Shall We Play a Game?
Image courtesy of Library of Congress
The United States and Great Britain have a long and contentious history of cross-Atlantic competition, a friendly rivalry Members of Parliament and Congress were eager to indulge with a little game of chess.
The game of chess requires skill, intellect, a bit of luck and in this case . . . military strategy and a telegraph? In 1897, Members from the House of Representatives and the British House of Commons set up the first intercontinental game of chess among elected government leaders.
In the aftermath of the Venezuela Crisis of 1895, when the United States invoked the Monroe Doctrine and raised tensions with Great Britain, Member of Parliament Henniker Heaton approached Speaker of the House Thomas Brackett Reed of Maine on an unusual diplomatic errand. What if, Heaton proposed, the two legislatures played a chess match to soothe relations and renew friendships? When Reed agreed, North Carolina Representative Richmond Pearson of the Foreign Affairs Committee took the lead. “While our Governments are discussing a treaty of perpetual peace, we venture to express hope that hostility between the two countries will never assume a harsher form than a contest at chess,” Pearson said, “the most noble, the most ancient, and the only universal game known among the peoples of the earth.”
Prior to the actual match, House Members competed against each other to select the best chess players. Once assembled, the “chess dream team” trained at the posh Metropolitan Club of Washington, where they practiced against other chess enthusiasts. Eventually, the five-person House team included John Shafroth of Colorado, Richmond Pearson of North Carolina, Robert Bodine of Missouri, Thomas Plowman of Alabama, and Levin Handy of Delaware. Horace Plunkett, John Howard Parnell, Arthur Strauss, Llewellyn Atherley-Jones, and F.W. Wilson comprised the British squad.
Image courtesy of Architect of the Capitol
Constantino Brumidi's The Apotheosis of Washington in the Capitol Dome features the transatlantic telegraph wire used to complete the chess game.
Arranging the event’s logistics required precise planning. The Anglo-American Telegraph Offices in London and Western Union in Washington, D.C., set the ground rules for the matches and made arrangements for the receipt and transmission of chess moves from each of the legislative bodies. Leaving nothing to chance, the telegraph offices even employed operators who were seasoned chess players to work the lines. Their preparations paid off. In some instances, messages concerning the game moved back and forth across the Atlantic in 40 seconds. During the second day of the play, 20 moves were exchanged in roughly 21 minutes.
After some initial confusion over who would telegraph the opening move, the Speaker of the House of Commons William Gully wired the first message: “To American Speaker—I am glad to hear that a friendly match is about begin between the two Houses, and trust this is the most serious conflict in which they will ever meet.” The sharp-witted Reed quickly replied, “Speaker to Speaker — Thanks for your friendly message. Please convey to the players my regret that I cannot send best wishes just now, but hope to do so always hereafter.—T. B. Reed, Speaker.” The much anticipated match, which opened in the Foreign Affairs Committee room, drew a crowd of spectators from around the District of Columbia. Dignitaries representing England, Sweden, Spain, Switzerland, and Russia also arrived at the U.S. Capitol and served as board proxies for the Members of Parliament.
Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
The international chess game was carried out through telegram notices detailing each player's moves.
On May 31, 1897, the first day of the event, players completed two of the five simultaneous matches and the score was tied. The next morning, after a full day of play, and another two boards completed (with a win apiece), the final game between M.P. Parnell and Representative Shafroth resulted in a draw. Learning of the tie, the British gave three cheers for the President of the United States. Representative Pearson responded, “Have announced the result a draw, and the company have given three hearty cheers for her Majesty the Queen.”
The friendly game seemed to have its desired diplomatic effect. Over the course of the two-day event, the London Times quoted one M.P. as observing, “one man among the players may at some time prevent war because he has a chess-player friend in England or in the United States.”
Sources: New York Tribune, 4 April 1897; Washington Post, 13 April 1897; London Times, 1 June 1897; London Times, 2 June 1897; Washington Post, 17 July 1927; Baltimore Sun, 31 May 1897.