Correspondence Chess in Britain and Ireland 1824 – 1987

Correspondence Chess in Britain and Ireland 1824 – 1987
By Tim Harding
McFarland, 433 pages, Softcover £43.95

BOOK REVIEW By Neil Limbert

I have been looking forward to the publication of this book for what seems like quite a long time! Ever since I knew Tim Harding was preparing such a project I have been eagerly anticipating the result and hoped I would not disappointed. The good news is that it was well worth the wait: this book is simply excellent! It is a repository of facts and other information gleaned from meticulous research using primary sources of material where possible such as manuscripts, newspaper columns, books and other articles. The book also contains over 180 annotated games and, above all, a well-written wonderful story that should gladden the heart of any correspondence player.

Tim Harding is a BCCA member and an ICCF Senior International Master. Author of numerous chess books including The Games of the World Correspondence Chess Championship I-X, 64 Great Chess Games and The Write Move, he is probably best known to international CC players as the Editor of Chess Mail which ran from 1996 – 2005 and which is still sadly missed. The last few years have been spent studying for his Ph.D. Degree in History at the University of Dublin and his Doctorate was obtained in 2009. This book is partly based upon the work he began with his doctoral dissertation.

The dates in the Title have been chosen deliberately. 1824 was the date of the London – Edinburgh CC match which effectively began the era of postal chess and, in 1987, the Great Britain team won the ICCF Olympiad Gold Medal to become World Team Champions, thus providing a fitting conclusion to the book. The 433 pages are divided in 19 Chapters, 4 appendices, 20 pages of chapter notes and 5 different indexes! Tim is nothing if not thorough.

The 19 Chapters are as follows:-

  • Capital Letters: Edinburgh versus London, 1824-1828
  • Heyday of the Inter-club Matches
  • Penny Post and Private Matches
  • Moves Over the Wires: Chess Adopts Technology
  • The Earliest Postal Tournaments 1853 – 1870
  • Changing Times: The 1870s and 1880s
  • “A Battle at Long Range”: The United Kingdom versus the United States, 1877- 1881
  • The Growth of Tournaments, 1870 to 1897
  • Scottish Correspondence Chess to 1918
  • Irish and Welsh Correspondence Chess to 1918
  • The English Scene, 1890 to 1918
  • From One War to the Next, 1918 to 1939
  • Correspondence Chess During World War II
  • International Revival, 1946 to 1951
  • Domestic Competitions, 1946 to 1970
  • Crisis and Resolution: Britain and the International Correspondence
  • Chess Federation, 1951 to 1971
  • The Home Front: The 1970s and 1980s
  • Growth and Success, 1972 to 1982
  • Becoming World Champions

It is worth following the chapter notes to every chapter detailing not only the source of the information but often also adding extra titbits of knowledge. The amount of research required for this mammoth undertaking can only be marvelled at.

It is not easy to select favourite chapters but Chapter One takes some beating. All 5 games of this extraordinary match are annotated (including the decisive game in great depth) and the background detail brought the match to life for me. Photographs of actual correspondence together with vivid portrayals of the personalities involved enhance the enjoyment of the writing.

Chapter 4 was a personal favourite as I knew next to nothing about early telegraphy but it has inspired me to seek more information about the “Victorian Internet”. This book is more than just chess as it also provides a good background in the social and cultural aspects of the time, particularly in the 19th century.

Of especial interest are the numerous references to the BCCA. The author has uncovered new information about the history of our Association which sheds new light on several aspects of our past. For example, the original name of the BCCA was “The Capital and Counties Correspondence Chess Association” although this name was short-lived. The list of BCCA & British CC Champions has been re-written following discoveries of fresh information. The Rev P.Wolfers was not BCCA Champion in 1909 (see our 2009 Yearbook where I erroneously quoted that he was) although he certainly was a Section Prize winner that year, as quoted on the Wolfers Medal. The author has also finally tidied up the mystery of the missing British Championship winner from the late 1930’s.

Chapter 16 was a revelation to me. As the BCCA Archivist I have access to all the BCCA Minutes and old magazines so I thought I had a pretty clear picture of what happened during the early 1960’s which led to the formation of the BCCS and the BPCF. However, my understanding was awry and the full account provided has turned my previous thoughts on their head.

I had always assumed (wrongly) that, once the BCCA got going in the 1920’s, it has continually been the largest CC body in the UK. So the accounts of the Referee CC Club (1920’s & 1930’s) and the Postal Chess Club (1943- 1992) were a considerable surprise to me. At times, both these organisations were larger than the BCCA.

No review would be fair without some mild criticism. Many of the crosstables in the book are not in place order so you have to look quite carefully – I have never liked finished crosstables that don’t show the winner at the top. The author speaks of a “bygone age in intellectual sport” which is a premature to say the least – I for one continue to enjoy my correspondence chess. And all books contain errors, even the best of them. Page 370 states that the “British Veterans Championship was inaugurated by Peter Gibbs”. This is incorrect; the original TD was Alan Stacey before Peter took over. The BFCC Minutes of 7/6/1997 simply state that “the meeting considered a suggestion to implement a Veteran’s Championship” but they don’t say whose idea it was. But Peter has confirmed to me that it certainly wasn’t him.

However, these minor criticisms in no way detract from my overriding impressions of the book. The cost is quite high but, considering the years of research, the amount of detail and the overall quality of the product, then this book is worth every penny! It belongs in the library of every chess lover, and every history lover. I strongly recommend this book to every BCCA member.