Edward Winter's Chess Explorations (37)

3/8/2010 – At the New York, 1889 tournament a master lost a game by forfeit after only eight moves because he was, in the words of a newspaper report, ‘laboring under excitement’. The Editor of Chess Notes looks at three great players with reputations for heavy dependency on alcohol, examining how they have been treated by contemporaries and subsequent writers.

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Chess Explorations (37)

By Edward Winter

From page 5 of the New York Times, 28 March 1889:

‘Many of the spectators and the managers were disappointed in Mason. He was pitted against D.G. Baird, but when he came into the hall he was laboring under excitement, and it was said that he had been imprudent enough to visit a barroom with some friends. Nevertheless he insisted on playing, but after making eight moves he had to retire, giving up his game to his opponent.’

Page 293 of the New York, 1889 tournament book published the game-score:

David Graham Baird – James Mason
New York, 27 March 1889
French Defence

1 e4 e6 2 d4 d5 3 exd5 exd5 4 Nf3 Bf5 5 Bd3 Bxd3 6 Qxd3 Nf6 7 O-O Bd6 8 Re1+ and ‘Game lost by forfeit’.

On page 237 of the August 1890 International Chess Magazine Steinitz described how in the New York tournament Mason ‘forfeited a game “by time” on the 8th move, and on several occasions, to speak in plain language, simply created disgraceful drunken disturbances’.

An earlier remark by Steinitz:

‘…Mr Mason when he descends from the heights of his obfuscated philosophy into the sober region of fact, has, so to speak, “no leg to stand upon”, which, of course, does not matter much to Mr Mason, who is notoriously rather unfamiliar with that sensation, outside of chess controversy.’

Source: International Chess Magazine, July 1885, page 208.

On page 138 of the May 1890 issue of his periodical Steinitz wrote: ‘Of course, Mr Mason’s manifesto must be taken cum grano whiskey.’ In the September 1885 number (page 265) a tournament reporter recorded being asked by a friend, ‘How is it that Mason has such a good chance of winning the first prize at Hamburg?’ The answer, with a reference to the tournament tail-ender, was, ‘Because he’s keeping Bier a long way off.’


James Mason

These matters were originally discussed by us in Kingpin, and on page 15 of issue 10 we turned to J.H. Blackburne and, in particular, Stephen Fry’s comment on the well-known anecdote about a simultaneous exhibition at which a glass of whisky en prise was supposedly taken en passant: ‘What I like about that story is that it is so completely unfunny.’ Asking whether such an incident had occurred, we mentioned a letter to us from Bent Larsen (Buenos Aires) reporting that at Teesside in 1972 he had met an eye-witness to the episode (alleged to have happened in Manchester).

Joseph Henry Blackburne was certainly fond of a sip, even though page 401 of the October 1924 BCM recorded his remark ‘my favourite beverage is castor oil’. Page 494 of the June 1899 American Chess Magazine quoted from the New Orleans Times-Democrat an interview which Blackburne had given to the Licensing World, an anti-temperance journal:

‘I find that whiskey is a most useful stimulus to mental activity, especially when one is engaged in a stiff and prolonged struggle. All chess masters indulge moderately in wines or spirits. Speaking for myself, alcohol clears my brain, and I always take a glass or two when playing.’

The Times-Democrat commented: ‘Mr Blackburne, with great frankness, proceeded to dilate further upon the joys of the bowl and the misery of its deprivation.’

Concerning the dark side to Blackburne’s drinking, see the statements about him made by Steinitz, as related in Chess with Violence.


Joseph Henry Blackburne

A number of webpages and other outlets specializing in (i.e. making do with) unattested ‘chess quotes’ loosely attribute to Blackburne the remark ‘chess is a kind of mental alcohol’. The observation is to be found in an interview with Blackburne which originally appeared in the Daily Chronicle and was reproduced on pages 87-88 of the 1 May 1895 issue of the Chess Player’s Chronicle. C.N. 5940 gave the full item.

In C.N. 5524 Pierre Bourget (Quebec, Canada) offered this photograph, from page 6 of issue one of FIDE Revue, 1956:

Alexander Alekhine’s heavy drinking is not in doubt, and Pablo Morán’s monograph on him has a chapter entitled ‘Exhibitions Under the Influence’. There are, though, inferior writers (which is certainly not a description of Morán) who enjoy pouncing on and blowing up any great master’s adversities. See, for instance, the examples quoted at the start of our article The Games of Alekhine. A person who writes that a champion played a world title match ‘more or less in a perpetual stupor’ is capable of writing any old thing about anyone.

In the interests of maintaining a sense of proportion, C.N. 3005 quoted from pages 410-413 of the August 1978 Chess Life & Review, where Max Euwe was interviewed by Pal Benko. The exchange concerns the 1935 world championship match:

Benko: I have heard many rumors that Alekhine was drinking heavily during the match and was behaving strangely sometimes. Can you comment?

Euwe: I don’t think he was drinking more then than he usually did. Of course he could drink as much as he wanted: at his hotel it was all free. The owner of the Carlton Hotel, where he stayed, was a member of the Euwe Committee, but it was a natural courtesy to the illustrious guest that he should not be asked to pay for his drinks. I think it helps to drink a little, but not in the long run. I regretted not having drunk at all during the second match with Alekhine. Actually, Alekhine’s walk was not steady because he did not see well but did not like to wear glasses. So many people thought he was drunk because of the way he walked.’


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All ChessBase articles by Edward Winter


Edward Winter is the editor of Chess Notes, which was founded in January 1982 as "a forum for aficionados to discuss all matters relating to the Royal Pastime". Since then, 6,500 items have been published, and the series has resulted in four books by Winter: Chess Explorations (1996), Kings, Commoners and Knaves (1999), A Chess Omnibus (2003) and Chess Facts and Fables (2006). He is also the author of a monograph on Capablanca (1989).

Chess Notes is well known for its historical research, and anyone browsing in its archives will find a wealth of unknown games, accounts of historical mysteries, quotes and quips, and other material of every kind imaginable. Correspondents from around the world contribute items, and they include not only "ordinary readers" but also some eminent historians – and, indeed, some eminent masters. Chess Notes is located at the Chess History Center. Signed copies of Edward Winter's publications are currently available.


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