The competition, which is held at Christmas and New Year’s in a small, English seaside city, is quite possibly the oldest annual chess tournament in the world.
Great tournaments come and go – a testament to how difficult they are to organize and finance. The annual tournament in Linares, Spain, was for many years the top competition in the world, always attracting the world’s best players, but it was discontinued after 2010. The Melody Amber tournaments in Monaco, financed by the billionaire Joop van Oosterom, ran from 1992 to 2011. Even Reggio Emilia in Italy, which was held each year from 1958 to 2012, is also no more.
The troubles and tribulations of other tournaments makes the longevity of the annual Hastings Chess Congress all the more remarkable. It has held a master tournament (and numerous associated events for amateurs) every year around Christmas since 1922 (except during World War Two) and before that there were two important international tournaments and numerous smaller chess festivals in the town. So Hastings is the oldest annual chess event in England and probably anywhere in the world.
The tournament has had to change its venue many times, particularly in recent decades, and it has often had to find new financial backers but somehow it has come through. This year the sponsors include Tradewise Insurance, the principal sponsor for the Gibraltar Masters.
Over the years, Hastings has attracted many elite players. Indeed, every World Champion before Garry Kasparov, with the exception of Bobby Fischer, played in the tournament, either during, after, or before their reigns.
This year’s event begins December 28, and runs to 5 January 2016. So far, entries for the Masters division include 12 grandmasters, among them Ferenc Berkes of Hungary and Igor Khenkin of Germany, and the veteran Oleg Romanishin of Ukraine. The top English players are grandmasters Daniel Gormally, Mark Hebden, Keith Arkell, Glenn Flear and Simon Williams, often called the “ginger GM” because of his red hair, who is well known for his chess DVDs and tournament commentaries.
The Hastings Chess Club was formed in 1882 and moved in 1887 to the once-splendid Queen’s Hotel, where some of the early Congresses were held. In 1893 the great British chess master Joseph Blackburne came to live in Hastings for the sake of his health, a development which gave a great boost to chess in the town. Some wealthy local patrons and energetic local organizers, led by the club’s secretary, Herbert E. Dobell, conceived of an international tournament, which was held in 1895.
Nearly all the greatest masters of the day participated, with a few weaker amateurs, in a field of 22. One of the everlasting highlights of the event came in Round 10, when William Steinitz, who had lost the World Championship the year before to Emanuel Lasker, won his famous brilliancy against Curt von Bardeleben, who left the room and let his time run out when Steinitz announced forced mate.
Lasker, the Russian genius Mikhail Chigorin and Dr. Siegbert Tarrasch of Germany had been the favorites to win the tournament, but Harry Nelson Pillsbury, a young American, surprised the world’s elite with his fine play. With two rounds to go he had 14½ points, tied with Lasker, and half a point behind Chigorin. Both Lasker and Chigorin lost in the penultimate round, allowing Pillsbury to overtake them and take first prize.
An amateur tournament and a women’s tournament were also played, won respectively by Geza Maróczy of Hungary and Lady Elizabeth Thomas, mother of the future master Sir George Thomas.
Until World War I, Hastings hosted smaller annual festivals, which primarily attracted local players and lasted from two days to a week. These smaller events usually had a few masters who played consultation games and gave simultaneous exhibitions.
The Hastings tournament was revived in August 1919 with the Victory Congress, won by José Raúl Capablanca of Cuba, who would win the World Championship two years later. The field that Capablanca bested included the top English players and some foreign masters, but not Lasker, who was not invited because of some anti-British pronouncements he had made during the war. Smaller tournaments were held at Christmas-time in 1920/21 and 1921/22 as well as a September 1922 tournament won by Alexander Alekhine, another future World Champion. His top competition included Akiba Rubinstein, the great Polish player.
The pattern of a Christmas master tournament really began at the end of 1922 with a 10-player round-robin event won by Rubinstein ahead of Richard Réti, two minor foreign masters and six Englishmen. Several subsequent tournaments were won by future World Champions: Max Euwe of the Netherlands in 1923/4, 1930/1 and 1934/5 and Alekhine in 1925/6 and 1936/7, while ex-champion Capablanca won in 1929/30. The tournaments continued each year and the fields gradually grew stronger until 1939, after which they were suspended because of World War II.
The elite international tournament resumed in Christmas 1945 when Savielly Tartakower of France came first; he had previously won twice in the late 1920s. From 1953 onward it was traditional for the Soviet Union to send two grandmasters and sometimes another player or two to compete in the Challengers event. (The 1953 Soviet participants were David Bronstein and Alexander Tolush.)
I went to the Hastings tournament for the first time in 1966, when Mikhail Botvinnik was the winner. It was not all smooth sailing for the ex-World Champion — he had trouble with the English players as he blundered and lost to Raymond Keene, and had an epic duel with Michael Basman that eventually ended in a draw.
By the 1971/2 Congress, sponsorship had increased because of the rise of a new generation of young British masters seeking master titles. So the premier grandmaster tournament was expanded to 16 players. Among the participants were Viktor Korchnoi and a young Anatoly Karpov. The Challengers tournament had become a large and international Swiss with many established masters and young aspirants bidding for a place in the next premier event.
Nothing stays the same forever, however. As money got tighter, the premier section was reduced to 14 players and in 1987/88 it became an eight-player double round-robin. Subsequent years saw further tinkering with the format until the 2004 Hastings bowed to the inevitable and became only an open Swiss.
Though the tournament has lost its status as one of the world’s elite events, its place in chess history seems otherwise secure.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the standings in the 1895 Hastings tournament two rounds before the end. Lasker and Chigorin did not both have 15 points, a half point ahead of Pillsbury. Lasker and Pillsbury each had 14½ points, a half point behind Chigorin.
Dr. Timothy Harding, who has a PhD in history from Trinity College Dublin, is a senior international master of correspondence chess who has written many books on the game. His most recent, “Joseph Henry Blackburne: A Chess Biography,” published by McFarland, has received favourable critical reviews.