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Liverpool vs Calcutta Telegraph Match

Liverpool Chess Club1.5/2(+1 -0 =1)[games]
City of Calcutta0.5/2(+0 -1 =1)[games] Chess Event Description
Liverpool vs Calcutta Telegraph Match (1880)

Telegraph Match between Liverpool, England and Calcutta, India; 28 October 1880— March 1881

A B Score ————————————————————— Liverpool ½ 1 1½ Calcutta ½ 0 ½ —————————————————————

This was a match by telegraph between the chess clubs of Liverpool (England) and Calcutta (now Kolkata, West Bengal, India). Two games (A and B) were played simultaneously, the match commencing on Thursday, 28th of October, 1880, and concluding in the following March. (1) Liverpool won 1½ to ½, and the event attracted popular interest, perhaps more for the innovative use of new technology than for the chess itself. (2)

Technology and cost
Liverpool Chess Club had a history of innovation. It played an early correspondence game with its great industrial neighbor some 35 miles distant: Manchester vs Liverpool, 1825. In 1861, the club once again innovated, this time with transmission of the moves by telegraph in a match against the Dublin Library Club. (3) But the present match was the first with moves transmitted by telegraph between continents. It used the most advanced technology and engineering of its time. The match was being played between two cities 7500 nautical miles apart. By standard letter post, there would at most only have been four moves a year, as a letter from London took 44 days to reach Calcutta. The secure cable route to India and Australia had been completed in 1872 by a number of British firms. (4) In July 1865, the British telegraph companies agreed to consolidate their tariffs. (4) This served to reinforce a monopoly, and the transit (international) price remained high as the companies protected their profits. (5) Consequently, from 1871 to 1886, rates averaged 4s 6d (four shillings and six pence) a word. (6) This was extremely expensive, and in 2015, the relative value of four shillings and six pence would be £20.20 or approximately $26.20 per word. (7) To keep the match from being prohibitively expensive a special code had to be devised.

Rutherford Code: "Hodie mihi, cras tibi"
The problem of transmitting chess moves could not be resolved by using digits (e. g. 5254 for <e4>), as since the International Telegraph Convention of 1872, there was a prohibition on 'cryptographic' telegrams: "Article 9: Messages in plain language must offer an intelligible sense in any one of the languages used in the territories of the contracting States, or Latin .. The following messages are considered as secret: Those which are composed of figures or of secret letters". (8) The regulations did allow a loophole of using steganographic techniques with Latin words and grammar. Telegraphic dictionaries were published to save the sender money. Several used formulas to turn phrases into Latin words, sometimes as a straightforward metonym, or by creating a composite term by combining roots and inflections following a protocol. These words compressed Messages, as they represented to the informed recipient a meaning distinct from their original usage. (9)

The Liverpool club member William Rutherford created such a code which expressed the move chosen in the form of a Latin word. (10) "The telegrams cost each club about £30 (= £2,693/$3,493 in 2015 values), but would have cost several times as much, had it not been for an ingenious code invented by Mr. W. W. Rutherford, a member of the Liverpool Club, by which any two moves combined could be sent in a single word." (11) The cost of transmitting the moves of the match was about a quarter of an experienced clerk's annual wage. (12) The coding system was complex and cumbersome, relying on using a protocol to create Latin words based on a table of Latin prefixes and suffixes. Yet the code seems to have worked, there being only one miscommunication: "We are informed by the Hon. Secretary of the Liverpool Club, that a slight interruption has occurred on the 9th move of the Liverpool game. The telegram was interpreted Kt to QB3, whereas it should have been Kt to QR3." (13)

The conception
"Dear SIRS —I have pleasure in informing you that a Telegraphic Match has commenced between this Club and Calcutta, the first moves having been exchanged ... wired by a code system specially constructed for this match by W. Rutherford, one of our own members, and by which the combination of any two moves can be sent in a single word .. Chess-players will appreciate its ingenuity when they consider that the possible number of combinations which have to be provided for are considerably over half-a-million, and yet it can be worked with a code of 3,000 words. The match is free from all stringent conditions, but it is understood the moves are to be sent within forty-eight hours after receipt of each message, and there is no money stake or other consideration involved in the result .. The match was first suggested by Mr. Robert Steel, a valued member of our Club and one of our strongest players, now resident in Calcutta, where he is assisted ... by two natives and one Anglo-Indian, all, we believe, very strong players. On the Liverpool side it is conducted by a consulting committee, the final decision on each move resting with a selected five. The nearest approach to this enterprise was the celebrated match between London and Vienna, which took over two years to finish. We hope to bring this to a conclusion in about three months, and should the code system succeed, which we have no reason to doubt, it will probably be the means of popularising telegraphic matches, particularly between countries where the code of wiring is moderate, as between England and America, and thus give more frequent opportunities of testing the strength of the best players of distant lands, who have rarely now a chance of meeting each other. I enclose the moves as far as made, but of course no comment will be made upon them pending the completion of the games. Very truly yours, Sam. Weight, Hon. Sec." (14)

