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MacDonnell-Wisker match, 1874

The most important chess match played in London in the year 1874 was that of 15 games played over five weeks between John Wisker, holder of the British Chess Association’s Challenge Cup, and the Rev. George Alcock MacDonnell. This was a revenge match after MacDonnell had won a shorter 4-game duel in 1873.

Yet the Oxford Companion to Chess incorrectly dated the second match to 1875 and ChessBase’s database has only 11 games, two of which are actually not genuine games from the match.

So what really happened? Tim Harding has been investigating. This is his revised report, including all the games from both their matches.

The background to this contest is that in the first week of August 1873, Wisker and MacDonnell had played a friendly match for a small stake during the Counties Chess Association meeting at Clifton, Bristol. It was for the best of five games but, somewhat surprisingly, Wisker had failed to win a game. After four games, MacDonnell had won three and one was drawn, so the fifth game was not played.

You can follow the course of the 1873 match online through thislive javascript page where all four games can be replayed and downloaded. (NB: The games page should open in a new window or browser tab.)

Neither man was a professional chess player. Wisker (who had come to London from Hull in 1868) was a respected journalist. MacDonnell, originally from Dublin, was an Anglican clergyman with probably, some private means. He had been suspended from his curacy in 1872 for marrying a divorced person - a story told in my book Eminent Victorian Chess Players - and possibly did not work in the Church again until he obtained a new curacy in 1876.

Their match in 1874 was on a much more substantial scale, both in the number of games and the money. It was played from 29 October to 30 November 1874, and the final result will be revealed later in this article. So P. W. Sergeant’s book A Century of British Chess was only very slightly wrong in saying the match was played in November (13 of the 15 games were in that month), but it is very hard to understand how two eminent chess historians, the late Ken Whyld and David Hooper, could place the match in the wrong year.

Arrangements for the match

The Sportsman, whose short-lived chess column was conducted by Wisker himself, carried the following announcement on Wednesday 29 October 1874, which was repeated (with minor adjustments) next day by the Morning Post:

GREAT CHESS MATCH.—The proprietors of the Sportsman have arranged a match at chess between the well known British players, the Rev. G. A. Macdonnell and Mr. Wisker. The first game will be commenced at noon this day (Thursday, and the play will be continued every Monday, Thursday, and Saturday until the match is completed. It is arranged that the winner of the first seven games shall be declared the winner of the match, and entitled to a prize of 100l. The play will take place at 102, Strand, in a room set apart for the purpose by the directors of Simpson’s Dining Company.

Sources disagree about the stakes, with most saying the match was for £30 a side, i.e. for £60 not £100, while a few say £80. Since the Sportsman (and the Morning Post) clearly state £100, that must be right, but maybe the other sums quoted referred to side-bets on the outcome by supporters of the two players.

The match umpire was Samuel Standidge Boden but he appears not to have had any disputes to adjudicate. The time limit was thirty moves in two hours, and then probably fifteen moves in an hour.

Several of the contemporary chess columns reported on the match at the time, in particular The Field, where Steinitz published all the games but not in the right order and only occasionally clarifying which number in the sequence any particular game was. In addition, Land and Water (the column then in Wisker’s own hands), the Illustrated London News and the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News (both columns then being edited by R. B. Wormald) also provided some information and a few games each.

The course of the match

The Sportsman published the result of the first game on 30 October and the moves next day. This was just in time to be reprinted in the November issue of the Westminster Papers (on page 131) with "notes by A New Hand." Wisker had first move and it began 1 d4 e6 2 g3 f5. Wisker lost a piece at move 33 in a complicated middle-game and six moves later MacDonnell overlooked a clear winning line. After that Wisker played resourcefully and ultimately reached a drawn endgame with only rook and pawn against rook and knight. The Westminster Papers carried a scornful paragraph (presumably written by P. T. Duffy) on page 123 from which the following is an extract:

“...Both gentlemen being so widely known, the match it was supposed would be regarded with unusual interest throughout the Chess World. We may record that this intense excitement on the part of the public was shown on Thursday, for, at one time, including the waiter and the players, we counted actually present in the flesh, 11 persons... Each of the players seemed to fancy that the other has a profound knowledge of the openings. Each, we think, is by this time disabused on that point. We cannot recall any match game between good players in which the early part of the game was so miserably played. We suppose, in racing language, the players had not settled down to their stride. The start was fixed for 12 o’clock, it ended in a draw, on the 71st move, at about 10 p.m. Whether this is intended as a trial of skill or endurance, we are not certain, for the particulars of the contract have not been forwarded to us.”

The next three games were each won by the player who had the first move; contemporary press reports clearly show that Macdonnell had taken an early lead. These have clearly escaped the attention of Gino Di Felice whose unreliable reference book, Chess Results 1774-1900, offers a sequence of results which is easily proved to be incorrect. He begins (on page 60) with two wins for Wisker, followed by two for MacDonnell, apparently a fantasy based on no apparent evidence.

