage by a display of ingenuity, exact calculation, and above all great tenacity. One of his hobbies is to save a game by a stalemate, and, we firmly believe, that he prefers such a termination if feasible to winning an uninteresting ending by a slow uneventful process. That Mr. Donisthorpe is one of our best amateurs he has shown in his match with Mortimer, now in progress, the score being six each and fire draws.
The paragraph above becomes exceptionally interesting, as does the contemplation of Donisthorpe's mind, after reading the following excerpt from an article in "The Saturday Review," Aug. 12, 1893:
MR. WORDSWORTH DONISTHORPE recently made a suggestion in the Chess Monthly which is, at any rate, worthy of being discussed, and for which he claims the "emphatic support" of Messrs. Blackburne and Mason. It is, in two words, that we should abolish check. Mr. Donisthorpe means by this that the king should be treated like any other piece on the board, that " check " should not be called to him when he is attacked, and that, if the attack be not evaded or covered, he should be liable to actual capture, which, of course, would bring the game to an end. This is logical enough, and it would lead to logical results. For, if a player can leave his king en prise, it will follow that he can put it en prise, by way of wilful suicide or through inadvertence. And if he can do it, then he must, in cases where no other move is open to him. One consequence of adopting this rule would be the abolition of stalemate. What we now call stalemate, and reckon as a draw, would simply force the blockaded king to move' into prise, and would count as a win for the blockader. It. is odd, by the way, that a suggestion to abolish stelemate should come from the most ingenious deviser of stales at. chess, who has drawn many a hopeless game by this last resource of the desperate, and who would now throw it away like a sucked orange. The temptation to agree with Mr. Donisthorpe is very great when we consider how largely the rule would diminish the number of draws. But with the disappearance of stalemate all play for the opposition would go by the board, and that would destroy one of the most interesting features of the end-game. No phase of chess is more engrossing or critical than the final play of what isknown as a pawn game; and nothing contributes more to the interest of such a game than the ultimate race for opposition. Against this elimination of sport Mr. Donisthorpe may set the advantage that king and knight, or king and) bishop, would sometimes, under his rule, be able to force a win, which they cannot in any circumstances do at present; and so once more the number of draws would be diminished. It will be well to hear what other good players have to say on this point. The suggestion is pertinent and logical. Chess-players may decide against it, but they cannot dismiss it as futile.
Donisthorpe was one of the founders of the second incarnation of the British Chess Association. The association had been conceived in a meeting on July 24, 1884 and formally instituted on Jan. 20, 1885. Besides Donisthorpe, the original governing committee consisted of Frederic Hyman Lewis, Patrick Thomas Duffy, Thomas Hewitt, Rev. George Alcock MacDonnell, E.K.E. Mardon, Dr. Reeves [of the Reeves variation in the Ruy Lopez: 3...f5!? -batgirl], George Edwin Walton, Rev. William Wayte and Leopold Hoffer. Officer elected included such men as Lord Tennyson, Lord Randolph Churchill, Robert Peel, John Ruskin, Rev. G.A. MacDonnell, Rev. Charles E. Rankin, Rev. Arthur B. Skipworth, Rev. W. Wayte, and, among others, Wordsworth Donisthorpe. (according to "Chess-Monthly," Jan. 1885)
[ This version of the BCA doesn't seem to have been particularly successful. According to H.E. Bird: We miss our patrons and supporters of the past who were ever ready to encourage rising enterprize. None have arisen to supply their places. The distinguished and noble names we find in the programmes of our Congresses and Meetings, and in the 1884 British Chess Association are there as form only, and it seems surprising that so many well known and highly esteemed public men should allow their names to continue to be published year after year as Patrons, Presidents, or Vice-Presidents of concerns in which apparently they take not; or at least evince not, the slightest interest. Of the score or so of English born Chess Masters on the British Chess Association lists of 1862, but five remain, two alone of whom are now residing in this country.The British Chess Association of 1884, which constituted itself the power to watch over the interests of national chess, has long since ceased to have any real or useful existence, and why the name is still kept up is not easy to be explained. ]
In spite of his scientific mind, Donisthorpe played intuitive chess. According to "The Chess-Monthly," in December, 1890:
He is an amateur of the first class, but he has no book knowledge . . . or if any, he has chosen, with characteristic spirit of opposition, either obsolete or entirely condemned variations, and he delights in struggling with opponents of equal strength, having the worst of the game at starting, and then to 'wriggle' out of it either in the middle or end game.
Regarding his match with James Mortimer, in his chess column in "A Month: An illustrated Australasian Magazine" on Oct 15 1885, Gossip wrote:
The following beautiful game was played at the Divan in London about two years ago, between Messrs. Mortimer and Donisthorpe. The former player, it may be remembered, defeated Messrs. Zukertort and Skipworth in the great London Tournament of 1883. He also played a drawn match for £10, at the Divan, with Mr. Fisher, winner of the second prize in the Vizayanagaram Tournament (not the chess
editor of the Australasian). Mr. Donisthorpe is well known in London chess circles as a talented amateur, and he tied for third prize, with Herr Gunsberg ("Mephisto"), in the late Divan Tourney.
and included the following game:
In 1890, Leopold Hoffer wrote in Chess-Monthy:
It is regretted that he [Donisthorpe] has not followed the advice of Mr. Steinitz, who some years ago gave it as his opinion that, if Mr. Donisthorpe would practice seriously with him, after a series of one hundred games he could beat Mason. The latter has fortunately escaped defeat owning to Mr. Donisthorpe's indifference to avail himself of Mr. Steinitz's offer.
Hoffer's purpose was to take a pot-shot at Steintiz, but the underlying revelation is that Steinitz considered Donisthorpe as a diamond-in-the-rough chess player.
The book "The Dynamic Chess Notation" give us two clever miniatures by Donisthorpe:
Finally, a most revealing anecdote from the "British Chess Magazine" in March 1891:
The establishment of the British Chess Club, a few years ago, was undoubtedly a severe misfortune to Simpson's; leading, as it did, to the secession of several well-known amateurs, who were daily frequenters of the room. Prominent among these was the brilliant and versatile Wordsworth Donisthorpe, who by his fascinating talk, as well as by his amusing style of play, had enticed many friends and acquaintances to foregather of an afternoon at the Divan. Mr. Donisthorpe was (and still is) an enthusiastic chess player, and though capable of contending creditably with the masters, he used to pride himself most on his ability to give the odds of a Queen to players who would probably not have received more than a Rook from Zukertort. On day he was performing this feat, as much to his own satisfaction as to the chagrin of his antagonist's, when a modest gentleman with a Caledonian accent came and sat down to watch the games. At last, the odds-receiver being vanquished, rose and departed in disgust, and the gentleman from Scotland thereupon asked Mr. Donisthorpe if he would give him a Queen.
"Certainly," replied the latter, who had never seen his new opponent before.
As the game proceeded the smile of anticipated triumph that had at first illuminated the challenger's face gradually faded into a look of dismay, and in the end he had to confess himself defeated. The amusing part of the story is that the Scotch gentleman turned out to be no less a personage than Mr. Andrew Hunter, an amateur whose great ability is well known. He had thought to play off a little practical joke on Mr. Donisthorpe, but as it happened the joke was turned against himself. I am certain that Mr. Hunter will not object to my mentioning this little episode, for he enjoyed the joke himself, and often laughs about it still.