Andrew Thomas was descended from the well-known 19th century Welsh Methodist minister and bibliographer, William Rowlands, (1802 - 1865) whose career is charted in the National Dictionary of Biography. William was born in Bryncroes near Pwlleli on the Lleyn peninsula and was best known for compiling the Cambrian Bibliography, the definitive list of all Welsh books from 1546 - 1800. He also wrote learned religious tracts under the nome de plume Gwylim Lleyn. In 1834 he married Anne Andrews and they had 8 children, the fourth of whom, Ellen (1840 - 1873) married a Samuel Thomas (1839 - 1889). Samuel became Mayor of Haverfordwest. Their child, William Rowland Thomas (1876 - 1935), was A. R. B. Thomas's father.
William Thomas was brilliantly academic and won a double first in Classics and Mathematics at Oxford University, and went on to become a Mathematics teacher and Deputy Head at Merchant Taylor's School, Crosby, Liverpool.
In the 1901 census, there was a single, 33 year old William R. Thomas listed as living in Great Crosby, Liverpool, born in Haverfordwest, Pembrokeshire and working as a schoolmaster. This was Andrew's father. Shortly after this, William married his cousin, Ellen Rowlands, and Andrew was born in October 1904. It was agreed that he should be named Andrew Rowland, after the Andrews and Rowlands lines of his family, but on his way to register the birth, it occurred to William that the boy's initials would be A.R.T. What could he do about it? As a Shakespeare enthusiast he had two favourite characters from the plays - Benedick, a main character in "Much Ado About Nothing", someone who would never be a fool for love and would never marry unless he found the perfect woman. On the back of this, the word has since entered the language as meaning a man who marries late in life after a long period as a bachelor. In a moment of prescience, William decided to add Benedick to the agreed Christian names.
Three other children followed; a daughter named Rosalind after her father's favourite female Shakespearean character. However, she died at the age of 3, shortly before the birth of a brother, Tristan, (William was also a Wagner fan) and later came Ellen Myfanwy Moira Thomas, known as Moira, 13 years younger than Andrew.
William Thomas was a keen and able chess player, and passed on his love of the game through his genes and practical encouragement to his son from an early age. From his mother, a piano teacher, Andrew inherited a talent for the instrument and a love of music, every bit as deep as his passion for chess.
William was first recorded as playing for Liverpool 2nd team in 1902 and played Bd. 27 / 30 for Lancashire against arch rivals Yorkshire. By 1909 he played Bd. 17 / 25 against both Cheshire and Yorkshire. The following year he was No. 14 / 40 in the Lancashire Correspondence team. In 1911 he was elected General Secretary of the Lancashire Chess Association, when his address was given as 9, Princes Avenue, Waterloo, Liverpool. In 1914 he added the county captaincy to his portfolio of offices.
It was in 1910 that William first taught his son the rudiments of the game, and about 3 years later the boy was challenging his parents to a 4-round triangular tournament, Andrew duly recording the moves in a small notebook. This notebook still exists and the games between "Bendi" and his mother have been added to the database of Thomas games.
In 1915 the family address was given as 39, Regent Street, Great Crosby, an area of Liverpool adjoining Blundellsands. That year William reached the final of the Lancashire Individual Championship. He played R. W. Houghton (Manchester) two games, both drawn. A deciding game was deferred but never actually played, so the two shared the trophy. The following year he was elected both Secretary and Match Captain of Liverpool, making at least four major posts held simultaneously.
Andrew's early chess career is briefly outlined in his autobiographical work, Chess For The Love Of It. He attended Merchant Taylors' School, Crosby, where the school chess championship involved 60 of the total of 300 boys. A. R. B. doesn't mention in the book that his father was a Maths teacher at the same school. In his final year there, Andrew got his Rugby and Cricket colours and was Head Boy. Lest there be any doubt about the level of play, the school produced 5 rugby internationals in the 1920s.
With the resumption of full chess activities after the Great War, he played for Lancashire alongside his father, who as team captain, could ensure they played on adjacent boards. For example, in 1921 they took boards 23 and 24 against Yorkshire, and the following year were on boards 18 and 20 in the same match, and took boards 10 and 13 for the annual Liverpool v Manchester match.
In August 1919, Capablanca won the Victory Congress at Hastings, and followed this up with a long series of simultaneous matches throughout the UK. Between 23rd August and 18th January 1920, Capablanca gave 40 displays, losing only 29 of the 1,355 games played. On Saturday 27th September the Cuban took on 33 opponents at the Liverpool Club in Temple Building with the result +29 -3 =1, the three winners being J. Lewis, Capt. McMahan and the Revd. Peach. At the end of the match, W. R. Thomas moved a vote of thanks to Señor Capablanca. After a day's rest, Capablanca took on another 40 opponents at the Waterloo Club in another part of Liverpool, the Thomas's local club, and again the Cuban lost 3 games and drew one. The event was reported in the Yorkshire Observer Budget on 18th October thus: "One of the few games won from Capablanca at Waterloo (Liverpool) was scored by A. R. B. Thomas, a boy of 14, son of the Lancashire county captain, himself a victor on the same occasion. 'A chip off the old block' is an expression that has a singular appropriateness on this occasion". A. R. B. recalls in his book (p.22) that both he and his father beat Capablanca that night, together with their friend S. R. Jopson. Thomas called the Waterloo performance of 3 losses and a draw out of the 40 games played as "a disaster for the Cuban", which seems a little strong, though one can understand a certain elation.
In August 1920 William and his 15 year old son Andrew went to Edinburgh to participate in the B. C. F. Congress, held in the McEwen Hall. In the absence of a Swiss system of pairing, players were divided into all-play-all sections of twelve, in order of perceived playing strength; namely the British Championship, Major Open, 1st Class Sections A & B, 2nd Class and 3rd Class, plus the Ladies Championship. Each section was photographed on the pavement outside the hall, those of the two Championship sections appearing in the BCM. William played in the 1st Class B where he scored 6½ / 11 while Andrew played in the 2nd Class coming 1st=, level with W. Penberthy on 9 pts, demonstrating his growing ability.
