Ron F. Rodgers (right) playing a casual game at the Hart House Chess Club, Spring 1947.
Our 120 Year History
While there has certainly been chess activity at the University of Toronto from the time it was granted its official Charter in 1827, organized chess at the University began with the founding of The University of Toronto Chess Club at University College on October 24th, 1895. Today the Club is the oldest existing chess club in Canada with an uninterrupted history of 120 years.
The Mavor Years 1895-1925
The founding, and first and most important guiding mind of the Club was Prof. James Mavor, a Scottish-born Professor of Political Economy at the University. Mavor first took up chess in Scotland, played in Europe at famous venues such as Simpson’s Divan in London and the Café de la Régence in Paris, and made the acquaintance of such luminaries of the game as Steinitz, Zukertort, Blackburne, Bird and Capt. Mackenzie. A fine player in his own right, he performed respectably in two Canadian championships. A fine scholar with a great interest in the arts, Mavor had what was described as a ‘genius for friendship ‘. Opinionated and sometimes controversial, not all people were admirers. For example, when Mavor supported another student initiative in 1895 – a strike to protest the dismissal of a popular professor – U of T President James Loudon called him “a charlatan, an imposter and a disgrace to the University. ” Mavor’s contribution to the University of Toronto Chess Club went beyond merely being one of its founders. He played for the club in team matches, performed simultaneous exhibitions for its members, donated prizes for its competitions and often served on its executive until his death in 1925.
Among the first orders of business following the Club’s founding was membership. Initially membership in the Club was restricted to male students and faculty in Arts, Medicine, Science and Law. From an initial membership of 25 students, interest was such that the Club ultimately relaxed its rules to include all faculty members, students and alumni. Indeed, this decision demonstrated tremendous foresight as throughout much of its history the Club has been characterized by a strong faculty and alumni presence.
The Club met usually once or twice a week and was immediately popular. Soon it was organizing matches, novice and odds tournaments, and an annual Club Championship. Prof. Mavor, Dr. Boultbee and other faculty members provided a trophy, named the Mavor Cup, for this event. Accounts differ about the fate of this cup. One history records that it was lost around 1912. Another history, however, records that C. E. H. Freeman was given permanent possession of this cup upon winning the championship three years in succession. As a result the Club began to use a silver cup – which a group of graduate members had provided to serve as the Challenge Cup in 1910 – as the new championship trophy. Regrettably this trophy went missing sometime after the late 1960s. Additionally, the Club’s early leadership inaugurated an annual Faculty vs. Students match. Arguably the next most important organized event after the Club Championship, the Faculty vs. Students match was held annually until the tradition died out in the late 1960s due to waning faculty involvement with the Club.
The early Club’s activities were not only internal however. Shortly after its founding, the Club began engaging with the broader Toronto chess community. Within a year of its founding, the Club played at least two matches against McMaster University which had founded a chess club around the same time as U of T. In 1899, the first Toronto Chess League was founded by the YMCA, Athenaeum Clubs and the University of Toronto Chess (at that time also simply referred to as the Varsity Team). The Club was competitive in the League and won the team tournament trophy in 1901 for the first time. The varied composition of the Club’s teams in the League presented a unique picture for a university team. It was not unusual for there to be a Professor, a College Principal, and Bishop playing together along with the student members on the same team. Following the folding of the first Toronto Chess League, a series of annual matches were organized with the Toronto Chess Club for the Eddis Shield which Varsity won for the only time in 1911.
The Club’s early success promoting chess at the University of Toronto and in the broader chess community was such that by 1911, it could boast:
“The University of Toronto Chess Club has done more than any other body in Canada to widen and strengthen public interest in Chess. The graduates that have left the University, after acquiring there a strong and sound knowledge of the game, positively cannot be numbered. This Club has furnished about one-third of the strong players of the Toronto Chess Club, and these all remain members of the University Chess Club “. (Torontonensis, 1911, page 149)
The war years were lean ones for the club with student membership declining precipitously to the point that less than a dozen were playing at the club by the end of the 1918. The club however still had about five to six dozen alumni and faculty members at this time. And, in fact, contemporary sources record a great deal of activity of the Club in local team competition during the War.
