Ballarat Chess Club History

Spielvogel Era

Late in the 19th Century, the Club gained a new member in the youthful Nathan Spielvogel, a teacher, poet, historian and gadfly. Spielvogel became Secretary of the Club in 1893 and President in 1939. A tireless promoter and administrator in all that he did, Spielvogel represented the Club in many competitions in its formative years. The Club now honours his memory with the Nathan Spielvogel Memorial tournament each year.

His writings paint a wonderful picture of the Chess Club at the Mechanics' Institute.

The Ballarat Courier 21st March 1884

“ A very grave act of discourtesy, not to say tyranny, was perpetrated last night at the Mechanics’ Institute chess-room. Mr. Fisher, the well-known intercolonial chess-player, an old Ballarat citizen, now of Melbourne, had come by appointment with the Mechanics’ players, to play all the tables at once, giving each opponent a knight. Before the play was finished, a member of the committee, Mr. Rawlings, came into the room and put out the gas, saying he would not permit the play to continue beyond the usual hours. The room was full of members of the institute, all of whom took a great interest in the match, and several gentlemen offered to pay for any extra gas that might be consumed, fortifying their word by relighting the gas. Mr. Rawlings then ordered the gas to be turned off at the meter and the match was thus irretrievably broken up. An appeal was made that the small courtesy of permitting the match to continue ought to be conceded, but the appeal was rejected. We certainly think that, seeing that billiards, with some not perfectly desirable accompaniments, are permitted by the committee till midnight, the more innocent and more educative game of chess under such exceptional conditions as those of the match last night, should not have been prohibited; and we presume that the members of the Institute will have something further to say upon the matter at the proper time. What Mr. Fisher’s report will be to the Melbourne Athenaeum and chess players generally in that city, we leave to the evolution of events.”

The Smokery

By Nathan F. Spielvogel (From 'The Ballarat Courier’, 9th April 1932)

About 5 o'clock on a dreary afternoon is the best time to visit the Smokery at the Mechanics' Institute.

“Out in the street­ The wind blaws as t'wad blaw its last, The rattling showers rise on the blast”.

But whistling wind, sleety rain, and bitter cold are all forgotten once you enter the cheerful smokery, the air of which is a fog produced by more or less fragrant tobacco. Nearly all the chairs are occupied. Fine, solid old-fashioned chairs they are! Some of them. black and shiny with the friction of thousands of trousers, must be a hundred years old.

Around the fire lounge the politicians. Fierce and fiery are the denunciations of Langism, of Bolshevism, of the perfidy of the United States,. of the degenerate spirit of the age. One orator eloquently and loudly proves that the ruin of the country is caused by the crass extravagance of the Parliaments. and another is pleading for a trial of the theory of Henry George. And there is always an audience to applaud or to offer ribald comments.

Duels of grim earnestness are being fought across the chess and draught tables, for you must certainly know that the Smokery has produced at least three chess players considered good enough to play for Victoria against New South Wales, and today John Armstrong, a son of the Smokery is playing off for the draughts championship of Australia. Around each table is a group of onlookers ever ready to give unsolicited advice how the game should have been played. No insult will silence them!

Once upon a time a player challenged his foe to play a game of chess for a pound. His opponent politely remarked he did not care to play the noble game of chess for the filthy lucre. The challenger looked round at the circle of grinning spectators, and said he had no objection to the filthy lucre. What he objected to was the filthy onlucre. It may be added he is still alive!

In a cosy corner a noisy, merry game of Ricketty Kate is in progress, and 80year­old young "Dick" Mitchell gives an exhibition of how the game is played according to Lancashire rules. Nearby a loud, defiant cry of "Nine clubs" shows where the 500 experts are doing battle.

Everything is going merrily till a queer, quaint sound rises from one of the draught tables. It is only a player in a tight corner easing his feelings by breaking into song. He gets as far as –“There’s a green little spot in old Ireland”, when howls from all sides silence his dismal carol.

