The Early History of the Virginia State Championship

by Macon Shibut (1994), edited by Mike Hoffpauir (2010)

In preparing this article, I relied heavily on material graciously provided by Russell Chauvenet, himself a four-time state champion. I also used Anders Tejler articles published in VCF Newsletter back in the early 1980s.

The VCF came into being in 1934. There were "state championships" and even state-wide chess organizations in Virginia before that, however. For example, the following item appeared in Wilhelm Steinitz's International Chess Magazine as far back as November 1885:

"At the beginning of last month we received notice that the Richmond Chess Club was taking active steps for the federation of the chess clubs in Virginia into one State Association. We are gratified to announce that the movement has been successful within a few weeks, and the first annual tournament has already taken place at the rooms of the Richmond Chess Club. The match commenced on [October] 20th, with eight competitors who contested two games all round, the chess clubs of Danville, Lynchburg and Rockbridge having each sent one representative. The tournament was finished in four days and resulted in Mr J Kirkpatrick, of Lynchburg, gaining the championship of the Association with a score of ten. The fight was, in the main, a very close one, for Mr C W MacFarlane, of Richmond, scored 9 1/2..."

Kirkpatrick successfully defended his title the following year. This was reported in another short item in ICM. The November 1886 issue gives details of "the second annual meeting of the Virginia Chess Association ... at the Richmond Chess Club, room 13 and 14, Rueger Bldg, Bank St." The article also points out "that the club rooms are open daily from 10 am, and that visiting Chessists [sic] will always receive a cordial welcome."

Subsequent ICM articles make it clear that the old Virginia Chess Association got at least as far as a fourth annual meeting and tournament in 1888. After that they dropped off the radar (although they may have kept meeting and merely stopped sending reports to ICM).

These little snatches notwithstanding, precious little is known about organized chess in Virginia before the VCF. John N Buck was champion in 1930 and H M Woods held the title during the three years just preceding the first VCF tournament in 1934. The inaugural VCF state championship was also won by Buck. (He would win again six years later.) Staunton was the host city for that tournament, then as now over Labor Day weekend. A few additional details can be gleaned from reminiscences that Buck wrote in 1963 - more about them shortly. Meanwhile, the 2nd VCF state championship in 1935 earned notice outside just the chess community, having been reported in the Richmond Times Dispatch on Sept 3, 1935:

"Outpointing defending champion J N Buck, of Lynchburg, and H M Woods of Virginia Beach, the 1933 champion, W W Gibbs of Staunton today captured the championship of the Virginia Chess Federation's second annual tournament. The affable and mustached president of the federation won 5 1/2 points. Wood followed with 5 and Buck trailed in third with 4 1/2. The new champion and his two predecessors in the championship battled with theirs queens, knights and pawns over the board until 3 am today. [Sound familiar? - MS] 'The tension,' said Mr Gibbs today just before taking off for a game of golf, 'was terrific.' H E Skinner of Baltimore won the Class B championship, playing off a triple tie with Mason Miller, of Lynchburg, and C F Lovan, of Hopewell. H R Noel, of Richmond, won the Class C championship Sunday night."

From the last phrase, we see that lowest section ran only two days out of the three-day weekend. This was before the advent of modern Swiss System tournaments. Common practice had the entire field divide into 7- or 8 man sections, each of which would play a round robin. I'm not sure how they decided the seedings or who went into what section. There were few enough active players, they may have known one another well enough to decide based on reputation and previous results. In any case, only the top section - evidently seven players in 1935, since they played six games - was for the state title. The next 7 or 8 played for the "class B championship." Class B is merely a name they gave the second group, not a rating designation; this was before the Elo System too! (In subsequent years we find the second group called "Class A," the third group "Class B" and so on. Presumably the top group was simply the "Championship" in those instances.) Depending on the total number of entries, the bottom group might have had only four or five players, which would account for it running a day shorter. Thus we can reasonably conclude that about 20 players overall entered the tournament in 1935.

