|Alexander McDonnell (1798-1835) was an Irish chess master, who contested a series of six matches with the world’s leading player in the summer of 1834.|
It was the first match of any importance in the history of chess and is still referred to today as the World Championship of 1834. The games were published widely, and were annotated and discussed by enthusiasts all over Europe. In the course of the mammoth encounter, both players introduced several innovations, a few of which are still seen today. It might even be said that the modern era of chess began with the McDonnell-La Bourdonnais match of 1834.
The son of a surgeon, Alexander McDonnell was born in Belfast in 1798. He was trained as a merchant and worked for some time in the West Indies. In 1820 he settled in London, where he became the secretary of the Committee of West Indian Merchants. It was a lucrative post that made him a wealthy man and left him with plenty of time to indulge his passion for chess.
In 1825 he became a pupil of William Lewis, who was then the leading player in Britain. But soon McDonnell had become so good that Lewis, fearing for his reputation, simply refused to play him anymore.
At that time the world’s strongest player was the French aristocrat Charles Louis Mahé de La Bourdonnais. Born on the island of La Réunion in the Indian Ocean in 1797, La Bourdonnais was forced to earn his living as a professional chess player after squandering his fortune on ill-advised land deals.
In 1823 La Bourdonnais defeated Lewis in a match in London, and in the spring of 1825 he played and defeated the best players that England had to offer. Nine years later, however, he returned to London when a challenge was issued on McDonnell’s behalf.
Between June and October 1834 La Bourdonnais and McDonnell played a series of six matches – a total of eighty-five games – at the Westminster Chess Club in London. The games were recorded for posterity by the club’s elderly founder George Walker, who remained by McDonnell´s side for the entire duration of the match. Play generally began around noon, some of the games taking more than seven hours to complete.
La Bourdonnais knew no English and McDonnell no French. It is said that the only word they exchanged during their historic encounter was “check!”
After each game, McDonnell would return to his room exhausted and spend hours pacing back and forth in a state of nervous agitation. All night long countless variations would race through his head, tormenting him like Furies.
Meanwhile La Bourdonnais would be downstairs regaling himself at the chessboard. He would continue to play till long after midnight, smoking cigars, drinking punch and gambling for all he was worth. One night, he played forty games before going to bed, even though he had to face McDonnell the following morning!
McDonnell and La Bourdonnais were evenly matched in their abilities across the board, but wildly contrasted in their styles of play. The Frenchman was renowned for the rapidity of his play, often replying to his opponent’s moves within seconds, whereas the Irishman sometimes took as many as two hours to make a single move!
But despite his deliberation, McDonnell was a reckless and romantic type of player. Where the Frenchman preferred to err on the side of caution, the Irishman could not resist embarking on wild and often ill-considered attacks, something which told against him during their encounter.
The characters of the two men were also very different. La Bourdonnais was an ebullient and garrulous individual. When winning, he grew talkative and affable; but when things went against him, he “swore tolerably round oaths in a pretty audible voice,” as Walker recorded.
McDonnell on the other hand was taciturn and imperturbable. Winning or losing, he betrayed no emotion at the table – a habit which unnerved his explosive opponent.
In the first match of the series McDonnell’s lack of big-match experience told against him and he was heavily defeated by 16 games to 5, with 4 draws (+5 -16 =4). But he quickly recovered from this setback and went on to win the second match by 5 games to 4 (+5 -4).
Although the title of World Chess Champion was not officially recognized until 1886, the world’s leading players from earlier times are recognized today as unofficial world champions. La Bourdonnais is usually regarded as the champion from 1821 until his death in 1840. It is often said that he defeated McDonnell in their mammoth encounter in 1834. But the 1834 World Championship was not one match: it was a series of six matches, the second of which was won by McDonnell. It could be argued that McDonnell ought to be recognized as the unofficial world champion for the brief period between the second and third matches of his series with La Bourdonnais. Dutchman Max Euwe (who defeated Alexander Alekhine in a world-title match in 1935, but lost the rematch in 1937) is regarded as a World Champion, although no one would seriously claim that he was a better player than the legendary Alekhine!
La Bourdonnais recaptured his title in the third match, winning by a score of +6 -5 =1. He also won the fourth and fifth matches +8 -3 and +7 -4 respectively.
The final match was abandoned in obscure circumstances. Apparently La Bourdonnais was forced to return to France to deal with his creditors. McDonnell was leading +5 -4 at the time. It seems the players had a loose agreement to continue the match at a later date.
(Another story suggests that La Bourdonnais gave McDonnell odds of a three-game lead, with the first player to reach eight victories being declared the winner; but this is hard to credit.)
But McDonnell was not a well man. He was suffering from Bright’s disease, an inflammatory ailment of the kidneys. In the summer of 1835 his condition worsened and he died in London on 15 September before his match with La Bourdonnais could be resumed.
The Frenchman never did manage to settle his financial affairs. He died penniless in London in 1840, having been forced to sell all of his possessions – including his clothes – to satisfy his creditors. Curiously, he was buried just a stone’s-throw away from his old rival in London´s Kensal Green cemetery.