The World’s Oldest Chess Club: Part I (1809–1914)

6/24/2009 – In August there will be a spectacular event celebrating the 200th jubilee of the oldest chess club in the world: the Schachgesellschaft Zürich, which was founded in 1809. Attendees include Kasparov, Anand, Karpov, Korchnoi, Kramnik, Spassky, Ponomariov and Topalov. To prepare you for the jubilee Richard Forster and Christian Rohrer retrace the historical development of the club.

The World’s Oldest Chess Club: Part I (1809–1914)

By Dr. Richard Forster & Dr. Christian Rohrer

Although London and Paris had their first chess clubs from the 1770s onwards, organised chess circles were still very rare in 1809, the year when the Schachgesellschaft Zürich was founded. Indeed, until the fall of the “ancien régime” in 1798 (due to Napoleon) chess – along with almost all other games – was officially banned in many parts of Switzerland.

It is therefore unsurprising that the creation of the Zurich chess club was hardly noticed at the time. Zurich was then a small town with a population of about 11,000 and was still surrounded by heavy walls. Newspapers usually preferred to report on developments in far-away countries rather than on local affairs. They kept quiet about what happened in town – the simplest strategy to avoid censorship by the authorities, as freedom of press had yet to be introduced (in 1829).

First balance sheet of the Schachgesellschaft Zürich, dated 9 February 1810.

In fact, it is rather by accident that nowadays we know about what was presumably the first year of the club. Testimony has come down to us in the form of a dozen annual accounts – nothing more than a couple of sheets collected and glued together by a far-sighted club member in the 1830s. Without these documents, the first dozen years would have been lost in the mists of time.

Ever since the club’s first day, membership has been highly diverse. Whereas in later years respected doctors, rich bankers and famous Nobel Prize laureates adorned its lists (alongside some rather dubious individuals too), the six founders of the club represented the artistic and commercial side of the city, which remained two of Zurich’s most dominant forces in the first part of the 19th century. The founders were Sigmund Spöndli (the State cashier of Zurich), Leonhard Ziegler (a paper manufacturer), Johann Escher (a grocer) and the three painters Heinrich Maurer, Carl Schulthess and Heinrich Schulthess.

Heinrich Maurer (1774–1824), the first president of the Schachgesellschaft Zürich.

In the 1820s, as membership was rising to over 20, the club started to indulge in chess matches with Winterthur, the sister city 20 kilometres to the North East. The appropriately-named Heinrich Meister (“master”) drove matters forward on the Zurich side. All four matches documented between 1822 and 1826 were won by Zurich. Whether this was the result of superior chess strength or just clever archiving strategy on the part of the secretary remains unknown. The Winterthur club folded soon afterwards, only to rise again in 1846.

In the 20th century the Schachgesellschaft Zürich gained renown for its splendid international tournaments, but the same kind of entrepreneurship already existed in 1825, when the indefatigable (and insatiable) Heinrich Meister brought together chess enthusiasts from all over the country to Baden, a spa not far from Zurich. Although much of the correspondence leading up to the event has been preserved, details about the outcome of the first Helvetian Chess Tournament, which took place from 31 July until 2 August 1825 in the “Engel” guesthouse in Baden, are very scarce. Only a brief note about the results of the Zurich players has survived.


“Tournament table” from Baden 1825.

The next tournament did not take place until 1868. In the meantime, the Club was involved in several matches. One of them, in 1847/48, saw two correspondence games against the “Lesegesellschaft” in Basle. Zurich lost both.

Lesegesellschaft Basel – Schachgesellschaft Zürich
Correspondence game, May–November 1847
1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 Nd4 4. Nxd4 exd4 5. c3 Bc5 6. 0-0 Ne7 7. b4 Bb6 8. c4 c5 9. bxc5 Bxc5 10. d3 0-0 11. g4 Ng6 12. h3 Qh4 13. Kg2 h5

14. Rh1 d5 15. exd5 hxg4 16. hxg4 Qxg4+ 17. Qxg4 Bxg4 18. Nd2 Ne5 19. Kg3 a6 20. Ba4 b5 21. cxb5 Bd7 22. Ne4 Bb6 23. Ba3 Rfc8

24. Rh5 Ng6 25. Bb3 axb5 26. Bb4 Bc7+ 27. d6 Bd8 28. Rah1 Be6 29. f4 Bxb3 30. axb3 1-0.

Martin Senn – Dr. Joseph Schilling
Zurich, 18 November 1857

One of the oldest finishes extant from the Schachgesellschaft. The game ended: 1. Rxg7+ Rxg7 2. Nf6+ Kh8 3. Qxh6+ Rh7 4. Qf8 mate. White also wins after the slightly more resilient 1…Kh8 by means of 2. Rg8+! Kxg8 3. Nf6+ Kf7 4. Qh5+ Kf8 (or 4…Kg7 5. Qg4+) 5. Qxh6+ Rg7 6. Qh8+ Kf7 7. Qe8 mate.