In 1936, the state tournament again got notice in the local newspaper:

"By virtue of 6 wins against no defeats, Lt John D Matheson of Ft Belvoire won the Wilbur Moorman trophy and annexed the championship of the third Virginia Chess Federation tournament which started Saturday and ended yesterday at the Virginian hotel. Lt Matheson defeated W W Gibbs in the feature game of the match in 38 moves. By his defeat Mr Gibbs was thrown into a tie for 2nd honors with J Shelton of Roanoke. Both gained 4 victories and lost 2 games. Losing only 1 game, Gerald Baxter of Lynchburg won the Class A championship. He was followed by Russell Chauvenet of Esmont, Oscar Weiner of Baltimore and H McGrath of Norfolk who were tied for 2nd. In a playoff Chauvenet gained 2nd place, McGrath 3rd and Weiner 4th. The Class B division ended in a tie for 1st place between A G Briggs of Richmond and B E Estes of Roanoke with scores of 6 1/2 - 1/2. Capt Robert Abernathy of Lynchburg took 3rd (4-3)."

Chauvenet's personal archives include another report on that 1936 event - I do not know the source, but the language sounds as if it might be from minutes of a VCF meeting:

"The Wilbur Moorman trophy, a black and silver plaque, will be engraved and sent to Lt Matheson. He will keep it one year and then the players will compete again for the trophy. The winner will also receive other awards given by the federation. Winners in the lower classes will be given prizes ... It was decided to stage the next tournament in Norfolk at the invitation of that club. Officers elected for the coming year were W W Inge of Staunton, President; John N Buck of Lynchburg, Vice-President; Commander Charles Porter of Norfolk, Treasurer; and Capt John E Manning of Norfolk, Secretary."

The interesting thing here is that the Moorman trophy we use today is not a "black and silver plaque." It's a hefty silver loving cup, about 18 inches tall with its base, engraved with names of every state champion from Matheson in 1936 right through to the present. (After 1972 they ran out of room on the cup itself, so names from 1973 forward appear on silver plates affixed to the wooden base.) The "black and silver plaque" most likely describes a second, perhaps one that the champion was permitted to keep permanently. The Moorman Cup is a rotating trophy, passed from champion to champion.

The question naturally arises: who was Wilbur Moorman and why is our state championship trophy named after him? The answer comes from the previously-mentioned reminiscences by John Buck. In the May 1963 Chess Review, Buck wrote about "my onetime good friend and chess coach Wilbur L Moorman," who he called "probably the strongest chess player Virginia ever had."

"During the summer of 1934, [Moorman] was kind enough to play a long series of semi-serious games with me. (I was trying to sharpen up for the State Tournament to be held in Staunton over Labor Day that year.) From time to time I'd urge him to enter the tournament (even though it had been years since he'd undertaken tournament chess). I told him and meant it quite seriously that no state title would have any meaning unless he played. Finally, in spite of his advanced age, he consented to enter. And he soon made me regret my importuning by defeating me in an early round . As we sat down for the final round, Lt John Matheson (now the retired Colonel who conducts the Armed Forces Tournament), who was Intercollegiate Champion that year, was leading the tournament by a half point. I turned to Moorman, who was playing back and said half in jest: 'Well, you put me out of it. Now put me back in. If you'll beat Matheson, I'll beat Mitchell" (our good friend W M P Mitchell of Brookline, who passed away in '62). As luck would have it, Moorman did just that (and so did I) and I skimmed through to the top. The remarkable thing to me is that in his late 70s or early 80s (I don't know his exact birth date, unfortunately) Wilbur Moorman finished third in a strong state tournament and had the satisfaction of beating both the players (much younger than he) who finished ahead of him. On Friday of that same week, (September 7, 1934), Moorman [died] suddenly while sitting at his chess table playing over a game from the state tournament in which he had just competed. He was a grand old gentleman."

Amazing! But I have not been able to unearth any Moorman game scores. Does anybody have one?

