Long before Irving Berlin composed it, and Bing Crosby sang it, the chess world was dreaming of a White Christmas. But this particular ‘White Christmas’ belonged to Alain Campbell White (1880-1951), an American philanthropist credited with being the founding father of the nation’s state park system, and who also had a life-long passion for chess problems. From 1905 to 1936, White published his famous ‘Christmas Series’ of books, so called because he sent them out during the Christmas season as gifts to his many fellow chess composer friends from all over the world.
Most are hard covers, beautifully bound in red cloth and embossed with gold lettering, written in English, sometimes in German and French (with one curio being partly in Czech) - and printed on the inside page of each of his books (rare or otherwise), White would include his personal message of: ‘Wishing You A MERRY CHRISTMAS’. Some of the titles in the series are: Tasks and Echoes, 100 Chess Problems by William Meredith, The White Knights, The White Rooks, Asymmetry, Sam Loyd and His Chess Problems, and Valves and Bivalves.
Any serious collector yearns for a complete set; but very few rarely achieve their goal, as two copies are seldom seen on the market: Retrograde Analysis and Robert Braune. Each edition sells for roughly 200 euros ($220) and upwards; the exception being those two rarities. In 2014 a copy of Braune sold at the Klittich auction for 2,200 euros ($2,500) - and others have rumoured to have been sold in private for much, much more. And this hike in price is down to it being extremely rare. But why is it so rare?
One convenient theory of the scarcity of Braune was an infamous incident that happened one hundred years ago during the First World War when, on May 7th 1915, RMS Lusitania was torpedoed and sunk by a German U-Boat 11 miles west of Ireland - sinking in less than 18 minutes with the tragic loss of 1,200 civilian lives; an act that provoked great outrage in the United States and helped create the climate of public opinion that would later allow America to join the war. Some have speculated over the years that the Lusitania was carrying 500 copies of – to give it its full moniker - Robert Braune, Apôtre de la Symétrie by Alain C White and published by Librairie De La Stratégie in Paris 1913.
Yet this fanciful theory on the centenary-year sinking is being called into question, as apart from the fact that one member of the British Chess Problem Society has highlighted the fact that the total print run would only have been around 300, another - the ever-observant Michael Clapham - pointed out that the stricken ocean liner was in fact travelling from New York to Liverpool, so why quite so many copies of this book, which was presumably printed in France, and would have been sent out over the Christmas period of 1913, should be on board remains a mystery.
White was also a popular composer of chess problems - and today’s diagram became an instant big favourite of his many fans, titled “Flights of Fancy,” when it was first published in his 1919 Christmas edition. The idea is simple, and the clue is in the title to White mating in 12 moves, the step-by-step solution being: 1.Rf2+ Ke3 2.Rf3+ Ke4 3.Re3+ Kd4 4.Re4+ Kd5 5.Rd4+ Kc5 6.Rd5+ Kc6 7.Rc5+ Kb6 8.Rc6+ Kb7 9.Rb6+ Ka7 10.Rb7+ Ka8 11.Ra7+ Kb8 12.Ra8 checkmate.
And with this being the last chess column of the year, much like Alain C. White, America’s Foundation for Chess would like to wish all of our readers a very Happy Holiday season! We’ll be taking a short holiday break, but will be back again on Monday, 4th January 2016.