We don’t know them so well

I was somewhat surprised to learn this morning that one of the earliest chess world champions was a chap from Belfast called Alexander McDonnell, whose day job was lobbying in parliament on behalf of the slave owners of Guyana.

This job paid £1200 per year, the equivalent of £150,000 today, and allowed him plenty of time to practice chess when parliament wasn’t sitting. He held ownership of plantations himself, and was the author of such dubious tomes as “Considerations on Negro Slavery.”

Not a lot is known about McDonnell. There appears to be a few errors on the brief wiki page dedicated to him, including the name of his father. He was renowned as a surly and taciturn man who took up to 90 minutes per turn at the chess table, and would often later spend his evenings pacing up and down in his room replaying the games in his mind.

His opponent in his most famous match, a Frenchman called Labourdonnais, by contrast had lost all of his money in property speculation and was forced to make his living from chess. While McDonnell paced his room, the Frenchman would continue playing all-comers for a sixpence a game late into the evening, all the while fuelled by endless pints of brown ale.

Louis-Charles Mahé de La Bourdonnais - Wikipedia
Labourdonnais, no doubt looking forward to a few beers. No image of McDonnell exists.

The match was abandoned with Labourdonnais leading, when the Frenchman had to urgently return to Paris to deal with his creditors. Alas, it never resumed, because McDonnell suffered from acute kidney disease and died soon afterwards. In fact, both men died young, and are buried in graves, now lost, in Kensal Green cemetery in London. ABBA should do a musical on that match.