Above: Edinburgh 1920 - 2nd Class Section. A. R. B. Thomas (standing extreme right); Miss Sanders (1/11) and the Revd. W. E. Evill (8/11) (seated centre). The others are W. Penberthy (9), M. Maung, (8½), E. W. Carmichael (8), G. D. Hutton (5), W. H. Jones (4), G. A. Youngman (3½), A. D. Barlow (3½), H. Ransom (3½) & H. T. Twomey (3½). Which is which is not clear, although these two photographs are probably hitherto unpublished.
Below: Edinburgh 1920 1st Class Tournament Section B. W. R. Thomas is seated extreme right. The others are B. Heastie (9); F. J. Camm (8½); G. W. Moses (8); H. C. Griffiths (8); E. T. Jesty (7); G. E. Smith (5); J. D. Chambers (4½); G. R. Hardcastle (4); G. M. Stewart (2); S. J. Holloway (2) & F. Hingley (1½).
In 1922, the BCF put off organising a British Championship in favour of a major international tournament in the Central Hall, London. Father and son Thomas attended, this time Andrew moving up to the 1st Class Tournament Section A and William moving down to Section C. Andrew won 9 of his 11 games, losing only to Sergeant and J. A. J. Drewitt of Hastings, with whom he was to become friendly, and finished up 2nd to the very strong French player, Andre Muffang of Armentieres. The event gave them the opportunity to rub shoulders with and observe the play of the great and good of the day. The new World Champion, Capablanca, was lionised wherever he went, but also there was Alekhine, Euwe, Maroczy, Reti, Bogoljubow, Rubinstein and Tartakower, to name but a few.
There was much more to university for Andrew than just maths lectures and chess. He had his own piano in his room, and he played rugby for his college XV and in athletics specialised in the hurdles.
Their programme of matches for the season was as follows:
The day after each match, A.R.B. would send a note or postcard back home with the score of his game for his father to play through. He fully expected the result of each match to be reported in The Times with, on several occasions, the score of his own game.
This was a significant season as it marked the 50th match between Oxford and Cambridge. The series had been initiated at the suggestion of no less a person than Howard Staunton himself. The first match was on March 28th 1873, with 7 a side as it was always to be, and took place in London, with Steinitz adjudicating any games unfinished at 11 p.m. The number of spectators that turned up were variously reported as "about 400" (Illustrated London News) and "from 600 to 800" (City of London Chess Magazine). As sideshows to entertain the public, Zukertort played 7 at a time blindfold in one room while Blackburne played 10 in another. The significance of the Varsity Match had declined somewhat since those heady days, but was still much greater than today.
The match itself was held on Friday 19th March 1926 at the City of London Chess Club and to celebrate the occasion, a special Jubilee Dinner was organised at the Trocadera Restaurant the following evening to which all past and current members of the two clubs were invited. After a 7 course meal, toasts were proposed and responded to. On behalf of the guests H. F. Sutherland proposed a toast on behalf of Oxford to which H. E. Atkins replied. A.R.B proposed the health of the Oxford Club to which Sir Richard Barnett MP responded. A commemorative programme was printed for the occasion and A.R.B. got his signed in pencil inside the cover by 30 of those present, including Atkins, Milner-Barry, T. H. Tylor, G. S. A. Wheatcroft, Gerald Abrahams et al.
When the Cambridge team had gone up to London to play the Imperial Club in February, he wrote home saying, "Mrs. Stevenson surprised me by saying she hoped I would enter for the British Championship at Edinburgh as she thought I would be accepted". This encouragement to relative newcomers on the chess scene was a characteristic of the then current British Ladies Champion, born Agnes Lawson, and wife of R. H. S. Stevenson, both central figures at the Imperial Club.
On the strength of this, he and the Oxford champion, Wheatcroft, were both accepted. The fact was that the entry for the event that year was disappointingly low and relatively weak; there was, for example, no Atkins (holder), Sergeant, Winter or Sir George Thomas. So in August, A.R.B. travelled north with his father, who entered the Major Open. William found the going tough against the likes of Znosko-Borovsky and finished with a modest 3 / 11. In his first British Championship, however, A. R. B. came a respectable 6th= / 12, level with Wheatcroft, registering a fine win against 2nd placed Cornishman R. P. Mitchell.
Within weeks of this, A.R.B. reported for duty as a schoolmaster at Blundell's School, Tiverton in Devon, Comins Mansfield's old school, where he was to spend his entire career teaching mathematics (1926 - 1967). Forty year careers at Blundells were not unusual - several colleagues appointed at the same time as A.R.B. also spent their entire working lives there.
At first, A.R.B. was on trial and his appointment was not confirmed until the Headteacher, A. E. Wynne (1917 - 30), was fully satisfied that his pupils did not shuffle their feet on the classroom floor above his office ceiling.
Above: A.R.B. sitting extreme left in the annual school photograph of 1947. His proximity to the Head, R. L. Roberts (circled), gives an idea of his seniority.
Below: House Master A.R.B. sitting for a Francis House picture in 1947, with the Monitors, Matron and House tutor, Mr. McIlwaine.
At Blundells, he lived the typical life of a public school / bachelor / house master, which must have suited him and his temperament very well, or he wouldn't have stayed there so long. He was a little reserved in manner, always cool, calm and collected, yet popular with the boys and colleagues. His childhood nickname of "Bendi" had stuck with him throughout, and was universal among staff, boys and immediate family, but he had a second among the boys - "Sarkle", after his idiosyncratic pronunciation of the word "circle" in maths lessons.
His life was not unlike that of the hero of the Exmouth author, R. F. Delderfield's novel "To Serve Them All My Days", thought by some to be one of the great underrated works of the 20th century. To read this book is to understand the school life of A. R. B. Thomas. The book is set in a fictional North Devon boarding school for boys, but it could almost be Blundells. For a decade after he started there, he took no part in tournament chess, preferring to concentrate on his career.
In a short letter home dated 17th March 1930 he gave some indication of the great range of his interests. "…. I have made up a crossword puzzle entirely devoted to the iron and steel industry!" … I am at present learning astronomy from a watchmaker in the town who used formerly to set all his clocks by this means (but has had his pleasure killed by the Greenwich time signal) and partly from a book".
