Book Review – Thomas Frere – A History of 19th Century Chess in New York City

Thomas Frère and the Brotherhood of Chess. A History of 19th Century Chess in New York City. Author: Martin Frere Hillyer. 211 Pages. 130 Diagrams. 54 Games. 22 Monochrome Photographs.

Thomas Frère is a name with which many chess players will be unfamiliar, yet he enjoyed a significant role in the development of the game in North America during the second half of the 19th Century. This biography, penned by his great-great-grandson, is divided into four sections:-

Part I: 1827-1856

Born on 8th December 1820 in Brooklyn of a French Creole father and a mother of Irish descent, Thomas Frère’s interest in chess is sparked in 1827 on seeing “the Turk”, Maelzel’s automaton chess player, at Tammany Hall. The story leaps forward to 1854 with Frère, a married man with three children, working for the Home Life Insurance Company in Wall Street whilst also operating a printing, engraving and publishing business. He witnesses the start of public chess in New York when the owner of Limberger’s saloon at the corner of Fulton and Nassau Streets, decides to replace the decrepit chess equipment used by two patrons with several new sets and boards. Within three years, in excess of fifty players are frequenting the establishment. Moving from Limberger’s saloon to Brooklyn in 1856, Frère starts the Brooklyn Chess Club.

Part II: 1857-1865

Frère becomes involved with organising and running the First American Chess Congress held in New York. Morphy takes first prize in the Grand Tournament, ahead of Louis Paulson in second. Paulsen causes a sensation with his feats of blindfold chess. In 1859 Frère publishes the first book about the new American chess sensation, ”Morphy’s Games of Chess and Frère’s Problem Tournament”. During 1858 through 1859 he becomes embroiled in a feud with Daniel W. Fiske, Editor of Chess Monthly and lead organiser of the First American Chess Congress, regarding Staunton’s refusal to contest a match with Morphy. Deploring Fiske’s barbed comments directed at Staunton, he enters into protracted correspondence in support of the Englishman. Letters flow back and forth and in the background is the suspicion that Fiske is trying to undermine Frère’s position in an attempt to acquire authorship of his chess column in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper.

The American Civil War (1861-1865) has a significant adverse impact on the development of chess in North America. Frère, as a member of the Brooklyn reserves, is called up to protect New York during the Gettysburg campaign. On returning from war, he starts a second family with Helen Mar Rice and they eventually have six children together. (There is conflicting evidence as to whether they married in 1865 or 1890. When Frère’s first wife – Mary Adams Strickland Frère – died on 13th October 1888, she is listed in the Brooklyn Eagle as his wife.)

Part III: 1877-1886

There is an absence of chess information concerning Frère from 1866 until 1877. Perhaps the need to support two families diminished his leisure time? In 1877 he resurfaces as a founder member of the Manhattan Chess Club. This gives rise to involvement in 1879 of staging a display of living chess at the Academy of Music, 14th Street, New York and the Fifth American Chess Congress in 1880. (The latter event featured an allegation of cheating – some things never change – which receives extensive coverage.)

The 1880s see Wilhelm Steinitz touring chess clubs in the U.S.A., eventually applying for citizenship and making the country his home. Following the development of a friendship, Steinitz appoints Frère as his second for a proposed World Championship Match against Johann Zukertort. Protracted negotiations with Zukertort’s representative, James Innes Minchin, culminate in an 1886 match played in New York, St. Louis and New Orleans. When Steinitz wins, Frère basks as a successful ally.

Part IV: Through 1900

Frère serves as a vice president for the Sixth American Chess Congress, New York 1889 – his last public event. Youngest son, Walter, follows in his father’s footsteps, surpassing him as an amateur player. Frère senior spends time writing and working on scrapbooks. He dies on 19th January 1900, aged 79, in the same year as Steinitz.

This softback publication is a reprint of the library bound edition first published in 2007 and becomes another brick in the McFarland wall of American chess history. Enhanced by the passion of an author with blood connections to his subject, all of the events mentioned above are described in detail. Hillyer quotes factual evidence of events which often leads to enlightened speculation as to the motives of relevant parties. It is difficult to overestimate Frère’s contribution to the development of chess in the U.S.A.. A leading organiser, writer, columnist and historian, but most of all, chess enthusiast, he wrote three important books, helped set up important clubs, was involved in the administration of major Congresses plus the first World Championship Match, enjoyed the friendship of both Morphy and Steinitz and laid out the official rules of tournament play in the U.S.A. that were used well into the 20th century. The reader is offered a window on 19th century U.S.A.:-

Chess before the introduction of time constraints.
Nine hour (!!) blindfold simultaneous displays.
Max Judd of St. Louis described as a ‘Strong Western Player’.
Games contested routinely at odds.

I expended almost two months reading this work and playing through some of the games. Time well spent! As with many of the baseball books that I study, Hillyer (like Roger Kahn) paints a vivid picture of a U.S.A. that has gone for ever but continues to demand attention. Some of the terminology in 19th century correspondence is far from easy to comprehend, but that is not the fault of the author. I commend this publication to anyone interested in chess history.

Review by David Mills

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