The History of Chess in Jamaica: 1834-1978

In June 2020, Jamaica’s Bertram Scott has released a seminal work chronicling the chess history of the island nation. The book titled, The History of Chess in Jamaica: 1834-1978 has important content in tracing the activities of history, not only on the island but important events in the chess world.

The book is a treasure-trove of invaluable photos, authentic clippings from the Jamaica Gleaner and Scott has done a magnificent job at compiling documentation on the foundation of Jamaican chess. There are little-known tidbits of classic information such as the exploits of Arthur Ford MacKenzie, a Jamaican of English stock who developed into a pioneering problemist. In 1886, MacKenzie would publish a ground-breaking book, “Chess: Its Poetry and Prose.” Click here for one of his famous compositions (mate in two).

Some of the other highlights were clippings marking important events and included Wilheim Steinitz’s death, the exploits of Jose Capablanca and Alexander Alekhine. If you are a history buff, then this book has everything you could want. The Jamaica Chess Association was formed in 1954 and the first national championship held a year later. There was a lot of attention given to the efforts of Dr. Harold Chan who was a tireless pioneer in helping the chess gain footing on the island. A picture on page 54 of Chan drawing Mikhail Botvinnik in a 1967 simul in England is a classic.

Dr. Harold Chan with Ian Wilkinson at the 2004 Harold Chan Open
Photo by Daaim Shabazz

There was important information highlight the informal activities in the Caribbean amongst the English-speaking countries. Cuba also played a prominent role and to this day, remains the region’s dominant chess nation.

Other important points were the rise of Bobby Fischer, the Olympiad in Havana, Cuba in 1966, the founding of Jamaica Chess Federation in 1969, and the subsequent Fischer-Spassky match. The 1972 match inspired worldwide and it so happened that Jamaica Chess Federation became a member of FIDE in the same year. Attorney Enos Grant would become the first President.

The classic photos in the book were not always of very high quality, but as it is with such images, the mind can fill in the gaps. Jamaicans will appreciate some of the names in the formative years of Jamaica’s consolidation and entry onto the world scene. For those of you who may be interested, there is a photo of Maurice Ashley as a youngster in Kingston.

Maurice Ashley in Kingston, Jamaica at age 12

Frederick Cameron, John Powell, William Roper and Gilbert Smith were other names that were prominently mentioned. There is also a picture of Jamaican players with Forbes Burnham, the Prime Minister of Guyana during the 3rd Caribbean Chess Championship in Georgetown, Guyana. Dr. Hope Anderson, the first influential woman on the Jamaica scene is also lauded.

Scott also covered school-age chess which is very prominent in Jamaica with many rivalries. This revealed the breeding ground for Jamaican talent such as Neil Fairclough, Thomas Figueroa, Sheldon Wong, and Orrin Tonsingh in the 1970s. Wong is best known for winning a brilliancy prize at the 1976 World Junior against Nir Ginsberg.

Jamaica national chess team to the Central American & Caribbean Chess Championship in El Salvador 1974. From Left are – NM Robert Wheeler, 1975 joint-Jamaica champion, NM Thomas Figueroa, Arturo Armando Molina, President of El Salvador, NM Neil Fairclough (Caribbean chess champion in 1993-94), John Powell, Bd. 4 Silver Medalist at the 1984 Olympiad in Greece, and Attorney-at-Law, Dr. Enos Grant, the 1st President of the JCF. Picture submitted by Rennie Phillips.

My overall account of Scott’s work is that the content is invaluable. As he plans for his second volume The Disciples of Bobby Fischer (1979-1998), he may improve on the photo quality and also rid the copy of obvious typos and some inconsistencies. A copy editor would provide an invaluable service. There are also a number of tools that are available to help in this refinement. The layout suffered from too much crowding on some pages, but the colored diagrams in this edition were clear and crisp. The games were embedded throughout and chess quotes were on almost every page.

Any author would be able to appreciate the long hours that it takes to collect, collate, and organize such an effort. There is a matter of detail when one is embarking on a book placed in chronological order. Scott has enough insight into history, not only from being a student of Jamaican history but also from his own involvement in the critical years of Jamaica’s emergence as a chess citizen.

Bertram Scott

In the early 2000s, Bertram Scott, created the Jamaica Ambassadors Chess Academy (JACA) which focused on chess in Jamaica and the Caribbean region. It was certainly a staging ground for what would become his book on Jamaican and Caribbean history. It is not only a gift to his country and the region but to the African Diaspora.

Many people have been debating on the “future of reading” and in what ways we will consume literary content. There was a thought that everything would be moving to a digital platform. However, books and quality magazines have shown their staying power. If one joins the chess book group on Facebook, it boasts almost 30,000 members!

Any player from the Caribbean and the African Diaspora would enjoy the trip down memory lane and derive great enjoyment from this book. As the designer of my book Triple Exclam, and as a subject in this book of Jamaican history, Neil Fairclough would say there is no such thing as a “perfect book.” He would be right, but if there is an authority on the history of Caribbean chess, this would be it.

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/History-Chess-Jamaica-1834-1978/

Print length: 272 pages
Language: English
Publisher: BookBaby
Publication date: September 8, 2020
Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.8 x 8.5 inches
ISBN-10: 109831428X

Amazon: $37.99
BookBaby: $37.99
Bookshop: $34.99
Barnes and Nobles: $37.99

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