The Hastings Variation

A couple of years ago we found ourselves watching an excellent Netflix series, ‘The Queens Gambit’, a drama about a troubled orphan and chess prodigy, Beth Harman, who fights her way, from adversity and drug addiction, to become the greatest chess player in the world. It was full of heartache, drama, triumph over the odds, and, of course, plenty of chess. Mind you, the chess action was mainly of people staring intently at a chess board and then suddenly making an astounding winning move, causing their opponent to walk off in a huff.

However, for those people, not me I would hasten to add, who have a picture of chess being a pastime for a rather nerdy male wearing a moth-eaten sweater, it should have been a revelation. Chess turns out to be sexy after all; who would have guessed?

Advertising poster for The Queens Gambit, with Beth looking simultaneously gifted AND sexy.

My relationship with chess is complicated; I joined the chess club in my early teens, but realised very quickly that I wasn’t cut out for it, being unable to memorise more than few moves ahead. But I am fascinated by it and in awe of the great masters, who appear to be able to visualise a game dozens of moves ahead. But, at its highest level, it is more than that, it’s a game of psychological warfare between two intellectual titans. It’s no wonder that some its most famous practitioners have buckled under the strain, as was the case with Bobby Fischer, who descended into paranoia and possible schizophrenia. How Bobby Fischer Went From Chess Champion To Troubled Recluse

In episode 6 of ‘The Queens Gambit’, my ears pricked up, when Beth started discussing a game at the Hastings Christmas Chess Congress held in Falaise Hall, White Rock Gardens. I rewound and played again, to make sure I had heard right, and it was then, with minimal research, I discovered the astounding truth, that my new home has been one the great destinations for the world’s chess players, held in some of Hastings most iconic buildings. I learnt about the celebrated 1895 Hastings Chess Congress and a Hastings resident, Vera Menchik, who was one of the greatest women’s chess players of all-time.

The history of chess in Hastings dates back to 1880s, when a group of local chess enthusiasts and professionals started a tournament, which quickly grew into a yearly event and culminated in the famous Hastings Chess Tournament of 1895, which attracted the greatest chess players from around the world at that time and was the first of what was to become a “super-tournament”. Garry Kasparov, the Russian Chess Grand master and, arguably, one of the greatest chess players of all time, has called the 1895 Hastings Congress, the greatest chess tournament of 19th century.

It was also held in one of the great iconic buildings of Hastings, the Brassey Institute, designed and built in 1879 by the Architect Walter Liberty Vernon for Thomas Brassey, when he was Liberal MP for Hastings. It was built in the Gothic Revival style, more specifically in the Venetian Gothic style and, it is not difficult to imagine gliding past this building in a gondola on the Grand Canal in Venice.

1879 Illustration of the Brassey Institute

Thomas Brassey was a major figure in Hastings in the latter part of the 19th century, the Liberal MP for Hastings for nearly 20 years, from 1868 to 1886. He had inherited a vast fortune from his father, also Thomas Brassey, a Civil Engineering Contractor, who had made his fortune in railway construction, having built a third of the British rail network, two thirds of the French rail network, as well as a vast number of projects throughout the world.

The Brassey Institute was originally built by Thomas Brassey as the School of Science and Art, together with a free Public Library and Museum. Today it the home of Hastings Public Library and after years of neglect, a major refurbishment was carried out in 2016-18 restoring this magnificent building to its original splendour. The Brassey Institute is one of the architectural glories of Hastings, both internally and externally, which deserves to be more widely known and appreciated.

The Brassey Institute today, following restoration

Following on from this famous tournament of 1895, Hastings hosted a yearly International Chess Congress , which continues to this day and has attracted the greatest from across the world of chess. In fact, every chess world champion, before Garry Kasparov, with the exception of Bobby Fischer has played at Hastings, it was the Congress that everyone wanted to be a part of.

In the 1920s, into this rarefied world of international chess, appeared the amazing Vera Menchik, arguably, the greatest woman chess player of all time and resident of St. Leonards on Sea. I guarantee that most people outside of the chess world have not heard of this remarkable woman and she is almost unknown in Hastings and St. Leonards, but I believe it is time she joined the Hastings and St. Leonards ‘Hall of Fame’.

Vera was a refugee from Russia and Czechoslovakia, who arrived in England, at the age of 16, without a word of English. Her father was Russian and her mother, Olga, was half English and following the breakdown of her parents marriage, she moved to St. Leonards on sea, where her grandmother lived at 13, St. John’s Road, near Warrior Square station.

