Brian Reilly

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[Brian Reilly]

Pencil drawing of Reilly by Cozens, circa 1981.





[Up] Contents


[Up] Autobiography

The following is an adaptation of an article by W.H.Cozens in the September 1981 edition of The British Chess Magazine. Thanks to the present editor of the BCM, Murray Chandler, for permission to quote from the article.

[Up] Irish Connection

I was born on December 12th 1901 at Menton on the French Riviera. My father was Alfred Reilly of Bracknell, Berkshire; my mother was Kate (née Legg) of Cheltenham, Glostershire. My birth was registered both at the Mairie (Town Hall) and at the British Vice-Consulate. The Irish connection goes back to my paternal grandfather, who came from Kells in County Meath. He emigrated to England in the hungry forties and stayed there for the rest of his life. Uninformed chess writers assumed, when I was playing for Ireland, that I was of Irish birth.

I first came across chess when I was four or five, at Peira-Cava, a summer resort in the mountains near Nice. A friend of my father taught me the moves but then I had nothing more to do with chess until I was about 19. I was spending a year at the Ranelagh Grammar School at Bracknell and my interest was revived by another pupil who happened to be making a chessboard in the workshop. From then on there was no stopping me!

In July 1920 1 left England for Switzerland, where my parents were spending a summer holiday. Then in September my father and I returned to Nice in an unusual way: we walked across the Alps from Evian to Nice - some 200 miles in - in a fortnight. That was a wonderful journey. I would like to do it again!

In Nice I joined my father's business - a firm of pharmaceutical chemists specialising in British and American goods. At the same time I attended a commercial school where my teacher was none other than Pierre Morra - the future exponent of the gambit against the Sicilian.

[Up] Alekhine

I first met Alekhine in July 1923, in Paris during the first National Championship organised by the newly founded French Chess Federation. I had accompanied Renaud as his second. Somewhat to his own surprise he won the title, half a point ahead of the favourite, Muffang. Alekhine was one of the onlookers. He came over to congratulate his old friend Renaud and added, with a twinkle, "And now, Georges, there is only one more thing for you to do: that is, learn how to play!"

A few months later Alekhine came to Nice, bringing the manuscript of his My Best Games l908-1923 with the object of having the French text checked by Renaud. I should add that Alekhine had virtually three mother tongues - Russian, German and French. He had learnt French from a French governess and spoke it like a native, but his schooling had been in Russian. Every afternoon he and Renaud arrived at the club where they played through the games with a small band of young players eagerly listening to Alekhine's comments. We soon started asking questions and making suggestions, most of which were refuted out of hand, but occasionally Alekhine did agree to add a variation or a few words of clarification. It is not often that an author has occasion to show his work before publication like this.

[Up] Nice

The chess club at Nice was quite strong in those days and the cosmopolitan membership included many strong players from Britain, Russia and Eastern Europe. I won the club championship in 1924. Then in 1925 Nice staged the 3rd French Championship and I helped Renaud with the organization. Thanks to his journalistic contacts we were able to offer free accommodation to all the players and to add a subsidiary tournament. Alekhine agreed to act as umpire.

My first international tournament came in February 1927, at Hyères, where I shared 5th place. In 1928 came my marriage and in 1929 the birth of my son. Early in 1930 a big international tournament took place at San Remo, a winter resort on the Italian Riviera. A member of the Nice Chess Club, Dr. 0. Telling of Denver, Colorado, took advantage of the presence of several grandmasters on the Riviera to organise an international tournament at Nice. The result was: Tartakower 9, Sir George Thomas 8½, Znosko-Borovsky 8, Kostic 7, Colle and Maróczy 6½, Seitz 5½, Araiza 5, Duchamp 4½, Reilly 4, Maas 3½ and O'Hanlon ½. Colle won the brilliancy prize by taking advantage of his opponent's lack of development but also lost this game to me when he made the same mistake himself.

The following year Dr Telling organised another international event at Nice, though the entry was not so strong. This one I managed to win with six points, ahead of Barratz and Rosselli de Turco with 5½ each, followed by Noteboom 5, Mieses, Seitz, Thomas and Znosko-Borovsky all level on 4½, Vajda 3½ and Duchamp 1½.