"The first moves ... were wired on the 28th October last, and with the exception of an unfortunate mistake on the part of Calcutta in telegraphing the wrong move, the play has proceeded very rapidly and without a hitch. No money stake is involved, there is nothing but Honour to be won; conditions and stipulations are noticeable only by their absence … The committee for conducting the match on the Calcutta side consists of Robert Steel, a valued member of the Liverpool Club, now resident in Calcutta, by whom the match was originally suggested, assisted by two natives of the Baboo Caste, and one Anglo-Indian, all strong players. On the Liverpool side the final decision of each moves rests with a selected five members of the Club. The time limit is 48 hours between the receipt and despatch of the moves." (15)

Unfortunately for Calcutta, their leading player left for England whilst the match was in progress. - "The Liverpool-Calcutta match game has been delayed for three weeks due to the absence from town of Calcutta players." (16) "Calcutta left their King in check for a considerable time owing to the absence of some of the Calcutta players, and we have only two additional moves to record. Mr. Robert Steel, the captain of the Bengal team, arrived in England, and has already engaged in battle with Messrs. Joseph Henry Blackburne and Leopold Hoffer." (17)

Contemporary reaction
"The leading topic of chess conversation is this interesting contest, first on account of the great difficulties which had to be surmounted in finding a system of communicating the moves at a moderate expenditure, without taxing the liberality of the combatants too severely; and second, on account of the well-established reputation of both clubs as regards skill. We may, therefore, legitimately expect two very interesting games" ... "Chess unlike art critics are not severe on those "arch-abomination" of steam and electricity, and look with admiration on the inventors of the locomotive and telegraph, in spite of the little smoke of the former and the perverted taste of the companies to attach their wires to ungainly poles instead of ionic columns. Why do not art critics set the first example by declining to avail themselves of our ordinary means of locomotion, and sending their strangely-penned epistles to courteous invitations from art societies by pigeon-carriers? We subjoin the able and kind communication of the Hon. Sec. of the Liverpool Chess Club, who promised to keep us au courant of the progress of the match." (18)

The games
Game A, Calcutta - Liverpool
The game was sharply contested, and ended in a draw after 36 moves. Calcutta had the advantage, but dissipated it. After 34 moves:

click for larger view

Calcutta played 35.Be4, and after 35...Rxe4 36.Nxe4 "The draw here offered by Calcutta was accepted by Liverpool." (19) Johannes Zukertort and Hoffer believed that 35.Be4 "throw away all the advantage obtained by fine and skilful play: White must win without much difficulty with 35.Bf3 Re3 36.Qd7 g4 ... (the) continuation intended by Liverpool — 37.Qxg4 Rg8 38.Nd7." (19)

Game B, Liverpool - Calcutta
Liverpool sacrificed a pawn on their 6th move. "This hazardous sacrifice frees completely White's game and turns out well. We do not think, however, that it would prove sound against a careful and judicious defence." (20) The Calcutta players were neither careful nor judicious. They seemed oblivious to the impending threats to their King, instead artlessly manoeuvering their Knights. With the crushing 16.Ne5 the game was terminated:

click for larger view

One possible continuation being 16...fxe5 17.Qh5+ g6 18.Qxe5 b5 19.Nxb5 Nxe5 20.Nd6+ Ke7 21.dxe5 Qc8 22.Rf7+ Kd8 23.Rd1 Bd5 24.Nxc8 Kxc8

Apart from the interest in the games, the event represented the harnessing of new technology. An example of how information technology, long before the Internet, affected aspects of life. Telegram allowed chess to be reported much more promptly, and master games leaped between the world's newspapers in a few days. Two later developments were at the Steinitz - Chigorin Telegraph Match (1890), whose alliance of chess and technology captured the imagination of the popular press, and the Anglo-American Cable Matches (see Game Collection: Anglo-American Cable Matches, 1896-1911), whose games proceeded across the Atlantic at a rate of 20 moves per hour.

