The Beginnings of Over-The-Board Team Match Play

by Robert John McCrary

19th century chess cafeThe history of face-to-face team matches in chess logically starts with the history of chess organizations, since teams almost invariably represent organizations, or else participate in events established by organizations. The earliest known formally-organized chess organizations in the modern era were local chess clubs found in London in the 1770's. At least one of those early London clubs had formal membership, restricted to 100 members, including "statesmen, warriors, men of eminence" - as well as apparently one of Franklin's female opponents (evidently common folk need not apply, as upper and lower classes did not yet mingle in organizations). That club financed Philidor's attendance there each year, and showed evidence of regular business meetings and scheduled activities. Such chess clubs were a step up from the unorganized coffee-houses and similar meeting-places that had constituted all that was known of chess organization previously.

Many formally-organized clubs followed the London example in the ensuing decades, and it is possible that some of these clubs played face-to-face team matches with each other when they existed in close proximity. However, no record of any such matches has been identified before about 1840, although some early matches may have gone unreported since chess magazines did not exist before the late 1830's. Another major obstacle was transportation, which was such a time-consuming and arduous process that clubs in different cities would have found a face-to-face team match simply too expensive in time and money.

All that began to change with the coming of railroads, which was making dramatic changes in people's lives by 1840, a fact readily noted in chess literature of the day. One of those changes was that chess clubs could easily visit their counterparts in other cities, and the first reported team face-to-face matches between clubs were starting to occur by 1840. They were retrospectively described in a speech by W. Robinson at the 1845 Nottingham meeting of players of the Northern and Midlands Counties' counties, as reported in Howard Staunton's The Chess Player's Chronicle, vol. V (1845) on page 281: "...several matches were made between players from the different towns in Yorkshire, who, although not the best players, were considered pretty equal in proficiency. Of course, these matches could not be played in one day; and the consequence of the visits of the players of the players of one town to the players of another was a general meeting. The first assembly of this description took place in 1840, and a great impetus being thus given to the progress of chess, he was happy to say these annual meetings had been kept up every since". This speech in 1845 was the earliest-known known reference to OTB team matches, though unfortunately details of those matches were not given. Thus, we can approximate their date only as 1840 or slightly earlier.

The annual meetings mentioned in Mr. Robinson's speech began in the Yorkshire area in England, and were the first general meetings of players from different cities. From those early Yorkshire meetings evolved the idea of national chess organizations, as the Yorkshire meetings gradually expanded to give birth to the British Chess Association in the late 1850's. George Walker, a chess author of the time, referred to those early Yorkshire meetings as "tournaments" because they reminded him of medieval tournaments involving knights and jousts. In fact the early Yorkshire annual meetings were not true tournaments or even team matches, as the competition was unstructured, limited to one day, and concluded by formal dinners with rousing speeches. Nevertheless, Walker's choice of words apparently led to use of "tournament" in modern sports and games (I traced the evolution of the word "tournament" in my paper The Birth of the Chess Tournament , issued in 1982, and credited in the 1992 Oxford Companion to Chess under the "Tournament, the" entry).

It is important to note that those Yorkshire meetings, which gave rise in time to national chess organizations and modern tournaments, were inspired by those first-known team matches between Yorkshire clubs in or before 1840. However, after that date there is no identified reference to OTB team matches until 1853, when a speech was quoted as follows in The Chess Player's Chronicle: "The representatives of two clubs might meet at some place convenient to both parties, and play a match of nine, 18, or 27 games, according to the number of delegates. But few days, indeed, could be spared for the necessary absence; yet everyone has some leisure occasionally, and far less time would be lost thus than in games by correspondence. A challenge of the nature we suggest once emanated from the Liverpool Club, but was never accepted." The speaker then apparently alluded to those early team matches, ca 1840, noted above, as well as perhaps others, as follows: "The plan we suggest has been, we believe, very successfully tried in some of the Yorkshire clubs; and, indeed, it was but the same principle under another form which prompted the establishment of the Great Yorkshire Chess Association, which is every day receiving an accession of members from the Northern and Midland counties."

Finally, a full description of a full team match was given on pp. 175-76 of the 1855 Chess Player's Chronicle, which described a "chess match between the Manchester and Liverpool chess clubs" with nine players on each side. Manchester won 12-6, although the table is unclear; most participants apparently played two games, but two pairings seem to have involved three games. Two drawn games did not count, and it is possible that the 3-game pairings were intended to replace those two draws, though they were played by other players on the team. The Manchester Examiner and Times of 21 April 1855 was quoted in the Chronicle article as follows: "Wednesday [18 April] was certainly an unusual day in the annals of chess. Matches have frequently taken place between clubs by means of post; but the present is almost the only instance of an exchange of visits between two clubs."

Not long thereafter, at the June 26, 1855 meeting of the Northern and Midlands Counties' Chess Association, "matches between various clubs for prizes were played", according to p. xxiii of Lowenthal's The Chess Congress of 1862, which contained a retrospective of those early meetings that led to the first British Chess Association. Unfortunately, no details were given, and it is unclear how formal such matches may have been. Finally, it should be noted that p. 161 of The Chess Player's Chronicle of 1848 had noted that two players from the Trinity College, Cambridge Club had, in a "hasty visit" to Oxford, played against two of the best players of the Oxford Hermes Club, wining one and drawing one. No exact date or details were given from that brief encounter, in which it seemed to have been understood that the honor of those two clubs was somewhat at stake.

In conclusion, the modern era of team matches seems to begun as a product of the railroad's great impact on society in the first decades of the 19th century, in association with the birth of modern chess clubs. Furthermore, the very eariest clearly-documented matches between clubs, ca 1840, seem to have had a tremendous impact on chess history: for those matches, played between Yorkshire clubs, gave rise to the Yorkshire regional meetings; and those meetings, in turn, led to modern national organizations and tournaments.

Robert John McCrary (b.1948) is an American. He is renowned chess historian and retired US Chess Federation frontbencher. In 1980s served as President of USCF. He also played a major role in establishing the World Chess hall of Fame (Miami, FL). His chess history research focuses on years between 1600 and 1900. He used to run a chess history column in "Chess Life" presenting a brief overview of chess history from the beginning to the present. His research was used a.o. by "Smithsonian" and the Canadian "Readers' Digest". R.J.McCrary has a Ph.D in psychology and worked as professional physician. He is married with two adult daughters.

The findings given above were provided by the author to the "Chess Notes" column of Edward Winter, where they were recently published with appropriate credit.

Written and copyright 2008 by R. J. McCrary.
Reprinted by permission of the author.