Gordon Thomas Crown. Only the good die young
Gordon Thomas Crown replaying his most famous win vs Kotov © "CHESS", January 1948

Gordon Thomas Crown. Only the good die young

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Two months ago @simaginfan published a wonderful article about Ian Wells. When I started to read, I had a sense of déjà vu. A young British player who beats Grandmaster Alexander Kotov in a tournament and tragically dies a few months later? I heard this story... but I was sure that it happened in a much earlier time and with a different person!

I quickly realized that there was no contradiction. As improbable as it may sound, Kotov was indeed linked to two different British youngsters that died too soon. So I decided to write an article about Gordon Thomas Crown, whose tragic fate has so much in common with Ian Wells. 

In 1947 Crown won Hastings Reserves tournament, scored a bronze medal in the British Championship, played for British national team in three matches (vs Netherlands, USSR and Australia) and defeated one of the top Grandmasters of the time in one of them. He was one of the most promising chess talents in Great Britain and appeared to be destined to achieve great heights.

And then he tragically died a few months later, on 17 November 1947.

This is the story of his meteoric rise and his tragic death.

From boy to man

The town of Hastings, which in chess circles is primarily known for its Christmas Congresses, was also famous for another traditional tournament, British Boys Championships, that were organized during the Easter holidays. 1946 saw the 21st tournament of this kind, and it gathered schoolboys from all over the country. The word "boys" is a bit misleading (at least by today's standards), as the age limit for the championship was 18.

I found a detailed report of the tournament in a local newspaper "Hastings and St. Leonards Observer" (20 April 1946), written by Arthur John MacKenzie, a chess player who lived in St. Leonards in retirement. This report contains detailed information on the twists and turns of this competition.

The championship was organized in two stages. In the preliminaries all players were divided into 6 sections of 4 players each, with the winners of each round robin qualifying to the final.

Leonard Barden (from Croydon) won Section A. He would later become one of the most famous chess authors, the man behind the longest-running chess column in "Guardian" and the living encyclopedia of British and world chess.  

There was no clear in Section B, as Oliver Penrose (from London) and John Fuller (from Kenton, which is now a part of London as well) scored 2½ point out of 3, which necessitated a bitterly-fought playoff. The first two games were drawn, and in the decisive rapid game (20 minutes to the end) Penrose obtained a wining position, but his flag fell and thus Fuller qualified for the final.  

Interestingly, Barden and Fuller tied for first in the London Boys Championship, which took place in January 1946.

"Hastings and St. Leonards Observer" noted that the championship should have also featured another Penrose, Oliver's younger brother Jonathan Penrose, who qualified to the championship despite being only 13 years old at the time. Unfortunately, Jonathan developed tonsillitis in the run-up to the tournament. As the newspaper put it, "he will have further opportunities of playing".

There was also a remark that "Oliver Penrose is 16 and was rather glad that Fuller, who is 17, had got into the final (the age limit is 18)". This sentence clearly implied that Oliver Penrose would be a favorite to win the Championship next year, but he would be overtaken by his younger brother. Jonathan would win 1947 Boys Championship at the tender age of 14, and would go on to a stellar chess career, which would include defeating the reigning World Champion Mikhail Tal at the Olympiad and winning the British Championship an all-time record 10 times. 

Finally, we get to Group C, which was convincingly won by the hero of this story, Gordon Thomas Crown from Liverpool, who won all three games in the preliminaries. In retrospect, we can assume he was a little lucky, as Jonathan Penrose was supposed to play in the same preliminary group!

"Liverpool Echo" (15 April 1946) published a note with the title "Liverpool Boy's Success":

Gordon Crown, of 8 Ingledene Road, Mossley Hill, a 16-years-old Liverpool schoolboy, representing Lanchashire, led C Section at the end of the preliminary rounds.

A scholar at Holt Secondary School, Gordon is a member of the Liverpool Chess Club, and his outstanding skill led to his selection by the Lancashire Chess Association as the county's sole representative in the competition, which is expected to finish at the end of this week.

Out of curiosity, I typed Crown's home address in Google Maps and found out that the address is still valid and there is a family house there, perhaps even the same one that Gordon Crown lived in 70 years ago...

I will skip the other groups and fast forward to the final, in which 6 winners of the preliminaries played another round robin. The pace of the tournament was rather quick, as the boys had to play 5 games in three days, Monday to Wednesday.

The final was decided by the race between John Fuller and Gordon Crown. The former won his 4 games, while the latter split a point with Leonard Barden.

