Chess tradition in Hastings - An interview with Jürgen Brustkern

by Johannes Fischer
12/20/2023 – The name "Hastings" has a very special ring to it in the chess world. In 1895 one of the most important tournaments in chess history took place in the seaside resort on the south-east coast of England, and chess tournaments are still regularly held there today - no tournament in chess history has a longer tradition. The Berlin FM Jürgen Brustkern is a great expert on Hastings and has written a book on the history of this tradition together with Norbert Wallet. In an interview with ChessBase he reveals what fascinates him so much about Hastings.

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Hello Jürgen, the year 2023 is coming to an end. From 28 December 2023 to 7 January 2024 the Caplin International Chess Congress will take place again in Hastings with an Open and numerous side events. Will you be there?

No. I can no longer ignore the fact that Hastings in its current form has lost its magic and no longer appeals to me.

No chess tournament in the world has a longer tradition than the Hastings tournament. It began in 1895 when the "first super tournament in chess history" was held there. 22 participants took part, including the ten best players in the world at the time. Harry Nelson Pillsbury won with 16.5 out of 21, ahead of Mikhail Chigorin and the reigning world champion Emanuel Lasker. Ever since, the name Hastings has had a special ring to it in the chess world. But how did this great tournament establish such a long tradition?

The English sense of tradition, play and sport, supported by a specific entrepreneurial spirit, created something unique and hitherto unknown in Hastings. Repeated English chess successes (F. Yates, Sir G. Thomas, C. O. Alexander) cemented the tradition and ensured that this tournament left its mark on English (e.g. the "British Chess Explosion" in the 1980s) and modern tournament chess in Europe.

The participants of the tournament in Hastings 1895: tournament winner Pillsbury sits in the centre, between Lasker and Tarrasch.

Hastings 1895: Final standings after 21 rounds

Rk. Name Country 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 Pts.
1 Harry Nelson Pillsbury
0 0 1 1 1 1 1 0 ½ ½ 1 1 1 1 1 ½ 1 1 1 1 1 16.5 / 21
2 Mikhail Ivanovich Chigorin
1 1 0 0 1 1 1 1 ½ 0 1 1 1 ½ 1 ½ 1 1 ½ 1 16.0 / 21
3 Emanuel Lasker
0 0 1 1 1 0 1 0 1 1 1 ½ 1 1 1 ½ 1 1 ½ 1 15.5 / 21
4 Siegbert Tarrasch
0 1 1 1 0 ½ ½ 1 1 1 1 0 ½ 1 1 1 0 1 ½ 1 14.0 / 21
5 William Steinitz
1 0 0 1 ½ 1 ½ 1 1 0 ½ 1 1 0 1 1 0 1 ½ 1 13.0 / 21
6 Emanuel Stepanovich Schiffers
1 0 0 0 ½ ½ 0 1 1 1 ½ ½ 1 1 ½ 0 1 1 ½ 1 12.0 / 21
7 Richard Teichmann
0 0 1 ½ ½ ½ ½ 0 0 ½ 1 1 0 1 1 ½ ½ 1 1 1 11.5 / 21
8 Curt Von Bardeleben
0 1 ½ 0 ½ ½ ½ 0 0 ½ 1 1 1 ½ 1 ½ 1 0 1 1 11.5 / 21
9 Carl Schlechter
0 0 ½ ½ 1 ½ ½ ½ ½ 0 1 1 ½ ½ ½ ½ ½ 1 ½ 0 11.0 / 21
10 Joseph Henry Blackburne
0 1 0 0 0 1 1 ½ 0 1 1 0 0 ½ 0 1 1 1 0 1 10.5 / 21
11 Carl August Walbrodt
½ 0 0 0 0 1 1 ½ 1 0 0 ½ ½ ½ ½ 0 ½ 1 1 1 10.0 / 21
12 Dawid Markelowicz Janowski
1 0 0 1 0 ½ ½ 1 0 1 0 ½ 0 ½ 1 0 ½ 0 1 1 9.5 / 21
13 Amos Burn
0 0 0 ½ ½ 0 0 0 0 1 1 0 0 ½ 1 1 1 1 1 1 9.5 / 21
14 James Mason
0 ½ 1 0 ½ 0 0 0 1 ½ ½ 1 0 1 0 ½ 1 0 1 1 9.5 / 21
15 Isidor Gunsberg
0 0 ½ 0 0 1 0 ½ 1 ½ 1 1 1 0 ½ 1 0 0 1 0 9.0 / 21
16 Henry Edward Bird
½ 0 0 1 0 0 ½ ½ ½ ½ ½ ½ 0 1 ½ 1 0 ½ ½ 1 9.0 / 21
17 Georg Marco
0 0 0 0 ½ 0 0 ½ 1 ½ 0 0 1 ½ ½ 1 1 0 1 ½ 8.5 / 21
18 Adolf Albin
½ ½ 0 0 1 ½ ½ ½ 0 1 1 0 ½ 0 0 0 0 1 1 ½ 8.5 / 21
19 William Henry Kraus Pollock
0 0 1 1 0 ½ 0 ½ 0 ½ ½ 0 0 1 1 0 1 0 0 1 8.0 / 21
20 Samuel Tinsley
0 0 0 0 0 0 1 0 0 0 1 0 1 1 ½ 1 0 1 0 1 7.5 / 21
21 Jacques Mieses
½ ½ ½ ½ ½ 0 0 ½ 1 0 0 0 0 0 ½ 0 0 1 1 1 7.5 / 21
22 Beniamino Vergani
0 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 0 0 0 0 0 1 0 ½ ½ 0 0 0 3.0 / 21