After 10 years at Blundell's, he felt ready to apply for headships himself. His Headmaster at the time, N. V. Gorton (1934 - 43), wrote the following reference, which gives a very clear impression of his achievements there and the regard in which he was held.
Mr. Thomas tells me he's applying for a headmastership.
I myself strongly advised him to go for a headship, though he's the last person I'd wish to lose at Blundell's.
He is quite young but has already become something of an institution here. This means personality, and Mr. Thomas has this as a schoolmaster. There is nothing of the hack about him.
To begin with, Mr. Thomas is certainly the most popular man on the staff with the boys and probably the most popular member with the common room - a person of immense vitality, abounding interests and with an original, whimsical humour. This latter he brings into all his work and personal contacts.
He is a very good mathematical teacher. When I first came here he was not in charge of the senior mathematical work, but I felt he had a first class brain and was a born teacher and lately I have put him in charge of the Mathematical VIth. He can stimulate the able boy but at the same time he has real patience with the really thick non-mathematician (sic).
He is an enthusiast for English Literature, and in this connection he produces form plays, gets boys to write their own plays for production and their own form magazines. He runs the school debating society. For years all his spare time has been taken up with Scouts - not only at the school. He also runs a scout group for a local village where there is a boys' industrial home. Most weekends he is out camping, and very often in the holidays.
It's very difficult to give an idea on paper of someone who's a real personality. But I may add that Mr. Thomas is a first class chess player and Lancashire champion. What is remarkable he never has time to play in term time and yet, without practice, he can go to Margate and play adequately in the second group of the championship.
He is a good musician and plays the piano well. It is time he gave up playing rugby but when he does turn out for the local town team, he is still, they tell me, the fastest and most dangerous forward they have. They tell me too, though I have not seen it, that as a drawing room accomplishment, he can take a standing jump on to any fireplace mantelshelf and remain there.
With experience and a developed power of organisation Mr. Thomas should become an outstanding headmaster. He would be terribly missed at Blundell's".
Even allowing for the gloss one usually gets in references of this nature, one can clearly see his place at the school. However, it was to no avail and he never achieved headship. His family feel that after several applications, he felt he was being passed over in favour of old Etonians, for example, or friends of the governors, and he gave up the chase, being more than happy with his lot.
In 1926, William retired, having reached the position of Second Master at Merchant Taylor's, the equivalent of Deputy Headmaster, and set himself to writing books and articles.
In 1928, for example, he compiled a definitive 12 page article on the life of Capt. W. D. Evans, inventor of the Evans Gambit, and a former pupil of his own school, Haverfordwest Grammar School. This was published in the BCM.
In 1930, William completed a 220 page book entitled A Short Course in the Old Testament and Apocrypha, intended for schools and study groups. Andrew tried to get the book taken up at Blundells, but was frustrated by delays at the publishers.
His father died suddenly on 4th March 1936, aged 68, shortly after taking on the posts of secretary & treasurer of the Northern Union, in addition to his other posts. His obituary in BCM filled two pages. After the death of her husband, Andrew's mother, Ellen, moved down to Blundell's where she acted as his housekeeper and secretary for almost 20 years until her death in 1955.
A pre-War Renaissance.
For almost 10 years since arriving at Blundell's A. R. B. had virtually retired from tournament chess, concentrating on his school career. However, he was tempted back onto the circuit in 1935 when he entered the 1st Margate Congress. The Kent Chess Association were seeking to replicate the success of the Hastings tournament by organising a similar event in the Easter holidays, and persuaded the Margate Council to sponsor a series of congresses at the Grand Hotel, Cliftonville. The first one ran from 24th March to April 3rd and attracted the likes of Capablanca, Reshevsky and the veteran Mieses against whom some of the top British players could cross swords. Thomas entered the Premier Reserves, for which the organisers had devised a complex series of three Primary and Secondary groupings. Of the six players in each Primary group, the first, second and third pair were put into an appropriate Secondary group, according to their results in the Primary group. He came 5th / 6 in Primary B, with a modest 2 / 5 after losing to Dewing in the last round, and was put into Secondary C. As he wrote home at the time, "The worst has happened! I was fairly outplayed by Dewing in a QP and so play in the bottom section. Had I won I should have gone into the top one under their elimination rules. So the luck of the move has done me down. I played my own amendment to the Dod Defence which got me through the opening safely, but it is clear now that the whole idea of the Normal Defence is too difficult for Black and offers too few chances. I doubt whether I shall play it again.
Wish me luck in the coming week. I have one very good player in my section (Fraenkel)".
In the event, he held Heinrich Fraenkel, (who wrote under the pen name Assiac) to a draw, and beat the other four players winning the Section, and the 1st prize of £3.
1st Margate Congress 1935 - Secondary C Section.
Apart from Reshevsky's 1st place over Capablanca in the Premier, this event was probably most notable for the first appearance of Elaine Saunders, "a tiny girl of about 9 who played her games and took down the moves with all the seriousness of a master". So wrote the BCM, little realising that within 4 years she would become the youngest British Ladies Champion in almost the first 100 years of the event, and a Women's World Championship candidate.
One of the players along with A.R.B. in the Reserves was the Belgian, George Koltanowski, who gave blindfold displays during breaks in the playing schedule. Realising how far his sharpness had blunted during his 10 year lay-off, A.R.B. invited Koltanowski to stay with him for a week the following year in the hope he could improve his game. In 1937 Koltanowski returned to Blundells to give one of his simultaneous blindfold displays against the boys.
Whatever benefit Koltanowski was able to impart, it must have worked well, for in 1937 Thomas entered the Worcester Centenary Congress in September and came 1st= level with the Argentine master, Guimard, ahead of Dr. Seitz and five leading British amateurs. His win against Guimard not only won the Brilliancy Prize, but made a great impression nationally.
Above: Worcester Centenary Congress 1937: Thomas (right) on his way to a draw against Dr. Adolph Seitz.
There was a strong line-up for the 1937-37 Hastings Congress, but Vera Menchik had to drop out due to her husband's illness, and on the strength of his performance at Worcester A.R.B. was invited as a replacement, joining Reshevsky, Keres, Fine, Flohr, the Estonian Mikenas, and four top Brits.