Then there was a series of tournaments which started in 1868 and lasted until 1879, with a virtually annual gathering of chessplayers from the three major clubs in East Switzerland (Zurich, Winterthur and Saint Gall), which took turns to organise the event. In addition, guests from Basle, Berne, Schaffhausen, Lucerne and elsewhere were always warmly welcomed. Unlike in 1825, the results were painstakingly preserved by the Zurich club.


Tournament results from 1868.

The rules were still quite informal – participants usually played against whomever they wished and as often as they liked (except for games among members of the same club). At the end of the day the wins and losses were totted up for each club. More than once this system resulted in a bad defeat for the host club. The reason for the “home disadvantage” was obvious enough: weaker players tended to shy away from the hazards of travel more often than did the stronger and more eager ones, which meant that the home club was usually represented by some relatively inferior players.


In 1876 the historic Baugarten was the scene of the 7th East Switzerland tournament.

The 1880s started badly, with the club almost vanishing before it was rescued by Max Pestalozzi (1857–1925), a distant relative of the famous pedagogue. Pestalozzi reorganised the club in 1887, and two years later he invited chess enthusiasts from all over the country to what was soon recognised as the First Swiss Championship.


Tournament regulations of Zurich 1889.

A total of 74 players turned up at the “Pfauen”, today the seat of Zurich’s well-known theatre. The tournament saw what was arguably the first use of the Swiss pairing system, which was continually improved over the next 15 years by its inventor Dr. Julius Müller (1857–1917), a teacher from Brugg. The tournament took place on 1 and 2 June 1889. Two players emerged undefeated: Max Pestalozzi himself and the student Artur Popławski (1860–1918), who also achieved various successes in his native Poland.


Max Pestalozzi, the organiser and winner of the first Swiss Championship.


Artur Popławski, the co-winner with Pestalozzi.

The Schachgesellschaft Zürich was a driving force behind the newly-founded Swiss Chess Federation. Max Pestalozzi played a prominent role both as secretary and, later, as president. In 1895, 1903 and 1909 the club again held the national championship, each time managing to set a new record in terms of participants, prizes or duration.

Leon Pasternak – Hans Fahrni
5th Swiss Championship, Zurich, June 1895
1. h4 e5 2. g3 Bc5 3. Bg2 d5 4. d3 Qf6 5. e3 Ne7 6. c3 Nbc6 7. d4 exd4 8. cxd4 Bb4+ 9. Nc3 Qg6 10. Bd2 Bg4 11. Qb3 0-0 12. Bxd5 Nxd5 13. Qxd5 Rfe8 14. Qc4

14…Qc2 15. Rc1 Qxb2 16. Rb1 Qa3 17. d5 Ne5 18. Qb3 Qa6 19. f3 Nd3+ 20. Kd1 Nf2+ 21. Kc1 Ba3+ 22. Rb2 Qf1+ 23. Kc2 Qd3+ 24. Kc1 Bxb2+ 25. Qxb2 Nxh1 26. fxg4 Qf1+ 27. Kc2 Qxg1 0-1.

On the last occasion the tournament coincided with the 100th anniversary of the club. In celebration, and to accommodate an extra banquet on the Uetliberg, the tournament’s duration was extended to four days – at the time a risky endeavour since all the participants were amateurs and for many of them holiday breaks were a scarce luxury.


The jubilee publication of the Schachgesellschaft Zürich in 1909. A handy 55-page brochure.

Initially, the club had far bolder plans for an international tournament. However, owing to the resistance of the other clubs and the difficulty of raising sufficient funds, the plan had to be abandoned. The idea would, though, re-emerge before too long...

