Oxford vs Cambridge, rowing and chess

by André Schulz
11/4/2021 – At the end of October, the 139th "Varsity Match" Oxford vs Cambridge was played at the Royal Automobile Club in London. All in all, Cambridge is slightly ahead in matches, but this year Oxford won 5.5-2.5. The match was a real event, with dinner and music by the famous pianist, composer and chess fan Jason Kouchak. | Photo: Jason Kouchak and Victor Vasiesiu, captain of the Oxford team | Photo: John Saunders

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Rowing and chess: Oxford vs Cambridge

The rowing match between Oxford and Cambridge is a well-known sports event with a long tradition. The race dates back to 1829 and is held on the river Thames, since 1845 on an almost 6.8 km long course between Putney and Mortlake, i.e. upstream. Since 1859 the race has been held annually and scholars and fans have recorded details and incidents of the rowing matches meticulously. In 1859, for example, the Cambridge boat sank, in 1925 and 1951 the Oxford boat suffered the same fate, and in 1912, both boats sank.

Cambridge won 85 of the 166 races, Oxford won 80. In 1877, the race ended in a draw because finish line judge John Phelps was unable to establish which boat had reached the finish line first. Spectators and parts of the Oxford press later claimed that Phelps had not been paying proper attention because he had been lying drunk under a tree when the boats crossed the finish line. But that is, of course, just malicious gossip.

Not quite as well known as the rowing match is the traditional chess match between Cambridge and Oxford. But it too has a long tradition.

Oxford and Cambridge played their first Varsity Chess Match on Friday 28 March 1873, starting probably at 6.30pm (or perhaps as early as 6pm) at the City of London CC, Gordon's City Restaurant (34 Milk Street, Cheapside, London). At 11 p.m., none other than the future World Champion Wilhelm Steinitz adjudicated the two unfinished games.

The match was played on seven boards, and the original plan was to play three games in a row on each board. However, time did only allow two games. The then president of the Cambridge Chess Club, John De Soyres, played on board 1 but lost both of his games against Walter Paratt from Oxford.

Benjamin Whitefoord, the President of the Oxford Chess Club, on board seven and won against Alfred Robert Hayes – and they only played one game on this board. In the end Oxford won this "Urmatch" 10:3.

The event attracted a large number of spectators. Among the 400 visitors (some sources even talk about 700 spectators) were well-known masters such as Löwenthal, Horwitz, Steinitz, Zukertort, Blackburne, Bird, MacDonnell and many more.

There was a big crowd around the playing tables and to disperse the kibitzers a bit, Blackburne spontaneously gave a simul against 12 opponents and Zukertort played blind against six opponents.

1873: First Varsity Match Cambridge vs. Oxford

Howard Staunton wrote in The Illustrated London News of 5 April 1873:

"Whoever first projected a chess tourney between Oxford and Cambridge as an accompaniment to the great aquatic contention, may congratulate himself on the idea. ... It was so pre-eminent a success that it is pretty certain to become an annual occurrence; and in that case its influence in disseminating a taste for chess can hardly be exaggerated. ...

Oxford were, of course, the favourites, since among the Dark Blue representatives were Mr. Parrott, long known as one of the strongest players in Yorkshire ; Mr. Anthony, one of the best pupils of Steinitz; and three strong club players, Messrs. Madan, Meredith, and Schomberg. The Cantabs, besides being much younger men, were, as a rule, very ignorant of chess theory, and their defeat was never a matter of doubt."

In fact, the competition was now repeated every year, interrupted only in the war years 1915-1918. During World War II, from 1940-45, the matches took place but had no official character. From 1888 onwards, the games were played with chess clocks.

In 1978, a women's board was introduced, but its result initially only decided in case of a tie. Since 1992, the match has been played on eight boards, and at least one board must be occupied by a player of the opposite sex. This usually is a women's board in a men's team. Sometimes, however, more than one woman plays.

The list of players who took part in the Oxford vs Cambridge matches reads like a Who-is-Who of English chess. It includes the names of Henry Atkins, William Winter, Alan Phillips, Hugh Alexander, Leonard Barden and Peter Lee, William Watson, Jonathan Levitt, Colin McNab, David Norwood, Jon Speelman, John Nunn, Michael Stean and Jonathan Mestel, Peter Wells, Paul Littlewood, Shaun Taulbut, Andrew Whiteley, George Botterill, Peter Markland, David Goodman, David Cummings, Ken Regan, James Howell, Geoff Lawton, Stuart Rachels and Dharshan Kumaran. And in 2019, former Women's World Champion Hou Yifan, who at that time was studying in Oxford, took part.

In 2019 Hou Yifan played on board one for Oxford. | Photo: John Saunders

Oxford won the match 2019 4.5-3.5 and Hou Yifan drew.

