Person of day - 1 APRIL 2021
The precise date of Howard Staunton’s birth is unknown, but H.J. Murray, a contemporary historian, stated that the outstanding English chess player was born in the first days of April 1810. He concluded this after uncovering a court claim that Howard filed in an inheritance dispute. Staunton was the son of the Earl of Carlisle, but he was born after an extra-marital affair. The Earl left Howard only a few thousand pounds. That was not even enough for an education: Staunton spent some time in Oxford without ever graduating. But the future “uncrowned world champion” learned to play chess there.
After moving to London, Staunton met Alexander McDonnell, who played for England against France at that time. Renowned masters like Saint-Amant and Walker visited the British capital and Howard played multiple friendly matches against Evans. By 1840, his skill was substantial and Howard survived his first serious test when he beat the German maestro Popert.
From 1840 onwards, Staunton had a column in the New Court Gazette and soon after, he was invited to edit the chess section of the new British Almanac. Later on, he founded the Chess Player’s Chronicle, which he owned until the 1850s.
In 1843, a series of matches between Howard Staunton and John Cochrane was played out and the publisher won, after which Staunton was officially viewed as the best player in England. However, shortly afterwards, Howard lost a short match to Pierre de Saint-Amant, the leading French player, by a score of 2,5:3,5. This defeat wounded Staunton’s pride and he challenged Saint-Amant to a long match in Paris. Each player’s claims were supported by the stake, which was about 75000 pounds in today’s equivalent.
Robert Fischer later said that Staunton’s preparation should was the model of theoretical preparation in chess history. Saint-Amant’s experience was considerably higher and he was not considered the world’s best player for nothing; he played imaginative, original chess. But Howard analysed his opponent’s matches, prepared a series of openings and won 13:8!
The third match was scheduled for soon after, but in 1844, Howard contracted pneumonia and stood on death’s door- he never met his exceptional opponent ever again. Alas, the series of brilliant French players of Philidor-Deschapelles- La Bourdonnairs- Saint-Amant was interrupted, since Pierre soon left chess without a successor. Due to victory in the match and to a lack of worthy opponents, England declared Howard world champion, but this was received coldly in France and Germany.
In 1845, the maestro began to write a column for Illustrated London News, which he had for the rest of his life. Staunton had complete freedom and he wrote in a detailed, engaging and creative manner, analysing everything from correspondence chess to the successes of young players, including Paul Morphy. Howard promoted chess passionately: he played telegraph matches and wrote Chess Player’s Handbook, which was a guide for generations of players. His superiority to his competitors remained overwhelming- in the match against Horwitz, he forfeited a pawn and two moves before the start, but he still won. In another twist, the Old World was taken aback by Staunton’s marriage to a woman who had eight children from her first marriage!
The financial burden of having many inheritors prompted the master to create Staunton chess. A large industrial factory in the capital offered to cooperate with him to create a chess set and, a short while later, Howard offered the renowned design that is currently known to every player. Each box was marked by Staunton’s signature and surname and Staunton received royalties from every sale.
In 1851, London hosted an international exhibition, where a tournament was set up and organised by Staunton. The organisers wanted the winner to be crowned world champion and to create a chess Parliament of leading players that would write the rules of the champion cycle. At the opening ceremony, Howard offered to work together to create an “Encyclopaedia of Openings” that would publish all the known lines. The English administrators managed to raise a huge prize fund of about 350,000 pounds in today’s equivalent.
Despite all the efforts, it proved impossible to gather all the leading players. Saint-Amant declined because he had distanced himself from chess, Cochrane and Petrov could not come because of work, Jaenisch was delayed on the road and Adolf Anderssen replied that he was a humble teacher who could not afford the travelling expenses. The tournament was under threat, so Staunton was forced to buy Anderssen tickets at his own expense. That proved to be a rash move- Adolf defeated the host in the semi-final and won the tournament.
The most unpleasant surprise was the match for third place between Howard and Elijah Williams, who brooded over each move for at least half an hour. Chess clock was non-existent in those times, so some of Elijah’s matches dragged on for days on end. The match for the bronze medal turned into a farce: while the opponent brooded, Staunton left to deal with organisational issues. Sometimes, he demonstratively went to sleep, asking to be woken up when the opponent would make his move. As a result, Staunton not only lost the game, but he also fell out with the London Chess Club. Shortly after, the English chess player published a book, from which it was evident just what that loss meant to him.
Howard Staunton attempted to reclaim his recognised title of the world’s best player- he defeated Carl Jaenisch decisively, but his efforts to organise a match with Anderssen led to nothing. Either Staunton was unwell or Adolf was unable to leave work. Howard played against Germany’s second player, Baron von der Lasa, but he gave up the match halfway due to heart issues. The celebrated chess player distanced himself from the game and began editing William Shakespeare’s plays.
A while later, Paul Morphy came to Europe, with the principal aim of playing with Anderssen and Staunton. The American defeated the master of combinations, but the match with the Englishman never took place. In 1858, Howard played in a knockout tournament in Birmingham that was also attended by Morphy, but, in the second round, Staunton lost to Lowethal, who was later defeated by Paul by a large margin. And despite all the subsequent invitations of his younger opponent, he never agreed to a match. He was instantly derided in the press as a coward by George Walker, his long-time rival, who was supported by Lord Littleton, the President of the English Chess Association, but even a tete-a-tete between Morphy and Staunton did not solve anything,
Nonetheless, Staunton always spoke very highly of Murphy and the conflict surrounding the match in no way undermined his admiration for the American. Fischer believed that a younger and healthier Staunton had a chance against the American genius due to his positioning style, but at that time Howard was already bitterly ill. Nocturnal works on Shakespeare only worsened the situation and on 22ndJune 1874, the celebrated chess player died of a heart attack while working.
England has hosted several super tournaments in Howard Staunton’s memory and multiple grandmaster tournaments have been played in his name.