The year 1919 was a significant one for the Club’s situation on campus. Prior to 1919 the Club met in various buildings on the University of Toronto campus. Discussions prior to the opening of Hart House changed this as a promise was made that the Club would be quartered in its rooms. And so in 1919 Hart House became the Club’s permanent home. This coincided with a large influx of the discharged soldiers returning to University which resulted in the Club’s membership again rising to old heights. The following year the Club celebrated its 25th anniversary with a dinner in honour of its founder Prof. Mavor.
SLIDESHOW: Significant Members of the Club before 1945
Hart House had been built by the Massey family, owners of the Massey-Harris farm machinery company. Vincent Massey, a U of T graduate, named the building after his grandfather, Hart Massey, and envisioned it as a center for the University’s athletic, artistic and recreational activities. The rectangular building had a quadrangle around which were built a library, gymnasia, several common rooms, a theater, a pool and a Great Hall among various other facilities. Hart House was built in Tudor Gothic style and has been described as looking “like a 15th century castle on some English moor ” from the outside and “like an old cathedral inside ”. It was, and is, ideal environs for a club devoted to the Royal Game. Professor Mavor was consulted on various issues surrounding the construction and use of the building and was likely instrumental in ensuring the Chess Club inclusion among the organizations privileged to use its rooms.
On moving into Hart House, the Club held its sessions in the South Common Room. In 1924, the Club, finding this room to be too noisy, asked the Hart House Board of Stewards to provide it with more suitable quarters as well as new equipment. At that time, the Board of Stewards offered to absorb the Club under its management which, according to one history of the Club, was ‘vigourously rejected by the students, who unanimously opted for independence!’ The Board of Stewards ceded to the Club’s demands and provided it with a trophy case, new equipment and with its own private room, christened The Chess Room. This room was used almost exclusively by Club until late 1960s and still bears its original name.
Shifting Fortunes 1925-45
With the death of Prof. James Mavor in 1925 the Club entered into a period of shifting fortunes. Over the next two decades the Club’s level of activity depended on the level of ambitiousness and dynamism of its constantly changing student leadership.
During this time there were more years of low fortunes than high ones. One history records that the Club reached a nadir in 1928 when it allowed “checkers in its hallowed quarters in hopes of reviving interest ”. This chronicle goes on to state, with evident satisfaction, that “this dastardly experiment failed utterly, of course ”. By 1933 membership dwindled to as few as 11 members, the Club, in the interim, having had to tolerate “an insidious invasion by bridge addicts ”.
Aside from casual play, the Club’s main activity during the interwar years consisted of team matches against various clubs and the occasional simultaneous exhibition by a local master. Intercollegiate competition was not yet on an organized basis. However, during this time, some noteworthy events took place. A three-cornered team event at Buffalo, New York in February, 1925 was played against the University of Buffalo and the University of Pennsylvania. In what appears to be the Club’s first matches outside of the country, they defeated Buffalo but lost to Pennsylvania. A two-game correspondence match with West Point was begun in 1926. Closer to home, the Club lost a novel match by teletype to McGill in 1934.
Though the onset of the Depression had Club membership averaging a dozen in the early 1930s, a bright spot during the inter-war period was the energetic leadership of R. B. Hayes – President of the Club from 1935 to 1937. Under Hayes there was a spark of new activity at the Club as correspondence matches were played against a number of major U.S. universities. Matches with Minnesota University, Princeton University, and the Icelandic Club of Chicago were played in this manner in 1935. An International Intercollegiate Chess Union was founded in early 1936 consisting of U of T, Princeton, University of Wisconsin (Minneapolis) and West Point, though this organization appears to have had only a brief existence.
This respite was short-lived as the advent of World War II contributed to a further diminution of Club attendance. During the last two years of the War neither Club Championships nor Students vs. Faculty matches appear to have been held. In 1945, Club membership was reported to be only 3 or 4 players and it is no exaggeration to say that the Club was near collapse.
The end of World War II in 1945 saw the start of a new era for the Club. With the large post-war enrollment of students discharged from the armed forces there came a renewed interest in the University of Toronto Chess Club. This influx of students also resulted in a great increase in the use of Hart House and competition for the use of its facilities. Facing a major encroachment of card-playing in its room that threatened to drive out the chess-players completely, the Club’s leadership, seeking to enhance its status, requested that the Club come under the management of Hart House. Consequently, the University of Toronto Chess Club was dissolved on December 3rd, 1945 and was reconstituted under the name The Hart House Chess Club. The Club’s executive then became a Committee responsible to Hart House’s Board of Stewards with the office of President thereafter being merged with the office of Secretary.
