Monday, October 15, 2012

John S. Hilbert: Writings in Chess History

From the fecund pen of John S. Hilbert comes Writings in Chess History a new collection of  essays and book reviews. Hilbert is the author of numerous books on the history of chess, with Walter Penn Shipley: Philadelphia's Friend of Chess and Shady side: The life and crimes of Norman Tweed Whitaker being two of his best received titles, which is sure to make any new book by Hilbert almost self recommending for those interested in the history of the game.

Writings in Chess History is Hilbert's second collection of essays, his first Essays in American chess history as it title implies was focused on American chess history and while the great majority of essays in this new collection are also on American subjects, this collection has a little wider focus, with essays on Howard Staunton and the English historian Henry Thomas Buckle as a chess player.

The charge of "minor master, minor work" has been leveled at the type of subjects Hilbert has largely chosen to research and write about; that these "minor masters"  are not worthy our attention, much less of a book or essay. Hilbert defends his views in a interview conducted by Neil Brennen included in the book, and while I may never had heard of or only had the vaguest idea of who Alexander Sellman or Jacob Elson were, each was to borrow a term from another recent chess book was eminent if not on a national level at least at the local level, and each has his story to tell. While most of us will never play against the likes Kasparov or Botvinnik , we will come across characters like J. Henry Smythe Jr. (a.k.a  " The Megaphone Man") or a scoundrel like Norman Tweed Whitaker.

A picture of Alexander Sellman graces the cover of  Writings in Chess History so it seems only fitting that we begin our review there; Sellman if he is remembered at  all it is for his forth place finish at the fifth American chess congress or for his participation in London chess tournament in1883 where he finished twelfth in a field of fourteen but won one of his two games against Johannes Zukertort the tournament winner.

Sellman who was deaf due to a childhood case of meningitis was a stalwart of the Baltimore chess scene; playing in various local events, giving numerous chess simultaneous exhibitions and as chess editor of the Sunday Herald. Hilbert has unearthed many new details of Sellman's chess career and over 130 games.

J. Henry Smythe Jr. (a.k.a  " The Megaphone Man") is the subject of another Hilbert essay; in a brief chess career Smythe was very active in the Philadelphia area at the turn of the last century but his nickname and main claim to fame was in the political arena.  Giving up chess after a breakdown after  succumbing to what in press was called "excessive chess playing". Smythe became something of a political gadfly, at the 1904 Republican National Convention in Chicago Smythe jumped onstage megaphone in hand starting the cheering for President Teddy Roosevelt. 'Smythe's audacity earned him the... sobriquet of " the Grand Old Party's Megaphone Man"'.

But don't think that all the essays are on "minor masters" there is a wealth of new material and games
 on Frank Marshall, William Steinitz, Johannes Zukertort,  and Emanuel Lasker.

The notorious Norman Tweed Whitaker makes an appearance with an essay on his connection to the state of Georgia . It is an older but a still feisty Whitaker  always seeming to play for the angle in life.

All told there are twenty five essays proper on subject as intriguing as correspondence chess in California 1858-59 to Zukertort in Canada, and Lasker at Haverford College.The collection is rounded out by fifteen book reviews. While this collection may not be for everyone, it reward those whose interest in chess history lies outside just biographies of world champions and are willing to explore. A perfect book for the bedside these essays and reviews will reward repeated reading. A minor complaint I would have liked to have known where and when these essays originally appeared, but this may be the fault of the publisher as Hilbert makes the same complaint in his review of Genna Sosonko's Russian Silhouettes.
Writings in Chess History  
John S. Hilbert 
 Publishing House Moravian Chess Olomouc(2012) 616 pages


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