In order to establish the correct sequence of play, at a time when The Sportsman was unavailable, I turned to the December Westminster Papers, which carried comments on nearly all the remaining games — except the last game which had not been played when that issue went to press. Comparing the verbal descriptions and also the diagrams and passages of play in the Papers with the game scores published in The Field and the various reports on the state of the match in that and other papers, it has been possible to reconstruct a definite list of the results, and openings played, as follows (“RL” = Ruy Lopez).

No

Date

White

Black

Opening

#

Main Source

1

29/10

Wisker

MacDonnell

Dutch Def.

½

Field 31/10, WP

2

31/10

MacDonnell

Wisker

Scotch

1-0

Field 7/11

3

2/11

Wisker

MacDonnell

RL 6 Nc3

1-0

Field 7/11

4

5/11

MacDonnell

Wisker

Scotch

1-0

Field 14/11

5

7/11

Wisker

MacDonnell

Petroff

½

Field 14/11; WP

6

9/11

MacDonnell

Wisker

Scotch

0-1

Field; WP

7

12/11

Wisker

MacDonnell

Dutch Def.

½

Field 22/11

8

14/11

MacDonnell

Wisker

Bird’s Op.

0-1

Field 28/11

9

16/11

Wisker

MacDonnell

Evans G.

1-0

Field/L&W 29/11

10

19/11

MacDonnell

Wisker

RL 6 Nc3

0-1

Field 12/12

11

21/11

Wisker

MacDonnell

Evans G.

0-1

Field 28/11

12

23/11

MacDonnell

Wisker

RL 5...d6

½

Field 12/12

13

26/11

Wisker

MacDonnell

Evans G.

0-1

Field 5/12

14

28/11

MacDonnell

Wisker

RL Open

0-1

Field 5/12

15

30/11

Wisker

MacDonnell

RL 5 Nc3

1-0

Field 19/12

From this it can be seen that Wisker squared the match in Game Six; the Field on 14 November definitely said the scores were level then. Wisker then took the lead in Game 8 and was always in the lead thereafter. The final score, as all primary sources agree, was Wisker 7 MacDonnell 4 with four draws. Games 7, 10 and 12 were definitely adjourned and completed the following day. In a few cases, the last ten or twenty moves were not published.

The table also showed that White won five games and Black won six. This imbalance cannot entirely be attributed to the openings, though, but rather to mistakes made in the middle-games and endgames. Nevertheless it is noteworthy that Wisker made a large plus score (four wins, a draw and no losses) in the games which began with the Ruy Lopez — although in three of these he was Black!

The match therefore ended on Monday 30 November and the result was announced next day, 1 December, in The Sportsman, that column also carrying the moves of the penultimate game with Wisker's notes. His annotations to Game 15 were published on 2 December. On the Tuesday, he also noted:

“The longest game occupied eleven hours in playing, the shortest three. Nearly all the chess amateurs of the metropolis witnessed the play at one period or another, and it is not too much to say that no chess match of late years has excited so much interest.”

The games of the match

In this short article I shall not analyse the games in any detail, and I am keeping to myself the notes I have collected from contemporary sources, pending a thorough reanalysis of the games.

Now you can follow the course of the 1874 match online through another live javascript page where all 15 games can be replayed and downloaded. (NB: The games page should open in a new window or browser tab.)

I am also making available for download an updated ChessBase archive game file (CBV) format, which contains all the games between MacDonnell and Wisker that I have been able to find. It includes a possibly spurious game which did appear in one periodical purporting to be from the 1874 match although it was not. At least one serious game between MacDonnell and Wisker, from the B.C.A. Grand Tourney of 1872, appears to be lost to posterity, but maybe that was it. The other “cuckoo in the nest” (i.e., in ChessBase’s database) actually turned out to be from the 1873 match.

Turning points in the 1874 match

In the final section of this article, I review the match through the eyes of the contemporary commentators. Game 1 was already mentioned.

In Games 2, 4, and 6, Wisker chose to meet the Scotch Game (1 e4 e5 2 Nf3 Nc6 3 d4 exd4 4 Nxd4) with 4...Qh4, the move employed by the City of London Chess Club in its correspondence match with Vienna. Wisker, who had originally been on the club’s committee for that contest, had been privy to Steinitz’s analysis and presumably hoped to benefit from that knowledge. MacDonnell varied from the match at move 10, obtained a good position but spoiled it with weak moves at 24 and 25. Wisker should then have won but at move 33 he failed to exchange queens into an ending two pawns ahead. He should still have drawn but next move he made a fatal pawn-grab.

In Game 4, there were many mistakes on both sides. For example, MacDonnell blundered a pawn at move 21 but at move 23 Wisker played an unsound combination. Then in Game 6, MacDonnell threw away a somewhat favourable position with his 25th move. However, the variation given in the Westminster Papers (25 f4! exf4 26 Qd2 bxc6 27 Rxf4) is not a forced win for White; Black may have some compensation for the exchange.