There are few young men in the Smokery.  Anyone under 50 years of age is looked on as a mere boy. And there are some ripe old lads taking their ease on those old chairs. Alex. Don is well on to his ninetieth mile post, and is still able to give the best of them a good go over the draught board; Harry Mitchell, who taught school as far back as 1865, and is still as straight as the proverbial poker. is there; Edgar Martin, despite his 80 years, worries his opponents both at the chess table and on the bowling green; John Andrews, the evergreen, sits and smokes and murmurs cynical gibes about the blunders of the chess players.

The hands of the clock creep round to 6 o’clock. Reluctantly the men drift out, mindful of :
 “Where­sits our sulky, sullen dame
Gathering her brows like winter storm,
Nursing her wrath to keep it warm.”

The apostle of fresh air throws open all the windows to clear the room of the stale tobacco fumes. And then he, too, departs.
Only one man remains. quietly reading the evening paper. What tales he could tell about the actors who strutted upon the boards of the old theatre, of Stewart and Maggie Moore, and John Sheridan and Charles Anderson, and other celebrated folk!

I sit me down and in the gloaming muse about all the men who came here to take their leisure on those hard old chairs; men who have all gone on their last long voyage. Then methinks I see them here again. That sturdy little Scotchman, John Munro, eternal flower in the buttonhole of his double­breasted  reefer coat, ever ready to take up the cudgels on behalf of Tory ideals;
Slim, kind­eyed J. M. Bickett courageous dabbler in mining.shares; Don Ricardo, the Spaniard with a Galway brogue, who waylaying any youth who poked his inquisitive nose inside the door, dragged him in and taught him how to play chess (he must have taught hundreds of us); quarrelsome Harry Rawlings, the watchdog of the Institute, ever ready to jump on anybody who broke the unwritten laws of the Smokery; W.B.Withers, the author of "The History of Ballarat” who came in to play chess, and looked with deep contempt on all the amateur politicians; and then in stalked R.T.Vale, meniber for Ballarat West, just for the joy of a blow up with the group round the fire.When he had reduced them all to silence he would chuckle sardonically and stalk out. I remember him ending a debate by telling his opponent he was nothing else but an iconoclastic anachronism! A nice name to call a decent hard working man!

And in came little Dick Mitchell, father of young Dick. He wore a long flowing beard, and his eyes were full of fight. He been champion draughts player of the goldfields, and was still prepared to take anyone on for a bout. Along the western wall sat a group of men who had been mining-mates in the days when the Affair at Eureka was but a thing of yesterday, and when they were giants in the land.
And, again, I, a callow youth, snuggled close besides them, and listened to their entrancing stories of the days when the world was wide. Gentle fatherly Tom Muir; friendly Bob Gullan, with his high boxer hat; Jack Tatham, the smiling Yorkshire man; very tall and very frail Charlie Martin, with his treble voice, and cultured, well-read Reeves, the bookseller.

I look at the clock. An hour has slipped away while I have been communing with the dead. The time for the evening session is approaching. Tom Opie sets up a patience deck, and a group gathering round watch his amazing manipulations of  the cards. Crib and euchre schools are formed. In the cosy corner, a solo school goes its misares and pays out its fishes. At the other end of the room frowning brows and tense silence betray the bridge fiends. Among these are J.C.Fletcher and T.R.Odlum who have the honour of holding the record as the oldest continuous habitués of the Smokery. They came here long, long ago, young bright-eyed youths -how long ago may be judged by the fact that both of them played in a chess tournament in 1890, a tournament in which there were 24 competitors.

From the crib table came the ancient tags- “Two’s the crew,” “Three’s the weight,” “Four’s the score,” ”Six’s the fix.”
And from the euchre school good-natured banter and merry laughter. Swiftly the hours glide away.
 “The storm outside might rain and rustle,
They did not mind the storm a whustle”.
 The door suddenly opens. There stands the caretaker. “Time, gentlemen, please!”
On with the coats! Out with umbrellas! Friendly good nights! And the Smokery is deserted. Perhaps now the ghosts of the old players return to their beloved haunt to play their old games over again. Certainly there would be stern Herbert Lockett, bold and adventurous Ernest Figgis, merry George Rowsell, little big-browed P.Lampe, gentle Bob Clarke, imposing J.Lee Archer, dignified Jacob Showman, noisy Reg Fray, musician Hatfield, as well H.H.Morell, cigar-smoking Goddie Abraham, pleasant Tweedie, cunning Power, mighty Tullidge, schoolmaster Burgess, foul-mouthed ??

