100 Year History of the British Chess Federation

By the end of the 19th century chess activities in Britain had increased enormously since the days of Staunton. The BCA had introduced a Challenge Cup competition in 1866 but this lapsed by 1872. Also in 1866 it issued a book of Transactions and a Directory of players and the first-ever effectively World Championship was organised – in London, between Steinitz and Anderssen. In 1871 the first county match was played (Yorkshire v Lancashire) but this was not repeated for twelve years. The first telephone game was played in 1878 and in 1896 an Anglo-American cable match series commenced. In 1883 another and very successful international tournament was organised in London. Around this period British players such as Blackburne, Burn, Bird, Mason and others achieved considerable success in international tournaments.

From 1884 until 1902 a British Amateur Championship, the forerunner of the British Championship, was held and from 1884 onwards an annual Scottish Championship took place. The last BCA congress was in 1882 and that year there was the first congress in Wales. In 1895 the first Hastings Tournament was held, also the first Ladies’ Tournament and a Ladies Chess Club was formed in London. In 1897 there was another London International Tournament. By this time county matches were being played, the SCCU holding its first county championship in 1893/94 and encounters between North and South stimulated great interest. The Oxford v Cambridge annual University match was inaugurated in 1873 and has continued ever since, with the exception of the war years.

It is thus unsurprising that, by the turn of the century, there was a strong impetus for a truly national organisation to be formed. In 1904 the British Chess Federation was founded by the three Unions, together with the London Chess League. This was with the sympathetic support of the Scottish Chess Association, itself formed in 1884 after unsuccessful attempts in 1867 and 1872. It was not until 1908 that the SCA joined the BCF.

The BCF was formally established on 7 May 1904 with F.G.Naumann (London) President, L.P.Rees (Redhill) Secretary and H.E.Dobell (Hastings) Treasurer. There were many problems so that it was no mean feat for the new organisation to succeed and much credit is due, especially to the sustained work of Messrs Rees and Dobell who remained in their offices until 1938 and 1928 respectively. In 1905 Sir John O.S.Thursby succeeded F.G.Naumann as President and he served until 1920 when he was followed by Canon A.G.Gordon-Ross M.A who held the office until 1938. The governing council comprised six delegates from each constituent unit and two of these delegates from each unit constituted the executive committee.

The early years of the newly formed national body were relatively uneventful. Fortunately, it was able to start on a satisfactory financial basis, thanks to generous donations. It was recognised that the BCF was regarded as mainly an administrative body with limited inducements to offer individuals: nevertheless, an associate membership class was introduced at half a guinea and by 1913; twenty such members had been enrolled. In 1906 a Permanent Invested Fund was established which, by 1913, stood at £305 and donors of £10 were offered Life Membership.

The principal work of the Federation during this consolidation period was the holding of its Annual Congress which included the British and Ladies’ Championships and other events such as 1st, 2nd and 3rd class tournaments, lightning and problem solving competitions. During the first ten years of the congress, the average number of competitors was 109, the highest being 1904 Hastings with 144 and the lowest Glasgow 1911 with 74. The congress was hosted in turn by each constituent unit, the hosting unit being responsible for half the cost. Admission was by season ticket at a cost of 3 shillings or 6d per day. The average cost of these congresses was £336 and the average prize money £246. Also recorded is the fact that total expenses of the Federation (excluding congresses) for the 10 years amounted to £870 and a balance existed of £26, it being said that “reasonable economy was exercised”. H.E.Atkins achieved the remarkable feat of winning the championship seven times in succession from 1905-1911. He went on to win it twice more in 1924 and 1925. This record of nine wins was to stand until 1969.

The Counties Championship was started in 1908, this being competed for by the three union champions over a minimum of 12 boards. In 1905/06 an Inter-Union Correspondence Competition (60 a-side), was held, the NCCU beating the LCL in the final. This event was not repeated as the MCCU and LCL were unwilling to raise teams in 1907 but hope was expressed that a Counties Correspondence Competition could be introduced in due course. This was, in fact, started in 1915/16.

Problem and Solving Tourneys were conducted in 1906–10 which attracted worldwide entries but were discontinued as it was considered the needs were catered for satisfactorily by the various chess columns.

Other activities of the newly formed BCF included the encouragement of chess in schools and the award annually of a Challenge Shield which initially went to St Anne’s School (Redhill) in 1910, Manchester Grammar 1911, Rugby 1912 and the London Secondary Schools League in 1913. A Year Book was provided (free); an Adjudication Service set up; arrangements for an improved chess clock were made; the preparation of a new set of chess laws was submitted for international acceptance and a list of leading restaurants in 24 resorts where chess could be played was published.

Apart from the SCA joining in 1908, the City of London Chess Club joined in 1917 and negotiations regarding membership took place with the North and South Wales Associations, the New Zealand C.A. (their representative took part in the 1912 championship) and contact was maintained with Australia, Canada, South Africa and India in the hope of strengthening these links.