The fate of the championship would be decided in the direct encounter in the final round. Alas, it went awfully wrong for Crown – what must have been his first printed game was a 9-move debacle:

"Liverpool Echo" (17 April 1946) reported that "Crown was checkmated in 9 moves" and that the game lasted only 15 minutes, and so did about a dozen of other newspapers. Apparently they all received information from the same source.

Leonard Barden shared another story about this game that has something uniquely British about it:

After Crown lost to Fuller I remember the three of us went to Hastings Post Office where Gordon sent a telegram to his parents which just said laconically "Lost in 9 moves".

Thus, the final tournament resulted in a clean sweep for John Fuller, who became British Boys Champion. Unfortunately, soon afterwards Fuller essentially stopped playing competitive chess. His only major tournaments are the British Championship 1949 and two Hastings Congresses (1949/50 and 1955/56) in which he consistently finished in the middle of table.

Gordon Crown had to satisfy himself with a 2nd place, which was still enough for the "Liverpool Echo" to cheer the local hero:

A note about Gordon Crown in A note about Gordon Crown in "Liverpool Echo" (24 April 1946)

The third place in 1946 Boys Championship went to Leonard Barden with 3 out of 5. MacKenzie gave him the following characteristic in his report in "Hastings and St. Leonards Observer" :

[Barden] is a tenacious player, as Crown and Barrett know, for they were a pawn ahead in their games but could only draw. He took the first prize for best-played game with the following...

MacKenzie gave a full score of the game, and since it seems to be the only other surviving game from this championship, I decided to include it to give the readers a better impression of 1946 British Boys:

Gordon Crown's next major competition was British Championship, which took place in August 1946 in Nottingham. He was seeded into one of the four "Major Opens", i.e. one tier below the main final (there were also 1st, 2nd and 3rd classes, as well as a junior tournament).

1946 British Championship, Major Open Section II table1946 British Championship, Major Open Section II table © BritBase

Crown's play in this tournament was very uneven. He won 5 games but also lost 4, including the following disaster:

[NB: Leonard Barden pointed out that the result of this game contradicts the tournament table, which states that Crown won vs Lee Johnson. Seems that ChessBase and BritBase either gave the wrong names, or the wrong colors. An original source of this game is needed to clarify this situation] 

Going into the final round, Crown had a 50% score and faced the leader, 64-years-old Edward Sergeant, who has already guaranteed himself the victory in the tournament. A quick draw would not be unusual in such circumstances. Instead, Crown went for his favorite Evans Gambit and inflicted the first defeat on E. Sergeant in this tournament:

All in all, Crown's results in 1946 were good but not outstanding. His his victory over E. Sergeant was a highlight in a year that saw a lot of blunders along with the wins. Crown's play in 1946 was still somewhat childish, but in 1947 he would make a quantum leap, both in the quality of play and in the results.

The new hope of British chess

The traditional Hastings Christmas Congress 1946/47 ended with a triumph of the British players. The main tournament, Premier Section, was convincingly won by C. H. O'D. Alexander, who scored 7½ in the first 8 rounds. He led the rest of the field by full 2 points (!) going into the final round, and even a loss to Savielly Tartakower did not spoil a convincing victory of the Irish-born player.

The next tier, Premier Reserves, was played in three independent groups. In two of them the first prize was shared – in Group A it was the foreigners: Parisian Znosko-Borovsky [NB: original version of the article suggested that he was in process of naturalizing in Britain, as he played in British Championship Reserves the same year; Leonard Barden informed that this was not so and that the Reserves did not have a nationality restriction] and Dutchman van Steenis, in Group C by two "proper" Brits – Milner-Barry and Ritson Morry.

However, it was the result of Premier Reserves Group B that was the most surprising, as it was won by Gordon Crown, who was only 17 years old at the time.

The British chess public first learned about Gordon Crown from a two-page profile in "CHESS" (March 1947), which started with the following introduction:

Gordon T. Crown, who takes his place in an England team [for the upcoming match vs The Netherlands] at the age of 17½, was born at Liverpool on June 20th, 1929. He learnt the moves at the of nine, being first made of chess by the match between B.B.C. and the listeners over the radio. Until 1944, he had few opportunities for over-the-board play and was forced to devote himself to studying books and magazines.

In 1944-45 he entered for the Lancashire Junior Championship and won it at his first attempt; he repeated his success last year and also entered for the Senior event, in which he reached the semi-final, only to throw away a won game against H. G. Rhodes.

