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Thursday, December 21, 2017

British House vs. US House Cable Match of 1897

    In the aftermath of the Venezuela Crisis of 1895, when the United States invoked the Monroe Doctrine and raised tensions with Great Britain, Member of Parliament Henniker Heaton approached Speaker of the House Thomas B. Reed of Maine on an unusual diplomatic errand. What if, Heaton proposed, the two legislatures played a chess match to soothe relations and renew friendships?
     When Reed agreed, North Carolina Representative Richmond Pearson of the Foreign Affairs Committee took the lead. “While our Governments are discussing a treaty of perpetual peace, we venture to express hope that hostility between the two countries will never assume a harsher form than a contest at chess,” Pearson said, “the most noble, the most ancient, and the only universal game known among the peoples of the earth.”
     After receiving the challenge in March, Reed referred the matter to Congressmen Richmond Pearson of North Carolina and R.C. Shannon of New York who were the leading players in the house. They then called a meeting of known players and, as congressmen do, a committee was appointed with the authority to arrange the details. 
    Prior to the actual match, House Members competed against each other to select the best chess players. Once assembled, the “chess dream team” trained at the posh Metropolitan Club of Washington, where they practiced against other chess enthusiasts. The match began at 2 p.m. Washington time (7 p.m. London time) and continued for 5 hours at a rate of 15 moves per hour.

The Americans:
Richard Pearson of Asheville, North Carolina was thought to be the strongest player in Congress. He was a 45-year old lawyer serving his second term.  Later in his career he served as ambassador to Genoa, Persia, Greece, and Montenegro.  John Shaforth of Denver, Colorado was 43-years old and a graduate of the University of Michigan and also a lawyer. At one time he had been president of the Denver Chess Club. He hadn't played chess in a number of years and did some brushing up to prepare for this match. In appearance he was said to resemble Jackson W. Showalter. Robert Bodine, a lawyer, of Paris, Mississippi at 59 was the oldest member of the team. He was known to be well-versed on openings, but not an especially good analyst. T.S. Plowman of Talladega, Alabama was 54-years old and had been a bank president and mayor of Talladega for several years. Levin Irving Handy of Newark, Delaware was, at the age of 36, the youngest on the team and enjoyed a reputation as a good player. By profession he was a lecturer, writer and journalist.

The British:
John H. Parnell was the older brother of the quirky Charles Parnell, a British politician. Before the match he complained of not feeling well, but during the game played with deliberate concentration. L.A. Atherly-Jones was the son of Ernest Jones, a writer, lecturer, poet and agitator who once went to jail for two years. H.C. Plunkett was the brother of Lord Dunsany.  Plunkett was interested in agriculture and spent a long time in Wyoming where he had business interests. A. Strauss was a Liberal Unionist and was a partner in a firm of leading tin merchants and a speculator on the Metal Exchange. F.W. Wilson came from a long line of tenant farmers and was described as half country squire and half journalist. He had a financial interest in several papers. He was described as a man of about 50 with a white beard, a mischievous eye and a sly, dry humor. J.H. Heaton was best known in England as the advocate of postal reform. Aside from chess, his favorite indoor activity was giving dinner parties.
     The Anglo-American Telegraph Offices in London and Western Union in Washington, D.C. set the ground rules for the matches and made arrangements for the receipt and transmission of the moves. They left nothing to chance by employing operators who were seasoned players to work the lines. In some instances, messages concerning the game moved back and forth across the Atlantic in 40 seconds. During the second day of the play, 20 moves were exchanged in roughly 21 minutes.
     After some initial confusion over who would telegraph the opening move, the Speaker of the House of Commons William Gully wired the first message: “To American Speaker—I am glad to hear that a friendly match is about begin between the two Houses, and trust this is the most serious conflict in which they will ever meet.”
    The reply was, “Speaker to Speaker — Thanks for your friendly message. Please convey to the players my regret that I cannot send best wishes just now, but hope to do so always hereafter.—T. B. Reed, Speaker.”
    The match opened in the Foreign Affairs Committee room and drew a crowd of spectators from around the District of Columbia. Dignitaries representing England, Sweden, Spain, Switzerland, and Russia also arrived at the U.S. Capitol and served as board proxies for the Members of Parliament.
     On May 31, 1897, the first day of the event, players completed two of the five matches and the score was tied. The next morning, after a full day of play, and another two boards completed (with a win apiece).  Learning of the tie the British gave three cheers for the President of the United States. Representative Pearson responded, “Have announced the result a draw, and the company have given three hearty cheers for her Majesty the Queen.”

The results:
Bd. 1) Horace Plunkett (GB) vs. Richard Pearson (US)
Plunkett opened with the King's Gambit and his opponent misplayed the opening as early as move 8 and ended up resigning after 15 moves.  Plunkett only used 5 minutes for the entire game!
Bd. 2) John F. Shaforth (US) vs. John H. Parnell (GB)
Shafroth defeated his ill opponent in 59 moves.
Bd. 3) A. Strauss (GB) vs. R.N. Bodine (US)
Strauss played the Ruy Lopez and both sides played well. Strauss succeeded in establishing a passed P, but blundered badly in a position where he had a slight advantage.. Bodine asked Strauss if he wanted to take his move back, but Strauss let the move stand, and resigned on his 26th move. See the full game below.
Bd 4) T.S. Plowman (US) vs. Llewellyn A. Atherley-Jones (GB)
Plowman played very aggressively in the Ruy Lopez and sacrificed a piece on move 35. The game was adjourned. Atherely-Jones overstepped the time limit, but the US team refused to accept the win on time and gave him another 10 minutes. Atherley-Jones' position was completely lost, but Plowman, who was playing very carelessly and had already missed a couple of wins, fell victim to a swindle involving a R sacrifice and lost.
Bd 5.) F.W. Wilson (GB) vs. L. Irving Handy (US)
Drawn in 48 moves. Handy was surprised by his opponent's rapid play. The opening was characterized by exchanges. Wilson managed to win a Pawn, but Handy seized the open g-file with his Rook and soon recovered his Pawn. An interesting N vs. B ending ensued, but Handy managed to get his King into play and secure the draw.

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