Soon after that an unusual event was arranged - a consultation tournament at the Palais de la Méditerranée, Nice with three grandmasters and two local experts. The time limit was twelve moves per hour, with six-hour sessions. The result: Alekhine 6, Flohr 3½, Stoltz 2½ (all these out of eight games) with Monosson 7½ and Reilly 4½ (each out of 12 games). I may add that as far as I was concerned 'consultation' was almost non-existent, since (a) I was not disposed to offer advice to Alekhine, while (b) neither Stoltz nor Flohr spoke any French or English! Still, it was a most interesting experience.

Meanwhile our business was growing year by year. In 1926 my father bought a plot of ground on which we were subsequently to build a big warehouse-cum-laboratory. The Wall Street crash of 1929 had little immediate effect on us but England's abandonment of the Gold Standard in September 1931 was a real body-blow. In France the £ lost 30% of its value overnight, and within a few weeks most of the British visitors had left for home. For us it was tragic. Our turnover dropped month by month until by 1934 our sales were only one tenth of their 1930 level. From then until the fall of France in 1940 it was just one long struggle to survive. I still played chess during this period, including this correspondence game which was analysed in depth by Tartakower in L'Echiquier.

[Up] The Irish Team

My first appearance on the Irish team came about through getting to know J.J.O'Hanlon after he competed in the 1930 Nice tournament. When the Irish Chess Union decided to send a team to the Warsaw Olympiad they looked round for young players with some international experience and approached Alexander and me. Alexander declined, being already in the England team; I accepted with alacrity!

One immediate result of my selection for Ireland was an invitation to play in the Premier Tournament at Margate. This was won by Reshevsky with 7½ points, ahead of Capablanca 7, Sir George Thomas 5, Klein, Reilly and Sergeant each 4½, Fairhurst 4, Milner-Barry 3½, Miss Menchik 2½ and Mieses 2. The prizes were £12, £8, £4, £2, so with one third of 4th prize I received what would now be about 67p!

One thing leads to another: through Koltanowski, who had been competing in the Premier Reserves, I got an invitation to play in Spain. At Barcelona Flohr and Koltanowski split the first prize with eight points each. Then came Grob 6½, Sir George Thomas 6, Reilly 5½, Maristany 3½, Cherta 3, Ribiera 2½, Vallve 2 and Ticoulat 0. This event was quickly followed by another 10-man international at Rosas, a (then) small fishing village near the French border. This time Flolir got his nose in frout to win with eight points, followed by Koltanowski 7½, Grob 7, Koblentz 6, Domenech, Reilly and Tramoyeres each 4, Sola 2½, Maristany 2 and Gamonal 0.

[Up] First Olympiads

Warsaw was the event which introduced Paul Keres to the chess world and I had the pleasure of being his first victim in round 1. In each succeeding round I was meeting some country's top grandmaster: it was a baptism of fire. I scored 5½/19 but gained a few scalps including Mikenas, Book, Grob and, in possibly one of his most catastrophic loses, the great Reubin Fine.

In 1939 I was again invited to play for Ireland in Buenos Aires. However, by that time the international situation was so grim that I dared not accept. My decision turned out to be the correct one, for war did break out while the Olympiad was in progress.

[Up] War

In the early days of the war we tried to get away to England by the last possible means: two little coal boats off Cannes. My wife had had lung trouble and was lying on a stretcher; the doctor there warned me that she would never survive the voyage. We abandoned the whole idea and rightly so, I am sure, for according to subsequent accounts, especially one by Somerset Maugham who was on one of the boats, the journey consisted of nineteen days of horrible privation, under dreadful conditions of hygiene.

So we were stranded in France, and technically we were enemy aliens. In the northern parts, under German occupation, British subjects were interned immediately after the fall of France in 1940, but the Italians were more easy-going and less efficient. Nevertheless it was not many months before we were expelled from our home on the Riviera. We had rented a little house at Bargemon in the Départment du Var, and having closed our business we tried to live off the land. We had a few goats and chickens, but it was hopeless. The odds were too heavy - no electricity, no gas, no water, and hardly any food. Our expulsion was a blessing in disguise.

We landed up in a village in the Départment de l'Isère where the food situation was even worse than on the Riviera. Moreover there was no school for my son. I ordered correspondence courses but neither he nor I was physically capable of getting down to study. Then I had the inspiration of applying for entry to the government dairy school which was about to reopen at La Roche in Haute Savoie. The headmaster accepted my application but it had to go to the Ministry of Agriculture and it was three months before they gave me the green light. Then as I was a foreigner it had to go through the French Foreign Office, which took another three months. Eventually permission was granted by virtue of an 1865 agreement between the British and French governments on the exchange of students!