Vera Menchik at the age of 21 in 1927
After Menchik won the 1926 London Girls’ Championship, she gave a 13-board simultaneous exhibition

Decades before the fictional Beth Harman arrived on the scene, Vera was encountering misogyny and discrimination in the male dominated world of chess. Many men ridiculed her and the Viennese master Albert Becker, at the start of one tournament in 1929, mockingly proposed that any male player whom Menchik defeated in tournament play should be granted membership of the Vera Menchik Club. However, the last laugh was on Becker, when he became the first member of the club, followed by dozens of the world’s top male players. Vera would not be cowed by all this ridicule and, prior to one tournament, she declared that she was looking forward “to drinking some men’s blood.”

Vera bent over the chessboard in 1935

Vera’s father had taught her chess at the age of 9 and at the age of 21, in 1927, she became the Woman’s World Champion, which had been established that year. She then held that title for the next 17 years in a row, an amazing achievement, ended only by her untimely death in 1944.

Vera had married Rufus Steven in 1937, a widower twenty-eight years her senior, also very much of the chess world, who subsequently died in 1943. Tragically one year later, Vera, her sister Olga, and their mother were killed in a V-1 flying bomb attack which destroyed their home in Clapham, London, bringing an end to a dazzling career at the young age of 37.

This year, the New York Times, published ‘Overlooked,’ a series of obituaries about remarkable people whose deaths, beginning in 1851, went unreported in The Times. This is the article, a fascinating read about a exceptional person – Overlooked no more: Vera Menchik. It is time Vera Menchik joined the other august residents that have lived in Hastings and St. Leonards and is honoured with her own blue plaque on the family house at 13, St. John’s Road.

A few of the readers might be wondering at the rather cryptic title of this article ‘Hastings Variation’, the full title of which should be ‘The Hastings Variation of the Queen’s Gambit Declined‘. This takes its name from the game between Victor Berger and George Thomas, held in Hastings Town Hall at Christmas 1926. Rather than try and explain, with my limited understanding, these chess moves, here is a link for people who might wish to know more about Queens Gambit and The Hastings Variation of the Queen’s Gambit Declined

Between the years 1931 to 1964 the Hastings Chess Congress was held at the White Rock Pavilion (now the White Rock Theatre), another of those buildings that residents of Hastings often take for granted, but which has features of great interest. Constructed in 1927, it is built in a curious mixture of styles, part Art Deco and part Spanish Colonial, not to everybody’s taste, but somehow it all seems to come together.

White Rock Pavilion in 1929, 2 years after first opening
White Rock Theatre in 2022

But, to me, the most interesting aspect of the building, by far, are the ceramic roundels, designed by the celebrated sculptor Gilbert Bayes and made by the Doulton factory. These magnificent roundels representing Drama, Romance, Adventure and Terpsichore (the muse of dancing) really elevate this building. Sitting there next to the White Rock Hotel and opposite the pier, on the border between Hastings and St. Leonards, it is a true Hastings Landmark.

Hastings continues to be an important international destination for the world’s chess players and I am pleased to say that Hastings Chess Congress is still thriving, with the 96th tournament being held this year in December. Link to Hastings Chess Club

And what of the future of chess generally, which despite the advent of computers and ‘Artificial Intelligence’ still seems to be in good shape in the hands of humans at all levels of competence, who continue to play and enjoy chess the world over. At the Grand Master level, chess can still bring out the best and the worst of the human character, a timely reminder that it will be a long time before computers will be able to replicate the drama of human emotions.

As I write this article, an enormous row has broken out between the existing world champion Magnus Carlsen of Norway who has accused his opponent Han Niemann of cheating. The whole saga appears to be slightly bizarre, with rumours of Niemann using vibrating anal beads to assist him (don’t ask), but it does show that the passion hasn’t gone out of chess. Carlsen v Niemann: the cheating row that is rocking chess

Chess originated in India over 1500 years ago, worked its way into Persia and then onto the Muslim World. It arrived in Southern Europe in the 8th to 9th centuries, following the Moorish conquest of Spain, before working its way up to Scandinavia. And when was chess introduced to Britain? Some people say it arrived around 1013 with the Danish invasion, which may well be true, but it arrived in a significant way with the Normans in 1066 and so, it could be argued, that the birthplace of British chess is Hastings. It is a romantic notion and one that I shall continue to cling to, until proved otherwise.

Published by John Bostock

Retired and living in St. Leonards on Sea, but still learning about life. All views are my own.

3 thoughts on “The Hastings Variation

  1. Another absolutely fascinating and captivating read. Many thanks for your industry. Us old lags of Bexhill recollect Many of the gems that you build into your post but to have them woven into one tapestry in such elegant form is the work of a true artist. Congratulations


    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s so kind of you Graham, I’m flushed with embarrassment. As a relative newcomer, I hope that I can add a new perspective to our wonderful area. In my retirement, I lam enjoying doing the research and then turning it into an interesting story. Once again thanks.


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