Friday 20 May 2016

2. Mrs. Fagan's Game

[This post by Martin Smith]

This series is telling the story of Louisa Matilda Fagan (née Ballard) (1850-1931), born in Italy of an American father and an Italian mother who, nonetheless, was given in the censuses as a "British Subject", probably on account of her marriage in 1872 to a Captain in the Bombay Lancers: Joseph George Fagan (c.1843-1908). As for his place in this series - his time will come.

In the previous, introductory, episode we cropped her (seated to the right) from this group photograph taken at the Craigside (Llandudno) Chess Congess in 1898 where she came first in the Second Class Tournament.

Clearly, she was not the only female player at the Congress nor, of course, on the wider chess scene. There was, for example, a thriving Ladies Chess Club (henceforth: LCC) in London formed in 1895, of which Mrs Fagan was a prominent member. It is the chess career of Louisa Matilda Fagan that we will follow in this and the next episode, to which we will add - as we go along - some salient parts of her personal biography (which will be fleshed out when we examine it more closely further down the line). So, we will be going into the chess-detail here: the really interesting stuff (some might say) comes later.

The BCM of 1897 commented that she had "early learnt the moves of the game" (maybe along with her brother?) when the family was in Italy. She appears in the UK 1861 census (now age 11) in a boarding school in Malvern  - her brother, William Roberts Ballard Junior, is shown at the family address in Marylebone, along with a full complement of servants. Perhaps it's more likely that she would have learnt the game sometime in the next ten years up to her marriage in 1872. By then her brother, older by almost three years and now in his mid-twenties - a "strong and brilliant player" (BCM 1897) - was already mixing with the chess elite, as we know from the last episode; she, however, was nowhere to be seen.

She married her Cavalryman on 8 July 1872 - she was now 22 and he seven years older. She would have gone pretty much straightaway with her new husband, a serving soldier, to his posting in India - indeed there is a record of a sailing to Bombay from Naples of a Captain and Mrs Fagan on 16 September 1872. The newlyweds must have gone via Italy to visit relations and receive their blessing. Now at last she appears in the chess record - though you may not have guessed it at the time.

Her documented entrance into the public chess arena came as a problem composer: in the City of London Chess Magazine of 1875 (pp 171, 236 and 338) under the pseudonym of "Dessa (a lady)": here is one of them, judged at the time by one commentator (H.J.C.Andrews) to be "neat and rather pretty".  

Reproduced from the City of London Chess Magazine September 1875 p 236
Problem No 184, set by Deesa (a lady): Mate in 3. 

(Solution in Notes)
Deesa is a town in north-west India above Bombay, presumably where her husband was stationed - initially at least - and the evident source of the pseudonym. The real identity of Deesa (a lady) was acknowledged later in a letter from Mrs Fagan to the BCM in November 1897, p430, where she recalls sending the problems "from India to my brother, and he gave them to the late Herr Zukertort, who published them and send me a copy of the magazine to India."  She had misremembered which magazine - and so, via the correspondence column of the BCM, corrected the misinformation.  

Her other documented chess adventure in India was in 1882 when she won a small local tournament - organised alongside the polo, bowls, tennis, golf, etc., - as part of the Bombay Gymkhana Club annual sports fest. The story is told in the BCM in 1897 with additions in her 1931 BCM obituary (and see notes) all in such detail as could only have originated from her, possibly via her brother: there is no public report of it in the Times of India (published in Bombay) other than the announcement (February 27 1882) that "gentlemen anxious to compete will kindly send their names to the Hon. Sec. Chess by 4th March".

The accounts say that Mrs Fagan, overcoming resistance to her participation (men only!) and though not permitted to play on the premises, won all her games: "her opponents, realising what an excellent player she was", chivalrously gave her a souvenir album of signed photos of themselves. This makes a good story, well-told and embellished in the re-telling (see Notes), rather than documentation of a chess event of great moment.

Not watching the chess at the Bombay Gymkhana 
(a bit later than the 1880s - from here)
In the next episodes we will look at the circumstances surrounding her return from India, but for now we'll simply note that she re-appeared in the census in London in 1891, her status given as an "Officer's wife".

