Thursday, 26 August 2010

Book Review: 'Sixty Years in the Same Room'

'Sixty Years in the Same Room' by Robert H Jones (Keverel Chess Books, 2010)

The sub-title of this book perhaps gives a better clue to its contents: "a history of the Paignton Chess Congress". The title refers to the fact that this much-loved congress has been played annually since 1951 in the very same room of the prestigious Oldway Mansion in Paignton. It started life in 1951 as a celebration of the Devon County Chess Association's 50th year of existence and it is now coming up to its own 60th instalment in the same room of the same building (of course), running from Saturday 5th to Saturday 11th September 2010.

Chess in the West Country is very lucky to have its own dedicated historian, Bob Jones, who for many years has lovingly memorialised the game in this part of England in newspaper articles, books and on the web (e.g. here and here). In this book he has collated the history of the congress from coverage given in CHESS, BCM and other sources, with photos of some of the contestants, summaries of each year's tournaments, pen pictures of eminent players and sixty memorable games (where have I heard that phrase before?! No, Bobby Fischer didn't play there but one famous world champion did come to Paignton and suffered defeat in the very first round ever played in the congress. The book tells all). There is even a section on the history of the Oldway Mansion, which started life as the home of the celebrated US plutocrat Isaac Singer, and the author even touches on this remarkable gentleman's decidedly colourful love-life (in the best possible taste, of course).

The book is effectively a nostalgic look-back at British chess throughout the past sixty years, since nearly everyone who is anyone in the British chess world has put in an appearance there at some point in their career. The Paignton Congress is a fixed point in the much-changing universe of British chess, perhaps even more so than the more venerable Hastings Congress (with its changed formats and venues). It is quaint but delightfully so and its supporters come back year after year, and decade after decade. Not just amateurs, either - Keith Arkell is its most loyal supporter amongst the chess elite, also local boy made Australian(!) Gary Lane, and there are plenty of other titled players who have played there. It is cunningly held just after the school term begins in September but that did not stop a very young Mickey Adams putting in a crafty appearance or two when he was 'nobbut a lad' (skiving off school to play chess? You could already tell he was going to be a top-class player). And Mickey is there again in 2010, giving a simul on 7 September 2010, according to the entry form. Mickey is of course a born and bred West Country man and it is a matter of enormous and well-deserved pride in those parts to have produced arguably the finest chessplayer ever to have come from these islands.

This is clearly a well-researched labour of love by Bob Jones and it will be a delightful read for those who have ever played at Paignton, or are well-stricken in years and enjoy a good helping of chess nostalgia. One very nice touch was his dedication: "to chess widows everywhere and my wife Jennifer, in particular". I showed this to my own "chess widow" and reminded her that, 15 years ago, she had declared the Paignton Congress to be the best one she had ever been to. She still stands by this verdict, on the grounds that it allowed us to do some tourism in the morning, in a particularly lovely part of Devon, then she could take a time-out in the afternoon while I played my chess and finally we could rendezvous in the evening for dinner. I have to say that Elaine's criticism of certain other congresses (which better remain nameless) has been withering in the extreme - so, for her to utter words of approbation about Paignton should be taken as the very highest recommendation possible.

I'm guessing that this book will be available from The Chess Shop in Baker Street any day now (my review copy was hot off the press) or from Bob himself. 157 pages softback, plenty of photos, £15.99.


  1. Nice review, John. I have nothing but admiration for the author for putting together such a remarkable book. Truly a labour of love!

  2. 'Sixty Years in the Same Room' - sounds like a workable definition of hell.