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The Greatest British Chess Player

Article on McDonnell in the Northern Whig 14th May 1914


The Greatest British Chess Player

The North-East of Ireland has in its time produced not only many great captains and soldiers of industry, but also it has sent forth into the world many who have shone in other walks of life. It is not as generally known a s it should be that Alexander McDonnell, the greatest British chess player that ever lived and the second greatest player of his time, was a native of Belfast. Born in 1798, the son of a Belfast merchant, he was afterwards sent to business in the town. About this time there were a few chess enthusiasts in the town who used to meet of an evening to play games of chess, and in a while their little circle became definitely known as the Belfast Chess club, which is thus one of the oldest chess clubs, if not the oldest club in the United Kingdom. Into this circle Alexander McDonnell was drawn. Soon the new entrant displayed remarkable powers at the game, and eventually there was no one in the Club to whom he could not give substantial odds. Notable among his Belfast opponents was Mr. James Gamble to whom McDonnell conceded a knight. Some of their games have been preserved. McDonnell having here in Belfast no foe worthy of his steel went to London to fight the metropolitan players. Here also as in Belfast he swept all before him. Hearing of McDonnell's fame De La Bourdonnais, the champion of France, determined to cross over to London to cross blades with the famous Ulsterman. The premiership in chess, which today belongs to Germany and Russia, then belonged to France, and consequently De La Bourdonnais had had practice against exponents of the game, and was more fortunate than McDonnell in that respect. The styles of the two men stood greatly in contrast, the Frenchman, while brilliant, was cautious and discreet, whereas McDonnell made strong but risky attacks. McDonnell was the slower player of the two. De La Bourdonnais knew no English and McDonnell no French, and consequently there was no conversation possible between them. The majority of games were won by De La Bourdonnais, who must therefore be considered the better player, although it should be noted that as time wore on the Irishman became more formidable. The matches were ot completed owing to McDonnell's death in 1835. McDonnell was buried in Kensal Green, and when De La Bourdonnais died five years later he was laid to rest in the same church yard at the side of his old foeman. To this day among chess players the world over the name of McDonnell is one that is in daily use as being associated with chess play of the most adventurous description. There can be no doubt, however, that the proverb about the prophet in his own country applies to McDonnell. It is astonishing how few, even among chess players, in Belfast know of the fact that he was one of Belfast's brightest jewels.

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