Tragic Life and Short Chess Career of James A. Leonard, 1841 – 1862, The

John Hilbert

Reviewer: Jeremy Silman
213 pages (hardback)

Imagine walking about a large bookstore and coming across a chess book titled, “The Amazing Chess Genius of Farmer Smith.” You pick it up, note that it’s not very thick and that it has a hefty price. A glance shows you that Farmer Smith had a pig farm in 1825 and that he beat all his farmer neighbors during their weekly chess and checker get-togethers. You delve deeper, trying to see if this is a book of humor, but soon convince yourself that it’s a serious look at the life, chess games, and farm of Mr. Smith. Shaking your head in disbelief, you gently replace it on the shelf (lest you dent it and find yourself forced to pay) and make good your escape from the store.

No doubt, many chess players will have a similar reaction to Hilbert’s latest look into our chess past. Those that don’t give a hoot about the life and/or death of the previously unknown Mr. Leonard will be fully justified in feeling that way. However, another kind of chess fan will find that his pulse quickens at the prospect of unburying the facts of Leonard’s life. The purpose of this review is twofold: 1) To see if Hilbert’s efforts do James A. Leonard justice; 2) To ascertain what kind of chess player would enjoy such a piece of work.

People familiar with my reviews, and others that have watched me lecture or held private conversations with me, will know that I always push the study of chess history. In my view, one can’t embrace the full “chess experience” without reliving and understanding the ups and downs of those that have come before us. Fortunately, this kind of historic exploration has gotten easier and easier thanks to the hard work of world class chess historians like Edward Winter (his latest book is Chess Facts and Fables), Vlastimil Fiala, Richard Forster (his monster work on Amos Burn has to be seen to be believed), John Hilbert, and John Donaldson (Donaldson’s books on the legendary Akiba Rubinstein are must owns, his efforts in unearthing lost Fischer games/travels are eye-opening, and his books on Olaf Ulvestad and Elmars Zemgalis bring to life strong players that most would never have heard of), just to name a few. Though Winter is viewed as a sort of “chess historian god” by his fans, I’m also impressed by Fiala (his books on the life and games of Alekhine are epic, and his work in Quarterly For Chess History is amazing) and by the author of the present book, John Hilbert.

In my opinion, Mr. Hilbert stands out on this list thanks to his large body of magnificent work, which includes Walter Penn Shipley: Shady Side, and Napier: The Forgotten Chessmaster. His latest book, The Tragic Life and Short Chess Career of James A. Leonard, 1841 – 1862, is another beautifully researched tome that transcends the life of the person he’s writing about and gives us a clear view into a past, and largely forgotten, age where the words “romance” and “chess” seemed to collide head on.

It’s these time machine literary “photographs” that make books like Leonard, Shipley, Shady, and Napier so enjoyable and so valuable. For example, when describing different chess clubs in 1855 New York, we’re treated to the following:

“But the New York Chess Club was not the only place to play chess in the city. For one, the Oriental Club, meeting at the Turkish Kahvé, 625 Broadway, on Wednesday and Friday evenings, offered not only chess play but Turkish luxuries such as ‘pipes, tobacco, sherbet’ and coffee, where such items were served ‘in a style that makes one fancy he is in Constantinople.’”

Wonderful stuff! Other descriptions of opulent chess clubs where members were automatically thought of as gentlemen by the public left me rather sad – such places no longer exist, modern Los Angeles doesn’t have a real club at all, and chess players have fallen so low that they are often thought of in very ungentlemanly terms (I remember a famous coffee shop in San Francisco, 1975. At first chess players were welcome, but when the owners realized that the worshipers of Caissa would come early, take several tables, and over a 10-hour period buy only one or two cups of coffee, chess players were banned. A sign was soon posted for all to see: No Dogs or Chessplayers Allowed!).

The Tragic Life and Short Chess Career of James A. Leonard, 1841 – 1862 does far more than talk about chess clubs. We learn quite a bit about Morphy and some of his trials and tribulations. However, the book is about Mr. Leonard and we are fed many tasty tidbits concerning him and his adventures. For example, a match was arranged between him and the champion of the Philadelphia club. Leonard was badly mistreated by that club, but of particular interest was Leonard’s description of his opponent’s speed of play (remember that there were no chess clocks at that time!): “If any of your readers ever had the misfortune to meet a slow antagonist, he can appreciate the agony a poor sinner must undergo who is compelled to sit motionless for 64 minutes awaiting his adversary’s move. Imagine the slowest player you ever met, and then one ten times as slow, and then you will have a remote idea of Mr. Dwight’s style of play.” He later goes on to say that, at one point, his opponent took three full hours to make two moves! Apparently in those days the cure for such behavior wasn’t known – I’ve found that brass knuckles forcefully applied to the opponent’s genitalia quickly speeds up the rate of play.

Eventually Leonard (only 19 years old) became the king of New York chess. Unfortunately, the advent of the Civil War affected Leonard enough to make him enlist (possible reasons for his decision are analyzed in the book). These years, his struggles in the military, and his subsequent death are fascinating reading.

Hilbert has done a remarkable job in bringing this forgotten player, and the times he lived in, to vibrant life. The Tragic Life and Short Chess Career of James A. Leonard is a class act all the way, but what kind of player should buy it? For people who adore chess history, purchasing this book is a no-brainer. For those that are not well versed in this type of subject, here’s a simple way to decide if Leonard is for you: If you found the earlier description of the Oriental Club interesting, and if you enjoyed Leonard’s discourse about his slow moving opponent, then this book will be well worth the $39 price tag. If such details bore you to tears, and history is a curse word in your household, then avoid it like the plague.

Kudos to Hilbert on another magnificent effort! Highly Recommended.