The Times of 27th December 1937 relished the prospect, with the first four of the foreign representatives in the running as candidates for the World Championship, and their performance at Hastings likely to have an important bearing on their prospects. "A. R. B. Thomas is one who has been too little seen at congresses in recent years; yet it is not so many years that he was the leading Cambridge University player. Everybody will wish him luck at his first appearance in the Premier Section. It would do English chess a great deal of good if he, or anybody else, could secure two or three really well-deserved victories against these formidable foreigners".
Yet whatever good Koltanowski had done for A.R.B. earlier in the year it couldn't help him in this company - it was much too big a jump in class. After his loss to Sir George Thomas in Round 3, the chess correspondent of the Times, reported "A. R. B. Thomas invented, on the spur of the moment, a new, but unfortunately unsound, counter-attack in the Petroff Defence", adding hopefully, "He has not yet found the form of which we know him to be capable". Eventually, he scraped a single point with draws against T. H. Tylor and an out-of-form Fairhurst. As Golombek observed in the BCM "A. R. B. Thomas did not seem to have enough knowledge of the modern openings and was also very nervous at his first experience in a tournament of this strength. He got bad games out the opening, after which, of course, you have little chance of escape against players of the front rank. We feel sure he will do better next time".
Above: Caricatures by Moss from the local Hastings paper, showing Thomas bordered by Fairhurst (left) and the Lithuanian Vladas Mikenas.
Undeterred, however, he entered the 4th Margate Congress after Easter. He was spared encountering Alekhine, Spielmann, Petrov and Böök in the Premier and proved a little more at ease in the Premier Reserves A against Najdorf, List, Conde, Rossolimo, Klein, and four others. He finished with 4 points, his four losses being offset by wins over Najdorf, Conde and H. H. Cole.
Above left: In typical pose at MargateAbove right: 4th Margate Congress April 1938 at the start of the final round. Bottom right corner shows G. van Doesburg playing Sonia Graf (just off the edge); and W. Shelfhout v C. B. Heath. Next row back shows K. Opocensky (standing v Konig (just off the edge), vacant table , then L. C. G. Dewing. 3rd row back: Najdorf sitting alone; A. R. B. Thomas v E. Klein; Conde v List. Back row (left to right): Alekhine standing to get a better view of his game v Alexander, plus several spectators; Petrov v Spielmann; Sergeant v Milner-Barry; 4th table is empty because Golombek (due to play Sir George Thomas) was finishing his breakfast in the restaurant.
In August 1939, the uncertain political situation combined with the fact that a number of key players were involved in the Buenos Aires Olympiad, the traditional British Championship was abandoned, but replaced by a congress at Bournemouth with an international flavour. There were three 12-man sections; the Premier and Major Open sections A and B. Winter did not show up and Wallis was promoted at short notice, beating Thomas in the first round on the way to a creditable overall performance in the circumstances. Thomas got a notable scalp in beating Landau in Round 2, after both players were in great time trouble in which Landau blundered a piece as a consequence when in the slightly better position. In Round 8 another time scramble ensued in which the 74 year old Mieses lost a rook but still managed to beat Thomas after the adjournment. However, A.R.B. finished strongly with 3 wins from the last 3 rounds to rescue a reasonable performance.
The British Ladies Championship went ahead as scheduled, the diminutive 13 year old schoolgirl, Elaine Saunders, winning by a country mile.
War was declared by Chamberlain on the eve of the final round, and the two Dutchmen played out a quick draw that evening and returned home immediately. That same day in Buenos Aires, the English team withdrew from the Olympiad and Sir George Thomas, Milner-Barry and Alexander set sail for home immediately
Back at Blundell's, school life, as in Delderfield's book, may have been orderly on the whole, but it was not without its little dramas from time to time. In 1943, for example, a 31 year old Welshman, R. L. Roberts, was appointed Headmaster and started a drive for modernity and firm discipline. "Bloody Bob" was tenacious and bullying of both staff and pupils, and a group of the staff eventually protested by writing a joint letter to the Governors. However, they not only backed the Head but authorised him to get rid of the troublemakers. A number of staff did indeed move on to other things at this time, and A.R.B., too, offered his resignation, but the Head persuaded him to stay on, a further indication, if any were required, of the extent to which he was valued. Shortly after this, the Head was involved in a scandal involving allegations of Black Magic in the Chapel, an exorcism, an affair, a divorce and alleged physical violence. Unsurprisingly, the Head resigned in May 1947, and went on to join the ministry. No one could call A.R.B's life at Blundells dull.
The death of his father in 1936 and the war years did little to break his allegiance to his native Lancashire team for whom he still turned out. In the 1945 - 46 season, for example, in the Semi-Final of the Counties Championship he played on Bd. 5 against Middlesex, under Abrahams, Broadbent, Fairhurst and Rhodes. In the Final against Warwickshire, Fairhurst dropped out and Thomas moved up to Bd. 4 where he beat Ritson Morry on the way to Lancashire's eighth Championship title since 1921. When playing in the pre-war tournaments, he was always listed as Liverpool player.
According to the Chessmetrics website, his best-ever rating was in 1941 when it was 2479 (235), the 119th highest in the world. His best tournament performance was at Bournemouth 1939, where he scored a tournament rating of 2556 (244).
The Post-War Years.
The first post-war British Championship was held at Nottingham in 1946. Probably on the strength of his pre-war performances, A.R.B. was invited to play and was thus involved in the biggest upset in the event's history. The Scottish Federation had been invited to nominate a player, and they came up with the Elgin solicitor, Robert Forbes Combe, whose main claim to fame at that time was losing the shortest serious game in chess history (Folkestone 1933, when he resigned after losing a piece on his 4th move). At first, his nomination was refused as not being up to the required standard, but the Scots stuck to their guns and Combe played. Not only that, but he beat the revered C. H. O'D Alexander in the first round. In Round 2, A.R.B. had the chance to show that Combe's first round win was a fluke, but he too was knocked over by a brilliant sacrificial attack, and the Scot could not be caught thereafter. Combe's eventual victory was little short of sensational at the time, while Thomas finished in last place, level with Frank Parr and Bob Wade. In his book, A.R.B. paid tribute to Combe: "I should like to record here what a great player I thought he was, and how sorry I was that he died prematurely. Another thing worth recording about him is that he played very quickly and frequently had a whole hour to spare on his clock."
