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Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The First U.S. Championship

     No, the first U.S. chess champion wasn't Paul Morphy! The first United States Chess Champion pre-dated Morphy and you have to go back to 1845 to find him. Back in those days the U.S. wasn't even seven decades old and travel was difficult and there was little contact between centers of chess activity. Philadelphia was the center of chess in the U.S. but there were some other cities with chess activity: New York, Chicago, Washington, Baltimore, Cincinnati and New Orleans.
     Each city had it champion but the most prominent and generally recognized best players were the secretary of the New York Chess Club, Charles H. Stanley who dominated New York chess and the champion of the New Orleans Chess Club, Eugene Rousseau. He was an interesting fellow: his French family in Europe included artists, poets and the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Edward Winter has a nice article on Jean-Jacques HERE.
     Originally from Paris, Rousseau honed his skills in the Cafe de la Regence and once lost a one hundred game match (!!) against Lionel Kieseritsky in 1839 and had played a bunch of offhand games against Adolf Anderssen, the man later recognized as unofficial world champion.
     Rousseau emigrated to New York around 1842 and made a name for himself by defeating Benjamin Oliver and John W. Schulten in matches. The German-born Schulten was a New York wine merchant who frequently made trips to Paris and Berlin where he had the opportunity to cross swords with Saint-Amant, de la Bourdonnais and de Riviere. Schulten was about an avid a chess player as they come and in his 30 year career he lost to just about every great player in the world.
     Rousseau's wins over Oliver and Schulten made him the hero of the New Orleans club which at the time was one of the most active in the country. In addition to Rousseau, the club boasted Ernest Morphy and Charles Le Carpentier as members.
     Stanley was also an emigre who arrived in the U.S. from London in 1842 and worked in the British Consulate. Stanley soon became the editor of the first regular newspaper chess column in America. He was also a (not very good) problem composer and briefly published a chess magazine.
     As a teenager in London, Stanley had frequented the various chess clubs and was considered one of Britain's most promising players when he defeated Howard Staunton, then the acknowledged world champion, in an odds match at "pawn and two." That is, Staunton played black in every game, removed his f-Pawn and Stanley got to play two moves in a row. This might seem like tremendous odds, but I challenge anybody to set up a position against a strong engine and try to beat it at these odds...it's not that easy! Stanley won the match easily and so there was much consternation in England when Stanley left for America shortly after the match.
     After arriving in the United States Stanley defeated everybody. Everybody that is except John Schulten who gave him a hard time in their games. The result was they ended up playing four games with Schulten only managing to win the last one.  As a result it was clear that there were only two players in the U.S. that could be considered champion material: Stanley and Rousseau.
     Patrons scrounged up $1000 for a winner-take-all match. This was an enormous amount in those days. One online inflation calculator only goes back to 1913 and in that year $1000 equals over $23,000 today. One curious fact: Bobby Fischer's prize for winning the U.S. Championship in 1960 was still $1000! In the Rousseau vs. Stanley match the first to win 15 (!) games, draws not counting, would be declared the winner. The venue was the New Orleans Chess Club in the famous Sazerac Coffee House.
     There was no time limit and no exact scheduling of the games. They didn't need to worry about such things because both players were gentlemen and it was assumed they would not abuse the time taken for each move and that after one game was completed, they would start a second game if there was time.
     Play began on December 1, 1845 and is was assumed the winner would be recognized as the United States Champion. This match was another first because up until it was played chess was usually a casual game played on Sunday afternoon. After this match players began to take chess seriously!
     Stanley won without difficulty: +15 -8 with 8 draws. Rousseau claimed he lost due to being "indisposed," or as well would say today, sick. Rousseau lost two games on the first day and then took a couple of days off because of his "illness." Play resumed on December 5th and Stanley won again which probably did not help Rousseau's health. Curiously though, Stanley wrote a book on the match titled Thirty One Games at Chess, Comprising the Whole Number of Games Played in a Match Between Mr. Eugene Rousseau, of New Orleans, and Mr. C.H Stanley, Secretary of the New York Chess Club where he confirmed his opponent's "illness." They don't publish books with titles like that any more! In any case, in the book Stanley pointed out that, "For Mr. Rousseau, in particular, allowance should be made...it being well known among his acquaintances that on commencement of the very laborious undertaking on which he had embarked, he was still suffering from the effects of a previous indisposition." Stanley's book on the match didn't sell very well; it cost fifty cents. Today it's a very rare book.
     One important feature of the book was its section on opening theory, especially on the Ruy Lopez. Stanley answered it with 3...a6 which was the first time the move had been tried in serious play in the U.S. That was important because one of the spectators was an eight-year-old kid named Paul Morphy and 13 years later Morphy would successfully use the move against Anderssen in the match that gained Morphy the recognition as best player in the world and would result in 3...a6 being known as "The Morphy Defense." That was despite the fact that Stanley lost both of the games in which he played 3 ... a6.
     All-in-all the quality of the games in the match were, by today's standard, pretty poor. For more information on Charles Stanley and one of his games see my post Who Was Charles Stanley.
     Rousseau is most "famous" as the inventor of the "Rousseau Gambit" against the Giuoco Piano. See my post on it HERE.  For more on Rousseau see  Eugene Rousseau Wikipedia   Stanley Games   Rousseau Games

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