In April 1946, he played in the British Boys' Championship at Hastings and came second, losing only in his final game. In August he played in the Nottingham Congress [British Championship], was placed in one of the Major sections and "was quite satisfied" he reports, at finishing ½ point outside the prize list, especially as he was the only one to defeat E. G. Sergeant, who topped the section.

At Hastings, the situation was curiously reversed. Here, he won the section, his only loss being to E. G. Sergeant, who finished just outside the prize list.

I was able to track down the game in which E. Sergeant exacted his revenge in "Hastings & St. Leonards Observer" (4 January 1947). I don't think it appeared in any other publications ever since:

Back to March 1947 "CHESS" article about Gordon Crown:

He has just finished school and is waiting to enter a University where he intends to study Geography and History. For private reading, he enjoys best Military and Naval History – apart from good detective stories. Apart from chess, he is interested in most games, both indoor and outdoor, with special preference for tennis and table-tennis when it is a matter of playing and cricket for reading about.

He is diabetic – but so was one of the players in the [tennis] Davis Cup which recently crushed Australia! His games show the evidence of deep and extensive study of the game combined with an ever-ready imagination. Here are a few selected, and in some cases annotated, by himself.

None of the games quoted in that article are available in ChessBase (in fact, there are only 13 complete games of Gordon Thomas Crown in the Mega Database).

We will start with Crown's earliest known game. It was published in "CHESS" without annotations, but with a short postscript by Gordon Crown, which explained the reasons for its inclusion:

Although this is only a friendly game, I give it because it is the only "short brilliancy" I possess in which my opponent has not made any bad mistake.

Note that since move 16, Black has lost two rooks and three minor pieces, while capturing only one pawn in return!

The following game was the highlight of "CHESS" March 1947 article about Gordon Crown, at least in terms of the volume of the annotations. It is not nearly as sparkling as the previous one, but it was important, because it represented Crown's play in the Hastings Reserve tournament that he won:

The next game was introduced by Gordon Crown as "undoubtedly my best all-out attacking game in serious play". No information about the tournament, place or date of this game was given.

The final game of March 1947 article was played by Crown already after the end of Hastings tournament in the county championship:

National player

In April 1947 Crown played his first games for the English national team, on Board 9 in a friendly two-games match on 10 boards vs Holland, which took place in Amsterdam. British team won with a large margin and the "CHESS" editorial was jubilant:

Three England-Holland matches were played before the war; there was never more than a point in it and the teams finished dead level on aggregate games. By winning 12½:7½ <...> our players confirmed the new strength of British Chess already established in the U.S.S.R. radio match and at Hastings. Dr. Euwe was absent from the Dutch team but so were three Champions – Combe, Winter and Fairhurst – from the British.

One of the memorable features of the match, according to "CHESS", was

...young Crown's fine point-and-a-half and the sangfroid with which he accepted a draw by repetition of moves in the first round.

We will check the first game of the young player for the national team with Crown's own commentary:

British team managers must have been even happier with Crown's performance in the second round:

In August 1947 Crown debuted in the British Men's Championship and sensationally finished clear third with 7 points out of 11.

Surprisingly few games of this championship survived, including just three full games by Crown. I will show his victories from the first and the last rounds with my own brief annotations. 

In the first round Crown defeated one of the eventual co-winners, Reginald Broadbent, who shared the first place with Harry Golombek but later lost a playoff match for the title.

Crown's last-round victory was a curiosity. His opponent's blunder was straight out of "tactics for beginners" book, but it did occur in the British Championship finals. It could very well have been the shortest victory in the history of British championships.

Leonard Barden explained the problems that contributed to Ritson-Morry's calamity in a post on

On another thread some CG posters expressed surprise at the Ritson Morry v Crown game where Morry fell into a well-known opening trap.

The British championship at Harrogate in August 1947 was played in a spa building where the underfloor heating was still switched on. This coincided with one of the warmest summers on record (it was the year in which Compton and Edrich made their memorable cricket achievements for Middlesex). By the second week of the BCF congress older and overweight players (the latter group including Ritson Morry) were wilting. Ritson also had some long adjourned games, and by the time of his game with Crown in the final round was exhausted. The game finished in 15-20 minutes so by the time other players went to spectate after their opening moves there was just a reset board with no sign of the players and no indication of what had transpired.