Above: Contestants at Nottingham 1946. Back row l - r: Gabriel Wood, Reginald Broadbent, Philip Milner-Barry, A.R.B., Barry Wood. Front: Bob Wade, Frank Parr, William Winter, Robert Combe, Hugh Alexander, Harry Golombek, Gerald Abrahams.
Before the war, A.R.B. had formed a friendship with the Dutch player Lodewijk Prins, based not only on their chess but a common love of playing the piano, and through that he developed several contacts with the Netherlands chess world. In January 1947, for example, Liverpool Chess Club played a two-leg match against a team from Amsterdam. The Liverpool paper reported the home leg thus.
The Dutch team of 17 players were welcomed by the president of the Liverpool Chess Club, Mr. J. C. Bryson, and they presented their opponents with specially inscribed scoring pads as a memento of their visit.
G. T. Crown, Liverpool's 17 year old player, for whom a big future is predicted, won both his games".
Young Gordon Crown's potential was indeed immense. That summer he was admitted to the British Championship at Harrogate at short notice to fill the vacancy left by the late withdrawal of the current champion, R. F. Combe, and came within a whisker of creating a second sensation, when he came clear 3rd behind joint winners Broadbent and Golombek. Later that year, however, he went into hospital for a routine appendicitis operation, but his diabetes caused complications which proved fatal. The chess world was stunned. In time he would certainly have become a World Championship candidate.
Throughout the post war years, Andrew was able to fit a regular pattern of chess into his holiday periods, starting with Hastings after Christmas, the West of England Congress each Easter and the British Championships each August, with over 100 points accumulated at both Hastings and the British. At weekends there were county matches, (17 for Lancs and about 63 for Devon), British Championship Qualifiers, National Club Championship matches for Exeter etc.
At Easter 1947, the second West of England Championship, under the auspices of the newly-created West of England Chess Union, was held at Bristol. It was a simple 7 round, All-Play-All tournament, involving 8 of the best players in the area, 5 of them Devonians by birth or residence.
A.R.B. finished well ahead of the field, the only one not to lose a game.
The keenness of the new association's executive members led them to produce a small booklet containing all the games, making a fine souvenir of the event. A.R.B. sent a copy to Holland inscribed "To my friend & chess-master, L. Prins, August 1947. A. R. B. Thomas". Strangely, this same copy was recently unwittingly returned to Devon when it was purchased by the writer on the internet, sight unseen.
Above: The competitors at the 1947 WECU Championship, showing A.R.B. in characteristic pose playing against D. V. Hooper, with the owner of the restaurant venue looking on. L - r: H. V. Trevenen; H. Wilson-Osborne (WECU President); R. A. (Ron) Slade; Rowena Bruce; Ron Bruce; H. V. (Harry) Mallison; Chris Sullivan; C. Welch (Controller); F. E. A. (Frank) Kitto.
At Easter 1949, the first of a new sort of congress was organised at Southsea, one organised on the new Swiss System. That year A. R. B. was committed to the West of England Championship, where he came joint 2nd with Ron Bruce behind H. V. Trevenen.
The following year, after coming 3rd= equal in the WECU Championships at Weymouth behind Trevenen (again) and Poolake, over the Easter weekend in early April 1950, he was attracted by the growing popularity of the new event and entered the 2nd Stevenson Memorial Tournament at Southsea later in the month, with the chance of playing Bogoljubow or Bisguier. Tartakower, too, was a regular competitor at Southsea, and as Thomas recalled "stayed in the same boarding house each year where, in intervals between playing chess, resumed copying out the Encylopaedia Brittanica from where he had left off the preceding year". The sensation of this event was the 16 year old Jonathan Penrose who came within an ace of winning 1st prize, beating ARB in Round 2. None the less, Golombek observed that both Barden and Thomas, who drew with each other, "were players who deserved a rather higher place in view of the consistently good chess they produced throughout the tournament."
Thomas returned to Southsea in 1951. Reporting this 3rd Southsea Congress, Golombek made it clear he was not enamoured of the new pairing system, as it savoured of "the popularity of the football pools" and "appealed to the sadistic element present in audiences as a substitute for public executions". Whether it served A.R.B. well depends on how one looks at it. Golombek noted "Thomas had the hardest tournament of any and met all the grim top trio - Rossolimo, Tartakower and O'Kelly. With a little more luck he would have figured in the prize list". In fact, he came 14th = out of the 44 entrants, but surely wouldn't have swapped his win over Tartakower for a share of the £10.00 4th prize if that meant avoiding the top players. This game appeared in Tartakower & Du Mont's book 100 Master Games of Modern Chess and, of course, in his own book Chess For The Love Of It.
He played at Hastings over the Christmas period 1950 - 51, and got a draw against the tournament winner Wolfgang Unzicker. Reviewing the game in his chess column in The Field, Julius Du Mont felt moved to say "Thomas is worthy of a place in an England team, an honour which has not yet been vouchsafed him".
In March 1954, the BCF brought out their first attempt at a grading list, giving a chance to see how each player stood in relation to all others. At this early stage a numerical system was not possible, but players were grouped into bands depending on their results for the 3 years up to June 1953. Alphabetical order was used within each group, and in Grade 1(a) were Alexander, Broadbent, Klein and Yanovsky. 1(b) comprised Golombek and the 17 yr old Jonathan Penrose, while 2(a) contained Aitken, Fairhurst, Fazekas, Horne, Milner-Barry, Oliver Penrose, Tylor, Wallis, Winter and the young but upwardly-mobile Wade and Peter Clarke. Thomas was put into 2(b) together with fellow Liverpudlian Gerald Abrahams, Barden, Blow, Fuller, Hooper, Israel, Paffley, Alan Phillips, Sergeant, and Barry Wood. So it could be argued that A.R.B. was approximately the 20th strongest player in the country at this time.