The balance of the 1940s was a time of great success and activity for the Club. By 1947 the Club was one of the largest in Canada. The Club Championship, the Student vs. Faculty matches and involvement in local team competition were revived. Team matches against McGill were initiated and put on an annual basis. Pyramid, ladder, and lightning tournaments were held along with an Inter-Faculty Team Championship. Teams were entered in the city championships and a number of matches were organized with other clubs. The Club was competitive during this time and won several of the late 1940s City of Toronto team championships coming first in its Major Championship in 1946, 1949 and 1952 and having similar success in its Minor League. The Club also resumed international competition sending a team to Cornell University to play in a three-cornered event with Cornell and the University of Rochester in February 1949, losing against the former but winning against the latter.
The late 1940s also saw the Club undertake a number of new initiatives and traditions. In 1947 the Club began a correspondence match against England’s Oxford University. The same year saw the Club invite George Koltanowsky, the blindfold chess expert, to perform a simultaneous exhibition and give a demonstration of blindfold play. This began a tradition of regularly inviting a well-known master to perform an exhibition or give a lecture at the Club. In 1949, the Club hosted former World Champion Dr. Max Euwe who played a simultaneous exhibition against 60 players. Among the other great players who performed exhibitions at Hart House over the years are Samuel Reshevsky (1954, 1965), Paul Keres (1967 twice, 1975), and former World Champions Bobby Fischer (1964), Boris Spassky (1967) and Mikhail Botvinnik (1977).
SLIDESHOW: Simultaneous Chess Exhibitions at Hart House
Interestingly, between January 1946 and June 1949 there were two Hart Houses and two Hart House Chess Clubs. To accommodate the large number of ex-service undergraduates the University of Toronto taught courses in Applied Science and Engineering at Ajax, Ontario. A building was set aside at that campus which mirrored many of the activities at Hart House Toronto and included a Chess Club with a separate executive. Hart House Toronto and Hart House Ajax contested a number of friendly matches against each other during these years.
This increased activity of the Club continued into the 1950s. During this time the Club began regular instruction for members with a lecture series and individual lessons. Even more so, the 1950s saw the Club enter headfirst into North American university chess competition. The Club played regular matches against Canadian universities McMaster and McGill and a match via amateur radio with Queen’s University in 1952. This latter event was Canada’s first successful intercollegiate chess match over amateur radio and was run with the help of the Hart House Amateur Radio Club. Internationally, the Club was also active. In 1950-51 a radio match was started against Rutgers University. A team traveled to Ithaca, New York for a match against Cornell University. A Varsity team played in the 1952 U.S. Intercollegiate Team Chess Championships (now called the Pan American Intercollegiate Chess Championship) and tied for 2nd-3rd places behind the winner Columbia University.
Two premier Canadian players who attended the University of Toronto during the 1950s were Frank Anderson and George Berner. Not only were they fine players but they were also strong representatives of Club during their tenure. Both played on club teams, gave lectures and performed simultaneous exhibitions. Berner would lead a victorious University of Toronto team in a three-cornered team event against McGill University and the University of Laval in 1954. In 1955-56 Anderson and Berner co-authored a chess column for the University of Toronto’s student newspaper, The Varsity – the only time this newspaper had regular chess content. They also helped celebrate the Club’s 60th anniversary by organizing a 100-board tandem simultaneous display in Hart House’s Great Hall scoring 79 wins, 14 draws, and 7 losses. This event established a North American record and received a great deal of newspaper coverage and was featured on local television.
SLIDESHOW: Chess Play at the Hart House Chess Club
Frank Anderson’s chess success at the national and international level was a great source of pride not only for the Club, but for the University as well. This is evidenced by the extensive coverage in The Varsity of the cable-game he played against the Soviet Grandmaster Igor Bondarevsky. During his first year at U of T, Anderson represented the University at least 7 times in team completions scoring (+5=2) against such players as two- time Canadian Champion Povilas Vaitonis and International Master Geza Fuster. However, he soon found chess interfered with his studies and confined himself to giving the occasional simultaneous exhibition for the club and played in only one or two team matches in his final year of studies. Like many previous (and future) members, his association with the club did not end with his leaving the University.
‘Where the Kibitzer is King ’ 1960-1990
The 1960s saw the Club continue to participate heavily in domestic and international collegiate chess competitions and the Club scored well in a number of them. The Club’s success in the 1960s was in great part due to a large number of excellent players studying at the University during these years. As a result, few teams could match the depth of the Club’s squads.
