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Saturday, July 30, 2016

Martin McGrath

     McGrath was considered perhaps the strongest and most accomplished chess player in the South at the beginning of the 20th century. He won the Mississippi State Championship four times, tied three times and placed second twice: 1899, 1900 (tied), 1901, 1902 (tied), 1903 (tied), 1904 (2nd), 1905 (2nd), 1906 and 1907. 
     Prior to his first championship in 1899 he traveled to New Orleans to compete against Harry Pillsbury at the New Orleans Chess, Checkers and Whist Club which had membership of 1000 at one point and was the predecessor of the Paul Morphy Chess Club which formed in 1928. Pillsbury's tour, as reported in the Daily Picayune of New Orleans on Feb. 21, 1899, was considered to have an influence on the popular interest in the game greater than anything since the triumphal return of Paul Morphy from Europe in 1859 or Pillsbury's own return from Hastings in 1895. Pillsbury played 22 players during his exhibition, winning twenty and drawing two with two visiting players: Martin D. McGrath of Brookhaven, Misssissippi and William Fell of New York City. 
     McGrath, then 34, was considered one of Pillsbury's toughest opponents during his tour. McGrath would be featured a few months later in the August 1899 issue of the American Chess Magazine and the experience likely helped him win the first of seven victories or ties in the annual Mississippi Chess Association event later that year. 
     An eyewitness described Pillsbury for Picayune: "Remarkable it was to watch the American master's countenance while calculating the moves. Not a muscle moved on lip and eyelid; not an irritable or nervous tendency was anywhere exhibited; not a whisper stirred among the players, or in the interested gathering of spectators; and Pillsbury calmly and thinking deeply and smoking a cigar.  The beardless young man who can smile and ponder at the same time must have enjoyed the exhilarating pleasure of steadily gaining point by point on each player, forcing all but two, Martin McGrath and William Fell, to succumb to his great skill." 
     McGrath described Pillsbury:  "Harry is a marvel. His technique is superb, and he grasps in a moment a difficult situation, which takes others several minutes to figure out. He is undoubtedly a master hand at the game." 
     McGrath, at the age of 45, was honored in the August 1908 edition of The British Chess Magazine, describing him as one of the best known and probably the strongest player in the Southern states of America. 
     McGrath became interested in chess about the age of 17 and by study and persistent practice was soon able to play the local champion on equal terms. When he was about 21 he took up correspondence play and remained an ardent devotee today. 
     McGrath was born on November 15, 1865 and died on February 11, 1943. He is buried in the Saint Francis of Assisi Catholic Cemetery in Brookhaven, Mississippi. Below is one of his correspondence games. The date is uncertain, but it was probably played around 1905 or 1906.

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