After this MacDonnell abandoned the Scotch and tried Bird’s Opening in Game 8, but Wisker met it well. In his remaining games with White, the reverend gentleman switched to the Ruy Lopez, but with no success. That is not say he reached bad positions. In Game 10, 50 Bc2 would have been very strong (as the Westminster Papers said) but MacDonnell’s 50 g6 was also good, if only he had followed up with 51 Rhg2. The Westminster Papers thought that MacDonnell could have drawn as late as move 70 but there was a flaw in its analysis of the endgame.

Then in game 12 Wisker had to give up the exchange to avoid a worse fate and MacDonnell undoubtedly let winning chances slip through his fingers, and drew.

In the penultimate game, number 14, a very interesting and difficult endgame arose after 30 moves, MacDonnell having rook and five pawns against bishop and seven. He probably should have been able to win this with precise play; he certainly should not have lost it.

Reverting to the earlier stage of the match, and the games where MacDonnell was Black, Wisker mostly employed 1 e4 (apart from another Dutch Defence in game 7).

In Game 5, a Petroff, Wisker obtained a won position only to make the biggest endgame mistake of the whole match. Wisker had rook on c7, king on a5, a6-pawn and b5-pawn against rook on g5 and black king on g8. Instead of 73 Rd7 (indicated by Steinitz), White blundered by 73 a7+?? and after 73...Ka8 White must either abandon his a-pawn or allow his opponent (as happened in the game) to give up rook for b-pawn and achieve stalemate. Steinitz commented:

“Though the solution is certainly very difficult, it would be almost incredible that a player of Mr Wisker's calibre should neither have known it, nor have been able to discover the way to win in a match game, if we did not remember that the exhaustion after eight and a half hours' play has often had to account for greater errors. White wins if he exercises proper caution.”

Once Wisker had taken the lead in the match, he adopted the Evans Gambit, perhaps with a view to entertaining the gallery. In Game 9 this paid off after MacDonnell diverged from what was then a well-known “book” line by 12...c5?! but even so Wisker needed a lot of help from his opponent to enable his attack to break through. In Games 11 and 13, though, MacDonnell was clearly well prepared for a repetition of this gambit, which Wisker did not play well. His choice of the Evans, a weapon which did not suit his style, enabled MacDonnell to get back in the contest.

Then came the fatal Game 14, in which the correct conduct of the endgame (probably beginning 31 g5 a5 32 Kg4) ought to have made the match situation 5-5 instead of 6-4 to Wisker.

Contemporary assessments

The Westminster Papers in January 1875 said:

“How Mr. Macdonnell managed to throw away won game after won game must seem almost miraculous to those who do not know that even the steadiest players are often injuriously affected by circumstances external to the game.”

Steinitz’s view, in The Field of 5 December, agreed about the endgame failings though his view was more balanced:

“Compared with other matches, and remembering that a slight shade of difference in strength, often arising only from a difference in the state of health, has sometimes been sufficient to decide by much larger majorities the issue between two players of nearly equal force, we may call this match a pretty close one, and it would have been perhaps closer still had Mr MacDonnell been in good form. That there was a considerable falling off in the latter gentleman’s play became more manifest in the ending game, which used to be considered his great force.

On several occasions, when his strong powers of resource and patience had carried him out of the opening and middle part of the game (of which his opponent possesses a profound knowledge) with an advantage which, analytically, ought to have been sufficient to win, his faculties of calculation seemed to fail him at the last moment, when victory did not depends so much upon judgment as upon accuracy of reckoning. On the whole the games were, however, fair specimens of well-contested match games between high-class players, and reflected a great amount of credit upon the winner, who exhibited the same superior qualities of endurance, depth, and judgment which distinguished his play in the competition for the championship of the British Chess Association, of which he was the conquering hero twice in succession.”

Commentators thought the 7-4 margin flattered Wisker as much as the reverse result in 1873 had flattered MacDonnell, but to Wisker that holiday contest was probably much less significant than the series of matches he played with Bird in 1873, from which they emerged with roughly equal honours.

When it came to the crunch in 1874, Wisker displayed the same tenacity that he had shown in the British Chess Association Challenge Cup contests of 1870 and 1872, in neither of which he had started as favourite, but in both of which he had won the decisive games in play-offs. In the City of London Chess Magazine, January 1875, W. N. Potter summed up the match as follows:

“For a time the contest was an exceedingly close one, and the ultimate outcome was considered, by good judges, as very doubtful. However, in the latter part of the match Mr. MacDonnell was certainly not in good form, and in the deciding game he failed altogether to do himself justice. Mr. Wisker throughout displayed that steadiness and self forbearance which so often ends in victory, and makes it, when attained, the more deserved. He had once or twice the vexation of losing the imminent reward of nine or ten hours’ hard work by some unfortunate slip, but this never had the effect of preventing him from bringing a calm and well balanced judgment to bear upon the next encounter.”

The latter tried to arrange a third match but Wisker wanted to play Zukertort instead. This did not come about and then Wisker’s health began to fail, leading to his emigration to Australia in 1876. His 1874 match against MacDonnell was to prove Wisker’s last major success.

© Tim Harding, 2014 (updated 2015)

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