Rare Book Monthly

Book Catalogue Reviews - August - 2008 Issue

Historic Chess Tournaments and Congresses from The Book Collector

Book21

The account of the first American Chess Congress, depicted on the cover of The Book Collector.


By Michael Stillman

The Book Collector recently issued their 21st catalogue, and if you think a Fort Worth based bookseller must sell items about cowboys and the Wild West, guess again. The title of this collection is Literature of Chess Tournaments and Congresses. I don't know whether Jesse James or Buffalo Bill could play chess, but a lot of people with Germanic and Russian names certainly could. And then, suddenly, these Americans occasionally show up and confound everyone with their surprising skill. Chess may not seem exciting to the uninitiated in the way physical competitions, such as football and basketball, appeal to the masses. However, for those who love and follow this rivalry with the intensity of any sports fan, the capture of a pawn is as exciting as scoring a touchdown. Chess is an intense competition, though it is strictly one of the mind.

As the title suggests, this catalogue truly is a niche within a niche. The titles are all accounts of various tournaments and congresses between 1852 and 1929. There are no "how-to" guides for amateurs, though players with some expertise will be able to follow the moves that enabled many grandmasters to achieve their reputations. These books allow those who follow chess to relive the excitement of these major competitions once more, as if they happened just yesterday. Here are just a few examples of what is in store.

The first true chess tournament took place in London in 1851. It was put together by Howard Staunton, one of the best chess players in the world at the time. Staunton likely expected to win, but all of the organization and preparation may have worn him down a bit. He lost in the third round, and eventually had to settle for a fourth place finish. The winner was the man who knocked Staunton out, German mathematics professor Adolf Anderssen. This proved to be no fluke as Andersson was regarded as the top player until losing to Paul Morphy in 1858, and once again from 1861-1866 when, pushing 50 years of age, he was permanently displaced by the long-time champion Wilhelm Steinitz. Along with everything else, Staunton wrote the official account of this first tournament, The Chess Tournament: A Collection of Games Played at the Celebrated Assemblage, published in 1852. Priced at $375.

The first American tournament took place in New York in 1857. Most of the players were Americans, including American champion Charles Henry Stanley, but the German Master Louis Paulsen also participated. However, Paulsen went down in the final round, losing to the 20-year-old American prodigy from New Orleans, Paul Morphy. Morphy is still remembered as one of the greatest to play the game, but this would be the only tournament in which he would play. The following year he traveled to Europe and participated in numerous individual competitions. In 1858, he soundly defeated the aforementioned Adolf Anderssen, thereby earning recognition as the international chess champion. However, Morphy, who became a not particularly successful lawyer, did not regard chess as a legitimate profession. He abandoned most serious competition, but took part in exhibitions such as playing several competitors while blindfolded at the same time. The outbreak of the Civil War further dampened Morphy's legal career, he being an opponent of secession who lived in New Orleans. He would spend much of the next few years on the road, and essentially lived on family wealth for the remainder of his life, dying in 1884 at the age of 47. The account of the first American tournament, and the only one in which Morphy participated, is The Book of the First American Chess Congress, by Daniel Fisk, published in 1859. $700.

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