You are a big fan of the Hastings tournament. When was the first time you played there and what fascinated you about the tournament?

I was there for the first time in 1977. It was the first time I saw how a grandmaster tournament was organised, I was very studious and wrote down all the moves of my idols. But I was also deeply impressed by all the decoration. The walls of the tournament hall decorated with pictures and photos, the old wooden chess boards, the dignified, incredibly polite organisers, the many volunteers and the kibitzing ladies and gentlemen in fine dresses. The whole traditional, dignified and slightly morbid atmosphere immediately captivated me.

For many years Hastings tournaments were considered glamorous and attracted the best players in the world, but over the decades the reputation of the tournament has suffered. For example, players have repeatedly reported things like a cold tournament hall or unheated accommodation after visiting Hastings. Why have you remained loyal to Hastings?

Because I am an affectionate and probably loyal person. I heard about the complaints of the top players much later, for example in a book by John Nunn ("Best Games 1985-1993", Batsford 1995, p.126). The effect of the damp weather and the generally poor heating in most accommodation meant that many of my acquaintances no longer wanted to travel to the south of England. After England's economic recovery in the mid-1980s, the quality of most accommodation improved.

Hastings has always been a bit of an adventure for me, starting with the ferry across the Channel. The rough seas often put my stomach to the test. I was also always glad to escape the New Year's Eve madness in Germany, because in England you hardly ever hear firecrackers on New Year's Eve. The advantages outweighed the disadvantages and over the years Hastings became a place of longing for me, "my living room".

Despite all the crises, the Hastings tournament still takes place. How is it that this tradition has survived while other traditional tournaments have fallen by the wayside?

For a long time there were stable groups of committed individuals who ensured the extraordinary continuity of the tournament with money (e.g. Jim Slater, 1929-2015), organisational talent (above all Harry Golombek, 1911-1996) and passion (the "father of tradition" Herbert Dobell, 1878-1938), and who did everything they could with almost national zeal to ensure that Hastings did not lose its unique international selling point. The best-known example of the British sporting spirit is the Wimbledon tennis tournament, which has been held since 1877.

Harry Golombek

As well as playing Hastings regularly, you have collected a lot of material about the tournament and its history over the years. What motivated you to do this?

My collector's mentality and my Anglophilia, but above all my burning desire to make a small contribution to ensuring that this fabulous tournament, of which I have so many personal memories, is not forgotten.

Together with Norbert Wallet, you then turned this material into a book about the Hastings tournament. What was the collaboration like, how did you share the work?

