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Chapter 9: Up to five pounds in wine

Up to Five Pounds in Wine

Nowadays there is no social life at the club: nothing but chess. The committee coats the annual meeting pill by giving early birds a piece of cheese and a glass of wine, but after the meeting the clocks are out of the cupboard and a lightning tournament is in progress before the chairs have been re-arranged. It was not also so. For many years the annual meeting was a prelude to a banquet. As early as 1880 a supper seems to have been held once a year, for we find the committee arranging "the annual supper". That year it was to be held at 9pm in the Oriental Hotel after a match between Married and Single and the secretary was authorised to spend up to 5 pounds in wine for the supper. 14 members rebelled against this extravagance, and the function was abandoned. The minutes make no mention of suppers from then on.

When Blackburne's ship berthed in Melbourne at the end of 1884 he was met by the president with an invitation to a banquet, which was held in his honour at the Oriental Hotel. In March 1891 there was a "chess social" midway between annual meetings. When arrangements for this were being made Mr Harlin promised a reading and Mr Hodgson (a future Victorian champion) a pianoforte solo, while Mr Brocklebank offered a book of problems for the winner of a problem-solving contest which was also to enliven the evening. Six months later a banquet, "diversified by speech, song, reading and recitation", followed the annual meeting, and during this dinner Esling, who had just won the first championship of Victoria, was presented with a medal and a "moderate monetary prize". The medallion took the form of a chessboard, enamelled blue and gold and enclosed in a circle, with the inscription on the reverse, "presented to Mr F.K.Esling, chess champion of Victoria, 1891-1892. Wins 11, losses 0". The banquet became an institution. Every year, until 1903, it followed the annual meeting. The venue was generally the Vienna cafe in Collins St, where the clubroom was for a long time. In 1892 the banquet was at the Palace hotel, tickets costing 5 shillings. Five members contributed to the vocal part of the programme in 1896. At these banquets Mr Harlin liked to make a speech surveying the chess world during the last 12 months. In 1897, as well as Harlin's survey, members had vocal and instrumental music, recitations and toasts to "the queen", "chess, our noble game", "the Melbourne chess club" ,"our rising players" and "the inter-colonial team". Rather surprisingly in view of the programme, the dinner ended at 11. The following year Mr Loughran recited his own poem on the chess celebrities of former years, "the old brigade" (it has not come down to us) and the toasts included "the chess associations of Australasia", "the old brigade", "the honourable secretary", "the president" and "those who have gone before", the last being drunk in silence. Once again, Esling managed to wind things up by 11.

Why the yearly banquet disappeared no-one knows. In 1919 the annual meeting at Sargent's cafe began at 7.30. Then came a social programme, the ladies arriving at 8.30. Mr Loughran again recited "the old brigade". A former secretary Mr Henry Tate, who had just been made a vice-president of the good companions problem club, sat down at the piano to play two of his own pieces, "A hush on the hills" and "Surge and Spindrift", and capped this with a recitation. Mr Biggs sang "Jacks the boy" and Miss Burr "The bird of love divine". The wife of another member "recited with all the grace and elegance of pose with which she had charmed the audience of the Repertory theatre in its palmy days." And there was a good deal more before "a very pleasant evening closed with the singing of Auld Lang Syne and God save the king". Laugh gently we may, but one would like to have joined them.

The year 1928 was the club in charge of chess week. Opened at the Athenaeum by the Lord Mayor of Melbourne, the program included an exhibition of unusual pictures and chessmen, lectures, simuls, consultation games and a problem solving tourney. The president gave a luncheon to country visitors, guests included the premier and the Lord Mayor-elect, Professor Osborne proposed the toast to "the king of games" and Gunderson responded. The week ended with a social evening and dance. On a more modest note, a picture night arranged by the club in 1930 raised 3 pounds. These were the years of private entertaining also. When H.E.Grant turned 70 in 1925 the Gundersens gave him a dinner at their home, during which he was presented with a case of pipes. (Grant's work for the club and for chess was always being marked by presentations: in 1912, a purse of sovereigns; in 1914 a book of problems composed in his honour.) Why the social life has gone is hard to say. Perhaps members were more homogeneous fifty or a hundred years ago.