But such meetings are not to be seen by human eyes. They certainly are not seen by the weary caretaker tidying up the room for tomorrow’s revels.

The mid-1920's was a very active time for the Club, with an enthusiastic committee led by President J.C. Fletcher and Secretary N.F. Spielvogel. A Championship was played in 1924, which was won by a young Ernest Greenhalgh. The famous Ballarat versus Geelong matches were played in 1925 and 1926; this was no mean feat in an age long before mass transportation. In 2011, the Clubs revived the practice and now hold an annual Challenge match over 10 boards. In fact, the 2014 match was played in the very same room as that first historic match.

Also in 1925, the Club was visited by 12-time Victorian State Champion, Gunnar Gunderson, who gave a simultaneous exhibition, scoring 7.5-4.5; Nathan Spielvogel defeated him, while Ernest Greenhalgh held him to a draw. In the same year, the Club defeated a visiting team from Melbourne Chess Club.


The Ballarat versus Geelong and Melbourne Matches 1925-1926

and some other reports from this period.

Ballarat plays Geelong .From "The Ballarat Courier" 26 April1925

"Strategist met strategist yesterday afternoon and evening when the chess club of the Mechanics Institute met players of the Geelong Institution in the rooms of the former body. It is some considerable time since the game has been locally played in an inter-city sense, and a great deal of interest centred in it. On Wednesday evening the visitors arrived and were met at the station by Ballarat players. The match commenced yesterday and at the end of the afternoon Ballarat were holding the fort with a substantial majority.

However, a truce was called about 6pm and during a brief armistice, the opposing sides fraternised over an excellent dinner at Brazenor’s Alexandria Café. Mr. H.G. Morrow (President of the Mechanics Institute) presided when the time came around for toasts. He admitted that his knowledge of chess was limited. In fact as far as chess was concerned he appealed for mercy with Messrs.Fletcher and Spielvogel (president and secretary of the Ballarat club). He had much pleasure in bidding the visitors welcome. The visit meant a revival of chess and he predicted a big future for the game as far as Geelong and Ballarat were concerned. It was a great and elevating social pastime. To him it was refreshing to learn the hold it had upon the men of Geelong.

            Mr. J.C. Fletcher said that the more one knew of a subject the less one could say about it. He expressed pleasure at the large number of players who had come from Geelong. He trusted Ballarat would give Geelong a return match.

            Mr. N.F. Spielvogel also welcomed the visitors. He was grateful he had learned what he knew of the game when a young man. He had played solo poker and auction but chess could beat the lot. A man could play it on his own without wasting time. Chess was a worldwide language and as far as the state of Victoria was concerned, he was never in a town where chess was not played. A Town v Country match should be played about September next, just as it was played about 1894. Or rather, he should say the intention of ’94 had proved abortive. It was pleasing to know there would be a return match.

            Mr. Fallow (Captain of the visiting team) said Ballarat was a city where history was made and at the present time history was in the process of being made once more. Nothing similar to the present fixture had previously occurred between Geelong and Ballarat. He trusted this was but the first of many such matches and he looked forward to the return. Melbourne players would soon be visiting Geelong and there was no reason why matches should not be played by the three clubs and become seasonal events.

            Mr. Sadeston spoke of the time when in the ‘70’s, the Geelong club had been formed with the late Sir Graeme Berry as president, and Melbourne sent their players to the matches then. His first game had been against Prof. Andrews and he won. Ballarat’s entertainment had been right royal and he hoped Geelong would be given the opportunity later on to reciprocate.

            Mr. W.C. Little, in proposing the toast of the president, trusted that the movement would grow strongly.

            Mr. H.G. Morrow responded and paid a tribute to the secretary (Mr. H.C. Batten), whom he said had done excellent work towards guaranteeing the success of the visit. He was apparently untiring. At the conclusion players adjourned to continue the match.