I had been carrying around the project of writing a book about Hastings for two decades. I came up with the idea, the basic concept and the content. I was also responsible for selecting and analysing the games. Norbert, a journalist by profession, was responsible for the lively revision of my texts. He also meticulously checked the facts I had researched.

The book was first self-published, then published by Joachim Beyer in 2021, and an English translation was published by New in Chess in 2022. The response from the public and critics was very positive. Nevertheless, books about the history of chess tournaments are probably aimed at a smaller audience. Was the effort and years of work on this book worth it?

Jürgen Brustkern, Norbert Wallet, The Chess Battles of Hastings, New in Chess 2022, 384 pages

Definitely! The opportunity to live out my passion for chess not only in playing but also in the creative process of critical writing has filled me with unbridled joy - even if the project has also caused a lot of effort and stress, for example when trying to find a catchy concept for the presentation of 125 years of chess history in Hastings. But in the end I was and still am very proud that my favourite project has seen the light of day.

What characterises the Hastings tournaments, what makes them special and what has always made them special?

Hastings was a regular meeting place for the world's elite, and it was particularly important during the Cold War years that the tournament always included outstanding, even famous, masters from Eastern and Southern Europe, who were otherwise rarely seen in the West. The city itself also has a special flair. The well-preserved Victorian buildings, the numerous parks and the special vegetation (there are even palm trees because of the St. Lawrence River) and the location on the coast give the city a special atmosphere.

What role does tradition play and how important is tradition? In other words, why should someone who wants to play a tournament over New Year's Eve travel to relatively cold and uncomfortable Hastings rather than the warmer south?

The preservation of tradition is important to me. For me, traditions are also closely linked to human communication and social behaviour. The disrespectful tone of "social" networks and the near disappearance of solidarity in Western societies are good examples of the fact that people's code of behaviour is in a barbaric age. The informal side events and the very polite style of the organising team ensure respectful interaction in Hastings. "Very British!"

The Hastings tournaments have a chequered history. Can you, and what can you learn from this about the history of chess, or even the history of Europe and the world?

Herbert Dobell showed with tenacity and passion that it was possible to organise a world-class tournament (Six Masters 1922). The networker Harry Golombek showed with diplomatic skill and a cosmopolitan attitude that creative ideas were needed to successfully implement FIDE's motto "We are one family" in politically difficult times. With his ingenious idea of the "Coronation Congress" in 1953, he established the regular participation of two strong Soviet grandmasters in co-operation with the Russian Federation, thus ensuring the congress's worldwide reputation.

Your book not only tells the history of the tournament and stories from the tournament, but also contains numerous entertaining and concisely written portraits with games of the many top players who have played in Hastings at some point, practically a who's who of chess history. From Henry Atkins, Vera Menchik and Milan Vidmar to Wolfgang Uhlmann, Wolfgang Unzicker, Paul Keres, Mihail Tal, Viktor Korchnoi, Bent Larsen, Nigel Short, Judit Polgar and Jonathan Rowson, to name but a few. Regardless of those mentioned, who of all those portrayed in the book do you consider to be Mr or Mrs Hastings, who played particularly well and successfully in Hastings?

I have no hesitation in awarding the title of "Mr Hastings" to Sir George Thomas (1881-1972). It was not his sporting success at Hastings, where he only won once (1934/35) in a total of 12 appearances in the Premier League. But his personality makes him one of my all-time favourites: The 1934 tournament, like the 1895 and 1922 tournaments, was absolutely world class, but as a genuine chess amateur Thomas beat both the "chess machine" Capablanca and the future world champion Botvinnik with the black pieces in 1934. And instead of playing a quick draw in the final round with his friend Mitchell, who was bottom of the table, in order to secure sole victory in the tournament, the sporting Thomas sought the fight, lost the game and in the end only won on tiebreak. The victory of the then 52-year-old (!) would go down as the greatest sensation in Hastings history.

Sir George Thomas playing badminton

The multi-talented sportsman was also a model of fair play in other sports. In badminton, he won the British Championship several times and in his prime was considered the best badminton player in the world! He also played tennis at a high level, reaching the quarter-finals at Wimbledon in 1911. As for the most successful players at Hastings, the record-breaking GM Svetozar Gligoric deserves special mention with five victories.

