Remembering Alberic O'Kelly de Galway (May 17, 1911 – October 3, 1980)

by André Schulz
10/3/2020 – Alberic O'Kelly de Galway was a Belgian Grandmaster of Irish descent. One of his trainers was Akiba Rubinstein, and after World War II O'Kelly belonged to the extended world class. He won the 3. World Championship of Correspondence Chess and supported chess as arbiter and author. O'Kelly died 40 years ago, on October 3, 1980. | Photos: Dutch National Archive

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A Passion for Chess

Opening connoisseurs might know O'Kelly as name-giver of the shrewd O'Kelly variation: 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 a6!? After 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4, Black can play 4...e5 and White's knight cannot go to b5 and Black did not block his black-squared bishop with ...d6 as he does in the Najdorf. However, if White does not play 3.d4, the move a7-a6 might turn out to be a loss of a tempo. O'Kelly is also the name-giver of a gambit line in the Nimzo-Indian. 

The name Alberic O'Kelly de Galway (actually Albéric Joseph Rodolphe Marie Robert Ghislain O'Kelly de Galway) sounds Irish, but O'Kelly was Belgian, albeit of Irish and apparently noble descent. For many decades O'Kelly was the best Belgian chess player after World War II and part of the extended world class.

In 1720, O'Kelly's ancestor, John O'Kelly de Galway, an officer working for the English, came to Liège, which at that time was part of Austria-Netherlands. John O'Kelly was able to continue his noble family tradition in Belgium, where he was awarded the hereditary title "Ecuyer" (stable master).

Both parents of Alberic O'Kelly, his father Robert O'Kelly de Galway and his mother Louise le Clement de Saint Marcq, were born in 1880. The mother also came from an old noble family with roots in northern France and the Netherlands. Alberic O'Kelly de Galway was born on May 17, 1911 in Ruisbroek near Brussels. He was the eldest of five and had three sisters and one brother.

O'Kelly started playing chess when he was 12 years old. He became a member of the Brussels "Cercle L'Echiquire" where he had the chance to train regularly with Akiba Rubinstein. O'Kelly also played some friendly matches against Rubinstein, who had been one of the world's best players before World War I, and who had been considered as legitimate challenger to play for the world title against Dr. Emanuel Lasker. Rubinstein was born in Poland but later emigrated to Belgium where he survived the holocaust. Training and playing with Rubinstein helped O'Kelly to become the best chess player in Belgium. 

Between 1937 and 1959 O'Kelly won the Belgian National Championship no less than 13 times. He also successfully participated in many international tournaments. According to the historical calculations of Jeff Sonas, in the mid-1950s Alberic O'Kelly was one of the best 30 players in the world.

The list of his tournament successes in the decades after the war is remarkable. The following (not necessarily complete) list shows tournaments in which O'Kelly made it to the "podium".

Tournament victories at the Hoogoven Tournament Beverwijk 1946 and at the Hilversum Zonal Tournament 1947, shared first at the Hilversum A-Tournament 1947, Winner in Venice 1947, 3rd place in Buenos Aires 1948, Winner in Saarbrücken 1950, 3rd Place in Bled 1950, shared second Hastings 1950-51, second at Hoogoven Bewerwijk 1951, Winner in Dortmund 1951, second Beverwijk 1952 and Bewerwijk 1953, third in Hastings 1953-54, second in Stuttgart 1954, winner in Dublin 1954, winner in Ostend 1956, winner in Ghent 1956, shared third in Hastings 1956-57, shared second in Taragona 1960, shared second in Zevenaar 1961, winner in Utrecht 1961, winner in Paris 1961-62, shared first in Paris 1963, shared second in Malaga 1965, shared first in Palma de Mallorca 1965, shared second in Lanjaron 1966, third in Reykjavik 1966, shared first Malaga 1966, winner in Olot 1969, second in Solingen 1973. 








