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Chapter 4: Hub of Australian Chess

Hub of Australian Chess

The club was only two years old in 1868 it accepted Adelaide chess club's challenge and the first inter-colonial telegraphic chess match was played. Two years later came the first match between Victoria and New South Wales. The contest between NSW became the chess equivalent of the Oxford v. Cambridge boat race. The club was responsible for all telegraphic matches with other states until 1938. When Rosenblum in 1926 entitled his history of the club Seventy years of Victorian Chess he was certainly not guilty of conscious exaggeration.

For most of its first 70 years the club was the governing body of chess in Victoria, but between 1878 and 1890 it faltered. In trying to boost membership the club made the mistake of opening the door to whist players. The result was very nearly fatal. By 1883 Melbourne faced extinction and a new body, the Victorian Chess and Draughts club was formed and flourished. The first Australian championship tourney took place in Adelaide in 1887. Next year the tournament was held in Melbourne as the Centennial Congress arranged and conducted , not by the Melbourne club alone, but by the Melbourne and Victorian clubs in conjunction. On 13 October Chief Justice Higginbottom opened the Congress with a speech praising the rule of law in chess. In 1888 the Victorian chess club - its name no longer mentioned draughts, which had disappeared - won a match against Melbourne after drawing one and losing another the previous year. Melbourne won the fourth and final match in 1889. In 1889 the new club suggested an annual tournament for the Championship of Victoria and actually conducted a tourney for the Championship of Melbourne. The winner was R.L.Hodgson, a member of Melbourne, and he induced the club to move to better premises, at the Vienna Cafe, in 1890. The club's handicap tourney of 1889 had been most successful. Melbourne had revived. For the next 50 years the Club would again speak for chess in Victoria.

It was the club that instituted the Victorian championship in 1891 and conducted it until 1939, when the Victorian chess association took over. In 1892 the Club established the Junior championship of Victoria. The tournament had nothing to do with age and its name was altered in 1908 to the Minor Championship of Victoria. In 1931 the name was changed again, to the Victorian Minor tourney. The Annual Handicap Tourney, held by the club for the first 90 years of its life, was always an important event and until the 1890s the principal tournament in Victoria. Its decline marked the modern loss in interest in play at odds. In 1925 the president, J.A.Pietzcker, endowed an annual open tournament, first conducted in the Christmas holidays and known as the Pietzcker tourney or the Melbourne Christmas tourney; later; when it was no longer played at Christmas, its name was changed to the Melbourne annual tournament. The tournament was last held in 1940, but was revived in 1947 as the Australian Open tournament, a biennial event conducted by the club 4 times and so arranged as to alternate with the biennial Australian championship. The Australian Open was taken over by the Australian Chess Federation as the Australian Open Championship, first held in 1971 (as the Karlis Lidums International tournament).

Before there was any system of matches between clubs challenges provided the ocassion of inter-club play. In 1898, for example, we find the club in a match against Malvern chess club, while 2 years later it meets the commercial travellers club and then the Port Melbourne chess and draughts club. The club's open tournaments gave members of smaller bodies an opportunity for competitive play. So in 1910 notice of the Annual Handicap tourney went out to the chess clubs at Prahran, Malvern, Port Melbourne and Fitzroy, the commercial traveller's association chess club and the chess resort at the Victoria Coffee Palace."

The Melbourne chess association, formed after representatives of clubs met at Melbourne chess club on 20 September, 1901, staged a tourney in 1901-1902 between the 8 clubs constituting the association - Brighton, Commercial Travellers, Essendon, Footscray, Malvern, Melbourne, Port Melbourne and Prahran. This became an annual event, and the club was handicapped each year by having its strongest players barred. Every year the club also played a challenge match against the rest of the association. The association ceased to exist in 1909 and soon after this the smaller clubs began to decline, although the 1920s brought a revival.

After the passing of the Melbourne chess association we find the club playing challenge matches against other clubs. At the same time internecine contests take place every week by way of teams matches amongst members; so in 1919 weekly matches are held between teams captained by Grant, Loghran, Moody and Barnard. During the 1920s premiership matches seem to have been held annually, and we find Clifton Hill, Brunswick, Moonee Ponds, Hawthorn, Sunshine, Footscray, Coburg, Melbourne and the Railways taking part. This inter-club competition was evidently conducted by an association, but little is known of it. In about September 1932, the Melbourne chess league was formed; the club affiliated with it. The league conducted an inter-club competition each year, starting in 1934. In 1935 the club handed over to the league the running of the Victorian Minor tournament, with a view to broadening the league's experience, a step described by the Leader as the beginning of complete self-government of Victorian chess by a state-wide association.

Over the next 3 years the committee discussed the formation of a Victorian chess association and in about March, 1938, Melbourne approached suburban and country clubs to ascertain their views. There was no doubt about the views of some C.P.Lowe of Malvern chess club (who was to become the Victorian chess associations first secretary) complained that Melbourne could not see beyond its own clubroom; its idea of calling for entries for the Victorian Championship (he wrote in a letter to the Australasian Chess Review) was to put up a notice on the clubroom wall. But the impression remains that it was not dissatisfaction felt by the other clubs but Melbourne's own initiative that brought the state association into being. The club convened a meeting of representatives of all known chess clubs in Victoria for June 15 1938, to consider forming a Victorian chess Association. The Association was in fact formed in that year and absorbed the Melbourne Chess League and took control of the inter-club competition. In 1939 the Victorian Championship was played for the first time under its auspices. It also took over the telegraphic matches between Victoria and NSW.

In the Association's early years the club was often unhappy with the way in which the Victorian championship or the telegraphic match with NSW has been run. Small things too, like a supposed unauthorised purchase of badges, seems to have caused great friction. In 1942 the club's delegates moved unsuccessfully that the association go into liquidation and as an alternative that control be handed back to the club of the championship and the interstate match. For the next 4 years the club actually held the championship, at the association's request. Relations were very strained. In 1945 the committee suggested to members that the club disaffiliate, but they decided against this. Things improved, by 1948 the association was functioning to the satisfaction of all the clubs.

The year 1966 saw the club's centenary tournament, hailed by C.J.S.Purdy as "the very first full length mammoth round-a-day tournament ever held in Australia." Opened by the Minister of Education, the Hon.J.S.Bloomfield, and held in the Tudor room at the Victoria hotel, the tournament was won by Max Fuller. In his reminiscence at the closing ceremony Purdy noted that he had first played in a tournament at the club almost 40 years before and that only two of the members in those days still belonged to the club, Judge Woinarski and J.L.Beale. The president, Joseph Matters, had the last word: "I'll see you all in another 100 years." (Matters, now 88 and still carrying off prizes in the Saturday allegro, seems determined to keep his promise.)

3 years after its centenary the club instituted the open tournament known as the City of Melbourne championship.