We don't pick her up again in the chess record until 1895 (at least: that is according to my searches - this caveat must of course be applied throughout the series). She was busy in that summer, firstly with a LCC tournament won by Mrs Buckton after which - according to the Morning Post of 5 August 1895 (chess editor Antony Guest) - Mrs Fagan drew in a 10-board simul by Antony Guest himself, on 29 July (his column was consistent in reporting LCC activities; as was the Pall Mall Gazette). Then she played in Section A of a Ladies' Tournament (kicking off 27 August) alongside the Hastings International. It was won by Lady Thomas. According to Rhoda Bowles, another leading chess lady, writing a survey of recent ladies' chess in the "Ladies Pages" of the Chess Amateur in October 1906, Mrs Fagan had been awarded an encouraging consolation prize in the tournament. Antony Guest also picked her out (along with Miss Finn and Lady Thomas) for note: as playing some "meritorious" games (MPost 28 August).

That year Louisa Matilda Fagan (now 45) played in LCC matches v City of London CC (3rd-5th classes), "the Ladies of Brighton", and the British CC on boards 7, 4 and 6 respectively, scoring 1, 1 and 0 (from London Evening Standard 21 Oct, BCM Nov, and MPost 2 Dec 1895) - but, not yet on board 1 which was the spot she would make her own in the following year. Of course this data (as with all in this series) comes only from those reports in the chess and other press where she is actually named. Therefore they are not likely to add up to the sum total of her activity, but nevertheless give the broad shape of her career.

In 1896 she was continuing to make her mark. She was the sole winner at Van Vliet's 18 board simul at the LCC in January, and at Tinsley's 21 board effort in March (London Daily News 14 Jan, and Batgirl blog), and was climbing up the LCC order to win on board 2 (v Leytonstone CC in February), and board 3 "in creditable style" (v Metropolitan CC in March). She won the LCC championship tournament in the summer, so as to claim her place on board 1 - sadly losing there to the Rev. Jowitt of St.George's CC in November (respectively: MPost 10 Feb., 16 March, and 30 November).

On now to 1897, her annus mirabilis - and a pretty good one for checking her performance, too: I have found 21 reports of LCC matches in the chess columns and chess press where Mrs Fagan is identified by name: this includes 15 from LCC matches in the 'C' Division in the London League, the others were friendlies. She is reported playing on board 1 in all but one (when club dignatory Lady Thomas was accorded that honour - she lost - in a 25-board friendly against Met CC's C team - Pall Mall Gazette 1 March). 

Mrs Fagan's London League results were +8 =2 -3 (leaving aside a default win, and an unreported adjudication). Of one League loss it was said that "opening with a spirited Evans Gambit [Mrs Fagan], had a promising position at the start, but an error of judgment finally lost the game at the call of time." (Pall Mall Gazette 23 March 1897, 0-1 v Mr. Simkins of St. Martin's). Overall, including friendlies, the tally was +11 =5 -3. She was fond of the Evans and we'll give a game of hers with it later.

One of the League victories is the most widely-known of her few recorded games: her demolition of G.W. Richmond in the London League using the Alekhine-Chatard Attack in the French: she played a "forward game" (a term employed by the BCM on another occasion). George William Richmond (1877-1941) was no rabbit (although young enough to be her son), and was to become Scottish champion three years later in 1900.
Alan McGowan's helpful notes on him - from which the above photo is extracted, with thanks - on the excellent Scottish Chess site quotes the BCM of 1907 which says that he was by then a member of Insurance CC. In the game, on 26 April 1897, Richmond was then playing for the Birkbeck Institute. Mrs Fagan played in "good attacking style" (Pall Mall Gazette 11 May), but although she won, Birkbeck took the match 5.5 v 2.5 - and "C" Division that season. Here is the game with Pall Mall's notes.              