The BCF saw the need for an International Chess Federation and proposed a draft constitution; however it was not until 1924 that F.I.D.E was eventually formed.

Apart from the BCF Congresses, the only important tournaments held in Britain during these early years were those organised by the Scottish C.A, the Kent and Sussex C.A’s and the NCCU Championships. Even at that time concern was expressed over our diminishing international chess prestige, our leading players, the veterans Blackburne and Burn, and F.D.Yates enjoying only limited success. This problem was not adequately addressed for nearly 60 years partly due to the intervention of two world wars, although C.H.O’D.Alexander + Co identified this problem in the late 1940’s. In 1911 the young Capablanca made his first visit to Britain. The idea of organising an international tournament in England in 1912 was abandoned due to the large number of Continental events planned for that year.

In 1914 a match against Holland was played, Britain being represented on the top 5 boards by H.E.Atkins, F.D.Yates, T.F.Lawrence, G.A.Thomas and J.H.Blackburne. A noteworthy feature of British Chess that year was a presentation made to Blackburne at the conclusion of the great St Petersburg Tournament in which he competed at the age of 73. The annual congress was held at Chester but there were many withdrawals, the championship ending in an unresolved tie between Blackburne and Yates.

There was little chess in Britain in the next 4 years because of the war, although Individual and Inter – county Correspondence Championships were started. A library was set up in 1916 but seems to have enjoyed limited use despite the value of the books provided.

The famous St George’s Club closed during the war and the cup they had possessed was later recovered from a dealer and bought by the BCF in 1922. This is the historic Lowenthal Cup which ever since has been the English Counties Championship Trophy and commemorates the outstanding contribution that J.J.Lowenthal made to British Chess during the last 25 years of his life.

As the war drew to a close work started in October 1918 on preparations for the Hastings Victory Congress. This was held in 1919 and proved a highly successful event, which attracted 123 competitors. The Masters’ event was won by Capablanca with Sir George Thomas and F.D.Yates sharing 3rd and 4th places. The Congress was organised in conjunction with the BCF (of which H.E.Dobell was still treasurer). The Hastings International Congress has always been run independently of, but in close collaboration with, the BCF. It was inaugurated in 1895 and remains the longest running international chess event in the world, at times it has been virtually the only international tournament of that year.

The next big event was the London 1922 Masters’ at which Capablanca, by then World Champion, came 1st ahead of Alekhine, Vidmar, Rubinstein, Bogoljubow, Reti and Tartakower: F.D.Yates tied with Maroczy for 8th prize. Miss Price won the Women’s Open. The Congress cost over £1000 – then a considerable expense. There were over 4500 spectators.

The very first chess Olympiad was held in London in 1927 and the British Empire team secured the bronze medals. We had to wait until 1976 before again winning a medal. Vera Menchik settled in England in 1921, she became Women’s World Champion in 1927, a title she held until her death in 1944. Her influence was no doubt responsible for the FIDE Girls’ Championship (which she also won) being played in London form 1926 until 1937, although most entrants were from England.

Also in 1927 an International Tournament was held in London in which Nimzovitch and Tartakower shared 1st place, our highest placed competitor being W.Winter who came 6th with Reti. Little success was achieved by our players in the international field in this period, Atkins, Yates and Sir George Thomas being our principal representatives. Sadly, during these years J.H.Blackburne and Amos Burn died.

The main domestic events during these years were the annual congress, counties and correspondence championships, etc. In 1920 a small double-round tournament for British champions was held, score Yates 4, Scott 3½, Atkins 3, Griffith 1½. The British Boys (U/18) championship was started in 1923, the winner being P.S.Milner-Barry.

In the Counties Championship Yorkshire finally broke the Southern monopoly in 1921. Other interesting BCF activities included participation in the 1925 Exhibition of Sports and Pastimes organised as part of the Annual Marine and Small Crafts Exhibition and Congress, and an invitation to participate in the four-yearly event reviving ancient competitions in Ireland organised by Aonac Tailteann (Irish Games).

Membership of the BCF increased after the 1914/18 war, the British Problem Society and South Wales Chess Association becoming units, the Calcutta Chess Society joining as an overseas unit and the House of Commons Chess Circle becoming an honorary constituent, all with representation on Council. In 1923 the BCCA became affiliated. In 1928 a BCF Benevolent Fund was set up and in 1929 the Federation celebrated its Silver Jubilee having achieved a great deal in those 25 years. The financial position showed total receipts of £4855 and total expenses £4381, with £347 in the Permanent Invested Fund.