Meanwhile, back at Blundell's the Headmaster during the 50s was J. S. Carter (1948 - 59), and while he was not Roberts, he caused Thomas his greatest disappointment in chess, as he records in his short biography. He writes on page 4, "My saddest moment was in 1954, when I was asked by the BCF whether I should be available to play in Buenos Aires as a member of the British team and my headmaster would not give me leave of absence. My wretched performance at the following Hastings Congress was a consequence of this". This would undoubtedly have been the crowning event of his career and to be denied the opportunity by his employer sounds truly heartless. However, the original offer from the Argentine Federation to host the 11th Olympiad fell through at the last minute, and the event was actually held in Amsterdam from 28th August - 4th September. As this would have been in the public school holidays, it is difficult to see on what grounds a headteacher might demur. Obviously, the original venue would have necessitated a much longer absence which might have run into the start of a new school year, and any head might be excused for feeling this was the very worst time for a senior master and housemaster to be away. There might be an element of Greek tragedy for Thomas as events unfolded and the original reason for not being allowed leave lapsed and he could have been available after all, by which time it was too late.
On the other hand, a discrete enquiry from the BCF about whether one would be available to play doesn't necessarily mean one is definitely selected. They would presumably need to identify a pool of available players before selecting a team. Thomas was now 50 years old and the new grading list had just identified about 20 players with better recent playing records, and so, at best, Thomas would only have been on the outermost fringes of consideration. The team eventually selected that year was Hugh Alexander, Jonathan Penrose, Harry Golombek, Leonard Barden, Bob Wade and Peter Clarke - all British Champions at some point, except Clarke who was fated to be Runner-Up no less that five times. In the British Championship the previous month he had finished a lowly 24th of the 30 competitors, so he was not exactly the form horse. He was right in saying he performed miserably at the following Hastings - he lost every one of his nine games in the Premier Reserves. A.R.B. undoubtedly felt he had a missed a chance of representing his country and felt desperately disappointed, but it was always a long shot and simply to lay the blame solely at the feet of his Head, as Thomas asserts, is probably a little harsh. It was never that simple.
The team that was eventually selected on their way to Amsterdam. l - r Barden, Clarke, Penrose, Wade, Golombek & Alexander. Should Thomas have been there?
It was probably of little consolation to Thomas, but exactly the same thing happened to Reginald Broadbent, definitely selected to play, as a double British Champion (1948 & 1950) and the highest-rated British player at the time, but he too was unable to take up his place due to his work as a civil servant with the GPO in London. His response was to give up active chess completely, his only connection with the game from then on being writing a weekly chess column for the Western Morning News for 32 years between 1955 and 1987, shortly before his death at the age of 82. He wrote the Saturday column comprising a problem and annotated game, while J. E. Jones (Oct. 1953 to Aug. '63) followed by Ken Bloodworth (Sept. 1963 to March '97) wrote a Wednesday column with more local news.
So team selection for the 1954 Olympiad was traumatic for more than one player. A small consolation for A.R.B. was winning the prize for Board 1 in the British Correspondence Team Championship 1954/55.
For the British Championships at Felixstowe in 1949, the BCF adopted the new Swiss system, enabling a far greater number of competitors to take part. It was still not easy, but Thomas now had a well-defined route to qualification through the West of England Union's qualifying group, an opportunity he seldom passed up. In fact, his record in the British Championship in the 1950s, and '60s was a model of consistency, as the record shows.
When he played at Blackpool in 1956, A.R.B. was the only player to have played in every one of the Swiss system championships, but ironically, when the event was due to be held in Plymouth in 1957, he failed to qualify via the Western Zonal. His final game in the Zonal section was against Plymothian Ron Bruce, who only needed a draw to catch up Dennis Mardle and thus qualify himself. A.R.B. could expect to beat Ron about 7 or 8 times out of 10, yet Bruce had the White pieces and reached a superior ending which he might have won, but was more than happy to accept when Thomas offered a draw. As Bruce and the Plymouth Club had been responsible for bringing the Championship to Plymouth in the first place, it was, perhaps, only fitting that Bruce should play. However, for some reason not immediately apparent, A.R.B. was later admitted to the British Championship anyway, probably to fill a late vacancy.
See appendixes for a full record of his British Championship scores.
Throughout the post war years, Andrew was able to fit a regular pattern of chess into his holiday periods, starting with Hastings after Christmas, the West of England Congress each Easter and the British Championships each August, with over 100 points accumulated at both Hastings and the British. At weekends there were county matches, (17 for Lancs and about 63 for Devon).
In August 1965 the British Championships were held at the Grammar School in Hastings, and it must have been general knowledge that A.R.B. was nearing the milestone of winning 100 points in the top event, for when that day arrived, the then President of the BCF, Victor Soanes, sent a briefly-worded congratulatory telegram to A.R.B. at the venue - "Congratulations on reaching 100 points - Soanes".
An Eventful Retirement.
In 1965, Andrew's brother, Tristan, who had become a senior engineer with British Road Services based in Leeds, died at the age of 58. About this time, his sister, Moira, who had also entered teaching, became Headmistress of West Bank School for Girls, in Sidmouth.
In the summer of 1966, A. R. B. completed his four decades at the chalk face and duly retired. Freed from the constraints of a school timetable, he did the sensible thing and travelled widely. He now had the time to take up some offices within chess, to put something back into the game he loved. He became Hon. Treasurer of the West of England Union and was later elected President of the Devon County Chess Association (1974 - 76). He also acted as an adjudicator for Devon competitions, an important and time-consuming process in those days of unfinished games and unresolved matches.
19th March 1976: ARB (centre) at the opening of the 1st East Devon Congress at Exeter University, in his capacity as President of the DCCA, being introduced to the assembled players by Ken Schofield (standing). Congress Secretary, Guy Sparke looks on, while Peter Clarke prepares his bookstall in the background.