Louisa Fagan's signal achievement in 1897 was to to take second place in the International Ladies Tournament in London in June 22 to July 3, with a score of 14.5/18.  The event has been covered thoroughly elsewhere (see Notes below), and so we'll stay focussed on Mrs Fagan here: though a droll report of the Tournament from the antipodes (Otago Witness 26 August) is worth noting viz., that many prizes were distributed, even to "Miss Hertsch and Miss Mullerhartung each a prize for amiability, which is said to have been well deserved! Scarcely complimentary to others this. Amiability is 'made in Germany'. Pretty nearly every one seems to have gained a prize, which is doubtless very satisfactory." ... 

... as is this illustration from the Buckingham Advertiser and Free Press 10 July, which must be outlined from a photograph so as to enable reproduction in simple black and white.  

In the "International Tournament" "Signorina Fagan" claimed the Italian flag in view of her country of birth, which raised a few eyebrows and provoked grumbles about flags of convenience, window dressing, etc. But the BCM came to her (and the tournament's) defence. In its extensive report (August 1897 pp 285 to 296) it rightly pointed out that although she was now in England, she had "lived for years in Italy" (well, yes: and possibly for as long in India). She felt obliged to clarify the nationality point again herself several years later, in 1905.

While we are on portraiture: at the head of its report of the tournament the BCM provided this lovely photograph of our subject.
Mrs Fagan was "looked upon as a certain prize winner" said the BCM, and she "carried off [£50] in brilliant style; for she played the 'forward game' throughout, and if she sometimes tripped in her own combinations, the combinations were interesting. 'Had she played less chess, she would have won more games,' someone said of her" to which the BCM added: "not altogether without truth". The report offered some biographical information - to which we will return in a future episode - and gave the Richmond game - odd perhaps: it was not played in the tournament; but it was a good an example of her enterprising, front-foot (or even "dashing" according to the Shetland Times 17 July) manner of play.

Here is her published win against Miss Bonnefin, who - to continue in cricketing vein - was pretty much yorked at the crease in the first over.

Mary Rudge, the tournament winner, had by contrast, a "quiet and steady style of play" which the BCM chose to illustrate with an extract from her victory over - ahem - Mrs Fagan who contrived to lose the game when, as you might say, she "tripped in her own combination" (double entendre intended, or no). The Field, by the way, was less indulgent of Miss Rudge: "from the chess player's point of view [hers] is not a sympathetic style." (quoted by the Otago Witness 26 August).  

The BCM gave also a fragment from the Signorina's Evans Gambit win over Miss Gooding, the game that we will give in full later. And so - after noting that Mrs Fagan beat Bird in a simul early that year at the Ladies Club (MPost 5 April) - we call time at the end of 1897 and adjourn: to resume the chess in the next episode.

For excellent accounts of the International Ladies Tournament of 1897 see Tim Harding (here and here) and "Batgirl" aka Sarah Beth (good for photos), and see also the page on EDO. For another illustration of the Ladies Tournament see an article, in Italian, by Francesco Gibellato giving an overview of Mrs Fagan's chess career: it is linked in the middle of this page on the Ken Whyld Society's (chess history) website.    

The details of the Bombay Gymkhana Chess tournament in 1882 are supplemented in Indian Chess History by Manual Aaron and Vijay D Pandit (2014) pp129-130 "She was the only female in a 12-player chess tournament in Bombay. Best of three, knockout matches were held. When the last three were reached, they played three-game matches against each other. Fagan won all her games, but was disqualified because she was a woman player in a club whose membership was confined to men. She appealed this decision in court and won. The names of the other players are not known." Do they really mean "in court"?

Solution to Deesa problem: "1. Kt to R6. K takes P. 2. Kt to Kt 8 and mates next move."

Other Episodes:
Part 1. Waltzing Matilda   Part 3. Mrs. Fagan's Game Resumed
Part 4. Mrs Fagan's Family  Part 5. Mrs Fagan's Politics  Part 6.  Another Mrs Fagan...and Her Politics.  Part 7...And the  Final "Mrs Fagan"

For all chess history posts in a previous incarnation go to the Streatham and Brixton Chess Blog History Index


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