In all the application took about nine months, but as soon as I entered the school (October 1942) things became easier. There was a secondary school for my son and food was not quite so scarce. For instance we could get plenty of skimmed milk and the fact that I had a midday meal at the school was a great help. The course ran for a year and I found the work interesting. When it finished I stayed on as honorary librarian.

In September 1943, however, the Italians surrendered and the Germans moved in. I expected to be interned immediately but when October, November, December and January went by I began to think I had been overlooked. Not so! In February I was ordered to report to barracks at Annecy, from where I was taken to Aix-les-Bains and then to the internment camp at St. Denis near Paris. Here some two thousand British internees were housed in a 17th century building and we were terribly overcrowded. However, the food situation was made quite tolerable by the weekly Red Cross parcels from England, New Zealand, Argentina and, especially, Canada.

This game was played during that period of internment. It was similar to correspondence chess as moves had to be exchanged by hand as opportunity served.

[Up] Liberation

Paris was liberated by the Allied Forces on 25th August 1944 but it was not until October that I was able to get back to La Roche-sur-Foron. In the spring of 1945 my wife and I made our way back to Nice to clear up our affairs, including those of my father, who had died in 1942. We were anxious to get to England, but it was not until November that our visas came through.

When the French Championship was organised in Nice in 1938 it was accompanied for the first time by an international tournament (which was won by Opocensky of Czechoslovakia with myself second) and three other subsidiary sections. My friend Constantin and I decided to publish a book of the congress. The war had prevented us from going ahead, but luckily I had already bought the requisite paper, ink and stencils: such things were absolutely unobtainable under the occupation. Then, after the liberation, I was able to give my attention to its production. The people who had subscribed during the congress at Nice, and who had long ago abandoned all hope of ever seeing the book, were surprised to get a letter from me stating that it was now available and that I would be happy to post them a copy if they would kindly send me a sheet of wrapping paper and some string!

[Up] Sutton Coldfield

We landed in England on 25th November 1945. We had friends from Nice now living in Sidmouth, Devon. My wife aud son stayed with them while I went to work for Chess, Sutton Coldfield and looked for accommodation in the Birmingham area. When we did at last find a furnished flat the rent took half my salary. My wife got a job and somehow we managed for a couple of years. Then we had a lucky break: our Sidmouth friends wrote saying that they had inherited a house in West Norwood (where coincidentally the BCM was based) and offered us the ground floor flat. Of course we jumped at that since in Birmingham we were right at the end of the housing queue.

I left my job at Sutton Coldfield and found work as a translator with The Chemist & Druggist. I knew the pharmaceutical world well and was able to do technical and medical translations. It was interesting work but too irregular. In 1949 there came a letter from C.H.O'D.Alexander asking me if I would be interested in the editorship of the The British Chess Magazine. Jules Du Mont, the previous editor, had had a difference of opinion with the other members of the board and decided to go. I accepted the post and kept up my translation work as well until the BCM work made that impossible.

[Up] The British Chess Magazine

The BCM was in a terrible situation financially. Since 1937 it had been a limited company but my predecessor, du Mont, though a chessplayer and musician of repute, had no business experience whatever (nor had the other members of the board) and had allowed deficits to accrue year after year by refusing to increase the price of the magazine, despite the continual rises in printing costs. By 1950 the total was something over £870 - more than the capital of the firm. The directors tried, without success, to sell the business. Eventually I offered to buy it myself.

It was a risk, but I had had long experience running my father's business at a time when things were hard and getting worse all the time. Of course I had no money. When Derbyshire and Wheatcroft sold me the controlling interest they actually had to lend me the money to buy their shares! However, I had seen the possibility of making the magazine viable by selling books and equipment.

It was hard going and I paid the penalty of overwork - sitting at a desk all day; no exercise; incorrect diet. I had a physical breakdown of crisis proportions in 1951 which involved two serious internal operations in quick succession. Later on I had further surgery for varicose veins; but somehow the work got done and I recuperated in time for some more Olympic chess.

Amsterdam was hastily arranged when the Buenos Aires chess establishment gave short notice that they could not, after all, stage the Olympiad that they had undertaken to organise. My chief recollection of that event was the fierce struggle that arose between Ireland and Luxembourg to avoid bottom place! Then in 1956 I had my first taste of the Soviet Union at the Moscow Olympiad. To play on the stage of the Red Army Theatre in full view of two thousand paying spectators was a unique experience.

