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Chapter 5: Odds and Evens

Odds and Evens

Spend an afternoon going through minute books of earlier and you must be struck by 2 things. The rich variety of matches and competitions, and the popularity of handicap tourneys. For some years now tournaments at the club have generally been distinguished only by whether they are open to all comers or restricted in some way. Handicap tournaments are now rare, and casual games at odds scarcely ever seen.

This monotony would not have appealed to the members of earlier days. Matches of all kinds are found. A married v. single contest took place in 1874 and again in 1898, and one should have preceded the annual supper of 1880, cancelled when members could not agree on how much to spend on wine. Six matches between Natives of Australasia and Elsewhere Born were played at the turn of the century and in 1903 Residents of Brighton took on the Rest of the club. Two years before the club had played against the Commonwealth Parliament chess club. Theme tournaments, where every competitor must use the same opening, by a paradox gave variety through uniformity. In 1912 Watson wins the King's Gambit tourney; another gambit tourney follows in 1919. In 1936 Goldstein disparages the Willhemsen Gambit (or Mason or Keres gambit, if you like). After 1.e4 e5 2.f4 exf4 3.Nc3, Black can check at h4 , forcing white to play Ke2. Crowl, always the nonconformist, protests that the gambit is sound, and so they have a 5 game match with a stake of 5 pounds a side; Crowl must play the gambit in every game. He wins 3.5 - 1.5.

From time to time the club has had its ladder; at least since 1910. By 1941 there was a silver bishop; inscribed "Top of the Ladder", for the occupier of the top rung. The committee in 1946 decided to permit challenge games, the result of each game to be posted on the noticeboard and the loser of the challenge to pay 2 shillings into the club's funds. Practice tournaments have been held on occasions. In 1929 consultation games were arranged and in 1938 consultation tournaments, so that the weaker player could benefit from discussions with the stronger partner. There is nothing like this nowadays.

The only consolation for Alekhine's failure to appear in Melbourne for the Australian Championship in 1934 was that the committee hastily arranged a number of subsidiary tournaments in addition to the championship. One was the ladies' tournament, apparently the first in Victoria. Four ladies entered, including Anne Purdy (wife of Cecil and daughter of Spencer Crakanthorp), who came second to the club's Miss E. Lander. In 1949 the Women's club championship was held, it seems for the first time, and won by miss J.Lovett, who later became treasurer. She is one of the handful of women who have served on the committee. It is unfortunate, but typical of so much chess activity, that ladies tournaments should be so rare as to be dealt with in this chapter, among the novelties. In 1977 the club had seven lady members, and it is doubtful whether this number has ever been exceeded before or since. Ladies' tournaments have been at times proposed, sometimes cancelled for lack of support, and occasionally held.

Another organised activity gone from the club in recent years is composing problems and solving them. Sir George Stephens, the first president, used to contribute problems to "My note book", which appeared for a few months in 1858 -1859 and had a chess column written by A.C.McCombe, composer of the Bazaar problem. In 1870 the club arranged a problem composing tourney . Much of the enthusiasm for problems in earlier years was due to H.E.Grant, who became secretary in 1897 and held office until 1915. For 21 years Grant was chess editor of the Leader, where innumerable fine problems appeared. His work in furthering the problemist's art was marked by the publication in his honour of "The Dux", a book of problems specially contributed by the Leader's composers and solvers, which was presented to him in 1914. 5 years later Henry Tate, who had made the presentation and was himself a keen problemist, was elected a vice-president of the Good companions chess Problem club, an international society of composers founded in 1913 by James Magee of Philadelphia. During and after the Great war the club took part in the Washington Birthday tourney, a problem solving competition held all over the world by the good companions on George Washington's birthday. In 1920 that day found Spencer Crakanthorp stranded in Melbourne by a marine strike while travelling from NSW to Tasmania. He turned up at the club and won the tourney by solving all 12 problems in 2 hours, that year the contestants dispensed with boards and men and solved from diagrams. At about this time the club was holding occasional problem solving competitions as well as the Birthday tourneys. As to composing, this was still an organised club activity as late as the 1950s. In 1951 the club arranged an international composing tournament for two-movers. But now no-one shows any interest in making or breaking problems.