However, the lucky break in the final round does not detract from Crown's stunning result. "CHESS" published a short report on the British Championship in its September 1947 issue. One of the sections was titled "Crown's success" and started with the following paragraph:

Third came Crown, the young Liverpudlian whom the Selection Committee had considered not good enough to compete! We understand that he was omitted from the team against Czechoslovakia [in June] because his postcard notifying his availability was lost in the post. His score of 1½ out of 2 in the match against Holland had surely justified his selection. He owed his chance in this year's Championship solely to the withdrawal (once again!) of Combe [1946 British Champion, who essentially retired from chess afterwards and died in 1952 at the age of 39]. Such decisions as these play into the hands of those who argue that the whole system of selection should be abolished.

This result catapulted Crown from 9th board in UK-Netherlands match to 4th board in the match against the mighty USSR team. It was a follow-up to a radio match of the previous year, but this time the Soviet Grandmasters came to London in person.

It was in this match that Crown scored the most famous victory of his chess career, when he defeated Grandmaster Alexander Kotov in the first game:

In the second round Kotov avenged his loss and won in great style with White pieces. This victory would be later included into the book of Kotov's best games, but in this article it is only logical to give it with Crown's own annotations. His commentary was totally honest, unpretentious and one could even say a touch naive. Already the first sentence indicates the chasm in the experience between the two players:

I have always thought that this is the best way of meeting the King's Indian Defense; it was unfortunate that I had to meet it for the first time in serious play on the present occasion.

Imagine how it must have felt to play a sharp variation of King's Indian for the first time in a game against one of the leading Grandmasters of the time!

Crown's success was grudgingly admitted even by the Soviet journal "Shakhmaty v SSSR" (#11/1947), which wrote in the article about this match:

There is no true mass chess movement in England; the efforts on attracting schoolchildren and youth in general to chess are very weak. The overwhelming majority of chess amateurs are of middle or advanced age. The 18-years-old Crown, who represents the only exception in the English team ranks, is widely advertised by the press as a future star and a great hope of English chess.

Overall, the match ended with an overwhelming margin for USSR, 15:5. The British side scored only two victories in this match, the other being Newman's victory of Tolush on the last board.

Just two weeks after the match with USSR the British team got together again, this time to play a radio match with Australia. Rather fittingly, the British team was playing at the Australia House in London; the Australian team was divided between Sydney (6 players) and Melbourne (4 players). The match started on October 4th and lasted two full days, as it took almost 8 hours to play the first 20 moves (the time control was 2½ hours for 50 moves and the moves transmission took about 3 hours on both days). One of the match games had to be adjudicated after 50 moves.

Crown won his game in the match vs the champion of Australian state Victoria, although he needed quite a bit of luck this time. He later annotated his victory for the book about the UK-USSR and UK-Australia matches (which, unfortunately, never got published):

This turned out to be his last game for the British national team.

On 1st of November "Hastings & St. Leonards Observer" ran a column "Chess Notes", which contained the following announcement: consequence of Mr. Broadbent being unable to take part, Mr. G. T. Crown, the young expert of Liverpool, who is 18, has been promoted from the Premier Major section to the championship class.

An invitation to the main tournament of Hastings (which would be eventually won by Hungarian Laszlo Szabo) was a big breakthrough, as it was to be the first major international tournament for the young master.

Sudden death

Crown's career was just about to take off when a tragedy struck. The December 1947 issue of "CHESS" ran a short notice on the first page:

British Chess in Mourning

We regret to announce the sudden death following an operation on November 16th of the eighteen year old world famous British International, Gordon T. Crown.

In the issues that followed "CHESS" paid the last tribute to Gordon Crown by publishing condolences, reminiscences and several Crown's games with his own commentary. January 1948 issue dedicated a full page to him, which started with the following poem by Reverend G. C. Beach:

In Memory of G. T. Crown

Somehow my heart is telling me
   'Gainst those that sneer and say –
To what good purpose is this passing fame,
   This laurel wreath, the guerdon of a game,
   So early snatched away? –
That, in the vast beyond, such gifts increase
   As here are human dower,
That the divine enrichments shall not cease
   Nor lose their pristine power;
That skill to work or play, beyond the ken
   Of plodding industry,
In wider spheres shall exercise again
   More useful ministry;
That flames of genius burn with brighter glow
   And are not quenched and cold,
But, in a stream that knows not ebb or flow,
   Change from their red to gold,
And lend their fires to nobler enterprise
In endless life beyond the starry skies.

This poem appeared side-by-side with a short note by the editor, B. H. Wood:

The shadow of the death of Gordon Crown is still heavy upon us. He was ordered an operation for appendicitis; his diabetes caused fatal complications.

