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Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Early U.S. Postal Chess

     Postal chess was played in the U.S. before the Civil War, but it was not until the introduction of the penny post card that it became popular. A New Jersey Congressman and banker named John Lee, who later claimed to have been unaware that such a thing existed in Europe, gets the credit for the beginning of the penny post cards when they were introduced on May 1, 1873. In the 1870s regular postage was three cents per letter. 
     In 1890 Steinitz and Chogorin got into a dispute over openings that had been played in their match and a couple of telegraph games, both of which Steinitz lost, were played to settle the matter. During the next decade Steinitz published a few postal games in his International Chess Magazine, including a few that he had played...for a fee, of course. 
     Around that same time Pillsbury also played a 5-game postal match against Charles Cochrane and in 1892 he played a 9-game postal match against John F. Barry. After his success at Hastings in 1895 Pillsbury was a national hero and in a meeting in Chicago in January of 1896 a group of players formed the Pillsbury National Correspondence Chess Association (PCCA).
     The original PCCA had 50 members spread around the country and and began its first tournament, the Grand National, in 1897. They divided the country up into eight sections and the entrants were divided up into round robins. Winners got a bronze medal and then played for the regional title, winners getting a silver medal. The winners then played in the finals with the winner getting a gold medal. 
     Dr. Otto Meyer of Richmond, Virginia won the first event which was completed in 1897. The club, which charged nominal dues, barely eked out an existence. Then in 1901 the PCCA organized a special Twentieth Century tournament that was easily won by Franklin K. Young with a score of +17 -0 =1! 
     Enter Isaac Rice in 1902. He sponsored a Rice Gambit correspondence tournament with a $250 first prize; that's worth over $6,800 in 2016 dollars! For their fifty cent entry fee (about $13.50 today) the players received entry into a five-player section where they played two games against each opponent, plus, get this, a book with all the latest analysis on the Rice Gambit donated by Rice.
     The tournament began in 1903 with 230 players. After it was all over the winner was Palmer Gunkel Keeney of Newport, Kentucky who scored 10.5-1.5 and pockets $100 (around $2,600) first prize. Keeney (born Mar-25-1877) was a well known amateur of his day and according to the Edo historical rating list he was rated around 2100. OTB the only OTB event he played in that I could locate was the historic 20th Western Chess Association Tournament played in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1919. Edward Lasker won the tournament while Keeney finished tied for 5th-6th with a score of 5.5-4.5. Jackson W. Showalter only managed to finish 4th with a score of 6.5-3.5. 
     The club was not to last much longer though and by late 1906 or early 1906 it just quit holding tournaments. Under a fellow named George Walcott who had finished second behind Keeney the club sputtered and in 1907 it held a few gambit tournaments and in 1908 the club played a correspondence match, which it won, against the British Correspondence Chess Association, but that was it. Walcott, for whatever reason, was unreliable and in 1909 PCCA member Stanley Chadwick started the Correspondence Chess League of Greater New York.
     Here is a game from the Grand National that appeared in William Napier's magazine, Chess Weekly, which, at the time, was edited by a young player, who at the time was an engineering student at Columbia University, named Jose Raoul Capablanca; you may have heard of him.

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