Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Tim Harding: Eminent Victorian Chess Players

Readers of chess history have much to be thankful for, with publishers like McFarland, Caissa Editions, and others illuminating many of the byways of the game. Little known players and once forgotten tournaments are now getting their due, thanks to the enterprising spirit of these publishers , and of a handful of hard working chess historians. Tim Harding the author of numerous chess books on opening theory and correspondence chess has of late turned his attention to chess history; Eminent Victorian Chess Players is the latest book to come from his historical research.

Ten players are the subject of Eminent Victorian Chess Players they range from the well-known William Steinitz to the obscure Rev. Arthur Bolland Skipworth. Each of the ten was eminent in his own way in the Victorian chess scene, whether as player, author,chess journalist or organizer.

The English champion Howard Staunton and Austrian world champion Steinitz stand at the center of much of the narrative but the other eight receive their just due. Much was made of the "gentleman amateur" vs. the "chess professional", Harding exposes the xenophobia and anti-Semitism which was an undercurrent of Victorian chess life. I must say they were a cantankerous lot with one totally disagreeable character the aforementioned Rev. Skipworth. The battles in the chess press of the time make for some entertaining reading.

To think that all major chess in Victorian Britain was limited to London would be a mistake, as there was an active scene in the counties with players like Amos Burn (one of the eminent) being based outside the capital whether for business or personal reasons. there were also nascent efforts to to create a national chess organization which for the most part fell on infertile ground at the time.

The inclusion Steinitz and the other foreign "chess professionals" may come as a surprise but each had substantial career in Britain and at least one became a British subject. Several of the ten have been subject of biographies already of at least part of their careers, with Burn already being the subject of an exhaustive biography, but for the majority of the ten their lives and games even their names are not well-known. There is still much to discover and game scores to unearth.

At the end of the book there is a  full scholarly apparatus but this no dry scholarly tome but an entertaining and  informative book. Tim Harding has done very well by his model (Eminent Victorians by Lytton Strachey).

 I don't intend to look a gift horse in the mouth but one minor quibble, I regret McFarland has decided to published the book in paperback rather than hardcover.


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