Book Review – Eminent Victorian Chess Players

Eminent Victorian Chess Players. Ten Biographies. Tim Harding. McFarland & Company. Softback. 400 Pages. 24 Photographs. 36 Sketches. 182 Diagrams.

A portrayal of British chess life in the Victorian era during which time vast social, economic and scientific advances took place. The author, a respected chess writer and historian, has penned ten biographical essays featuring players who made a significant contribution towards shaping the modern game. Several of these individuals resided in other countries in the course of their lives, so emphasis has been placed upon their years spent in Britain. Understandably, the largest chapters take as their subjects Staunton and Steinitz whilst others deal with Evans, Löwenthal, Bird, Skipworth, Blackburne, Zukertort, Burn and Gunsberg. The final 75 pages comprise appendices, notes and indices.

The depth of research undertaken by Tim Harding in the course of writing this book is impressive. Frequent references are made to 19th century chess magazines and magazines that featured chess, thereby providing signposts for readers who may wish to pursue their own lines of investigation. By their nature, historical publications reveal important information about many lesser lights – players, patrons, journalists, etc. – thereby offering a clearer backdrop to events. Games, where annotated, quote a mixture of contemporary notes, stating their source and the views of the author.

To steal the author’s words, this book is likely to be a ‘first round draft pick’ for the vast majority of chess historians. (If clarification of this expression is required, I suggest a crash course on North American sports, baseball being an ideal first port of call!) A joy to read, the photographs and sketches help illuminate a bygone time during which the chess capital of the world moved from Paris to London. Average club players, such as your reviewer, are likely to comprehend more easily and relate to the openings featured rather than many of the systems that currently predominate at the pinnacle of chess. On his website, Tim Harding mentions that he has just completed a large biography of J. H. Blackburne that should be ready later this year (2015). I look forward with anticipation to obtaining a copy.

Review by David Mills

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2 Responses to “Book Review – Eminent Victorian Chess Players”

  1. Andrew Hards

    Mar 24. 2015

    I’m going to ask the question everyone wants to but no one has, David – are there any cool traps/old systems in the games that are worth reviving?

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  2. David G. Mills

    Mar 29. 2015


    I’ve just seen Andrew Hards’ question regarding my book review – Eminent Victorian Chess Players. There are certain examples of old systems that I think are playable and are rarely seen but it depends on your level of play. This applies to many of the McFarland & Co. chess publications. For example, it would be interesting to see games in the Yorkshire League featuring Bird’s Defence to the Ruy Lopez. (1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 Nd4). At my level of play it is often appropriate to use main line systems that feature slightly off beat variations. This frequently presents an opponent with positions that he/she may never have met on a previous occasion whereas I have seen them fairly regularly.

    The other part of my response is that this type of book is not trying to supply what the question requests – although you may unearth something to your liking. I tend to find the examples of middlegame play in these works beneficial. Many chess books supply huge amounts of notes with little or no explanation of what each player is trying to achieve. McFarland chess publications tend to quote contemporary notes that originally featured in newspapers. The author may add some annotations but the analysis and notes complement the games rather than overwhelm the reader.

    On a slightly different note, a lack of knowledge concerning the history of chess in general can be surprising. Some strong players to whom I have spoken have exhibited ignorance of what I thought were basic historical chess facts.

    A few people have asked me if I give favourable reviews on the basis that books will continue to be forwarded to me! The answer is definitely ‘No’. If I think a book is poor, I will say so. One of the main features of McFarland chess books is the amount of research undertaken by the authors, even when writing about relatively obscure players. I am currently preparing a review of a 278 page book about Adolf Albin’s time in the U.S.A. between 1893 and 1895! I always welcome constructive feedback, whether you agree or disagree with my conclusions about the books in question.

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