Around this time the BCM began to publish books of its own. H. d'Qyly Bernard, the well-known problemist, (and former member of the Nice Chess Club) had made a most generous gift to the BCM - £1000 - which enabled us to buy, among other things, a Varityper and a Leica camera. The first publication produced with this equipment was the XXII USSR Championship by H. Golombek. Then Peter Clarke did the XXIV USSR Championship in 1958. I was a very busy man around this time but I still had time for some postal chess, including this game in 1957/58 British Correspondence Championship.

[Up] Irish Champion

I also found time for a few cracks at the Irish Championship. My first attempt was in Belfast 1958, when I came second to Heidenfeld. I took the title the next year in Killarney and retained it in 1960 in Dublin.

Then came the two German Olympiads. Munich, unlike the 1936 one, was an official FIDE event, and a good one. Leipzig just managed to outdo Munich with one more entry, thus scoring a propaganda point. Incidentally Leipzig marked the first Olympic appearance of Robert Fischer. In 1962 we went to the attractive Black Sea resort of Golden Sands, near Varna in Bulgaria. It was a tiring journey via Munich and Yugoslavia, but our hotel, facing the sea, was a pleasant place. Here is one of my wins from that Olympiad. The 1964 Olympiad was held at Tel Aviv and we visited some famous places - Jerusalem, Nazareth, the Sea of Galilee.

[Up] Upheaval

Among all these travels there was a major upheaval at home. All these years the BCM had been based at West Norwood but our lease at Knight's Hill was running out and we could not get it renewed except on a one-year-at-a-time basis; so during the 1964-5 Hastings Congress I looked around and found some promising premises at St. Leonards. Thanks to Vic Soanes, Sir Frederick Hoare and Harry Golombek, who lent me the required amount, I was able to buy a 99-year lease and make a new beginning there in 1965. Things had improved considerably in the 15 years I'd been at the BCM, though it was still not easy, but we were selling books and equipment and turnover had increased. I certainly wasn't making a mint: fortune and chess do not, in general, go together!

Havana in 1966 was far and away the best-organised of all the Olympiads. I don't see any country ever doing better than the Cubans did. Everything was on a grand scale. It culminated in a gigantic simultaneous display in Havana's biggest square involving over six thousand players. In that exhibition Petrosyan, who was world champion at the time, took on virtually the whole Cuban government. At one point he diplomatically offered Fidel Castro a draw, but Castro refused, preferring on principle to play on and lose - very unusual for a head of state. The display was brought to an abrupt end about midnight by a tremendous tropical downpour. I've never seen anything like it: thousands of people all running for shelter.

The last time I played for Ireland - I was already 67 - was Lugano 1968. This Swiss venue was very pleasant but the playing arena was inadequate. I remember Grandmaster Lombardy of the USA coming up to Golombek and de Graaf, the judges. "Is there anything you want?" they asked, and he replied "Yes, I want to breathe"!

[Up] Crisis

Until about 1970 the BCM was published by Pitmans. Around that time there was a so-called productivity agreement between Pitmans and the unions. In practice this meant that the type-setting was done much more quickly and much less efficiently. We preferred to do our own typesetting and Pitmans agreed to continue with the printing, but at the last minute - just before Christmas - they rang us and refused to print. So my son had to find paper, ink, etc., and set to work printing the magazine on his office offset machine. It was a very big job, but successfully carried out. Of course we couldn't carry on like that. We simply hadn't the room or the facilities to cope with such masses of paper and other materials. We found a local printer who would accept our typesetting.

Another crisis was the postal workers' strike of 1971 which lasted about two months and very nearly put us right out of business. We couldn't send out the magazines, nor was there any incoming mail: we were completely cut off from our readers, which meant, among other things, no subscriptions, no orders, nothing. And meanwhile our expenses, such as staff wages, continued as usual. That strike ended only just in time. We were running out of cash.

[Up] Fisher-Spassky

Then came the Fischer-Spassky match at Reykjavik in 1972 which attracted the attention of the media, who tried to represent it as USA v USSR. I personally disliked all the scandal but I must admit that the resultant publicity did bring a big increase in our circulation - most of which we retained.

I'd given up playing at Olympiads but that didn't stop me going. I attended Siegen as ICU delegate to the FIDE Congress. I didn't go to Skopje in 1972, owing to my wife's death in April. Then the Olympiad came to Nice, which seemed like going home. Previously both Israel and the USSR had offered to stage this event but both of them sportingly withdrew their applications when France pointed out that it would be the fiftieth anniversary of the foundation of FIDE in Paris 1924.

