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Friday, March 15, 2019

Postal Chess, John W. Collins and Other Stuff

     The first known correspondence games that have survived were played by Friedrich Wilhelm von Mauvillon, a Prussian officer in 1804, when he was stationed in The Hague. The games were against a friend living in Breda in The Netherlands and three of the games were published in von Mauvillon’s book, Anweisung zur Erlernung des Schachspiels (Instruction to Learning the Game of Chess) which was published in 1827. 
     From 1834 to 1836 London and Paris played a city match which began 1.e4 and when Paris played 1...e6 the French Defense, popular in France because it was championed by Saint Amant, was born. We also got the Scotch Game from a correspondence match between London and Edinburgh in 1824. 
     Postal chess didn’t become popular until postal system improved in 1840 when Sir Rowland Hill developed the postage stamp. Prior to that the recipient paid a messenger for delivering the mail. Hill’s new prepaid system revolutionized postal chess! 
International postal chess card

     In 1870 the first correspondence chess club was founded in England, the Caissa Correspondence Club and in 1884 the French chess magazine La Strategie organised the first international correspondence tournament. It was a popular magazine and many countries began founding their own postal chess organizations. 
     Then in Berlin in 1928, a handful of German players got together and formed Internationaler Fernschachbund, the first international correspondence league. They began publishing the world’s most popular chess magazine devoted to correspondence play. Then in 1939, a short time before the outbreak of Word War II their activities ceased, but in 1951 their successor, the International Correspondence Chess Association (ICCF), was founded. 
Required postal equipment: opening books, foreign magazines and a recorder album
    The first World Championship of Correspondence Chess began in 1950 and ended 1953 and was won by the Australian Cecil Purdy. 

1) CJS Purdy 10.5 
2-3) Harald Malmgren and Mario Napolitan 10.0 
4) Olaf Barda 9.5 
5) Graham Mitchell 8.0 
6) Leopold Watzl 6.5 
7-8) Gabriel Wood and Edmund Adam 6.0 
9) Theo van Scheltinga 5.5 
10) Janos Balogh 5.0 
11-12 Sverre Madsen and John W Collins 4.5 
13) Antonio Cuadrado 3.0 
14) P van't Veer 2.0 
Adolphe Viaud’s games were cancelled after he went 0-6 and withdrew. 

     John (Jack) W. Collins (September 23, 1912 – December 2, 2001, 89 years old) is a well known name especially as having been one of Fischer’s early teachers as well as William Lombardy, Robert Byrne, Donald Byrne, Raymond Weinstein, Salvatore Matera and Lewis Cohen. In fact he wrote a book about them titled My Seven Chess Prodigies. Collins was confined to a wheelchair due to a birth injury and was cared for all his life by his unmarried sister Ethel, a nurse.
     William Lombardy took exception to the claim by stating, “Jack Collins was not in any way capable of teaching me, the Byrne Brothers, Raymond Weinstein, let alone Bobby Fischer.” Lombardy claimed that they had all visited his apartment as friends. . Lombardy stated that during that time all five of them were already stronger than Collins and superior “far past the ability of Collins to impart anything but trivial knowledge...I cannot imagine even today that anyone could consider that Collins had the strength of knowledge to coach the champion that Bobby already was by the time he reached Collins apartment” Lombardy somewhat condescendingly wrote that he didn’t want to say anything in those days because of “my misplaced sympathy.” 
     At some point his sympathy departed and Lombardy wrote that he wanted “to correct and inform.” What happened between Collins and Lombardy I do not know, but in his later years Lombardy had become a bitter and crotchety old man. I’m willing to give Lombardy some slack. By the end of his life he had left the priesthood, was estranged from his wife and son, sick, kicked out of his apartment, broke and living off the generosity of friends. When I met him in the mid-1970s he was a smiling, gregarious fellow always willing to pose for a picture or sign an autograph. That’s the Lombardy I prefer to remember. 
     Collins admitted that he never actually gave Lombardy lessons and never "taught Bobby in the strictest sense" and that Fischer "knew before instructed."
     I read Collins’ My Seven Chess Prodigies when it first came out hoping to find out how he taught his prodigies. They analyzed openings, played over games and played blitz all while being fed cookies, soda and other assorted junk food by Collins’ sister. It seems they were fun gatherings with nobody actually receiving any formal lessons. 
     Collins was born in Newburgh, New York and lived most of his life in New York City. His father was a flutist and piccolo player who was frequently in John Philip Sousa's orchestra. When Collins was in his teens Frederick Huhn, the family's 80-year-old German landlord of their home at 69 Hawthorne Street in Brooklyn, taught Collins how to play chess. Collins started reading chess books, eventually amassing over six hundred. 
     He tried to join the Marshall Chess Club, but the players were too strong and the club too far away for him to travel so he formed the Hawthorne Chess Club in his apartment. Many high-school inter-club matches between his club and the high-school teams were played in his living room. He later moved to 91 Lenox Road where the club gradually changed from a chess league to a casual hang out for chess celebrities. 
     Over the board Collins was a low-rated master and because there were no numerical correspondence ratings in those days it’s hard to say exactly how good he was. The rule of thumb used to be that you could play correspondence chess a class, maybe two, higher than your OTB rating. I think that was probably about right. 
     Here is a nice OTB win against George Baumanis from the 1958 US Open in Rochester, Minnesota. The event was unique in that it was held at the world headquarters of the IBM Corporation and programmers had programmed a computer to do the pairings. 
     The tournament was won by the little-known Cuban Eldis Cobo-Arteaga. He lost to National Master Allen Kaufman in the second round, but after that scored 7 wins and 2 draws to finish a half point ahead of Larry Evans, Robert H. Steinmeyer and Donald Byrne. 
     Collins tied for 16th place with 16 other players with a score of 7.5-4.5. His only loss was to Evans. The following game shows the ease with which a Master can defeat a non-master. 

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