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February 1, 2014

HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE: The Terre Haute Chess Club debacle 120 years ago

TERRE HAUTE — For a few weeks in 1894, Terre Haute earned international notoriety in the world of chess.

For devotees of the royal game, 1893 was considered successful even though world champion Wilhelm Steinitz, a native of Prague regarded as the world’s best player, did not compete in recognized match play.

Steinitz, who became an American citizen in 1888, acquired the title of world champion upon defeating Johannes Zukertort in 1886.

Between 1886 and 1892, Steinitz defeated Alberto Ponce, Andres Vasquez, Cuban champion Celso Golmayo Zupide, Vicente Carvajal, Russian master Mikhail Chigorin (twice) and Hungarian Isidor Gunsburg, who became a citizen of Great Britain, in international match play and was considering retirement.

As 1893 ended, a German named Emanuel Lasker challenged him. Initially, Lasker wanted to play for $5,000 a side (or about $650,000 at current values) but Lasker had difficulty raising money.

Then, in early December, it was announced that Terre Haute would host the Great Masters’ Continental Chess Congress on Feb. 27, 1894.

The announcement was not made by the Terre Haute Chess Club but by Charles O. Jackson of Kokomo, allegedly representing the Indiana Chess Association.

On New Year’s Day, 1894, the New York Times wrote:

“Within these last weeks a certain person called Jackson, a former President of the Indiana Chess Association, has been sending out circulars asking chess players to enter for a tournament (in Terre Haute), for which Jackson alleges that some $3,000 has been subscribed, and that all players will get free board and lodging should they send their $25 entrance fee to Jackson.

“(American chess master) Major (James) Hanham wrote to Jackson, asking him to forward particulars as to how the prizes have been guaranteed, and he received an answer that particulars would be sent to him in a few days. Instead of particulars he received an abusive letter.

“Lasker told the following story to a Times reporter:

“‘When I was asked to play (Jackson Whipps) Showalter at Kokomo, C. O. Jackson wrote me in New Orleans that I would get my expenses. After the match I made out a bill but I did not get a cent and I also had to pay my hotel bill.’”

Showalter told the Times reporter:

“‘I was present at the last meeting of the Indiana Chess Association and I know it to be a fact that Jackson was not elected President. If in the printed circulars Jackson claims to be President, I must nail it as a lie.

“‘Jackson wrote me to come to Kokomo to play Lasker, and that he had my stakes ready. When I arrived at Kokomo I was told by Jackson that my backers had gone to San Francisco and that he did not have my stakes. I was obliged to write to my father, who put up the stakes.’

“Whether chess players would do well to forward any money to Jackson after hearing the stories of Hanham, Lasker and Showalter is rather doubtful.”

Two weeks later, the Times published another story about “C.O. Jackson, Chess Swindler” and took credited itself with exposing him as “a swindler of great ingenuity.”

“(On Jan. 1, 1894) The Times warned chess players not to send any entrance money to Jackson, who issued a circular claiming that he had nearly $4,000 cash in hand to arrange for a masters’ and minors’ tournament.”

According to Dr. Charles Gerstmeyer, president of the Terre Haute Chess Club, Jackson got the club officers to promise support of the tournament. The club guaranteed Jackson a suite of rooms where the tournament would be played and $16 for printing circulars.

According to Dr. Gerstmeyer, Jackson told him he would hand over the prize money, totaling $4,500, to the club as soon as 26 players entered the tournament.

The Times asserted that Jackson tried “over and over again to get money out of the Terre Haute Club. He wrote to people all over the country for money,” including the New York City Chess Club and the Brooklyn Chess Club.

On Jan. 17, the Terre Haute Chess Club formally announced the cancellation of the Great Masters Continental Chess Congress scheduled for Feb. 27.

The New York Times carried a story wherein the Terre Haute Chess Club admitted it had been duped.

The club also admitted publishing a circular about the tournaments erroneously declaring that the money for the large prizes was already deposited. Jackson had promised that the money would be deposited on or before Jan. 27, 1894.

On Jan. 27, the Times revealed that Steinitz agreed to play a world championship chess match against Lasker for $2,250 a side. The match was played at venues in New York, Philadelphia and Montreal, beginning May 26, 1894. Steinitz lost that match and a rematch in 1896-97.

The same newspaper story declared:

“C.O. Jackson, whose operations among Western chess players led to him being characterized as a chess fraud, says he was induced by Western racing men to make up the ‘fake’ tournament for Terre Haute.

“That he did not succeed in his endeavors to swindle the players and patrons of the game was largely due to the New York Times, which exposed Jackson from the very start.

“The Terre Haute Chess Club, after investigating the story told in the Times. At once severed its connection with Jackson and the ‘fake’ tournament was a thing of the past.”

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