             In about an hour H. Gordon scored first win for Ballarat. J. Hall won the next game, and T. Rauch won the third one. At the adjournment Gardiner (Ballarat) was leading 3.5 – 1.5. On resumption, the four top tables were all scenes of exciting play. Positions became intricate, requiring very careful watching to analyse.

At the top board Fletcher had valuable extra pawns in exchange for a piece. He pressed hard with these pawns and won.

At the second board Sabeston and Spielvogel (curiously enough both ex-headmasters from Wangaratta) had a strenuous fight which looked like a draw, but Spielvogel at last found a weak spot and drove it home, and won.

A long struggle took place at number three board between Odlum and Fallow. After over four hours of attack and counter-attack the game resulted in an honourable draw.

Another four-hour game was played at the fourth board between Greenhalgh and Fitzpatrick. It finished in a race for queen, and Greenhalgh got there first and won. The game at board six between C. Gordon and F. Glover looked very even, but the Geelong man worked up a good attack and won. H. Gordon won two games in good style from Dann, and Hall also showed good form by winning the two from Synot.

Rauch, of the Ballarat team helped to swell the score by winning two games gallantly from Hall. W.C.Little played well but found Holland too tough, and had to be content with one draw and a loss.

Dr. Wallace was the only Geelong man to secure two wins, though Martin gave him a good go in the second game. F Webb, at the eleventh board, playing very carefully wore his opponent, Nichterlein, down and won both games. The Geelong team, though defeated, proved themselves worthy foemen, and when playing on their own ground will certainly give Ballarat’s chosen men much more trouble."


Ballarat:                  Geelong:

J.C. Fletcher 1         R. Hitcher 0

N.F. Spielvogel 1    R. Sabeston 0

T.R. Odlun 0.5         L. Fallow 0.5

R.W. Greenhalgh 1  T. Fitzpatrick 0

C. Gordon 0             F. Glover 1

H. Gordon 2             T. Dann 0

J. Hall 2                   M. Synot 0

T. Rauch 2               F.S. Hall 0

W.C. Little 0.5         G. Holland 1.5

B. Martin 0              Dr. Wallace 2

F. Webb 2                N. Nichterlein 0


Ballarat 12               Geelong 5


"The Ballarat Courier" 7th Sept 1925. 

Ballarat plays Geelong.  

Ballarat easily defeated Geelong in the return chess match on Saturday evening in Geelong. Of seven games played, Ballarat won five, drew one and lost one. Details:- 

Ballarat            Geelong

Greenhalgh 1    Hitchens 0

Odlum ½            Fitzpatrick  ½

Spielvogel 1      Falls  0

Fletcher  1         Glover  0

Rauch  1            Wallace 0

Hall  0                Dann  1

Little  1               Synoit 0

The visitors were entertained at dinner on arrival. Mr.D.McLennon, president of the Geelong Mechanics' committee welcomed the Ballarat players, and Mr.Fletcher responded.


From "The Ballarat Courier"  24th May 1926

Ballarat plays Geelong.

Ballarat defeats Geelong

 On Saturday afternoon and evening at the club room in the Mechanics' Institute the annual match between the Ballarat and Geelong chess clubs was played. Unfortunately, Geelong brought only seven players instead of a dozen. At table one Odlum defended with a Sicilian against Keage. His defense was very sound but his opponent was stubborn, and it was only after three solid hours that Odlum secured a victory.

At table two Greenhalgh met the Geelong Keeleway, Fitzpatrick. The Ballarat man secured a good opening, and had a win in sight when he made an inexplicable blunder, and allowed his opponent to queen a pawn. This won the game for Geelong.

Fallow met Fletcher at board three and opened with an eerie-weird move known as the Geelong gambit. Fletcher was not disconcerted, but playing strongly secured a victory.

Spielvogel played a Vienna against Adams. He smartly won a pawn on the 6th move and another on the 15th move. He consolidated his pieces, and checkmated his adversary on the 40th move.

Wallace quickly secured his position against Webb, and at dinner adjournment the game looked bad for Ballarat. But Webb is best when he is hardpressed and by some clever strategic play secured a good draw.