On 8th December 1965 he was invited by a former ex-Liverpudlian team mate, Reg Thynne of Teignmouth, to give a talk and simultaneous display at Newton Abbot, where efforts were being made to revive a chess club. He gave a talk on the advantages of playing the Wing Gambit against Black's Sicilian Defence, arguing "Why should I give up my d-pawn just like that? The gambit had been a key component in his armoury for many years. Ironically, in the following simultaneous, he was duty bound to play the Wing Gambit to the writer's Sicilian, and duly lost - their only encounter. After the game, he analysed the ending briefly and calmly, without the slightest hint of annoyance.
In the mid-60s A. R. B. formed a friendship with T. G. C. "Geoff" Ward, a lecturer in Mathematics at Sandhurst Officer Training College. Each Easter, Ward would bring a team of young chess-playing cadet officers, calling themselves the Sandhurst Gambiteers, basing themselves at Tiverton, and taking on a number of South Devon clubs. The above photograph, of uncertain origin, shows A.R.B. taking on a number of young men, all about the same age. Judging from the regimental-type arms around the walls, this was probably taken at Sandhurst.
In 1967, he met up with some members of a family who had known the Thomas's for several generations, the Slacks. Professor Samuel B. Slack, who had retired to Dawlish, had been a friend of Andrew's father, both having been at Oxford together, before becoming a lecturer at McGill University, Montreal. His wife, Ann, had a niece, the 29 year old Elizabeth Ann Levo, a native of the West Indian island of St. Croix in the U.S Virgin Islands, of French Huguenot descent with dual US / UK citizenship. Liddy, as she was known to her family, had a degree in English Literature from a Massachusets University and was taking another at Oxford. On one occasion, Andrew acted as chauffeur taking Prof. Slack's widow, Ann, from Dawlish to Oxford to see her niece, Liddy. Andrew was clearly smitten and invited Liddy to a holiday together in the Lake District, and within weeks, in September 1967, they were married in the Chapel at Blundells School.
Marriage and the birth of a daughter, Susan Ellen, born in December 1971, naturally curtailed his chess activities. In August 1973, he wrote to a friend, "My 19 months old daughter keeps me at home most of the time, and I develop a guilty conscience when I take the slightest holiday on my own, such as going to a West of England Congress, as I feel I ought to be saving for my wife and babe's future when I am no more, as they will then have no income whatsoever, my 2 pensions dying with me".
So, again restricted to Tiverton, he set about writing his book, Chess For The Love Of It, published in the summer of 1973. Caught up in the enthusiasm that accompanied Fischer's World Championship victory while he was writing, he despaired of Britain's chances of producing a genuine world champion prospect. He railed against the English system that he perceived as failing, at that time, to produce anyone capable of mounting the slightest challenge. At one point he wrote, "The selection and training of teams is a thoroughly amateur affair, which would be radically altered by a public that really cared. I had the misfortune to be a member of the BCF Selection Committee a few years ago, but was so appalled by the inadequacy of proceedings I felt powerless to remedy that I resigned quite quickly". In saying this he had upset Hugh Alexander, who was directly in his sights, but as A.R.B. said in the same letter to a friend….. "he would have been even more upset had he seen the original MS which the publishers declined as libellous".
Alexander indeed bristled. Reviewing the book in his Sunday Times column, he started with some feint praise before launching into his riposte. "The chief appeal of Thomas's book will be to middle-aged, middle strength club players; they will enjoy it and get good value for 75p. I must however record my dislike of his remarks on the state of British chess. There is some truth in his criticisms - all of which, and all the practical difficulties in meeting them, being very well known to anyone who has ever worked in this field. It is, however, quite astonishing in a book published in 1973 (and with a reference in the text to an event as late as March 1973) to see no mention of the very great revival in the last two or three years. Considering the difficulties, a great deal has been done; there is very much more still to do, but it will be achieved not by this type of criticism from outside, but by working and trying to make improvements from within". Ouch. Other reviewers were more kindly.
There are indeed some anomalies here. Thomas expressed great concern about the development of young talent and the training of the English chess team. Yet, as far as is known, no chess team or individual talent ever emerged from Blundells during his 40 years there. No Blundells team or individual pupil ever entered any tournament in Devon, let alone further afield, which seems strange considering how relatively easy it is for any teacher to create a climate in a school to enable chess talent to surface. In the westcountry alone, this was done over many years at Truro School and Exeter School; Plymouth College had their heyday, as does Torquay Boys Grammar School in more recent times. Why Thomas was unable to do likewise seems strange, considering his ability, energy and popularity?
By way of possible explanation, Trefor Thynne, a chess teacher who has experience of both systems, feels there is something about the private boarding school set-up and values which mitigates against getting a competitive chess team together, as compared with, for example, a day grammar school. Mrs. Thomas thinks he did run a chess club in the school, and there is evidence of some inter-house activity within the school, though it didn't produce any players of note in his four decades there.
His first book was followed by another in 1975, entitled "Chess Techniques". The first had been dedicated to his wife, Liddy, who had typed the manuscripts, and the second to his daughter Susie.
Also in 1975, he took over from Dr. Jim Aitken the task of selecting games from the West of England Congress suitable for publishing in the annual bulletin. Aitken had done this onerous task for 20 years, and had left a treasure trove of games that would otherwise have been lost to posterity. In his second bulletin (1976) , A. R. B. apologised for "the fact that my notes are largely somewhat superficial". After giving 23 games from the Championship section, he moved on to the other sections, with the remark "Now follows games from the other sections. The first proves my wife's point that one should never resign, since there must always be hope", and his four comments on the game (Richard Nash v Frank Kingdon) consist of (a) "Decentralisation which achieves nothing". (b) What do you bet on now? (c) Not fair! and (d) Smash!"
An amusing story lurks behind his comments to the next game. At the Congress itself, local player Ivor Annetts had purchased a copy of the newly-published book, Chess Techniques, and asked A. R. B. to sign it for him. Ivor later submitted the score of his 5th round game against J. C. Date for possible inclusion in the bulletin, after writing at the top of the scoresheet "Played by rabbits in the Challengers; entered for entertainment". Andrew did indeed include the game, but with his first comment, after Ivor's 4th move, being "It saddens me that a purchaser of Chess Techniques has not sufficiently studied page 1. Had he done so he would have played 4…NxP". The next time they met, Ivor good-naturedly took him to task about it and he was forced to confess "Er.. yes…. perhaps I was a bit hard."
