BOOK REVIEW by CARL PORTMAN
JOHN S. HILBERT
Walter Penn Shipley – Philadelphia’s Friend of Chess
1st edition (softcover, 442 Pages)
What is the book about?
It tells the story of Walter Penn Shipley, a man who was deeply passionate about chess throughout his life, who played a significant role in the activities and development of chess in the Philadelphia area, serving (among many roles) as President of the Franklin Chess Club. He could count among his friends the likes of Steinitz, Lasker, Pillsbury and Capablanca, at one point even facilitating business matters between Lasker and Capablanca as they tried to agree terms for a World Championship match. The book profiles the life of an extraordinary individual who spread the gospel of chess to players in America and beyond at all levels across two Centuries. He was a fine chess player, writer, columnist and an outstanding organiser, Walter Penn Shipley stood alone as a trusted and indefatigable man of his time. His services to chess were known throughout the world.
There are nine chapters in the book. They chronologically map the life of Shipley, explaining his background, chess club activities, the good and golden years going through the decades right up to and including his death.
What does the official Blurb say?
Walter Penn Shipley was crucial to the development of chess in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He organized correspondence chess in the United States in the 1890s, was a talented player and was a friend of world champions and contenders. He served as the president of the Franklin Chess Club in Philadelphia at the height of its power and prestige.
This work is a complete biography and games collection of Walter Penn Shipley. It draws from original documents—correspondence with Steinitz, Lasker, Capablanca, Pillsbury and others, detailed Shipley family records—and extensive research conducted in contemporary newspapers, journals and magazines. The book contains approximately 250 games (most of them annotated), with 246 positional diagrams.
Does the book achieve its aim?
And then some! The purpose of the book is to bring this individual and his role in chess to the attention of the reader. It is evident to observe the care and dedication that has gone into doing this. I came to ‘know’ WPS throughout the book through his deeds and his chess games. It was particularly pleasing to learn that he was an exponent of the French Defence, for many years my own favourite opening with the Black pieces. I even learned some new lines. Talk about being taught by ghosts of the past.
From his birth (June 1860) to his death (February 1942) and despite many other distractions, WPS was destined to play the leading role on chess matters in the Philadelphia area and of course at the Franklin Chess Club. What lucky members they all were to have him at the helm. There are some funny anecdotes including those around his friend Emil Kemeny and lots of historical information not only about Shipley but other players of the day. There is even a consultation game from a train ride to New York involving Pillsbury, Shipley and others which I have seen nowhere else.
Towards the end, Shipley and Lasker ‘fell out’ but in a very touching story, as Lasker was dying, we learn that Shipley was actually the one that he kept close.
I believe that if Shipley were alive today and he read this book, he would congratulate the author and the Publishers for this fine work. I think he would be delighted. There can be no better compliment than that.
I consider myself lucky to have read this and learned about such an incredible man. He deserves to be remembered for being a man of his time in a chess history. Shipley was a mover, a shaker - and a Quaker which seemed to give him the character to look at matters with supportive eyes and he was respected and trusted by just about everybody. As a lawyer, family man and committee member he had much on his plate but always found time for his beloved chess.
This book for me was about two aspects to enjoy. First and foremost, Shipley the man. Secondly the chess games. There are lots of correspondence games and one can imagine how long it took these games to conclude. America and the UK played cable games too and these are included here. The annotations are often light and easy to follow – just enough text to diagrams, all set out in the usual top-quality format by McFarland publishing. It’s a joy to read.
I felt as I was reading the book that I was actually there, accompanying Shipley as his chess life developed. I felt that I could have taken a seat in one of the Simultaneous exhibitions he gave or organised. I had no idea that he was friends with the luminaries of the day and entrusted with information from them all when it came to organising visits and games. What a great and true friend he must have been. He played the top players of the day and beat Lasker and Steinitz in a simul as well as Pillsbury in just seven (!) moves. True, Pillsbury erred, dropping a piece in a well-known but tricky line in the QGD, but that’s chess. He also drew with Capablanca in a simul, twice.
Some of the games may not be perfect (who plays perfect chess?) but they are great fun. I enjoyed an attacking game against a club mate, Joseph Palmer in November 1891, where Shipley was White and eagerly stormed the fortress.
1. e4 e5 2. Bc4 Nf6 3. Nf3 Nc6 4. d4 exd4 5. Ng5 Ne5 6. Qxd4 Nxc4 7. Qxc4 d5 8. exd5 Qxd5 9. Qe2+ Be7 10. O-O h6 11. Re1 Qd6 12. Bf4 Qd8 13. Nc3?! (optimistic. It may have been more prudent just to bring the knight back to f3. However, it is just possible that Shipley knew this full well but left a little worm dangling to see if the fish would take the bait – Carl) hxg5?? The bait was taken. 14. Rad1 Bd7 15. Bxc7 1-0 Sweet. Shipley’s style was actually more conservative but he had his moments, for sure. Final position
I could sense the sheer enjoyment that the man had for chess, so wonderfully has it been described by Hilbert. When Shipley’s colours began to fade as he aged, I became saddened, even morose and I wanted it all to begin again. He was the yeast to the chess loaf of the day and when he passed away so did many possibilities and dreams for chess in that area.
I have read elsewhere that this book might be of limited interest to those outside the United States. I beg to differ. The motto for chess is gens una sumus – we are one family. Anyone interested in chess history and those who made it will find this book a fascinating read and I believe an inspiration. There are those that talk the talk – but Shipley walked the walk – so let’s pay him his dues and at least read about the man.
Who is the author?
John S. Hilbert is (or was at the time of writing - Carl) the senior attorney for the Office of Hearings and Appeals of the Social Security Administration. He is the author of over a dozen books and more than 100 articles on chess history.