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Arthur Cootes 1907-2002

Obituary by Gerald Harvey

Arthur Cootes, past President of the Ulster Chess Union, winner of the Williamson Shield, friend and mentor to many of us, died on December 1st 2002 after a short illness resulting from the effects of a fall in his flat, fatefully, on September 11th 2001.

Born in New York on February 1st 1907, he retained US citizenship throughout his life. His early years were spent in Northern Ireland, living with his father and paternal grandparents at Rathmore House, between Dunmurry and Finaghy. His grandfather was a prominent industrialist, being the owner of the Victor Coates Engineering Company that built many steam engines for the local spinning and shipbuilding industries. Arthur reminisced late in life about his grandfather going to work in a horse drawn coach!

Arthur contented himself at Rathmore maintaining and playing on his own twelve-hole golf course in the grounds. His early interest in chess was helped by lessons from A.S. Roper, a local expert, who controlled a number of Irish Championships. Though comfortably off, he was aware of the poverty of the times and remarked about seeing people on the train with no shoes. When the house and grounds were eventually sold to the Roman Catholic Church, Arthur was on hand to show the nuns how to operate the central heating. He also returned to Rathmore when his children were visiting him, to show them round his former home, now a girl’s grammar school.

Arthur was educated at preparatory school in Wales and then Uppingham School in England, followed by Sydney Sussex College, Cambridge University. Here he became friendly with the famous chess player Milner Barry, whom he played many times. Arthur’s chess playing prowess in old age suggests that at this time he was a strong amateur player, probably well over 2000 grade.

Arthur graduated from Cambridge University with a BA degree (June 1929) and an MA degree (April 1933). He then went into teaching for several years. In 1936 Arthur attended the historic Nottingham International Chess Tournament, played at Nottingham University, which had Alekhine, Botvinnik, Capablanca, Euwe, and Lasker among the participants.

Arthur’s main career was in forestry and he spent the years of the Second World War travelling the country to select suitable timber for charcoal production, to be used in steel making for the war effort. His expertise at other times also took him all over the world. He worked in numerous countries in South America, Jamaica, the former Yugoslavia, Australia and New Zealand (where he lived for twelve years). Tropical illnesses took their toll on his digestive system and he was careful about his diet later in life.

In 1965 Arthur retired and came back to Northern Ireland, staying initially with a cousin. He joined the Belfast Chess Club, CIYMS Chess Club and Knock Golf Club. It was a member of the Belfast Chess Club who by constantly referring to Victor Coates (Arthur’s real name) as Arthur Cootes, led Victor to adopt his new name, at least among chess players, because he quirkily preferred it to his real one!

After the Belfast Chess Club closed, Arthur continued to play at CIYMS until the early 1980s when he joined the Civil Service Chess Club, which he then loyally supported to the end of his life. One of the first things he did on joining the Civil Service Club was to purchase a strongbox for the equipment. Though well over seventy by then, he often walked from his flat at Ardcarn to the club at the Maynard Sinclair Pavilion.

Arthur was active in the game as administrator and tournament player. He was Ulster Chess Union President from 1974 to 1977 and was elected Honorary Vice President at the 1977 AGM. He won the Williamson Shield in 1973, when it was in knockout format, beating Desmond Speed 2-0 in the final. His best finish in the Ulster Championship was = 2nd in the 1971 Belfast section. He also finished =5th in this section in 1969 and 1972. Arthur continued thereafter to support the tournament calendar for decades to come.

Arthur played at least two International Grandmasters in simultaneous displays. He mentioned playing a very interesting game against Svetozar Gligoric in the Sixties. Much later he played against Raymond Keene at the City Hall in Belfast and was among the last group of people still playing, though he eventually lost. After the display James O’Fee introduced Keene to Arthur as a fellow Cambridge graduate.

Arthur told me he had memorised hundreds of games to help his play, especially clock management. He was quite self-effacing at the board, but feared no one and was rarely in serious time trouble. Once I overheard someone innocently announce that Arthur’s clock was faulty. In reality the clock was fine, he had simply managed to build a huge time advantage over his much younger opponent. In his later years he became a bit deaf. This was sometimes an advantage when playing chess. On one occasion, his young opponent began offering a draw on almost every move. Anxious that this crude attempt at gamesmanship might put Arthur off, I scanned his face for signs of irritation, there were none and without responding to the draw offers he played on and won the game quite easily.

In 1997 Arthur’s ninetieth year was marked by the Ulster Chess Union with a reception and presentation at the Queens University Staff Common Room. He was happy with the honour accorded to him by fellow players. In 2000 he helped the Civil Service Club to win the Plate section of the inaugural Knockout Cup, by winning both his games and turned out for the Civil Service at the start of the following league season. Alex Beckett kept Arthur informed of progress of the 2002 Civil Service Summer Tournament, in which he was very interested, since he had been controller of the tournament before Alex took over. Almost to the end of his life, he invited players to his flat for a game of chess. My memories of these occasions are very pleasant, consisting as they did of challenging chess, excellent refreshments and interesting conversation.

In his retirement, Arthur played golf at Knock Golf Club. He also worked hard to improve the course. He planted the imposing hedge screening the rear of the clubhouse from the ninth green and tenth tee. He also planted the Cypress trees between the seventh fairway and the Stoney Road and numerous other trees around the course. Arthur was still a decent golfer in his seventies and eighties. When he was younger he played golf competitively.

Six children and his wife Ivy survive Arthur. Ivy’s support undoubtedly helped him to extend his chess playing days well beyond that of most ordinary mortals. His optimism, integrity, reliability and staying power were inspirational qualities. He was dedicated to whatever task he set himself and genuinely interested in the lives and welfare of others. Everyone in Ulster chess will surely miss him.

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