Chess In The Life of Brighton

Original article written by Chris Ravilious in 1998

updated by Brian Denman in 2015

There have been chess clubs in Brighton for nearly one hundred and seventy five years and for much of that period there have been strong links between the game and the town’s Corporation. The first  Brighton Club was formed in the 1840s,  under the inspiration of  theflamboyant  army-officer-turned-author,  Capt.  Hugh  Alexander  Kennedy. 


The founder’s instinct for publicity soon promoted the Club to a significant role on the national chess stage, attracting such famous names as Howard Staunton and the historian H.T. Buckle, both of them drawn to Brighton by their enthusiasm for the game. In 1853, however, Kennedy took his leave of the town, and within a few years the Club was entering a period of difficulty, marked by falling membership and  recurrent  quests  for  new  accommodation.  One  such  prospective  venue, offered to its committee in 1858, was an area of the Brighton Pavilion of which we shall hear more - the South Lobby, which today forms an annexe to the Pavilion Shop. In 1858 the club voted against transfer to the Pavilion, but five years later the offer  was  repeated,  and  this  time  the  advantages  of  the  move  were  more apparent.


In 1863 the South Lobby became for the first time the home of chess in Brighton. The next few years may not have been the most brilliant in the Club’s history, but they were important in establishing an association between the King of Games and the former ‘resort of kings’. Even after the club’s departure in 1867, occasioned it would seem by financial difficulties, the Pavilion retained links with chess, and in 1870 the ‘automaton’ Ajeeb - actually a life-size model of a chessplayer with a small man hidden in its interior - was displayed, again in the South Lobby.


Three years later, and a few hundred yards away, a more significant development took place when a room in the new Free Library and Museum was opened to the public as a ‘Chess Room’. Municipalities which have been prepared to fund the needs of chess-players out of the public purse can be counted on the fingers of one hand, but for nearly fifty years Brighton’s Chess Room was to be a model for other  towns  to  follow,  attracting  visitors  both  from  Britain  and  abroad,  and generating  much  admiring  comment  in  the  press.  Church  Street  remained  its home only until 1888, when space was needed to support lending facilities in the library, but the town still rated chess sufficiently highly to provide its devotees with  an alternative  venue,  and this  was,  once again,  the  South  Lobby  of  the Pavilion.


The new century brought no significant change to the Public Chess Room, which continued to function both as a haunt of local enthusiasts and an essential stop on the travelling chess-player’s itinerary. However, following the outbreak of the First World  War  the  Pavilion  was  requisitioned  as  a  hospital  for  wounded  Indian servicemen, and the chess room returned to Church Street. It was still in existence in 1921, though by this time used less frequently than in the past and it is unlikely that it survived much longer. In 1922 the South Lobby became once again the home of chess when it became the headquarters of a resurgent (and rent-paying) Brighton and Hove Chess Club rather than as a Corporation-funded chess resort.

Brian Denman, Brunswick Festival 2014

Brian Denman, Geoffrey James and Brian Young , Eastbourne 1962

This was the beginning of our present club. The inter-war period was a successful one for the Brighton and Hove Chess Club, marked  by  the  development  of  significant  local  talent.  In 1933  junior  chess benefited greatly when Col. Sir William Thomas Dupree, Bt., left a legacy which provided for a local junior competition with a remarkable first prize of £100. This tournament lasted for about sixty years. Another highlight of the period was the holding  of  the  British  Championships  at  Brighton  in  1938.  The  Royal  Pavilion formed a natural home for this high-prestige event, its ornate rooms attracting crowds of spectators as well as players during a ten-day period in August. This was a moment of national chess celebration at a time of deepening international gloom.


World War II brought enforced changes to the Club. The Pavilion was once again requisitioned, this time by the wartime Ministry of Food, and at the end of the 1939-40 season the Club was forced to move. For the next three years the Brighton Chess Club eked out a hand-to-mouth existence in temporary quarters in Howard’s Restaurant in Pavilion Buildings before being permitted to return to its old home in 1943. The immediate post-war years were uncertain ones for the Club, and hardly had it reconstituted itself and recruited a new generation of junior players before use of the South Lobby was once again withdrawn, this time for administrative reasons. Happily,  alternative  accommodation  was  at  once  made  available,  still  under Corporation auspices, and in 1952 the Club moved to 4 Pavilion Buildings.


There followed one of the brightest periods in the Club’s history. The first team reached the final of the National Club Championship on three occasions in the 1970s, but was not quite able to win the competition. Two British Championships were held in the Corn Exchange (in 1972 and 1977),  while the Pavilion itself  served as the venue for simultaneous displays by the Russian grandmaster V. Ragozin in 1955 and Britain’s own Ray Keene in 1976. It is of interest that the proceeds from the latter event were donated to a fund for the restoration of the Pavilion’s Music Room, damaged in 1975 in an arson attack. In the ’sixties there were also chess events  on the  Pavilion lawns,  while  in  1976 a room in  the King’s  Apartments became the setting for the first Variable Baseline Chess Tournament ever to beheld in the UK (it  was won,  appropriately by Dave Springgay, a talented localplayer). Finally, it should not be forgotten that over the years the Pavilion has been  the  venue  for  numerous  Sussex  Chess  Congresses  and  inter-countymatches. In 1979 the grandmaster, Ray Keene, who is an honorary member of the club, organised the first international tournament in the town and these events were held annually until 1985. Like every human enterprise, chess has its ebbs and flows, and by the ’eighties the  Brighton  Chess  Club  was  finding  difficulty  in  maintaining  itself  in  Pavilion Buildings.


Early in 1986 the Club’s link with the Pavilion Estate came to an end when it moved to the Co-operative Social Club in London Road. Further moves followed to the NALGO club in Edward Street in 1991, the Shakespeare’s Head in Spring  Street in 1994,  the Railway Club in  Belmont  in  1998 and the Avenue Bridge Club in Third Avenue, Hove in 2011. One highlight in this overall period was the holding of the British Championships in Hove Town Hall in 1997.


Today, the Club  has  an  enthusiastic  membership  and  runs  five  teams  in  the  Mid-Sussex League. The present premises are excellent and form a good base for chess to flourish. The Chess Club has been a part of Brighton’s history, as integral to the town’s idea of itself as sea bathing, Mr Volk’s famous railway, or the onion domes and minarets of Nash’s Pavilion.