Norfolk hosted the 1937 VCF tournament as planned, and a Norfolk newspaper reported thus:

"Robert Strelitz of Winston Salem survived three days of play without a defeat and won the state championship as the Virginia Chess Federation concluded its tournament and convention here yesterday by reelecting its staff of officers and choosing Roanoke as its next meeting place. W W Gibbs of Staunton, 1935 State Champion, who was reelected President of the Federation, won the W W Moorman Memorial Cup [an error; his middle initial was actually "L" - MS] as the highest-ranking Virginian in the tournament but was engaged early today in a playoff match with W M P Mitchell of Boston for 2nd place in the tournament standings. ... Mr Strelitz' first entry into Virginia competition brought him 6 victories and only 1 tie, which occurred in his last match, one with Mr Gibbs. He will receive the Federation's silver plaque and a gold medal with a King's head design. Either Mr Gibbs or Mr Mitchell will receive the gold medal to be awarded to the runner up in the championship class. The winners and runners up in the other two classes of the tournament, in which 26 players competed, will receive medals of silver or bronze. ..."

Here we have a reference to both a Moorman "Cup" - almost certainly the trophy we still use today - and also "the Federation's silver plaque." Another interesting and portentous matter in this report is the fact that a non-Virginian took 1st (and possibly 2nd) place, although the Moorman Cup and state title were reserved for the highest-scoring Virginia player. Thus, this was no Virginia "Closed" at all! Nor, in fact, were the 1934-36 tournaments. Although these tournaments occupied the Labor Day calendar slot, they're really ancestors of the event we now hold each January, the Virginia Open. The state championship was decided in an open tournament up through 1951. As detailed by Tejler (VCF Newsletter, August/September 1982) the tournament's overall winner differed from top-scoring Virginian on a handful of occasions:

"In 1949 Richard F Cantwell from Washington DC won the OPEN Chess Tournament. Because he was not a resident of Virginia he could not be presented the Wilbur L Moorman Memorial Trophy of the Virginia Chess Federation. Leonard Helman of Charlottesville was the highest participating Virginian with a total of 5 1/2 points. Therefore Leonard Helman is the official State Champion for 1949. In 1950 Florencio Campomanes [yes! the same - MS] from Washington, DC, won the Virginia OPEN Chess Tournament with a score of 6 wins and 1 draw. Again ... the second place winner, Leonard Helman, retained his title."

And what happened in 1951 to prompt a change in the system? "In 1951. Oscar Shapiro of Washington, DC, won the Virginia OPEN Chess Tournament with a score of 6 1/2 - 1/2. This tournament was a disaster for Virginia players!" Tejler then lists the next seven finishers, not a Virginian among them. "The highest scoring Virginian was Professor Rodney Baine from Richmond, Virginia with a score of 4-3."

This was not good, and the problem went beyond the collective self-esteem of Virginia chess players at seeing their tournament dominated by interlopers. Even in years when a Virginian won outright, it could happen that the championship was in large part decided by players who didn't qualify for the title. It was possible, for example, that a Virginia player could beat all his fellow Virginia rivals and still lose out if he suffered a few reverses at the hands of out-of-staters. Today, in our swiss system arena, the situation would be even worse: a player could win the Virginia State Championship without beating a single Virginia opponent. Do not suppose for a second that this is merely a hypothetical concern: in 1992, I tied (with Steve Stoyko, of New Jersey) for 1st at the Virginia Open, which would have meant winning the state championship if the old system was still in place, and I didn't even PLAY any other Virginians in that tournament!

As a result, the Virginia CLOSED was born. Baine was persuaded to put his newly-won title on the line just three months later, December 1-2, 1951 in Charlottesville. Walter Bass (who had scored 3 1/2 - 3 1/2 at the Labor Day tournament) won the new, all-Virginia event. We recognize Baine and Bass as co-champions for the year 1951 and both names are engraved on the Moorman Cup.

Sometime later they decided to swap the dates for the now annual Virginia Open and Virginia Closed events. This returned the State Championship to its traditional Labor Day spot on the calendar. The Virginia Open migrated from December into late January, probably to get clear of the holidays. (Recently it always occurred on the "off week" between the football conference championship games and the Super Bowl, although now the NFL has eliminated this off week.) That's how we got to where we stand today. See you in Charlottesville!