In domestic events the Club represented the University of Toronto in all twelve of the Eastern Canadian Collegiate Chess Championships held during 1960-1971, finishing first or second in ten of them. In international events the Club represented the University of Toronto in the U.S. Intercollegiate Team Championships in all but two years in the 1960s. At Princeton University in 1960, the University of Toronto’s team shared first and second places with Columbia University but came second on tie-breaks. That year Toronto’s Zvonko Vranesic (later an International Master), one of the strongest players to be a member of the Club, was in particularly devastating form on 1st board with a 6-0 score that netted him the board prize. He went on to have a long association with the Club as a player and a member of its executive. While the club did not compete in the two following editions of this event, it fielded a team that won clear first place in New York in 1965. This was the first of six first-place finishes at this tournament, whose prestige and pedigree has led it to be dubbed the ‘World Series of College Chess’. From then onwards, the Club has participated in this event in every year to the present. The Club also entered teams in local competition winning the Ontario Team Championship 1965-6 and the Toronto Chess League Championship in 1967-8 and 1969-70.
The late 1960s were a particularly active and popular time for the Club. The Club was open daily from Monday to Friday between noon to five for regular play during these years. By mid-afternoon The Chess Room was usually clouded with cigarette smoke and crowded with students who found the game a greater source of fascination than their school studies. It was during this period that the Club’s motto, ‘Where the Kibitzer is King ’, first appeared. It perfectly captures the Club’s enthusiasm for casual play and friendly banter.
The Club also hosted a full schedule of simultaneous exhibitions, lectures, and various types of tournaments (speed, handicap, etc.) during this time. Significantly, during the latter part of the decade Hart House hosted many Toronto chess tournaments. While few of these events were initiatives of the Club itself, many of them were organized by Club members. This was a natural result of the fact that, in addition to turning out numerous fine players who would subsequently make a mark on Canadian chess, the Club has also produced a number of very able organizers. In 1968, the Canadian Open Chess Championship (won by Grandmaster Bent Larsen) was hosted by the Club at Hart House and many of the Club’s members were involved as organizers, officials and players. This event was chronicled in the short CBC documentary How to be Hip on 64 Squares (Chessically Speaking). All this activity combined to make Hart House “the home of good chess” as Vladimir (Walter) Dobrich (Club Secretary 1969-70) described it in one of his Hart House tournament reports.
SLIDESHOW: Tournaments at Hart House
The 1970s began with a major Club undertaking. In 1971, the Club hosted the Pan American Intercollegiate Team Chess Championships at Hart House. This was the first time this event used this name. Previously the tournament was called the U.S. Intercollegiate Team Chess Championship and the North American Intercollegiate Championship. This event attracted 55 teams and was won by Columbia University. Two years later the Club won back-to-back championships in this tournament in 1973 (shared with the University of Chicago) and 1974.
Arguably the shift in focus at the Club to collegiate chess competition could be reasonably connected to a decline in the Club’s organized internal activities in the 1970s. Indeed, the annual Faculty vs. Student match died out in the 1960s and tournaments for the Club Championship, which became intermittent by the late 1960s, similarly died out in the late 1970s. (This was likely the result of the fact that most of the strong players in the Club were eligible to play in the city championship which itself was often held at Hart House.) In local competition the Club’s team (often featuring Prof. Vranesic playing alongside the players from the Club’s Pan Am teams) played in the Toronto Team Championship (winning its title in 1976) and the Ontario Team Championship (taking first place in 1975 and the runner-up spot in 1976). The Club continued to meet daily and remained active with casual play being its most favored activity, with blitz and ‘doubles chess’ (Bughouse) being avidly played. In fact, doubles chess became so frequent in the 1970s that the Club devised its own internal rating system for it.
The Club’s success representing the University of Toronto at the Pan Am Intercollegiate Chess Championship in the 1970s continued into the 1980s. The Club began the 1980s with a remarkable three consecutive victories in this event winning the title in 1980, 1981, and 1982. This was the first time in the Pan Am’s history that a university had won the title three years consecutively. The 1980 and 1981 teams were led by Ilias Kourkounakis (later an IM) and the 1982 one by IM Bryon Nickoloff. They were supported by a number of strong masters who gave the team the necessary depth to compete so successfully in this event. Indeed, it is remarkable the number of Canadian masters, many of whom are still competing today, who played at the Club and for the University of Toronto during the 1980s.
