Theophilus Thompson
Master Emeritus

Master Profile

Born April 21, 1855 in Frederick, Maryland, Theophilus Thompson is identified in various sources as being the first Black chess player of note.  One may call him the first Black master except that such a  titles associated with rating didn't appear until  1950. One could imagine the challenges that Mr. Thompson faced in such an era since he lived during the American Civil War, and in an area that was reputed to be a KKK stronghold. As a domestic servant, he managed to learn chess from John K. Hanshew, the publisher of The Maryland Chess Review in 1872. Mr. Hanshew loaned the 17-year old a chessboard and several chess problems to solve. Not only did he solve those ones assigned, but began composing his own which he later contributed to The Dubuque Chess Journal.

Theophilus Thompson


Chess Career

Shortly thereafter, his phenomenal talent brought him immediate attention and praise. He then accepted an invitation to Chicago to compete in a tournament, and while records of the tournament are not known, it was said that he scored a respectable result. The photo to the right bears testament that he had the outward appearance of being serious at anything he participated in. One can almost say with an amount of certainty, that his strength as a chess player was not in question.

In fact, in a June 1986 article in
U.S. Chess Life, Larry Parr reported that Mr. Thompson played correspondence chess and scored 7-2 in one tournament. "His over-the-board style has the same touch as his problems: his moves were hard, fast, and aggressive. In the argot of a later era, he floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee."

In 1873, Mr. Thompson composed a book of endgame positions titled,
Chess Problems:  Either to Play and Mate. This book was highly-regarded by his chess-playing peers. Following is an excerpt from a review which appeared in the July 1874 issue of City of London Chess Magazine. "We have been very much pleased indeed with the composition in this book, and consider that they display real genius, both of a conceptive and constructive order. . . . We consider Mr. Thompson a composer of great merit and of rare promise."

His chess-playing career was short as he disappeared almost as abruptly as he arrived.  Rumors stated that he may have fallen prey to a racial lynching at a young age. In reality, he died in 1879 from the effects of tuberculosis at age 25. He lived such a short life, but made his mark in just a short time.

The Chess Drum salutes Theophilus Thompson!!

See Thompson-C.H. Blood correspondence game from 1874.
Read Neil Brennen's essay on Theophilus Thompson.
Chess Problems: Either to Play or Mate by Theophilus Thompson.

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