The 1930s were relatively uneventful years. We held the Olympiad in Folkestone in 1933, coming 10th out of 15. The most notable event in this decade was the 1936 Nottingham Tournament in which 11 Grandmasters and 4 masters competed: Botvinnik and Capablanca shared 1st place with 10 points, followed by Euwe, Fine and Reshevsky (9½) Alekhine (9). The congress cost over £3000 and was made possible by the generosity of Mr J.N.Derbyshire who later became BCF President. Apart from matches against Holland in 1937/38/39 our International involvement was limited to participation in the Olympiads.

Our results in the Olympiad were not good in this period: As Scotland entered their own team in 1933; the name of our teams from that time became BCF. During this time we were represented by Mir Sultan Khan, Sir George Thomas, W.Winter, R P Mitchell, H.E.Atkins, C.H.O’D.Alexander, H Golombek, P.S.Milner-Barry, V.L.Wahltuch, G.S.A.Wheatcroft and B.H.Wood. Mrs Stevenson (Vera Menchik) became a British citizen in 1937 on marrying R.H.Stephenson. She played in the World’s Women Championship, which was held in the Argentine, and duly retained the title.

British chess suffered a great loss with the death of F.D.Yates in 1932: a Memorial Fund was set up to help British players meet expenses in home and overseas events and for other benevolent chess purposes.

In 1938 the Hon. F.G.Hamilton Russell Succeeded Canon A.G.Gordon-Ross as President and remained in that office until his death in 1942 when Alderman J.N.Derbyshire was elected. At that time R.H.S.Stevenson became honorary secretary, succeeding L.P.Rees who had served since the BCF was founded. On Stevenson’s death in 1943, he was followed by Harold Meek. A Stevenson Memorial Fund was set up.

The 1939/45 war years saw very little organised chess; most of the activity was run by the Unions and County organisations. The BCF was able to support chess in the armed services: it helped the Army Sports Fund and organised matches between the British Forces and Allied Forces in 1941/42, results being 6½-5½ and 6-7 respectively. In 1943 a British Army Championship was held (winner Capt R.H.Newman) and in 1944 an R.A.F Championship (won by F/O E.Brown). The County and District Correspondence Championship and BCF Problem/Composing Tourneys were maintained during these years.

British chess suffered seriously as a result of the war when the National Chess Centre, founded in 1939 at John Lewis department store, was destroyed, together with a great deal of equipment and records, in an air raid in 1940. Another tragic loss was that of Vera Menchik, killed in1944.

The 35 years between the end of the Second World War in 1945 and the BCF’s 75th anniversary in 1979 was a period of considerable chess development. During that period, the Federation’s activities and commitments grew enormously. With the ending of the war, little time was lost in re-establishing the major events that had been suspended since 1939. The Hastings Congress was resumed at the end of 1945, the BCF providing the financial guarantee to enable the event to go ahead. In 1946 the BCF Congress was held in Nottingham. R.F.Combe was the last Scottish winner of the Championship. The 1949 Congress was particularly noteworthy as this was the first year in which the Swiss pairing system was adopted, a system that has continued ever since.

Other domestic events of the period included the Individual and Counties’ Correspondence Championships, Problem Solving Tourneys and the Boys’ and Girls’ U18 championships.

The limited International events included matches against Holland and Czechoslovakia and radio matches versus Australia and Russia. In 1947 C.H.O’D.Alexander qualified for the European World Championship Zonal. That year the Glorney Cup started the first Junior International anywhere. It should be a matter of quiet pride that it continues today. An active part was taken in the work of FIDE and a revised version of the Laws of Chess was prepared. It very soon became apparent that the BCF’s financial position was unsatisfactory, whilst serious concern was felt about our poor international status and the lack of support from the grassroots. A Capitation Scheme was introduced in 1946: this required all players to subscribe through their county associations and unions but unfortunately the arrangements were not universally acceptable. There was some improvement in 1949 when an agreement was reached with the SCCU.

This provided for that union’s increased representation on Council, thus reflecting their larger membership in return for a guarantee that they would equate the combined subscriptions of the MCCU and NCCU. In 1946 a full time paid secretary, F.E.Chetwynd, replaced the honorary secretary (Harold Meek), so that the Federation could cope with the increased volume of work envisaged. However, by 1949 it seemed very doubtful whether this expense could be maintained. To help meet the increased financial commitment and to extend activities it was decided the Federation needed to increase its membership substantially. To do so it would be necessary to offer improved benefits to club players. The objective was to restore England’s world chess status about which our leading players such as Alexander, Golombek, Milner-Barry etc, felt very strongly.

A Development Committee, under the chairmanship of Hugh Alexander was set up to spearhead this drive and to generate support throughout the country. New classes of membership were offered: private and corporate VPs, Full Members and Associate Members, in addition to the existing Life Members. New activities introduced included the opening of qualification to the British Championship for all players by means of area qualifying competitions, instituting the National Club Championship, increasing junior activities, etc. One of the most important and far reaching policy measures determined at the time – which has been maintained with ever increasing effectiveness over the succeeding decades – was the development of junior chess.