A review of Eminent Victorian Chess Players Ten Biographies By Tim Harding

Reviewed by P.P.O.  Kane

Eminent Victorian Chess Players
Ten Biographies
By Tim Harding
McFarland, 2012, ISBN: 9780786465682

A book that transports you back to the nineteenth century, to a time when London was the centre of the chess world.  The ten biographical essays, diligently researched and vividly written, take a long, considered look at four giants of the game – Staunton, Steinitz, Blackburne and Zukertort – as well as some lesser known or more marginal figures (such as, for example, Bird and Gunsberg).

We learn much about these men (they are all men, as it happens), as an instance about the exact nature of Evans’ historic contribution to nautical safety (the good captain invented the coloured lights system for ships travelling at night, as well as the celebrated gambit in the Italian Game), though as Harding readily acknowledges, there is much that remains unknown to this day.  The circumspection with respect to any hint of scandal or unconventional social arrangement, an admirable characteristic of the Victorian Age, leaves the historian too often at a loss, dependent on supposition and educated guesswork.

One does get here, however, a very real sense of the tension between the British players, Staunton and later Blackburne (though mostly his ‘supporters’, various lesser lights who held chess columns) and the immigrants who had newly arrived from Europe.  Many of the new arrivals were Jewish, as well as being, more often than not, superior in skill to the home-grown talents, and one cannot deny that there was often an anti-Semitic flavour to a lot of the journalism, as in Duffy’s disgraceful persecution of the great Steinitz (see pages 182-183 of the book).  One major source of tension was professionalism, money and position.

There are plenty of annotated games and photos/ink drawings of the players, and each essay ends with an assessment of its subject’s legacy and contribution to chess.  It is an excellent book, and an important one too.

The publisher’s description of the book can be read here: http://www.mcfarlandpub.com/book-2.php?id=978-0-7864-6568-2

About the reviewer: P.P.O. Kane lives and works in Manchester, England. He welcomes responses to his reviews and you can reach him at ludic@europe.com