Ballarat Handicap Chess Tournament Sept.1866- Apr.1867

Chess Drama in the Goldfields!

As far as I know, this was one of the first chess tournament held in Australia, although restricted by players from Ballarat. Amongst them Charles M. Fisher, one of the strongest players in the ‘colony’ of Victoria. I found a database with of 47 of his games on the internet: They will be amongst the oldest recorded games of Australia. C.M.Watson, a lawyer and a strong chess-player, was the father of a future Australian chess champion (in 1922 and 1931). I have never asked if ‘our’ talented (i.m.o.) James is related to this Watson family-line...

The old newspaper reports often include beautiful and flowery descriptions of how chess was played in Ballarat, more than 150 years ago. This is only a small selection of more historical information about chess in Ballarat, which I have found thus far. I am slowly extending my search through time.

Bas van Riel

From “The Ballarat Star” dated 17 Sept 1866

The chess tournament has at length been finally arranged, under the most favourable auspices, and it has been decided by the committee that play shall commence on the evening of Tuesday, 11th September, at the Mechanics’ Institute. Fourteen days will be allowed for the first set of matches to be played off, and it is hoped members will not exceed that time, as by doing so the tournament will be protracted and the other competitors will be delayed from commencing the second series of matches. It has been arranged for the winners in the first set to play for the first, second and third prizes. The committee, with the view of equalizing the play, has taken great pains to discover the relative strength of the respective players, so that neither should have any undue advantage, and has accordingly divided them into four classes- the first class giving the second a pawn and move, the third a pawn and two moves, and the fourth class a knight.

From “The Ballarat Star” dated 24th April 1867

The Ballarat Chess Tournament has at length been concluded, resulting in the first prize falling to Mr.C.Fisher, second prize Mr.C.M.Watson, third prize Mr.A.M.McCombe, fourth prize Mr.C.Q.Kennedy, and fifth prize to Mr.W.H.Batten. The tournament has, on the whole, been a very successful affair.

A meeting was held on Wednesday last for the presentation of prizes. The first consist of a very handsome set of Staunton’s ivory chess men, in a carved ebony box, with handsome board, value ten pounds. The second prize is five volumes of Wright’s Encyclopedia, handsomely bound, value seven pounds. The remaining prizes are mostly books.

From “The Australasian”. May 1867.

The Chess Tournament organised by the above club has, we are informed, been brought to an unsatisfactory termination, and the contests decided in a somewhat arbitrary manner, inasmuch as the degree of Champion has been conferred upon a competitor before the stipulated number of games has been played, and the second place given to another who had previously become, through defeat, ineligible to compete for that honour.


We glean from the correspondence before us that the competitor referred to first adopted the extremely slow-movement tactics of play, consuming repeatedly half an hour, and in one instance an hour and a half, over a single move, and by this process prolonged one game over two evenings, and another game over three evenings, occupying about six hours each sitting; that after losing the second game he refused to proceed with the match until he had had an opportunity of studying the “irregular" openings and defences adopted by his opponent; and that after a lapse of several, weeks he announced his readiness to continue the match, but at a time when it was impossible for his opponent to play, and through this default was declared the victor.


Whilst there is no law by which the time of moving can be limited, it is a well-known fact that from four to six hours is the average time required to contest a well-played game; and having examined carefully the games above referred to, we confess our inability to discover any intricate positions in the play of either combatants to warrant the unusually long time spent over these games. We also consider that the refusal of a player to proceed with a match until he had acquired a knowledge of the particular style of play adopted by his opponent is an innovation of the laws and chivalry of chess, and should disqualify the player from further contest with that opponent.

From “The Australasian”, 11th May 1867

The remarks which we were called upon to make in our last issue with reference to this tournament have produced an angry protest from Ballarat, and we regret that the intemperate language used by the writer thereof, and the introduction of the name of a third person, preclude the publication of that communication in our columns.


Our statement, however, that the championship has been conferred upon a competitor before the stipulated number of games had been played is substantially admitted, whilst a general contradiction is given, to the other portions of the report.


Our remarks about slow play were founded on what we believe to be reliable information, corroborated by the receipt of the two games which occupied five sittings, in one of which games it was shown that a whole evening was consumed over moves Nos. 19-26, and this we decidedly call slow play.


With reference to the statement that a player refused to proceed with the match until he had had an opportunity of studying the "irregular" openings and defences adopted by his opponent, we have the positive assurance of one the players that such is the fact, and that an interval of nearly four weeks elapsed between the second and third games, namely, from about the 19th December to the 12th January. A correspondent also furnishes us with the following particulars of the mode adopted in pairing the players in the fourth and last rounds, and which completely corroborates our statement, that the “second place had been given to a player who had previously become, through defeat, ineligible to compete for that honour." Our correspondent states: -“In the fourth round the competitors were reduced to three, say A, B, and C. These names were written on cards, and with a blank card were placed in a hat, and drawn out in the presence of the secretary in pairs. A. and the blank were drawn together, and according to the rules which govern chess tournaments, A. became a winner in that round. B. and C. were necessarily drawn together, and B.became a winner also in that round. In the fifth and last round (and which always terminates a chess tournament) there were only two players left, A and B, none others being qualified to compete for first and second prizes. Therefore, if a second prize has been awarded it is an injustice to either A. or B”.

We are also referred to the latest similar case on record in the Chess Players Magazine of November last, where, in a tournament between the members of the Birmingham Chess Club, the above mode of pairing odd numbers was adopted, and where the players paired with blanks were declared winners in which blanks were drawn.


Before quitting this subject we would, in the interest of chess, suggest the desirability of the gentlemen interested in the first and second prizes finishing the match by correspondence or by the medium of the telegraph, and would be glad to facilitate the arrangement of preliminaries if both players were agreeable to play in the way suggested.