Main tournament

                              1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
1. M. Henneberger (SK Bern) * 1 ½ – ½ 1 1 – – – 4
2. P. Johner (SK Bern) 0 * 1 1 ½ 1 – – – –
3. W. Henneberger (SK Bern) ½ 0 * ½ 1 – – 1 – – 3
H. Johner (SK Bern) – 0 ½ * – – 1 – ½ 1 3
5. H. Guyaz (CE Genève) ½ ½ 0 – * – ½ – – 1
Ch. Kühne (CE Genève) 0 0 – – – * – 1 ½ 1
J. Martin (Lavey) 0 – – 0 ½ – * 1 1 –
8. P. Raascke (SG Winterthur) – – 0 – – 0 0 * 1 1 2
9. K. Kunz (SG Winterthur) – – – ½ – ½ 0 0 * 0 1
E. Mandl (SG Zürich) – – – 0 0 0 – 0 1 * 1

Although the tournament thus remained a national event, it also attracted some international guests, such as Theodor von Scheve and Jacques Mieses. The outcome may, even today, be unique in the history of national championships: a “double double victory”, i.e. two pairs of brothers came out on top: Both the Johners and the Hennebergers, who happened to be playing for Berne at the time, were outstanding figures in Swiss chess for many decades. As players, composers, writers and theoreticians they acquired great fame. In later years Hans Johner, Paul Johner and Walter Henneberger all became longstanding members of the Schachgesellschaft Zürich.


Tournament favourite Paul Johner (1887–1938).

The first jubilee tournament of the Schachgesellschaft was decided in a tense last-round battle between the tournament favourite Paul Johner and Moriz Henneberger:

Paul Johner – Moriz Henneberger
19th Swiss Championship, Zürich (5), 18 July 1909
1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 a6 4. Ba4 Nf6 5. d3 d6 6. c4 Be7 7. h3 0-0 8. Be3 Bd7 9. Nc3 Ne8 10. g4 g6 11. Bh6 Ng7 12. Bxc6 bxc6 13. Qd2 f6 14. 0-0-0 Rf7 15. Rdg1 Qc8 16. Ne1 f5? 17. gxf5 gxf5 18. f4! Bf6 19. Nf3 exf4 20. Qxf4 fxe4 21. Ng5 Bxg5 22. Qxg5 Qd8

The crucial position of the game and the championship. The queen sacrifice on g7 is extremely tempting, but Black appears to escape by the skin of his teeth: 23. Qxg7+ Rxg7 24. Rxg7+ Kh8 25. Nxe4 Qh4! 26. Bg5 Qxe4! or 23. Qxg7+ Rxg7 24. Bxg7 Kf7 25. Bd4!? c5! 26. Rg7+ Ke6 27. Be3 Qh8! 28. Rhg1 Rf8 29. Nxe4 Rf1+ etc.

23. Qg2? After much deliberation Johner decides not to give up his queen, but he chooses the wrong retreat. After 23. Qd2! (keeping the bishop on h6 defended) Black would have been in dire straits.

23…Qf6. Now Henneberger manages to untangle his position. The attack on the bishop secures the tempo which is necessary to force an exchange of queens.

24. Bg5 Qf3!

25. Nxe4 Qxg2 26. Rxg2 Bf5 27. Nf6+ Kh8 28. Kd2 Ne6 29. Nh5 Nxg5 30. Rxg5 Bg6 31. Re1 Rb8 32. b3 Rbf8 33. Ng3 Rf2+ 34. Re2 c5 35. h4 R8f3 36. h5 Bf7 37. Ke1 Rxe2+ 38. Kxe2 Rf4 39. Ke3 Rh4 40. Rf5 Kg7 41. Rf4 Rh3 42. Kf2 Rh2+

43. Ke3? A bad mistake. After 43. Kg1! Rxa2 44. Nf5+ Kh8 45. Nxd6 White’s position is still fine. 43…Bxh5 44. Nxh5+ Rxh5 45. Rf2 Re5+ 46. Kf4 h6 47. a3 a5 48. Rg2+ Kf7 49. Rb2 Kf6 50. Rh2 Rf5+ 51. Ke4

After a time scramble the limit of 50 moves in two hours had now been reached and the game was interrupted. Later it was adjudicated in favour of Black, who thereby won the tournament.


Moriz Henneberger, the winner of the Zurich 1909 tournament.

In a future instalment we shall see how the oldest chess club in the world entered the international tournament scene.


The Schachgesellschaft Zürich is celebrating its 200th anniversary with a number of spectacular tournaments in August 2009, featuring Anand, Kasparov, Korchnoi and many other chess legends. Its two centuries of colourful history are vividly recounted in a handsome jubilee book just released:

Richard Forster: Schachgesellschaft Zürich 1809 bis 2009. Eine helvetische Schachgeschichte in zwei Jahrhunderten mit einem Personen- und Turnierlexikon. 576 pages, with over 300 illustrations and more than 500 diagrams, games and fragments (in German). Ordering details and an excerpt are available at http://www.sgzurich2009.ch/pages/book.php.


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