W. G. Irvine-Fortescue

Colonel William Grenville Irvine-Fortescue was born on 26 May 1897. He fought in the First World War between 1915 and 1918. He was decorated with the award of Military Cross (M.C.) in 1916 (and bar in 1919). He fought in the Second World War. He gained the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel in the service of the Royal Engineers. He died in 1980. [1]

The following article is reprinted from Scottish Chess Association Bulletin No. 10, January-April 1963.

44 Years of Competitive Chess

When I was a boy there was little of any chess in schools. My introduction to competitive chess occurred during World War I. 1918 saw the Field Company in which I was a subaltern moved to the west bank of the Vardar, a few miles behind the front line. Our task, during the planned advance, was to build a pontoon bridge over the Vardar, and we spent our days bridging and rafting. Pontooning is fun, but in the heat of a Macedonian summer one can have too much of it, so I was quite pleased when I was sent back with a Section to build sisters' quarters for a hospital. The hospital staff were much given to chess. There was a "ladder of fame", at the top of which was the name of Holditch, a medical orderly. I had to start at the bottom of the ladder, but my progress was slow, and it was soon evident that the sisters' quarters would be built long before I was able to challenge the leader. However, a knock-out tournament was staged, and, after a few lucky escapes, I found myself sitting down to the final.

We were in a large marquee, and the chess fans of the unit gathered in force to watch. While I have forgotten many better played games, I still remember this one. I was Black, and the opening was as follows:-

1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 e5 5.Nxc6 bxc6 6.Bc4 Nf6 7.Bg5 Qa5+ 8.c3 Nxe4

After this I never looked back. Holditch wanted to play a return match, but the sisters' quarters were finished, and I had to return to my unit.

A long chessless period followed until, in 1928, I found myself posted to Army Headquarters in Simla. Chess was flourishing in Simla, chiefly due to the patronage of an Indian nobleman, Nawab Sir Umar Hayat Khan. The Nawab himself was an indifferent player, but he was teribly keen, and maintained a team of professional chess players whose play, by constant practice, had reached a high standard. The leader of the team was Sultan Khan. Later Sir Umar took him to Britain and entered him for the British Chess Championship, which he won. Besides the "professionals" there was an active chess club, which met in the Y.M.C.A.

Every Sunday afternoon we used to gather in the garden of the Nawab's summer residence, where he entertained us with a sumptuous tea, and Indian music. How would the chess players of today, accustomed to the religious hush of a modern tournament, where the lowest whisper is silenced by a fierce "Shsss......!". react to such conditions? The music usually consisted of an instrument like a cross between an accordion and a very small harmonium. It sat on the ground. The musician squatted beside it, working a sort of bellows with one hand, and playing on a keyboard with the other. There were one or more drummers. And there was the vocalist. His huge mouth, reddened with "pon", used to open to a quite incredible extent, and from it poured such a volume of sound that all other sense data faded from one's field of perception. Then when at long last his apparently inexhaustible lungs emptied, the drums would rise to a wild frenzy of rattlings and thumpings, and the Nawab, in an ecstasy of his enjoyment, would rock to and fro to the compelling rhythm.

But do not think there was no serious chess. Sultan would play one of his error-free games with "Master", the next best "professional". For 20 or 30 moves Master would find an answer to every one of Sultan's tries, and then, slowly and inexorably, the position would change in Sultan's favour, he would win a pawn, and all would be over. Some of the players used to get most excited. I remember one, who, in his eagerness to play a knight fork, swallowed the nut he was chewing. It stuck in his windpipe, he turned dark purple, and collapsed, together with the the table and the chess board. A hard slap on the back restored his breathing. Still purple and gasping, he struggled to his feet. "Set up the position, set up the position!", he shouted - only when this had been done did he remember to thank his rescuers.

Sometimes after chess I stayed on to dine with the Nawab. His favourite topics were religion and the decline of Muslim India. Having been brought up by a U.P. nurse, I thought I knew my Bible fairly well. But the Nawab knew his Koran better. Every quotation from the Bible he could match with one from the Koran. The discussion always ended in the same way. "Ek hi bat, Sahib, ek hi bat", he would exclaim (the very same thing).

He was quite wrong about Islam. Though he had a lively faith himself, he thought the modern generation had been ruined by secular education. (Later his eldest son, Khizr, became leader of the Unionist party in the Punjab, and premier for a short time. This well-meaning attempt to reconcile Muslims and Hindus failed - the Punjab massacres were the result.)

Colonel Irvine-Fortescue accompanied the Scottish team to the Moscow 1956 Olympiad as an official representative. This image of him is taken from a photograph provided courtesy of Michael Fallone, a member of the Scottish team.


But to get back to chess.

After Simla I had a long period without serious chess. I began to play again in 1950, after a lapse of about twenty years. My first Scottish Championship (and my introduction to clocks) was at Stirling. [2] I found the religious hush, and frantic ticking of some dozen clocks, far more distracting than Sir Umar's Indian music. Although I had some partial success (I drew with Anderson and Perkins), I went down like a nine pin to some of the weaker players. To play at the top of one's form for four hours, and never to forget one's clock, requires training and practice. Let no one despair, however. At 65 I have figured for the first time in the prize list. What fun to have found something at which one can improve, even at my age! [3]

White V. Simagin
Black Col. W.G. Irvine-Fortescue
Moscow 1956 (simultaneous exhibition)

1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 g6 3. Nc3 d5 4. Nf3 Bg7 5. Bg5 c6 6. e3 Nbd7 7. Be2 O-O 8. O-O dxc4 9. Bxc4 b5 10. Bb3 a6 11. Qe2 c5 12. Rad1 c4 13. Bc2 Bb7 14. e4 Re8 15. e5 Nd5 16. e6 N7f6 17. exf7+ Kxf7 18. Ne4 Nb4 19. Ne5+ Kg8 20. Nc5 Bd5 21. Bb1 Qb6 22. h4 Nc6 23. h5 Nxe5 24. Qxe5 Qc6 25. hxg6 Ne4 26. Qf4 e5 27. gxh7+ Kh8 28. dxe5 Bxe5 29. Qh4 Nxg5 30. Qxg5 Qxc5 31. Rfe1 Bd4 32. Rxe8+ Rxe8 33. Kh1 b4 34. Bg6 Rc8 35. Re1 Rf8 36. f3 Bf2 37. Bf5 c3 38. bxc3 bxc3 39. Qe7 Qxe7 40. Rxe7 Bxa2 41. Be4 Rc8 42. Bc2 a5 43. g4 a4 44. Rd7 Bb3 45. Bf5 c2  0-1 [4]

[1] Source: www.thePeerage.com

[2] This refers to the 1954 Scottish championship.

[3] Colonel Irvine Fortescue is referring to the Scottish Championship of 1962, when he took a share of 4th and 5th places with 4/7. The Colonel played in every Scottish championship from his debut in 1954 through to 1970.

[4] Scottish Chess Association Bulletin 13, Jan-May 1964, pp. 5-6.

Alan McGowan
Historian/Archivist, Chess Scotland

updated 14/4/2021