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Friday, September 6, 2013

Howard Staunton

      Howard Staunton (1810 – 22 June 1874) was generally regarded as having been the world's strongest player from 1843 to 1851. Today he is best known for his chess piece design, but probably very few players have actually played over any of his games; I haven’t.
      Staunton was apparently twenty-six when he took a serious interest in chess and from 1840 onwards he became a leading chess commentator and won matches against top players of the 1840s. Modern experts consider Staunton's understanding of positional play to have been far ahead of his contemporaries. In 1847 he began a career as a Shakespearean scholar but ill health and his two writing careers led him to give up competitive chess after 1851. 
      Staunton was the principal organizer of the first international chess tournament in 1851, which made England the world's leading chess center and resulted in Adolf Anderssen being recognized as the world's strongest player. The tournament was disappointing for Staunton because in the second round he was knocked out by Anderssen who won the tournament convincingly and in the playoff for third place Staunton was narrowly beaten by Elijah Williams. Immediately after the tournament Staunton challenged Anderssen to a match of twenty-one games, for £100. Anderssen accepted the challenge but the match could not be arranged: Staunton was physically unfit for an immediate match and Anderssen had to return to work.
      In 1847 Staunton published his most famous work, The Chess-Player's Handbook, consisting of over 300 pages of opening analysis, and almost 100 pages of endgame analysis and his book The Chess-Player's Companion followed in 1849. On 23 July 1849 Staunton married Frances Carpenter Nethersole, who had had eight children by a previous marriage.
      In 1858 attempts were made to organize a match between Staunton and Morphy but for whatever reason, all attempts failed. Upon arriving in England in June 1858, Morphy promptly challenged Staunton to a match. At first, Staunton declined Morphy's offer but, finally, in July agreed provided he was given time to get back into practice on openings and endgames and provided that he could manage all this without breaking the publication contract for his Shakespearean work.
     In early August, Morphy wrote asking Staunton when the match could occur and Staunton asked again for a delay of some weeks. Staunton’s enemy, George Walker, published an article accusing him of trying to delay the match indefinitely, and Staunton received another letter from Morphy pressing him to name a date for the match. Staunton and Morphy met socially in Birmingham and, after a discussion, Staunton agreed to play in early November. An anonymous letter appeared in Staunton's column in the Illustrated London News alleging that Morphy did not have the money for his share of the stakes. This letter is thought to have been written by Staunton himself.
      Around this time Morphy wrote to friends in the US asking them to obtain the stake money for the Staunton match. Morphy's family refused to contribute as they "should not allow him to play a money match either with his own money or anyone else's", but the New Orleans Chess Club sent £500. Meanwhile Morphy went to Paris to play against continental masters. On 6 October 1858, while in Paris Morphy wrote Staunton an open letter which was also circulated to several publications, in which Morphy complained about Staunton's conduct. Staunton replied restating the difficulties he faced, but now giving them as reasons to cancel the match. 
      Morphy then wrote a letter to the president of the British Chess Association explaining his efforts to bring about the match and accusing Staunton of avoiding the match by all means short of admitting he did not wish to play, complaining about Staunton's representation of the facts in the Illustrated London News, and demanding "that you shall declare to the world it is through no fault of mine that this match has not taken place." The reply to Morphy was it was reasonable for Staunton to decline the match, but he should have done so plainly in his first letter to America, but had instead often given the impression that he would soon be ready to start the match.
      In 1849 Nathaniel Cook registered a chess set design, and Jaques of London obtained the manufacturing rights. Staunton advertised the new set in his Illustrated London News chess column, pointing out that the pieces were easily identifiable, very stable, and good-looking. Each box was signed by Staunton, and Staunton received a royalty on each set sold. The design became popular and has been the standard ever since.

St. George pieces

   On March 1, 1849 the pattern was first registered by Nathaniel Cook. Prior to that, the pieces most commonly used were called the St. George design chessmen, followed by the Calvert, Edinburgh, Lund and Merrifield designs.  In September 1849 the manufacturing rights were bought by John Jaques of London, workers of ivory and fine woods. Jaques was the brother-in-law of Nathaniel Cook. The sets were made in wood and ivory. The unweighted King was 3.5 inches in size. The weighted King was 4.4 inches in size. Jaques removed much of the decorative features of earlier chess patterns, and was able to manufacture the new design at less cost. On September 8, 1849 the first wooden chess sets from Jaques became available.

Staunton pieces

      The first sets had a different pattern to the King's Rook and King's Knight that distinguished it from the Queen's Rook and the Queen's Knight. Eventually players came to realize that it was not necessary to distinguish between them. On the same day that the Jacques chess sets were available, Howard Staunton recommended and endorsed the sets in the Illustrated London News. Nathaniel Cook was Staunton's editor at the Illustrated London News (small world, huh?) The ad that appeared in the newspaper called it "Mr. Staunton's pattern."

      Most of his later life was occupied in writing about Shakespeare. When he died suddenly of heart disease, on 22 June 1874, he was at his desk writing on Shakespeare. At the same time he was also working on his last chess book, Chess: Theory and Practice, which was published posthumously in 1876.
      Chess historians trace much of the 20th-century animosity against Staunton to books by Sergeant about Morphy. Sergeant in turn made use of a book by Edge, who accompanied Morphy to Europe in 1858 as his secretary and personal assistant, but returned to the US in January 1859, a few months before Morphy. Sergeant's books made extensive use of Edge's book, but noted Edge's strong anti-Staunton bias. Lawson also suggests that Morphy had seen the manuscript of Edge's book, disliked its treatment of the Staunton affair so much that he disavowed it, and objected to Edge's treatment of other matters. Edge's letters show that he regarded Morphy as lazy and rather helpless, and himself as the one who would make Morphy's name immortal, and that Morphy wanted to keep the negotiations with Staunton discreet while Edge insisted on making them as public as possible.
      H.J.R. Murray wrote that Staunton's response to Morphy's initial challenge and his article about the same in the Illustrated London News should have been interpreted as a courteous refusal of the offer, but that Morphy interpreted them differently, and one of the main reasons for his visit to Europe in 1858 was the hope of playing a match with Staunton.
      Gary Kasparov considered Staunton "by the early 1840s ... superior to all his rivals" and Bobby Fischer believed that "Staunton was the most profound opening analyst of all time. He was more theorist than player, but nonetheless he was the strongest player of his day... In addition, he understood all of the positional concepts which modern players hold dear, and thus—with Steinitz—must be considered the first modern player."

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