Dublin, 1956 (sitting, from left to right): J. H. Donner and A. O'Kelly de Galway; (standing from left to right): H. Golombek, B. H. Wood, W. Heidenfeld, W. Dunphy, J. Keenan, W. Stanton, K. O'Riordan, J. P. Reid, D. O'Sullivan. | Photo: Joe Keenan, Irish Chess Union

In 1950 O'Kelly became an International Master, and in 1956 he became a Grandmaster.

O'Kelly at a simul  (from left to right): Mathieu Salden, Richard Leenen, André Vanlokeren, Louis Willems (secretary of Liga Limburg), Jacques Colemont (Head of LL), Jef Coolen (Organizer of LL), Tony Coolen, ?, O'Kelly. | Photo : Jean Jacobs Archive

Between 1937 and 1968 O'Kelly represented his country at eight Chess Olympiads, and apart from the Chess Olympiad 1937, he always played on first board and had an overall score of 69.0/118.

1946, Max Euwe, Alberic O'Kelly, Mikhail Botvinnik | Foto: Durch National Archive

In the 1960s and 1970s, Alberic O'Kelly also played for the SG Solingen, one of the top teams of the German Bundesliga. O'Kelly's last tournament the BBC Master Game tournament in 1979.

O'Kelly's second chess love was correspondence chess and he played his first correspondence chess tournaments before World War II. After the war he won the 3. Correspondence World Championship 1964-65 – his biggest success.

In 1962 O'Kelly became an International Arbiter and was the main arbiter at the World Championship matches in 1966 and in 1969 between Tigran Petrosian and Boris Spassky, and in 1974 he was the arbiter of candidates final between Anatoly Karpov and Viktor Kortschnoi. 

O'Kelly was also an arbiter at the first Women's Chess Olympiad in Emmen in 1957. For many female players this olympiad was the first they played in an international team event or even the first time they played in an international women's event. Back then, Beth Cassidy wrote a lively report about this historic tournament, in which she also mentions O'Kelly.

There was Madame Chaudé de Silans of France, and for a few minutes of her game against Ireland, she really was worried. Her team mate sitting along side her pressed Madame de Silans clock by mistake. Miss Chater presumed a move had been made and with delightful disregard for the French Attack moved again without even looking to see what her opponent had played. Nor was she a whit disconcerted when controller O'Kelly de Galway came down and put the offending Knight back on its original square.

On arrival at her hotel in Emmen, Miss Chater, who incidently is 82, was informed that she would have to change hotels for one night owing to a previous booking. This upset the old lady quite a bit, and she kept worrying about it. The matter was actually under control, but Miss Chater didn't realize that you just can't rush the Dutch. There was still no news by the middle of the week, then as Miss Chater was sitting alone early one morning, along came a suave, elegantly-dressed gentleman, who enquired courteously how she was and if she was comfortable in the hotel. Miss Chater beamed. Authority at last. And she launched forth on the subject of having to change hotels. She told him how uncomfortable her room was and recounted all the intimate little details that made it so. She explained that she was in Emmen to play chess and that this sort of thing was so upsetting. Finally, she finished up by asking him politely if he played chess. "Madame," came the mild reply, "I don't know whom you believe me to be, but I am O'Kelly de Galway."

O'Kelly was also a prolific author and published a number of chess books in different languages. Like many chess players, O'Kelly had a great talent for languages. He spoke French, Dutch, German, English, Spanish and Russian fluently, and he was quite good in Italian. He was a great connoisseur of wine and in his time as an arbiter he liked to invite the players for a good glass. O'Kelly also loved Cuban cigars and after the Chess Olympiad in Havana he asked a number of players to bring Cuban cigars through customs for him.

In 1958 the Belgian King awarded O'Kelly with the Belgian "Order of the Crown with Golden Palms" for his services to chess. 

In his later years O'Kelly suffered from leukemia. During a training session in Mexico City with the Mexican national team, O'Kelly was hospitalized after a feeling of faintness. From there he was flown to Belgium where he died in a hospital in Brussels on October 3, 1980.

Translation from German: Arthur Paul

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


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