Edward Winter's Chess Explorations (60)

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3/12/2011 – The death has been announced of the chess historian and archivist Jeremy Gaige of Philadelphia. In 1988 the Editor of Chess Notes received from Gaige, his close associate, a unique document which was not to be disclosed during the American’s lifetime: a ‘self-obituary’. The text is made public here for the first time, to mark the passing of a magnificent figure in the history of chess.

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Chess Explorations (60)

By Edward Winter

The Philadelphia Inquirer of 10 March 2011 reported that Jeremy Gaige died on 19 February 2011, at the age of 83. The present article does not repeat our own assessment (published in New in Chess in 1987) of his unique contribution to chess history, including Chess Personalia. Instead, we simply place on record, for the first time, Gaige’s own ‘obituary’ of himself. Over the years the two of us exchanged countless letters and documents, and in March 1988 he spontaneously sent us a 1,500-word article with the following note:

‘For your files: I am not contemplating your publishing this material as such (except as an obituary ... not for a while, I hope). J.G.’

The complete text written by Gaige is given below without comment:

‘Gaige, Jeremy (1927-    ) Chess historian and archivist was born in New York City on 9 October 1927, the son of the late Crosby Gaige, widely known in his day as a theatrical producer. Jeremy was educated in public schools and prepared for college at Phillips Academy, Andover, in the class of 1945. After serving with no special distinction in the US Army Medical Corps, Gaige matriculated at the College of Columbia University (BA 1951). Characteristically, he excelled in the courses he enjoyed – history, political science and related subjects; similarly he performed lamentably in subjects he disliked. (It took him four years to complete the required two years’ study of a foreign language.) He graduated in 1951 and was married the same year to Elise Cookson. In the following year, he began a journalistic career as a copyboy at the New York Times, a position which enabled him, remarkably, to write editorials as well as fill pastepots for that paper. In 1953, he joined the Syracuse Herald-Journal, where he was a general assignment reporter, feature writer and radio/television columnist. In 1955, he joined the Toledo Blade as an editorial writer. In 1956, while being divorced, he returned to New York City, where he was a writer at Forbes magazine and later at the Wall Street Journal.

In 1958, he married Harriet Elizabeth Oken and joined the financial news department of the (Philadelphia) Evening Bulletin, where he worked in a variety of capacities and was day telegraph editor when the paper ceased publication on 29 January 1982 (his wife’s birthday). Since then, Gaige worked in a variety of positions related to journalism, most recently (1 February 1988) as a speechwriter for a major pharmaceutical manufacturing company. The Gaiges have one daughter, Monica, a graduate of the Philadelphia College of Art, where she majored in graphic design. He was warmly supported in his efforts by his wife and daughter. Of his wife, he said in his introduction to Vol. IV of Chess Tournament Crosstables, “She has let me be what I want to be and do what I want to do; I could wish no man any greater felicity.”

Although Gaige was highly respected by his peers as a journalist, he achieved far greater distinction as a chess historian and archivist. In 1958, after his divorce from his first wife, he was introduced to chess at the age of 30. He found the game itself fascinating, but his limited skill became quickly apparent. As foreshadowed by his college years, his true metier was the temporal-historical rather than the spatio-mathematical; and, as also foreshadowed, he liked best what he did best. It was therefore with a certain sense of inevitability that he gravitated to a study of the history of chess. In the beginning, it was simply to gain a general understanding of the game’s development and of the lives of its leading practitioners.

He soon found that, in the late 1950s, there was virtually no concentrated material. Murray’s great work, A History of Chess, in effect ended just when international tournaments were beginning. And the more he looked, the more he discovered an almost total lack of any systematic, much less reliable, record of players, their match and tournament records, national championships, and even first names. He used to contemptuously wonder if “E. Lasker” was intended to distinguish Edward Lasker from Emanuel, or vice versa. In short, all those records which form a routine part of other sports, whether it be baseball, cricket, boxing or football. He gradually built up a more or less random collection of notes. But, as many a researcher has found, his own investigations disclosed more questions than answers. (Gaige’s own definition of an expert was “someone who is aware of how little he knows”.) This, in turn, disclosed more contradictions and still more questions.