Lancaster played Synot, and after some give and take got the advantage and had the honor of scoring first win for Ballarat.

Campbell played Robins. For a while the game was very level but Campbell took advantage of a weak move of his enemy and won a great game.

 Wins          Draws              Wins

Ballarat                Geelong

1 Odlum         0    Keage        0

0 Greenhalgh 1     Fitzpatrick 1

1 Fletcher      0     Fallow       0

1 Spielvogel  0    Adams        0

0 Webb          1    Wallace      0

1 Lancaster    0    Synot          0

1 Campbell   0    Robins        0

5                    2                      1


The visitors were entertained at dinner and supper. At the former the chair was taken by Mr. N.F.Spielvogel, President of the club and at the dinner by Mr. R. McGregor, President of the Mechanics Institute. A short toast list was given was given on each occasion.


From "The Ballarat Courier" July 20th 1925.

Melbourne versus Ballarat.

 A team from the Melbourne Chess Club will visit Ballarat in August to play the local club. In preparation for this important match team matches will be played each Saturday night in the club room. All members should play in these as the team will be chosen from the most successful players

The two winter tournaments are now concluded. The Major Tournament which was not a championship as reported in the Metropolitan Press, was won by Greenhalgh, who won six out of seven, losing only to Fletcher. Fletcher, Odlum, and Spielvogel tied for second place, each losing one game and drawing two games. The Minor Tournament resulted in a tie between Webb and Lancaster. They played a match to decide and Webb won. He becomes an A player now.

A proposal has been made to play a series of correspondence matches against some NSW club.

Mr Rauch's class for beginners has not started operations, so there is yet time to hand names in the Library at the Mechanics' Institute.


From "The Ballarat Courier" Aug 31st 1925.

Ballarat defeats Melbourne.


On Saturday night a team from the Melbourne Chess Club visited Ballarat and played a match at the Mechanics Institute against the local club. The match commenced at a quarter to eight and was finished at ten fifteen.

At board 1 Greenhalgh played Berman. He opened strongly, and quickly gained an advantage which he pressed home and secured victory.

At Board 2 Spielvogel found Keage a very cautious player, who watched very carefully. Spielvogel gained a pawn and had the better position, but through a weak move lost the pawn again and a draw was agreed on.

At Board 3 Odlum played Pearce, and soon got a strong position, gaining a good win.

At Board 4 Rauch and Biggs had a merry little game, which resulted in a draw.

At Board 5 Hall met Rev.Brain. After some steady play Hall sacrificed a piece for a mating position and won.

At Board 6 Lancaster met Colville. He played rather impulsively and got into a bad position and was forced to resign.

The match resulted in a win for Ballarat: 3 wins, 3 draws, and 1 loss.

The visitors were entertained at supper at the Wattle Palais. Mr.McGregor, President of the Mechanics Institute was in the chair.. He proposed the health of the visitors, and said that chess must be a great cementer of friendships. He condoled with the losers and cordially hoped that they would be the losers in the return match.

Mr.N.F.Spielvogel spoke to the toast. He said the result was of little importance, but the match and similar matches must stimulate interest in the great game.

Mr.Biggs, humourously responded to the toast. He said they had one or two other players in the Melbourne Club. He knew all about Ballarat chess now and when the return match came there would be a different story.


 From "The Ballarat Courier"  27th May 1925.

Visit of Mr.Gunderson. Simultaneous Exhibition.


Members of the recently formed Mechanic's Institute Chess Club considered themselves highly favored when the Secretary (Mr.N.F.Spielvogel) received a reply from Mr.G.Gunderson accepting an invitation to visit Ballarat. Mr.Gunderson for several years was the chess champion of Victoria, and it was realised that exhibition games by him would be very beneficial to the club, particularly to those members who have taken the game comparatively lately. Instead of playing match games against one or two leading players Mr.Gunderson expressed his desire to give an exhibition of simultaneous chess, stating that if the club wished it, he would engage a dozen or more players at the one time. The strain which such a display entails can well be realised for concentration of thought is one of the essentials to successful chess.

