Tradition preserved and celebrated in Hastings

7/4/2007 – In a world of rapid change and, some would say, crumbling values, it is always nice to come across a small oasis, where time has stood still to an extent, and the great traditions of the past are still upheld. In the chess world, one such place is the Hastings & St Leonards Chess Club, on the south-east coast of England. Past and present.

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Tradition preserved and
celebrated in Hastings

Founded in 1882, the club is most famous for having initiated the annual Hastings International Tournament, which is the oldest international event still running in the chess world. But the Hastings club is a remarkable place in itself, one of the oldest and wealthiest chess clubs in England. It recently celebrated its 125th anniversary, with a reception and rapid-play match.

The story begins in the middle of June, in the "Year of our Lord 1882", when the following notice appeared in the Hastings Observer:

CHESS CLUB

________

A MEETING of those interested in

CHESS, will be held at the

TEMPERANCE HOTEL, QUEEN’S ROAD, HASTINGS

On WEDNESDAY, JUNE 28TH 1882

_________

Chair will be taken at 7.30 p.m. by T.H. COLE,

Esq.,  M.A.

______________________

All chess players are invited for the purpose of
dis
cussing the formation of a Club

The Observer later reported that nine people attended: apart from Mr Cole it listed “Messrs Cheshire, Kimm, Gloynes, Cullwick, C. Smith, Dr. Colborne, F W Womersley &c”. The result of the meeting was the founding of the Hastings & St Leonards Chess Club. Even the most optimistic of those present could scarcely have envisaged that the club would still be flourishing 125 uninterrupted years later. Still less could they have imagined that it would vie with the Moscow Central as possibly the most famous chess club in the world, thanks to the Hastings International Chess Congress, which the club initiated, and which still runs to this day.


The walls of the clubrooms are decorated with photographs of the many famous players, who have played at the Hastings Congress. Here, we see David Bronstein, pictured at the 1953/54 Congress – and obviously happy with his position!

The Congress started with a one-off event in 1895. And what an event! The club's energetic secretary of the day, H E Dobell, brought together a field of players headed by the world champion, Emanuel Lasker, and his "great predecessor", Wilhelm Steinitz. Most of the other greats of the day were also there, including Tarrasch and Chigorin, but as is well-known, they were all eclipsed by the little-known American sensation, Harry Nelson Pillsbury.


Vandeleur B. Crake, the first Club President

After 1895, the tournament fell into abeyance for almost a quarter of a century, but it was revived with the Victory Congress of 1919, won by Capablanca. Within a few more years, the Hastings Christmas Congress had become an annual tradition, which continues to this day. The 2007 edition will be the 83rd in the series, and of the 14 official world champions, only three (Fischer, Kasparov and Kramnik) have not played at Hastings.

The Hastings & St Leonards Chess Club is not only one of the oldest continually-running clubs in England, it is also one of a tiny handful which own their own premises. In 1953, the club was bequeathed a four-storey building in the centre of Hastings, by a deceased member, Victor Pelton. Two floors consist of apartments, which are rented out, and the club occupies the two middle floors, on each of which is a spacious playing room. Other facilities include an extensive chess library, a kitchen, and a live-in housekeeper, who provides a twice-daily refreshment service. The club is open every afternoon from 13.00 until 22.00, 364 days per year – only on Christmas Day will you find the door locked!


In 125 years, a club can build up a fair collection of silverware and a large library – a small fraction of each are seen here.

Over the years, the club has nurtured many fine players. Geza Maroczy, who won the Masters section at the 1895 tournament, later took up residence in Hastings for several years, and it was during this period that he met and coached a young Vera Menchik. In more recent times, the club has produced a grandmaster, Stuart Conquest, who lived in Hastings for most of his childhood. He received almost all of his early chess instruction from club members, most notably from Arthur Winser, one of the most remarkable figures in the club's history – he won the club championship a record 25 times, starting in 1933, and ending in 1978!


W. A. Winser, Club Champion a record 25 times

The club's current President is Bernard Cafferty, a former Editor of the British Chess Magazine and a well-known Russian translator. In his time, Bernard was responsible for translating into English Botvinnik's autobiography, Achieving the Aim, and was a personal friend of the great Soviet Patriarch.


L. to r.: Bernard Cafferty (Club President), Councillor Paul Smith, Bill Penfold (Club Chairman) and Michael Foster MP, the Member of Parliament for Hastings. The first two both made short speeches, which you can watch in the following videos (with thanks to John Saunders, of the British Chess Magazine):

The great history and traditions of the club were marked on Saturday 30 June 2007, with a special reception to mark the 125th anniversary of the founding of the club. The 50 or so people attending included Michael Foster, the local Member of Parliament, and Councillor Paul Smith, whose long association with the Hasting Congress has done much to maintain council support and funding for the event. Representatives of local chess clubs joined club members and other well-wishers for a pleasant buffet lunch.


The annual general meeting in 2004

Since no such occasion is ever complete without some pieces being moved in anger, the buffet and speeches were followed by a rapid-play match, between a team of current Hastings members, and a team of visitors. The latter triumphed 9-8.


IM Thomas Rendle is currently the club's strongest player, and grew up in the town.


The rapid-play match. If you look closely, you may recognize the position shown on the tapestry hanging on the wall!


At least two players decided to enter the spirit of things, by playing an opening that was the height of fashion in 1882!

Report by Steve Giddins


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