The venue was one of the best ever and it looked like being a memorable occasion in every way. Unfortunately, the President of the French Republic, Georges Pompidou, who had taken a personal interest and had promised his support, died suddenly a few weeks before the event. This cut off all state support and left a handful of enthusiasts to cope with this huge, complex undertaking. But they carried on - by this time they had no option. It was a success - 74 teams, which was a record number at the time - but it was not the superb Olympiad it might have been.

In 1976 I went to Israel again - to Haifa; in fact to Mount Carmel overlooking Haifa Bay. The atmosphere was tense: there were machine-gun posts on the roofs and our belongings were searched every time we entered the hotel. The USSR and the countries of Eastern Europe were not there. England achieved their best result to date - the bonze medals. And that was my last Olympiad (so far anyway). Buenos Aires I considered too expensive. I would have gone to Malta had it not been for my son's death in June.

[Up] Algebraic Notation

In 1975 we began to introduce the algebraic notation. I had seen this change carried out forty years earlier by Renaud in his column in l'Eclaireur de Nice but I remember the furious opposition it aroused among a small section of his readers. I decided to by-pass the usual storm of controversy by introducing the new notation gradually and without comment. Also we softened the blow by beginning with English initials (K for king, N for knight etc.) though that was really only while we waited for my son to prepare a satisfactory font for figurines: that was what I really wanted. It is a completely international notation which does away with the confusion which arises from initials, particularly when a letter means one piece in one language and a another piece in another.

[Up] Freddy

The 1970s were a decade of steady progress for the BCM and it was entirely due to my son, Freddy. He started to do the typesetting himself and became, in effect, the editor of the magazine. He devoted his whole time to the work and for several years now we have been exceeding 600 pages per volume. He aimed to make it the best chess magazine in the world and he would undoubtedly have done so had he lived. He worked full time on the magazine and he was making the same mistake that I had made thirty years earlier - all work and no exercise. His arteries deteriorated fatally. He died of a heart attack in 1980.

1981 was the centenary year of the BCM and Freddy had been working on a long retrospective article for some eighteen months. All I did was edit it a little and publish it in the December number but his intention had been to produce a 64-page thirteenth issue for 1980, full of illustrations and features, on sale to the general public but free to subscribers.

After he died I didn't see how the BCM could possibly continue. The problem was to find a firm having the figurines for the typesetting and also willing to undertake the setting of a periodical (for in many ways that is a more exacting job than a book). But our printers managed to locate just such a firm for us. We were terribly late, of course, but we gradually caught up, and by April 1981 we actually succeeded in publishing within the correct month once more.

For any chess magazine to appear continuously for a hundred years is really a miracle. Think of all the chess magazines which have come and gone during that time. Some were predestined to failure by being too ambitious and the same mistake has been made repeatedly - even up to quite recent times. It keeps on happening. Somebody thinks that because he is himself a great chess-lover people will rush to buy his magazine, but the demand is simply hot there. Look at the USSR. The circulation of their leading chess periodical, Chess in the USSR, is some 60-70 thousand. That sounds a lot, but when you relate it to some four million registered chessplayers you realise that it is quite small.

After the sudden death of my son the take-over by the BCF was the best possible solution. I remain on the board of directors, with additional duties as a consultant in the book-publication field. I hope to use some of my new-found leisure to finish a project I began five or six years ago - a biography of the former World Champion, Alexander Alekhine. My main aim is to refute the many absurd things that have been written about him, especially during the years he spent in France. I knew him fairly well: in fact I was a witness at his last marriage in 1934. Moreover I was intimate with two of his closest friends, Georges Renaud and Victor Kahn. I have amassed documentary evidence from many countries. I also mean to include little-known games which do not appear in any of the standard collections - both from tournaments and from exhibitions.

[Up] What Chess Has Meant To Me

For more than six decades I have been involved with chess. What has it meant to me? It has enabled me to see many parts of the world under exceptionally pleasant circumstances. It has brought me friends in all walks of life and from many countries and has certainly enlarged my experience of humanity. It has been a considerable help in times of stress. During my internment, for instance, it made all the difference. Instead of being just number so-and-so I was one of the personalities of the camp. I do not suggest that only a chessplayer could have had that experience. Anyone capable of helping or instructing or entertaining his fellow-internees in any way would have found it so. For myself, I can truly say that my internment, which might have been a wretched time, became, thanks to chess, quite an interesting interlude in my life.

It would be an exaggeration to say that chess has been my whole life, but certainly life without chess is difficult to imagine.