Bristol & Clifton

by Alistair Brown

A history of the chess club, published in the 75th League anniversary issue of the Bristol Chesstimes in 1982.

The Bristol & Clifton Chess Club is the direct descendant of the Bristol Chess Club formed in 1829. It is probably the oldest chess club in the country outside London. (A claim to this distinction by the Liverpool Chess Club, formed in 1837, in a letter to the Times Literary Supplement in March 1916, was very quickly refuted).

Prior to its formation, enthusiasts played weekly at the home of a Mr. Withers in Castle Street but, eventually, when the membership reached 60 they moved to rented rooms at 25 Trinity Street, College Green.

The club's first president, Elijah Williams, was one of the greats of his day and good enough to play in the first London tournament in 1851. He was, however, one of the slowest players of his time, so much so that Howard Staunton, when playing him, is reputed to have remarked 'My God, Elijah, you're not just supposed to sit there - you're supposed to sit there and think!'

The club meandered its way through the 19th century, its fortunes, and clubroom, changing from time to time. At one period it was open seven days a week from 9.30 am to 9.30 pm for an annual sub of 2/6 (12½p). Riotous evenings, otherwise known as soirées, were held in the Victoria Rooms and these helped to keep the club's financial head above water.

In 1871, the club was relegated (promoted?) to the attic of the Athenæum where the members declared 'their brains were frozen in the winter and dissolved in the summer'. This precipitated a crisis and the club was reformed under the name 'The Bristol & Clifton Chess Association' and opened in the Academy of Fine Arts in Queen's Road. The following year membership had reached 100 - plus six lady associate members at a reduced fee of 5/6!

Several of the leading players of the day visited the club over the years. Among these were Löwenthal who wrote in the Daily Telegraph that 'of all chess clubs out of London, that of Bristol is one of the most famous' and who was engaged by the club for a week's practice; Blackburne who played a ten game blindfold simultaneous; Zukertort who played a twelve game blindfold simultaneous followed by a 60 board simultaneous; and Lasker.

Exactly 100 years ago this year, after moving house to the Imperial Hotel, Clifton the club changed its name to that by which it is known today.

In 1883 there was published a history of the club, written by one of its vice-presidents, J.Burt. Included in the book are 150 games played by members over the years and annotated in a style that sounds foreign to the modern ear, shades of the days of gracious living, e.g. B & C v Howard Staunton, Correspondence Game: 'but for the necessity of making this defensive move, there is every probability that the Bristol players would have acquire the better game'. 'This is a very effective move in appearance but it did not answer the expectations of its authors.' B & C v Birmingham: 'The Bristol Players are entitled to the highest degree of credit for the skilful manner in which they handled their Q at this stage of the game'. And many more. The club's claim to fame in having an opening named after it stems from a correspondence match with Dublin where, in a King's Bishop Gambit, the club opened 1 P-K4 P-K4; 2 P-KB4 PxP; 3 B-K2 which is annotated 'This ridiculous mode of continuing the opening is simply third rate play, styled by its admirers "The Clifton Gambit". For the credit of the Bristol Club, we trust its sponsors will give their protégé a more deserving title; one in accordance with its merits'.

At the turn of the century, the club was in a very healthy state and, by far, the strongest in the city and beyond - strong enough to take on the best of the rest and win. In 1921, Capablanca played a 40 board simul and won 39. There were 200 spectators at the event.

With the formation of more local clubs in the late twenties, the club fell into decline and only the efforts of a few dedicated members kept it from falling by the wayside. It recovered slowly to a position where it was, once more, able to invite the best, Alekhine and Koltanowski giving simuls in the late 30s.

It survived the 2nd World War when activities were drastically curtailed and, by 1946, membership had risen to 95. Since then, its fortunes have varied but, today, it is probably in as healthy state as it has ever been and is able to run eight teams in the League.

From the records it appears to have had over 20 clubrooms in its long history, most of these being in and around the Clifton area. These have varied in standard from good to downright appalling.

The club has always taken a very active part in the League and supported it through good times and bad. One of its main attractions is that it tries to cater for all standards of player, running tournaments throughout winter and summer, two nights a week, to suit everyone. Although no longer able, or willing, to run soirées in the Victoria Rooms, nevertheless, it can loosen its stays, let down its hair and enjoy the lighter side of the game on occasions. In addition, it has an extensive library of chess books available on loan to members.

It would be unfair to single out the contribution of any individual in its history as it has been well served by many enthusiastic and dedicated officers since its foundation - as enthusiastic and dedicated today as they were when they formed the club at Mr.Wither's house in the year when Oxford first met Cambridge in the Boat Race and Stevenson's Rocket won the Rainham speed trials at 29 mph.

1997 postscript: Bristol & Clifton dominated the League for about the next ten years, winning its most recent championship in 1993. This coincided with some good runs in the National Club competition, and at one time Clifton was fielding ten teams in the League. However, although still one of the League's top clubs, Bristol & Clifton has dropped from its totally dominant position and is now down to four teams. - JR