Retirement also gave him more time to indulge his musical passions, playing his piano 2 or 3 hours every day. He once advised his young wife, and only partly in jest, "If the bailiffs call when I'm out, let them take anything they want - the trophies, the chess stuff, the furniture - but don't ever let them touch the piano!".
He was a great bowls players and, according to his wife, won more bowls trophies than he ever did at chess.
He doted on his daughter and was fond of telling her stories, some of which were published under the nome de plume "Bendi".
During his lifetime, he had acquired the Thomas family papers and manuscripts, particularly those of his Great Grandfather, William Rowlands. He used these as a basis for an unpublished manuscript entitled A Life of Gwilym Lein. In 1982, he donated this and 70 other items to the archive department of the University of Wales, Bangor, where they now reside under the file name the Rowlands Family Papers.
For several years he had been researching the life of R. D. Blackmore, best known as the writer of Lorna Doone. Blackmoor had been a pupil at Blundells and was a keen chessplayer, and quite capable of making his own chess sets on a lathe. A.R.B. published a 28 page monograph in 1982.
In 1982, M. Huggins wrote an appreciation in his book "The Making Of An English Public School". "I often see A. R. B. Thomas. He has the looks and energy of a man 20 years his junior, with a lovely family around him. His days of jumping from the floor to the mantlepiece in the masters' common room in one leap may be behind him now, but if my understanding of the verb to retire is what my dictionary seems to suggest, a verb implying withdrawal, retreat, to seek seclusion or go to bed - then A. R. B. Thomas has not retired. He still plays chess, bridge and bowls. He is a very active and keen gardener, and sings along with his wife Liddy and daughter Susan, in St. Peter's Church choir. He has written two books on chess and recently completed one on John Wesley's visit to Ireland. He and Liddy won 2nd prize in a competition organised by the Beaford Centre in 1976, with a duet they had composed".
In fact, his health had begun to deteriorate by 1980, suffering increasingly from emphysema and breathing difficulties. This inevitably restricted what he was able to do, though by no means prevented him from his usual activities. His last game, for example, was against George Wheeler in the Devon Championship, just weeks before he died. The back garden of his home in Old Street extended to almost half an acre, where he grew vegetables and kept a productive orchard. Plans were drawn up to build a bungalow in the garden into which they could move. However, before they could be implemented he died on 16th May 1985 at the age of 80, leaving a young widow and 13 year old daughter. His obituary in BCM ran to just 9 lines. After his death, Liddy proceeded with the plans, and she lives there to this day in the house they planned together.
Although his scorebooks were disposed of after his death, it has been possible to assemble over 300 games from various sources, and these are accessible on the website.
What should be made of his achievements? Academic, athlete, musician, scoutmaster, historian, gardener, charismatic teacher with an effortlessly magnetic personality. He was a classic example of the inter-connective attraction of chess, maths and music to those on the appropriate wavelength. History records many examples of excellent chessplayers with gifts in one or other of these other disciplines, from Philidor onwards. Andrew Thomas was certainly another of these. He was a man of great perseverance in following the main paths of his life, from teaching to chess. There were upsets from time to time, but they did nothing to deter him from his chosen pursuits. It is not too much to say he was a true Renaissance Man in the sheer breadth of his talents and interests.
As far as his chess went, he was, as in life, ever the perfect gentleman, magnanimous in victory - generous in defeat. While he never quite managed to scale the ultimate heights at a national or international level, his record of over 100 points in the British Championship perfectly demonstrates his consistency, without ever coming close to winning it, unlike someone like Peter Clarke who was agonisingly a five-times Runner-Up.
This short-fall has several possible explanations. To win the British Championship, for instance, a modest enough achievement in terms of world chess, one either needed to be a chess professional, like Winter, Golombek or Wade, or, as an amateur, to have a streak of true genius like Alexander or Penrose.
In addition to this, his predilection for gambits and off-beat openings, while producing a multitude of highly-enjoyable games over a lifetime, was never going to upset often enough the ruthless, single-minded and more cautious Masters. Golombek, in his observations above, had hit the nail on the head as early as 1937. Another summary of A.R.B.'s approach was made by Dr. Jim Aitken in his annotations to the 1962 WECU Championship. "Thomas often essays the byways of the openings - and not without success", and in his game against George Wheeler, "Thomas's speedy victory after an early blunder is one more demonstration of the fact that it is not necessarily the soundest moves that get, in practice, the best results. Whatever theory may say, chess will never be a perfect science as long as it is played by fallible human beings - and most of us would find it less interesting if it was".
A. R. B. Thomas died recently at the age of 81 (sic). His life is well described in the 1973 book Chess For the Love Of It (RKP) where he relates that he was a member of the Liverpool club in its great days, was at Cambridge 1923 - 26 and then became a public school master in the West Country. He took part in the British Championship on more than 20 occasions, and had successes at Hastings, where he should have beaten Unzicker in an exciting Evans Gambit in 1950-51. He was a great amateur with an aggressive style, and much more at home in open positions than in more sophisticated systems. He turned out for Devon for decades and won the West of England Championship at leasteight times. During his long retirement he also wrote Chess Techniques. (RKP 1975)
A.R.B.'s 8 WECU Titles.
A.R.B.'s 13 Devon Individual Champioships.
A.R.B.'s Record in the British Championship
d.n.p. = did not play.
Thomas, A. R. B: Chess For the Love Of It RKP 1973
Thomas, A. R. B: Chess Techniques RKP 1973
Thomas, A. R. B: R. D. Blackmore of Blundell's School
Noon, C: The Book of Blundells Halsgrave 2002
Huggins, M. J. W: The Making Of An English Public School. Hiroona 1982
Sergeant, P. W: A Century Of British Chess Hutchinson 1934
Goldstein, M. E: BCM Chess Annual 1926 Whitehead & Miller 1927
Dictionary of National Biography.
Fiala, V: Capablanca's Simultaneous Tour of the UK 1919 - 20.
Thomas family papers.
Testimony of Mrs. A. R. B. Thomas (Liddy) and daughter Mrs. Susan Suehr.