From its foundation till the 1950s there was an open handicap tourney at the club, usually once a year, although sometimes a summer and winter tournament were held. The annual handicap tourney was the most important chess event in Victoria until the Victorian championship was inaugurated. In 1946 Martin Green and M.Roken tied for first place. In the playoff Green had to give rook odds but won the game and with it the cup outright as the 3-time winner of the tourney. Fortunately the Herald and Weekly Times provided another cup. The Summer handicap tourney of 1899 attracted 32 competitors. Class 1 gave odds to the other classes as follows:-

  • Class 2 - Pawn and move
  • Class 3 - Pawn and 2 moves
  • Class 4 - Exchange and 2 moves.
  • Class 5 - Knight and move.
  • Class 6 - Rook and move.

The same scale was continued for other classes. By way of further handicap, additional points, ranging from nil to 1.5, were added to the scores of individual competitors. Players were grouped into 3 sections, each playing a round robin. The final itself was a round robin played between the top scorers in the 3 sections. There were prizes for the first four placegetters in the final and the winner of each section. Not surprisingly, a tournament went on and on. (The Swiss system of pairing contestants was not used in the club for any tournament before 1949.) In 1885, G.H.Gossip complained to Steinitz's International Chess Magazine that laxity made the tourneys even longer. "A handicap tournament", he wrote, "has been going on for the last 6 months! 15 players are competing in it, the first prize is a silver cup, value £15-15-0... The tournament has been unnecessarily protracted, however, owing to no penalty being enforced for non-attendance on the evenings of play. Also, the winner of the cup trophy cannot claim it as his own until he has thrice won it, so that its possession cannot be decided for years, probably."

For a long time handicap tournaments of all kinds formed an important part of club life. If a special tournament was to be held, say for patriotic purposes during the Great war, it was odds on that the players would be handicapped. The New Member's Handicap Tourney was a popular event. Over the years all kinds of levellers have been used for handicap play. One is time. Another is the "knockout" system where weaker players have more "lives", a player dropping out once he has lost the number of losing points allotted to him.

These 2 methods are still in occasional use at the club. But the other systems of handicapping have for practical purposes gone. That most common in the club formerly was the tradition one of giving material, with or without a move or two. Sometimes there was the refinement of adding a varying number of points to the scores of individual players. There were other methods too. In the New Member's tourney for 1920 the games were played on level terms, but points were added to the competitor's score, the handicaps were sealed and disclosed only when all games had been decided. These "sealed handicap tourneys" had been played in earlier years. At times "games start" was used in the Annual Handicap tourney as a substitute for material odds, in other words each player would be credited at the outset with a varying number of points. The system was the same as in sealed handicap tourneys except that there was no secrecy. In 1915 a handicap tournament was conducted with the stronger player having to mate in the number of moves fixed by the handicapper or forfeit the game. In some years the club had, not handicappers appointed for particular tourneys only, but a club handicapper, holding office for 12 months.

Lightning tournaments have been popular with members for 80 years. In Edwardian times the games were more stately; each player had a fixed time per move, usually ten seconds, and moves were made at the stroke of the timekeeper's bell. Handicap lightning tournaments were playing with the giving of material odds, for the way in which the rate of play was determined made handicapping by time impossible. Since the end of the 1940s clocks have replaced the timekeeper for lightning games and in Club's hustler's handicaps players are given anything from 3 to 12 minutes. Handicap allegro tournaments are played occasionally , each competitor having 15 minutes on his clock and players having different numbers of losing points. But all these tournaments are light-hearted affairs, lasting only a few hours. No serious handicap tourney has been conducted by the club for years. We would not even know which pawn or knight to remove, let alone how the odds given should affect the play of the stronger or weaker contestant.