    Play commenced at half-past 7 o'clock, twelve boards being arranged in the smoke room of the Institute in parallel rows of six each. These were so placed that Mr. Gunderson could pass along the six boards on one side of the room, and then along to the other six without having to do undue walking from end to end of the room. Throughout the exhibition he was on his feet, so that the physical tax was no slight one. This combined with his having to adjust his mind to the state of the game at board after board, and move his pieces rapidly while his opponents had ample time to think out their respective moves, added to the severity of his task.

    The Ballarat players in the order of which they sat were: Messrs. J.C.Fletcher, E.Martin., E.Greenhalgh, W.Pickford, H.Gordon, T.R.Odlum, A.Pascoe, F.Rauch, J.Hall, N.F.Spielvogel, F.Webb, and C.Gordon. Arrangements had been made for a number of spectators to witness the play, and they were greatly interested in the proceedings.

    Play had been in progress for an hour and three quarters, before the first result was made known, the visitor claiming first win against Rauch. Five minutes later he had his second, checkmating Pascoe with the rooks in parallel files. At 20 to10 H.Gordon failed to keep his opponent's queen at bay, and lost. Five minutes later Gunderson proclaimed his game against Pickford a draw. The visitor had made an obvious error early in the game, and lost his queen, but by fine play he recovered from that disadvantage, and the game closed with each player having five pawns to support his king. Pickford, who is one of the latest members to take to the game, was warmly congratulated upon his effort. Webb was beaten at 10 o'clock. Fletcher was the first winner for the night amongst the locals. He had all the worse of the attack, being for some time on the defence. But after some time he succeeded in turning the tables on Gunderson and win in the end game. Gunderson opened with pawn to king 4, and Fletcher responded with an irregular opening.

    Soon after the visitor resigned to Hall and made a draw with Greenhalgh. The next announcement was the defeat of C.Gordon followed by that of Martin. That left only Odlum and Spielvogel playing, but the end soon came, Odlum getting a draw and Spielvogel a win.  


C.Gordon              0 Gunderson       1

J.Hall                    1    Gunderson    0

E.Greenhalgh       ½    Gunderson    ½

E.Martin               0    Gunderson    1

W.Pickford          ½    Gunderson    ½

J.C.Fletcher         1    Gunderson    0

N.F.Spielvogel    1    Gunderson    0

F.Rauch               0    Gunderson    1

H.Gordon            0    Gunderson    1

T.R.Odlum         ½    Gunderson    ½

A.Pascoe            0    Gunderson    1

F.Webb              0    Gunderson    1     

                          4½                      7½


    Prior to the start of play Mr.J.C.Fletcher, president of the club, received Mr.Gunderson, and expressed the pleasure which the members felt at his having come to Ballarat. Mr.Gunderson briefly responded. At the end of play a hearty vote of thanks was passed to him at the motion of Messrs.N.F.Spielvogel and T.R.Odlum.

    Mr.Gundesrson said that he was amply repaid for his visit if it served to stimulate chess in Ballarat.

    At the close of the evening Mr.Gunderson was entertained at the Wattle.


From "The Ballarat Courier" April 4th 1925.


The season was opened by the newly formed Mechanics' Institute Chess Club on Saturday night, when a match was played between teams chosen by the president and the secretary. At no.1 table Fletcher and Spielvogel had a great struggle. The latter won a pawn early in the game, but Fletcher playing  very well managed to secure a draw. At the second table Odlum won both games from McKay, while at table 3, C.Gordon won both games from Lancaster. At table 4 a prolonged struggle was fought between Little and Webb. At the call of time the first game was not finished and was adjudicated in favor of Little. At table 5,  Hall won his two games from Hassell. At table 6, Rees had a piece from Martin but just at adjournment time he lost his queen and the game.


The results were:

President.                Secretary

Wins                Draws                Wins

- Fletcher, J.C.    1           Spielvogel, N.F.-

2 Odlum, T.         0           McKay, G.        0

- Lancaster, A.    0           Gordon, G.         2

1 Little, C.           0           Webb, F.           0

2 Hall, J.              0            Hassell, T.        0

1 Martin, E.         0            Rees, W.          0            

6                          1                                    2