"Tomorrow the hearts of the civilized world will beat in a single pulse, and from that time forth forevermore the continental divisions of the earth will, in a measure, lose those conditions of time and distance which now mark their relations." (21)

Game score for Game A: British Chess Magazine, April 1881, pp. 129-130; The Chess Monthly, 1881, p. 237 Game 125); Game B: British Chess Magazine, February 1881, pp. 49-50; The Chess Monthly, 1881, p. 171; St. Louis Globe-Democrat, 6 February 1881 (Game 198).

(1) Portsmouth Evening News, 15 March 1881, p. 3.
(2) See e. g. Dundee Evening Telegraph, 8 November 1880, p. 2, and St. Louis Globe-Democrat, 6 February 1881 ( (Game 198).
(3) Liverpool Chess Club: A Short Sketch of the Club from Its First Meeting, by J. S. Edgar, 1893, p. 22. It took place "at the offices of the British and Irish Magnetic Telegraph Company", see Freeman's Journal, Tuesday 12 November 1861, p. 3.
(4) Distant Writing. A History of the Telegraph Companies in Britain between 1838 and 1868 (, by Stephen Roberts, 2012 (cf.
(5) Telegraphic Imperialism. Crisis and Panic in the Indian Empire, c. 1830-1920, by Deep Kanta Lahiri Choudhury, 2010, p. 131.
(6) Reporting the Raj. The British Press and India, c. 1880-1922, by Chandrika Kaul, 2003, p. 32.
(7) ( The calculation is based upon Purchasing Power using the percentage increase in the RPI from 1880 to 2015.
(8) Convention télégraphique internationale de Saint-Pétersbourg et Règlement et tarifs y annexés, Révision de Londres, 1879 (, p. 16.
(9) Directory of code scans and transcriptions, by John McVay, at
(10) Hartford Weekly Times, 2 December 1880 ( ): "One of the chief difficulties in beginning the match lay in the cost, the charge being 4s. 7d. per word ... The minimum message that can be sent is three words. Two of these are required for the addresses, and Mr. Rutherford has contrived a code by which, in the remaining word, the move in both games can be sent in one message ... the code ... has three thousand words, which enables the players to communicate every move they make." Sir William Watson Rutherford was a prominent Liverpool politician and later Lord Mayor and then a member of parliament for the city. See Wikipedia article: Sir William Rutherford, 1st Baronet.
(11) Liverpool Chess Club: A Short Sketch of the Club from Its First Meeting, by J. S. Edgar, 1893, pp. 26-27. Modern value calculated using Edgar (p. 88) states the number of members to be 67 in 1880, so in 2015 values, each member would have had to contribute about £40.
(12) Huddersfield Chronicle, 4 July 1881, p. 4: annual wages of telegraphic clerks, £114 (maximum = £11,132/$14,439 in 2015 value); Post Office sorters, £130 (maximum = £12,694/$16,464 in 2015 value). An assistant clerk in Dublin (16-20 years old) earned c. £40 per annum (£3,906/$5,066 in 2015 value), see e. g. Dublin Daily Express, 14 August 1880, p. 2. Modern values calculated using
(13) The Chess Monthly, 1881, p. 131. The error occurred in Game B, move 9.
(14) The Chess Monthly, 1881, p. 100.
(15) British Chess Magazine, February 1881, pp. 49-50. "Baboo" seems to refer to an English speaking Indian clerk.
(16) British Chess Magazine, March 1881, p. 75.
(17) The Chess Monthly, 1881, pp. 195-196.
(18) The Chess Monthly, 1881, pp. 100-101.
(19) The Chess Monthly, 1881, p. 240.
(20) The Chess Monthly, 1881, p. 171.
(21) The Times (London) (c. 1858), cited in Dawn of the Cyber Soldiers by James Adams, in Sunday Times, 15 October 1995.

 page 1 of 1; one game  PGN Download 
Game  ResultMoves YearEvent/LocaleOpening
1. Liverpool CC vs Calcutta 1-0161880Liverpool vs Calcutta Telegraph MatchA13 English

Kibitzer's Corner
Premium Chessgames Member
  offramp: A very well-written preamble to a historic, but not especially scintillating, match from chess's early modern era. Nigel Short once pointed out how astonishingly bad correspondence games were, despite all the advantages that the players have, and this is another brace of games that proves him right.

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