Did times really change? (See illustration of the 1873 event above) Okay, the number of spectators went down and they wear no top hats. | Photo: John Saunders

The total matchscore is 60-57 in favour of Cambridge, 22 matches were drawn. On points Cambridge leads with 506:486. John Saunders maintains a content-rich site listing all the matches with their results and also makes a great effort to collect the games.

Traditionally, the match is played in March. But due to the Corona pandemic in 2021, however, the 139th Varsity Chess Match between the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge was played on Saturday 23 October. Sponsor of the event was once again the Royal Automobile Club (Pall Mall, London).

It's not good to play on an empty stomach

The match was also played on the premises of the Royal Automobile Club, in a stylish and noble setting. Not only the location is first-class, but also the social programme. The organisers and the players are invited to a dinner before the match, and this year, concert pianist Jason Kouchak, a great chess fan, provided the appropriate musical accompaniment.

Jason Kouchak with chess arbiter Shohreh Bayat | Photo: Julian Paix

Jason Kouchak first played a couple of pieces by Rachmaninoff, which were followed by Cole Porter's "Anything Goes", and then he finished with the Neil Diamond classic "Sweet Caroline", which inspired the public to sing along. 

Cole Porter Comedy Song: Anything Goes


As a Modern Millenium Man
Gives and Takes whatever he can
A choice of Valium or Coke
It’s no joke if it’s not woke!

Diversity, Inclusivity, Binary Gender Fluidity
Check the Oxford Dictionary
‘More words-how Absurd’!

Downloading, Upgrading
Insider Trading, Online Dating
Now our looks are fading
Must wear a mask 

Floods, Fires, Fossil Fuels
Climate Change, more bad news
Win or lose -I’m so confused!
Anything Goes!

So now I have a personal trainer
Activist Green Campaigner
Heaven knows Anything Goes!

The original recording of "Autumn Leaves"

After his musical performance, Kouchak sat down at the chess board, exchanging black and white piano keys for black and white chess pieces.

Jason Kouchak was born in Lyon, France, and studied at Westminster School, the Royal College of Music and the University of Edinburgh. He has released five albums to date. He played at the Ritz Hotel for Princess Margaret's 60th birthday in 1990 and was guest pianist at the film premiere of Franco Zeffirelli's "Hamlet".

Oxford Queen vs Kensington Knight! | Photo: Julian Paix

In 2016, Jason Kouchak's chess and ballet music "Power and Grace" was performed at the British Museum and in New York, celebrating the role of women as queens in chess. Jason Kouchak is a regular guest artist at Judit Polgar's Global Chess Festival.

Raymond Keene and Jason Kouchak | Photo: Julian Paix

In 2019, Jason Kouchak was invited to the closing ceremony of the Norway Chess Tournament and performed his own composition "Queen of the Knight". In 2021, Jason Kouchak composed the piece "Into the Light", which he performed at the Curiouser exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum. He was also the musical director of this year's Chess Festival in Trafalgar Square, London.


Stuart Conquest, Jason Kouchak | Poto: Julian Paix


The Oxford and Cambridge teams before the match | Photo: John Saunders

Results of the Oxford-Cambridge Varsity Match 2021

Bd Oxford University Rating Nat 5½-2½ Cambridge University Rating Nat
1w Tom O'Gorman (Hertford) 2381f IRL 1-0 Harry Grieve (St Catharine's, captain) 2320f ENG
2b Filip Mihov (Balliol) 2255 MKD 1-0 Koby Kalavannan (St Catharine's) 2324f ENG
3w Victor Vasiesiu (Hertford, captain) 2276f ROU 1-0 Daniel Gallagher (Pembroke) 2205 ENG
4b Max French (Wadham) 2227 ENG 0-1 Jan Petr (Trinity) 2282f CZE
5w Daniel Abbas (Magdalen) 2228f ENG 1-0 Miroslav Macko (Trinity) 2273f SVK
6w Akshaya Kalaiyalahan (Regent's Park) 2149f ENG 0-1 Declan Shafi (Pembroke) 2166 SCO
7b Dominic Miller (Somerville) 2131 ENG ½-½ Ognjen Stefanovic (Trinity, reserve) 2109 SRB
8w Daniel Sutton (St John's) 1874 ENG 1-0 Imogen Camp (Queens') 1849wc WLS

Source: John Saunders




Translation from German: Johannes Fischer

André Schulz started working for ChessBase in 1991 and is an editor of ChessBase News.


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joe dechi joe dechi 11/15/2021 12:44
Everyone looks so happy! Looks like it was a great event for all chess generations-Well Done Oxford!
chessaddict77 chessaddict77 11/15/2021 12:04
Enjoyed the event!-classic chess match with classical music at the RAC with Rachmaninov
Boraiel01 Boraiel01 11/5/2021 01:13
Great tradition!