Recent Years 1990-Present
In 1995, the Club sought to revive Canadian intercollegiate chess by organizing a Canadian Inter-University Championship at Hart House and by providing a trophy, named the Hart House Cup, to the winners. This inaugural tournament was successful and attracted 15 teams, four of which were from the University of Toronto. Although this tournament was intended to be an annual event, only two more editions of this tournament were held. The University of Toronto’s record in these tournaments was 1st in 1995, shared 1st (with Waterloo) in 1997 (Spring), and 2nd in 1997 (Fall).
In the mid-1990s the North American collegiate chess landscape changed. Some American schools started recruitment programs. Colleges and universities began to field teams composed of grandmasters and international masters on chess scholarships. The University of Toronto did not join in on this trend and continued to send teams formed entirely from the natural student population. From the mid-1990s, the Club began holding lengthy and competitive qualification tournaments for spots on its Pan American Intercollegiate varsity teams. While from this point onwards, it had a number of top ten finishes, it only twice placed among the top 5 teams. In 1999, the Club hosted the Pan Am Intercollegiate Championship for the second time in the Club’s history at the Primrose Hotel in Toronto. This tournament attracted 31 teams with first place being won by the University of Maryland (Baltimore County).
SLIDESHOW: Hart House Chess Club Teams
In the winter of 1999 the Club revived a regular schedule of lectures, simultaneous exhibitions by masters, and rapid tournaments. It was also in early 1999 that the Club moved to its present location in Hart House’s first-floor Reading Room. At first this move played out like a comical reverse of the Club’s original arrival at Hart House. At this time the Club was characterized by a liveliness and boisterousness that was befitting the spirit of the club’s motto. The regular denizens of the Reading Room had a difficult time adjusting to the arrival of the Club’s loud style of play and kibitzing into their usually quiet environment. The Club, however, soon found that this location had the advantage of affording it more exposure to those who would otherwise be ignorant of its existence, giving it increased visibility as a campus organization.
A more permanent revival of Canadian collegiate chess took place in 2003 when the University of Western Ontario hosted an Ontario Inter-University Chess Championship. The following year this event was hosted under the new name The Canadian Inter-University Chess Championship and has continued as an annual event (under various names) to the present time. The Club has participated in this tournament every year winning the inaugural tournament in 2003, as well as the 2008 and 2010 tournaments, and has placed in the top three in every year except one.
In recent years the Club has resumed its annual championship tournament and restored Hart House’s importance in the greater Toronto chess community. Due to a shortage of local tournaments in Toronto in 2008, the Club began organizing regular open swiss-style tournaments at Hart House that have continued to the present time.
This fall the Club moved into its 120th year of existence as the University of Toronto’s official chess club. During its history the Club has been fortunate for the level of support it has received from the University, Hart House, its alumni and, of course, the constant inflow of new students who perpetuate its traditions. From the Club’s beginning the University has provided both an official sanction and a home for its activities. Hart House was envisioned as the focal point of university life outside the classroom. From its beginning, it has provided the Club with a home and, subsequently, increasing financial support over the years. As this chronicle makes clear, the Club has benefited crucially from the number of its members who have chosen to maintain their association and support of the Club beyond their time as students. This has helped the Club to maintain continuity not only of its existence but also of its character. Anyone who has played at the Club will attest to the liveliness of its atmosphere and enthusiasm of its members. The stream of students who have come through its doors over the years consist of the whole range of players from complete beginners to ones with international titles. Among the latter are IM Frank Anderson, IM Zvonko Vranesic, IM Bruce Amos, IM Ilias Kourkounakis, IM Bryon Nickoloff, IM Oliver Schulte, IM Yan Teplitsky, IM Igor Zugic, IM Bindi Cheng, and WGM Melissa Greeff. The Club has given many of its student members great memories representing the University in competition and provided many of them with practical experience as organizers that they have gone on to use to benefit the greater chess community. All of the above-mentioned sources of the Club’s support continue to grow and promise it a bright future.
The Hart House Chess Club would like to gratefully acknowledge the University of Toronto Archives, Erik Malmsten, IM John Donaldson, Egis Zeromskis and various alumni for providing material for this history.
Written by Bernd Hahn and Andrew McMillan
Photos collected and scanned by Sanja Vukosavljevic