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Chapter 2: A veritable land of Nod

A Veritable Land of Nod

As in nature gold is found in association with base metals, so chess at times associates with other games. But the combination is unstable; chess sits uncomfortably with lesser games. Draughts and cards have presumed most of the condescension of chess. Melbourne has had its "chess and draughts" clubs. (The very word "draughts" has a vulgarising effect, "Fish"; by all means, but not "fish and chips"). More than 100 years ago a room was set aside for both games at the Melbourne Coffee tavern in Bourke St. There was a chess and draughts club at Port Melbourne at the turn of the century; and the new body which had challenged Melbourne's pre-eminence only a few years before was originally called the Victorian Chess and Draughts club. The 1920s gave us the brave little Austral, a monthly newspaper devoted to chess and draughts; which managed to survive for 7 years. As for cards, their official introduction was supposed to strength Melbourne Chess Club, but the result was almost fatal.

By 1878 whist was being played at the club with the approval of the committee; anxious to boost a declining membership. But worse was to come; next year a complaint that poker was being played for high stakes led to the posting of a notice reminding members that such games were prohibited. This was ignored, and soon there was another complaint, this time that the playing of games of chance like Napoleon violated the understanding on which cards had been admitted into the club. By a very close vote, members decided to ban "all games except whist and chess and cribbage". The order - whist before chess - was perhaps significant. For more and more whist was being played, and it was chess that suffered. One shameful day in November 1879 the club changed its name to the Melbourne Chess and Whist club; cards outnumbered chess by 4:1 in the permitted games (chess, whist, cribbage, euchre and piquet). Handicappers were in demand as much for whist as for chess. In 1883 the committee reported that the playing of whist was the main activity and that the club was in danger of imminent extinction. The Australasian's chess columnist, John Wisker, had no doubt where the blame lay, "Chess players wish to play chess. They will not take the trouble to visit rooms where they can neither play a game nor see one played, and where the only objects of attraction are a number of whist votaries, enveloped in a cloud of tobacco smoke, and yelling at one another about mistakes, or supposed mistakes, "in play". At about this time J.C.Whitton arrived from Tasmania; to him the club was "a veritable land of Nod" and "the one place where chess players are not to be found". By 1884 Lush, the president, who had in 1879 led the attack on Napoleon, was complaining that solo whist was creeping in and that the offenders simply played on when he pointed to the notice warning that unauthorised games carried a fine. Although in the end a divided committee decided that solo should not be added to the list of playable games, the affair seems to have been the last straw, for shortly afterwards Nissen's cafe was the scene of a members' meeting called to consider "the position of the club and the proposal of dissolving or reorganising the same". It was not a happy night. The club stood at the very brink of extinction. Two chess players put forward a motion that the club be wound up. They withdrew this in favour of a proposal, not for divorce, but for judicial separation: the chess and card players should either have separate rooms for play or play on alternate nights. After this proposal was adopted, Lush, always on the strongest opponents of cards, resigned as president.

Nothing came of the suggestion for separate rooms or separate nights, but - to pursue the divorce metaphor - a co-respondent then appeared in the person of the Victorian chess and Draughts club, which suggested that the chess players of the Melbourne club unite with it. The vigorous Victorian club was only about 8 months old when it proposed this marriage. But the two bodies could not agree on a name; the old club wanted to preserve "Melbourne", but the new one would not have it. They never did combine, and after a few years of considerable activity the younger one was gone.

The suggested merger with Victoria having come to nothing, members of Melbourne met again at Nissen's cafe in September 1884. It was agreed that the chess players should split themselves off from the card players. The chess players reconstituted Melbourne Chess Club under the original name. The near disastrous liaison with whist was over; the club would over the next few years recover its strength.