Svetozar Gligoric at the Interzonal Tournament Den Haag 1966 | Photo: Eric Koch for Anefo | Photo: Dutch National Archive, Source: Wikipedia

Salo Flohr achieved the feat of winning the traditional congress three times in a row.

How do you explain that?

Hard to say. The Swede Ulf Andersson "only" won the traditional Congress twice (1979-1980), but he achieved outstanding results at the world-class London events in the mid-1980s, which he himself described as the greatest successes of his chess career. He attributed his strong performances on the island mainly to "the mild British weather"!

Most of the people portrayed are very well known, but one stands out who is probably less well known: Reinhard Cherubim. Who is he, and what links him to Hastings so closely that he is included in this illustrious cast?

The Aachen teacher Dr Cherubim was an Anglophile chess propagandist who had fallen in love with the Hastings Tournament and reached wide chess circles in Germany with his lively reports which appeared in the Deutsche Schachzeitung and the Schach-Echo. I like the fact that in the course of his reporting he not only wrote about the lively British chess scene, but also ensured the export of English culture to Germany. The mathematics teacher was committed to improving the strained German-English relations. Because of his merits I gave him the appropriate title in the book: "The Cherubim of German-English Friendship!" (Cherubim means angel).

Your book is illustrated with many beautiful photos and contains many games. Which games from the long history of the tournament did you particularly like?

In addition to the famous game with the "floating rook" (Steinitz - von Bardeleben 1895), two other games immediately come to mind.

The Vaganian-Planinc game was remarkable in many ways. The knight manoeuvre ...Na1 was combined with a beautiful mating finale and the last three moves of this game played a major role in the film "Dangerous Moves" by Richard Dembo (1985 Oscar for Best Foreign Film).

I was there in 1980 when Ulf Andersson used an unprecedented defensive manoeuvre in his game against the American Larry Christiansen to cushion his opponent's aggression in the style of "Ying and Yang". In a hedgehog structure, the American attacked with all four pawns on the king's side, only to be thwarted by the Swedish endgame artist with the astonishing manoeuvre h6/Bh7 and Bh8! Absolutely worth seeing!

From 1895 to the present day, the Hastings tournament has a long tradition. But do you think that it can return to its former glory and that Hastings can once again host top tournaments like those in Wijk, Dortmund, Biel or Prague?

I don't believe in a Hastings renaissance. The golden age of Hastings is over, at the latest since the financially induced cancellation of the Grandmaster tournament. (2003/ 2004). Since then the tournament has survived more or less on the support of the town, smaller companies and private sponsors.

A silver lining on the horizon, however, is the sponsorship of the company "Caplin". The IT specialist has been a loyal financial partner for the past five years and even supported the congress during the difficult coronavirus period with a highly competitive online tournament.

In an interview I conducted with John Ashworth, the CEO of Caplin, which appeared in the German Chess Magazine Schachmagazin 64 (February 2023), I learnt that he is prepared to support the tournament in the longer term. So there is a good chance that the 100th edition will be celebrated in December 2026. I'd like to be involved.

And will you remain loyal to Hastings, both as a participant and as a chronicler?

All the information, anecdotes and England experiences that I have stored with love, passion and care cannot and will not be thrown out of the window. The book describes not only the history of Hastings, but also the importance of England as a pioneer of modern tournament chess (London 1851).

The author Jürgen Brustkern (left) together with the English grandmaster Stuart Conquest, who wrote the foreword for the English edition.

I was also keen to cover the history of the greatest British chess successes (London 1927, the Golden Generation of 1986-1992 and Short's runner-up title in 1993). Surprisingly there is no standard literature on the chess highlights of the island nation! So I could well imagine writing a second book on English chess history.

Good luck then - and thank you very much for the interview!


Johannes Fischer was born in 1963 in Hamburg and studied English and German literature in Frankfurt. He now lives as a writer and translator in Nürnberg. He is a FIDE-Master and regularly writes for KARL, a German chess magazine focusing on the links between culture and chess. On his own blog he regularly publishes notes on "Film, Literature and Chess".