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Friday, January 18, 2013

The Incredible Mrs. Gilbert

      Mrs. John W. Gilbert is known for her long announced mates; 21 and 35 moves! Beyond those chess curiosities, Ellen Gilbert was a very strong player. Not a very strong female player, but a very strong player, period.
      When she passed away in 1900, The British Chess Magazine published her obituary. “We much regret to record the death of Mrs. Gilbert, of Hartford, Conn., U.S.A., who was formerly the Lady Chess Champion of America for nearly 25 years, and certainly the most prominent Lady chess player in the world. Unfortunately, on searching the back numbers of magazines of that period, we can find no record of her performances when she was a member of the Queen's Chess Club, at Hartford, in the sixties. Afterwards, however, she developed into a most formidable correspondence player, and when in the British and American correspondence tourney, she was paired with Mr. Gossip, she defeated him by a clean score of four games, announcing in one of them a mate in 21 moves, and in another of 35 moves, which proved to be correct. In commemoration of this victory, she was presented with a handsome gold watch.”
      In the September 1, 1877 issue, the Scientific American published an article on her: “Believing that a likeness of Mrs. J. W. Gilbert, of Hartford, Ct., would possess great interest to all lovers of chess in America, we take especial pleasure in gracing our gallery of this week with her portrait. Wishing to avoid a plurality, or, as in the case of Morphy, a confusion of likenesses with but little resemblance in common, we acknowledge an international compliment, and reproduce from the Westminster Papers a picture which we are assured is a faithful likeness of the acknowledged Queen of Chess. Mrs. Gilbert is generally admitted to be the most accomplished lady chess player living, and as a successful player of games by correspondence has achieved a world-wide reputation. The specimens of her play which we give this week surpass anything recorded from actual play, for brilliancy of problematical termination, that has yet come under our notice.”
      Ellen E. Gilbert (April 30, 1837 – February 12, 1900) became famous for her match victory against George H. D. Gossip who had won the 1873–74 correspondence tournament of the Chess-Players Chronicle. Gossip was thought by some to be the strongest correspondence player in the world, but Mrs. Gilbert, playing first board for the United States in an 1879 correspondence match against England, won all four games against him, thereby enabling the US team to win the match.
       She caused a sensation in the chess world by announcing mates in 21 moves and 35 moves in two of their games. As a result of her victory she was hailed as "The Queen of Chess", and poems and at least one chess problem (with the pieces in the shape of a "Q") were composed in her honor.  Steinitz analyzed her games and confirmed the accuracy of her analyses and Gossip dedicated his book Theory of the Chess Openings to her. Unfortunately, this proved to be the high point and end of her chess career.
     She played one move in a "circulating game" in 1883. Her obituary mentioned loss of sight in late years so that is a likely explanation of why she was never heard from again.
      She was born in Leverett, Massachusetts, on April 30, 1837. Her father was a physician and amateur naturalist. She took a teaching position in Hartford, Connecticut, and continued to teach for a number of years at the South School of that city, until she met and married John W. Gilbert, a local builder and chess enthusiast.
      There were a few ladies’ chess clubs at the time and it would have been considered scandalous for a woman to been seen in a typical ‘gentlemen’s’ smoke-filled chess club of the day. Mrs. Gilbert and her husband established a "Queen's Chess Club" in Hartford during the 1860's that catered to both men and women.
      Mrs. Gilbert's chess prowess was stunted by social convention and family obligations so she turned to correspondence play. Her earliest experience in correspondence play was captaining a consultation team from Hartford for an 1870 telegraph match against Springfield, Massachusetts. She won both of her games. Five years later Mrs. Gilbert was involved in a consultation game by electronic correspondence.
      By then there was a new device, called a "telephone," that was being installed in a few homes in Hartford, and Mrs. Gilbert, along with John G. Belden, the chess editor of the Hartford Times, and two other local players were invited to use the private line of a local doctor for a game. In a January 19, 1878 newspaper column it was described as an event where "A good deal of fun, besides chess, was indulged.” The game was unfinished.
       When the chess column in the New York Clipper celebrated its "Millennium", there were two guest contributors of games: Louis Paulsen and Mrs. Gilbert. Her win over South Carolina champion Isaac E. Orchard featured detailed notes possibly based on her comments although the column doesn't identify the annotator. Both this win and her win over an opponent named Hotchkin, annotated by Zuckertort, showed she was also well versed in opening theory.
      In 1877 Mrs. Gilbert twice defeated the Canadian player A. Hood who had won the Canadian Correspondence Champion of 1875. In both of the games against Hood, Mrs. Gilbert announced mates; one in eleven moves, the other in twelve.
      It was curious that she was able to accomplish so many announced mates. In a correspondence game against an opponent given as “Mr. Berry of Massachusetts” in 1874 she announced mate in nineteen moves but it turned out she was wrong. She later corrected herself; it was a mate in eighteen.
      All of that was a prelude to the great International Postal Card Match of 1878 between the United States and Great Britain. The chess editor and organizer of the match, chess editor of the Hartford Times, invited Mrs. Gilbert to play for the American team and that was the event in which she crushed Gossip in all four games. This appears to have been the end of her career. She did not participate in any more matches or tournaments and passed away on February 12, 1900.

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