His genius was inspired by study – few knew how intense. He bought every tournament book he heard of and went through it from cover to cover. Yet, as we have told, he was no mere "swot" he reveled in tennis. His home environment was perfect; delightfully easy-going, comfortably affluent. Gordon would not have stopped far short of the World Championship. But no amount of success would have spoiled him.

Ah, the pity of it!

There were also telegrams from other countries, including Australia and USSR that Crown just competed against. "CHESS" printed two separate telegrams from USSR – a formal message from the General Secretary of the Soviet Chess Federation, Nikolai Zubarev, and a personal one from Crown's opponent in the match, Alexander Kotov:

Deeply troubled sudden death of Gordon Crown. Please accept my sincere condolences.

Grandmaster Kotov

When I started working on this article, I emailed Leonard Barden and he shared his memories of Gordon Crown in an email (6 December 2018):

Gordon Crown was my best chess friend and although we only met a few times we corresponded frequently and I chanced to visit him the day before he died  (I was doing my Air Force national service near where he lived).

I did also write this on his page on to the circumstances of Crown's death. The finger of blame must be pointed at the family doctor for failing to make a timely correct diagnosis. On Sunday 16 November 1947 a chess friend visited the Crown home at Ingledene Road, Liverpool, and found Crown in bed. He explained that his doctor had diagnosed a stomach upset and had recommended rest. The friend and Crown played and analyzed together for several hours, and Crown did not appear in any physical discomfort. But that night after the friend left his condition deteriorated and he was rushed to hospital where he died in the early morning hours of 17 November. There was also a belief among some Liverpool chessplayers that the hospital procedures could have been better.

I found another note in "The Sunderland Echo & Shipping Gazette" (19 November 1947) that suggests that the relatives received different messages from the doctors:

Eighteen-year-old Gordon Trevor [sic!] Crown, the British chess champion, whose funeral takes place at Liverpool tomorrow, was the nephew of Mr and Mrs Thomas Dixon, of Queen's Crescent, Sunderland.

He died following an operation for appendicitis, but the first intimation Mr and Mrs Dixon received of their nephew's illness was a letter from his mother stating that the operation had been successful. A few hours later they received a telegram notifying them of his death.

Returning to Leonard Barden: 

Crown was a hard chess worker, very well versed in opening theory, ambitious and self-critical, and improving fast at the time of his death. He was also charmingly pleasant, articulate, outgoing, and an excellent and prolific writer. If he had had a normal lifespan he would probably have reached a higher level than Penrose and English chess would have become competitive at world level much earlier than it did. 

Alas, that was not to be. Gordon Crown's active chess career was limited to one or two years. It was only in 1947 that he achieved prominence and, as fate would have it, he was gone from the face of Earth before that year was through...

Gordon Crown was gone but he was not completely forgotten – at least, not by those who saw him in action. In January 1948 William Ritson Morry published another article in "CHESS", which contained three more games annotated by Gordon Crown before his death - his victory over Dr. Gellis that we have seen above and two more examples of his play at home in Lanchashire:

Edward Winter pointed out a much later reference to Gordon Crown in William Hartston's column in "Now!" magazine: 

Some time ago the great Russian player David Bronstein gave me this advice: “Look at the games of Gordon Crown. He really understood chess”.’ (6-12 February 1981, page 80.)

This article started with a reference to Ian Wells and Grandmaster Kotov, and we will conclude it by returning to them. Leonard Barden's email completes the circle:

I got to know Kotov during the 1962 interzonal which I watched and later in the mid-1970s when he several times visited England.  He wanted medicines for his heart condition and played simuls, a couple of weekend tournaments, and the 1977 Lord John Cup which I organised.

In 1979 he again needed medicine money, so I came up with the idea that he play a short match with Ian Wells who was then 15 and promising but was a contemporary of Short so got fewer opportunities. I told Kotov that Wells was from the same part of England as Crown and like Crown a very nice lad. Kotov liked this parallel so agreed to play the match. I was able to get him a good fee for the match which was intended four games but Kotov spoilt two winning positions and was crushed in the third game so didn't play the fourth. He really was not well and got very tired after three hours.

The tragedy was that Wells, like Crown who Kotov played in 1947, died very young as he drowned in Brazil where he was playing a junior international tournament...

P.S. I would like to thank a few persons and organizations that made this article possible:

  • Leonard Barden, for his invaluable memories, pointers and corrections 
  • "CHESS" journal, which has been going since 1935 and is still being published today
  • British Chess Archive, for tournament tables and games archive 
  • The British Newspaper Archive, for making it possible to search through hundreds or regional British newspapers