But gradually, some answers also began to emerge along with Gaige’s skill as a researcher which he acquired largely by trial and error. His approach was described in the appendix of his Catalog of USA Chess Personalia. A case in point: By all accounts (such as A Sketchbook of American Chess Problemists, Vol. I , page 6), Charles Henry Stanley died in New York City on 16 March 1894. Gaige’s increasingly systematized research found that was the approximate date of death in England of a Henry Stanley, not of Charles Henry Stanley. A painstaking search through New York City’s records of death showed that Stanley did not die there before 1900. Examination of the 1900 US Census Report showed an 80-year-old Charles H. Stanley living in New York City at the time. From there, it was simple enough to find the date of death but not, unfortunately, the exact date of birth. (A full account is given in the BCM, 1982, pages 364-367.)

So far (1988), Gaige’s chief publication has been four volumes of Chess Tournament Crosstables. Vol. I, issued in 1969 covered 1851-1900; Vol. II, issued in 1971, covered 1901-10; Vol. III, issued in 1972, covered 1911-20; and Vol. IV, issued in 1974, covered 1921-30. The Oxford Companion to Chess called these volumes “the standard reference work”. (By the second quarter of 1988 [sic], Gaige had put in his computer a complete revision of crosstables from 1849 through 1914, and was hoping for world enough and time to a) get through to 1950, and b) see the commercial publication of his life’s work.) Gaige’s other major works include A Catalog of Chessplayers & Problemists, 3rd ed., 1973; and Chess Tournaments – A Checklist, 1984. By late 1986, Gaige had virtually completed a biobibliography of chess personalia consisting of more than 14,000 entries giving (to the extent available) full name, date and place of birth and death, FIDE title and bibliographical sources.

He has also issued numerous monographs to colleagues “to help you and to help you to help me”, as he put it. In the course of such mutually beneficial exchanges, or lack of exchanges to those he considered freeloaders, Gaige was considered generous or selfish. Similarly, he was praised for citing the works of others and freely confessing his own uncertainties about specific data. But Gaige himself preferred to think in terms of what would best enhance the obtaining, compiling, verifying and disseminating of such information. For example, he has typed on 100% rag paper library catalog cards more than 5,000 biobibliographical entries which he gave to the Cleveland Public Library chess archives. The library, in turn, generously helped him. Perhaps his one vanity was having his works cited in the Encyclopaedia Britannica. (“My vanity is no greater or less than any other man’s, it’s just that I have a higher threshold. Some enjoy having a low-number license plate or the key to the executive washroom; I enjoy being cited in the EB.” It was, perhaps, an astringent lesson that even this glory was transitory when subsequent editions of the EB severely curtailed its article on chess, eliminating the bibliography.) But for the most part, his life was guided by the belief that the work is everything, the man is nothing – “to a large extent”, he would qualify. And whatever notice he received was viewed largely in terms of its ability to enhance his work.

Extrinsically, Gaige’s efforts had been sorely limited by his inability to get his works commercially published and into the hands of a wider audience. But 1987 saw the publication of one of his major works: Chess Personalia – A Biobibliography. (Here, again, Gaige had ample opportunity to savor his taste for irony: laudatory reviews [see, especially, New in Chess, #8, 1987, pages 58-60] and minuscule sales.)

Intrinsically, his strengths combined those of journalist and historian – insatiable curiosity, persistence, an eye for contradictory data, and considerable though by no means invariable skill in determining the correct version. His weaknesses included his limited skill at the game of chess itself, the historian’s sometimes debilitating sense of irony (“I’m obsessed by the futility of all human endeavor”, he used to say, perhaps thinking of Houseman’s view of human life, “a long fool’s errand to the grave”), and his virtually total ignorance of any language but English (“I’m fluently illiterate in at least 14 foreign languages”, he used to say in typical self-deprecation).

He was also chary of making value judgments, again the legacy of his historian’s view, i.e. “history has seen the death of many fighting faiths”, citing Justice Holmes. But he was often scathing in criticizing what he considered the erroneous value judgments of others, especially if expressed with undue confidence. “The less knowledge, the more certainty”, he would snort.

His long-range goal, “given three or four lifetimes”, was to produce a dictionary of Chess and Chess Personalia comparable to Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Failing that, his own hope was that his efforts, which he was at pains to define as the latest word, not the last word, would provide a reliable basis of received knowledge to enable future historians to create such a dictionary.’

In C.N. 1491 we observed:

‘That Jeremy Gaige finds the time and energy for so much high-quality research is almost miraculous; he stands supreme as chess’s greatest ever archivist.’

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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, nearly 7,000 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.

Reports about chess: tournaments, championships, portraits, interviews, World Championships, product launches and more.


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