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Chapter 8: The silver rook and other pieces

The Silver Rook and Other Pieces

Where are they now? Bearded Blackburne still looks down on us, as he has done for many years. But where are all the other mementoes - the trophies, the pictures, the old letters? What has become of the silver rook? Where are the hourglasses? One of them, we know, was sold to Mr.Witton for a shilling in 1904, but what of the others? Has there survived in some dark cupboard any of the "Fattorini chess-timing clocks" presented to the club in 1901? Where are the cables from Dr.Alekhine, the letter from Esling "containing some interesting remarks on the club's early history"? What happened to the Honour Roll of the Great War? Who has the McCutcheon set? When did we lose Cornered("subject - a game of chess"), which was hanging in our Athenaeum clubroom as recently as 1899? And the "valuable framed photograph of a leading European and American chess players" presented in 1883 has gone too.

We have, alas, so few relics to show for our 120 years. On the walls you will find the first president, Sir George Stephen(1794 - 1879); Blackburne, our guest in 1885; the Victorian team that vanquished NSW (9.5 to 0.5) in the telegraphic match of 1897; the field in the 1922 Australian championship; the autographed photo from Bad Kissingen (Capablanca, Euwue, Nimzovitch, Tarrasch, Bogoljubov, Reti, Marshall, Spielmann, Tartakower..); the Victorian team for the 1946 wireless match against France and Watson in particular, then a member of 48 years standing. The Blackwood honour boards for the Victorian and club championship are still there, despite a claim made to the former by the Victorian Chess Association in 1982, when it decided to follow the club into its new home. The minute books back to 1866 are for the most part intact, and they give some idea of what had been lost. Since 1866 the club has on average moved every 5 years, and has sometimes stayed only for a matter of months if not weeks. Small wonder that things have disappeared.

Of the old trophies sadly there are none. Players now want cash prizes; they would not welcome the bronze kettle given in 1911 to the handicap tourney winner or the biscuit barrel or jam spoon presented on the same night. The winner of the lightning tourney might not now "return thanks" as Gundersen did when handed Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

The Goldsmith cup, as it was to become known, was presented in 1873 by the Australasian and the Leader. Designed by the jeweller Edwards, this silver cup, costing 15 guineas, was to be played for annually in a handicap tourney and to become the property of the player who won it 3 times. Goldsmith won it outright and on his death left it to the club, and it again became the trophy for the annual handicap tourney, the cup (and often the tournament itself) being called the Goldsmith cup. In 1932 the Herald and Weekly Times donated another silver cup, to be taken absolutely by the winner of 3 annual handicap tourneys. When Martin Green had his third win in 1946 the company presented another cup.

The silver rook itself was donated by Leonard V.Biggs and Stanley White in 1932. This handsome solid silver piece, executed by A.Burr, was held by the club champion for the time being, going to Crowl for the first year. The rook was not kept up to date and in 1947 it cost15 shillings to have the missing names inscribed. Crowl had won the club championship again that year and the committee handed the Rook over to him, taking the precaution of getting a receipt ("held in trust for the club"). Dr.Learner became the holder of the silver rook in 1951 and that is the last time we hear of it under that description. In December 1952 we find a decision to present the club champion from that time onwards with a mounted rook engraved with the year, but this does not sound like the Silver Rook.

The Silver Rook must not be confused with the Silver Bishop, presented by S.J.Myers and inscribed with the words "Top of the ladder." This minor piece glides quickly in and out of the minute book in 1940 and 1941. Dunklings the Jewellers valued it at 3 pounds. Nothing more is known of it.

Then there is the McCutcheon set, which has had what can be described as a chequered career. R.G.McCutcheon was president from 1908 to 1918. After his death his daughter presented to the club a fine ivory chess set by Jaques of London, with king height of 4.5 inches. In 1931 Mr Hunt donated a handsome stand for the better display of the McCutcheon set. The item "Ivory Chess Set and case £25" appears in a trial balance in 1937, in which year the committee had Miss McCutcheon's name placed inside the glass case that Mr Hunt had presented. Dunklings the Jewellers valued the set at 20 pounds in 1940. For most of its life the club disdained what the minutes call "common sets". Nowadays, we play with the ubiquitous plastic men, but for many years the committee ensured that only the best were used, importing chessmen and boards from England. A wooden set was stolen from the clubroom in 1944. It was recovered by the treasurer, who came across it in a second-hand shop and had to lay out 25 shillings to get it back. In the meantime, the committee, alarmed at the theft, had deposited the valuable McCutcheon set for safe custody with the bank of NSW. There it lay, "suitably packaged" in a deed box , for 23 years and came to be forgotten. In 1967 the president, Mr Joseph Matters, chanced upon the bank deposit receipt and the set was retrieved. It was bought by Mr Matters in the same year.

When Victoria played South Australia by telegraph in 1868 the actual rate of paly was so slow that members had to subscribe "towards liquidating the claim of the Telegraph Department". And so hourglasses were used 2 years later for the telegraph match between Victoria and NSW. The chess clock, first suggested by Blackburne, had not been devised. The first satisfactory clock - a pair so arranged that when one was going the other was not - was invented by T.B.Wilson of Manchester and used in the London tournament of 1883; Fattorini and Son of Bradford began manufacturing this about 2 years later. As one would expect, the club's records in 1884 mention hourglasses but not clocks. We hear nothing of clocks until 4 years later, when the secretary is instructed to "make enquiries in the matter of procuring time clocks for match games." By 1898 the club is paying for clock repairs, so we can say that the first clocks were bought some time between 1888 and 1889. In 1900 the committee decided to buy a "new patent clock" evidently known as the "One time chess clock", but this was found to be not yet on the market. In the following years a member presented "2 Fattorini chess-timing clocks". By 1904 the club had 8 chess clocks. But the hourglasses were still there, for in the same year the club sold one of them for a shilling. When and where the last of the hourglasses went is not known.

Talk of clocks leads naturally to lightning games, where the clock really is master. "Lightning" means in Melbourne 5 minutes each on the clock. Almost any Friday night for quite some years you will have found a lightning tournament in progress at the club. Until his death in 1984 at the age of 81, J.L.Bairstow would be there, watching over things with his glittering eye, using his strong voice to chide the latecomers, while generously augmenting the prize fund; he is kindly remembered as a benefactor and office-bearer. When it is not Friday night the staccato sound of the clock in the casual lightning game barely breaks in upon the consciousness until, looking up with idle interest roused by a crescendo, we see the near empty board, the 2 kings and the white pawn hurrying forward with his short quick steps; notice the queen held ready in the left hand for coronation; then sense the fall of white's flag, and so the draw. We look away, but hear the familiar rattle as the men pick themselves up and change sides, and the battle lines are drawn for another game, perhaps the hundred thousandth played on that field. Who can say? For while the plastic men are new ("common sets", the old committee men would have said), the chess tables are venerable; they cannot remember how many contestants they have seen. Tables long outlive chairs. No player would dream of treating his chair with consideration: chairs are as much for the relief of tension as for sitting, and suffer accordingly.

But we were talking of lightning chess. Tournaments of 5 minute games are an innovation in a club established before even the sandglasses was an accepted part of competitive play. The first 5 minute each tournament at the club was a wartime one, played on 18 February, 1942 and won by a visitor, Corporal Parkin. Before this, lightning tournaments of a different kind had been held at the club once a year or so since 1908, moves being made at the stroke of a bell rung by the timekeeper every 10 seconds. Such a tournament was held as recently as 1948, only 5 seconds a move being allowed.

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