Robert Forbes Combe

16 August 1912 - 12 February 1952

British Champion 1946

Robert Forbes Combe was born at Newark, in the parish of Logie-Buchan, Aberdeenshire, on August 16th, 1912. His father was George A. Combe, H.M. Consul General in the Far East, specifically at Tsinan in Shantung, China, where Combe's early childhood was largely spent. He completed his education at the Aberdeen Grammar School, and Aberdeen University, where he qualified with a distinguished record, taking first prize in all five major subjects of the law curriculum.

He had rheumatic fever as a child and for a long time knew that his days were limited. His heart was badly affected and therein lay the cause of his untimely death, much regretted in Scotland amongst his chess and business friends.

On a holiday in London when he was 16, he bought a little book called The Chess Openings, by I.Gunsberg, from which with the aid of a sixpenny book of chess laws, he taught himself the game. He played in the third class tournament at Ramsgate the next year, 1929, finishing fourth with 7½/11 without knowing the e.p. rule for the whole tourney.

Combe also played in the BCF Congress at London 1932. In the First Class Tournament, Section 'B' he scored 7½/11, finishing in a share of 4th and 5th places.

He played in the Scottish Championship for the first time in 1933, finishing with 3½/6 and a share of =3rd and 4th places with Aitken.

He followed this in June 1933 with his only international appearance, a place on the Scottish team for the Olympiad at Folkestone. This was the first occasion on which Scotland competed in an Olympiad, having a short time previously been recognised by FIDE as an independent member. This was a hard tournament for all the players, and Scotland finished last. Combe, however, impressed with 1 win, 8 draws and only 3 losses, making the second best score of the five team members, only Fairhurst having a slightly better percentage.

It was at this event that Combe resigned a game after four moves when he made an elementary blunder against Hasenfuss of Latvia in round three. W.A. Fairhurst, writing about Combe's death in the British Chess Magazine 1952, commented:

'This was typical of Combe's honesty and directness, as most players would have struggled on for a number of moves, a piece down, in order to avoid such a sensational early defeat.'

The game certainly caused a sensation at the time, and was widely quoted in the general press, not just chess publications. Indeed, the game is still being discussed today; for all that it lasted only four moves, it seems that nobody can agree on the order of moves.

However, some writers on the topic have been fairer than others and mentioned that Combe may not have been at his most alert because of his game against Simonson of the USA in round two the previous day. The game apparently lasted 12 hours because of adjournment, but Combe managed to hold his powerful adversary. Here is the game that is never shown in discussions of the subject.

A. Simonson (USA) - R.F. Combe [A00] Folkestone Olympiad 1933, Round 2.

1.d4 Nf6 2.Nf3 b6 3.g3 Bb7 4.Bg2 c5 5.c3 e6 6.0-0 Be7 7.Nbd2 Qc7 8.b3 cxd4 9.cxd4 Nc6 10.Bb2 0-0 11.Rc1 Rac8 12.e4 d5 13.Ne5 Qd8 14.Nxc6 Rxc6 15.Rxc6 Bxc6 16.e5 Ne8 17.Qc2 Qd7 18.Rc1 Bb7 19.Bf1 g6 20.Bd3 Ng7 21.Qc7 Rd8 22.Qxd7 Rxd7 23.Bb5 Rd8 24.Rc7 Bb4 25.Nf3 Rb8 26.a3 Bf8 27.Ng5 a6 28.Bd3 Ne8 29.Rd7 Bc6 30.Ra7 Rb7 31.Ra8 h6 32.Nf3 Nc7 33.Rc8 Bd7 34.Rd8 Bc6 35.Bc3 Kg7 36.Bb4 Bxb4 37.axb4 Bb5 38.Bxb5 Nxb5 39.Rc8 Rc7 40.Rxc7 Nxc7 41.Kf1 Kf8 42.Ke2 Ke7 43.Kd3 Kd7 44.h4 h5 45.Ng5 Ke7 46.Nh7 Ne8 47.Ke3 Ng7 48.Ng5 Nf5+ 49.Kd3 b5 50.Nf3 Kd7 51.Kc3 Kd8 52.Ne1 Kd7 53.Nc2 Ke7 54.Ne1 Kd7 55.Kd3 Ke8 56.Nc2 Ke7 57.Ke2 Kf8 58.Kf3 Kg7 59.Kf4 Kh6 60.f3 Kg7 61.g4 Nxh4 62.Ne1 hxg4 63.fxg4 Kh6 64.Nd3 g5+ 65.Ke3 Ng6 66.Nc5 Ne7 67.Nxa6 Nc6 68.Nc7 Na7 69.Ne8 Kg6 ½-½
Source: Chess Quarterly for History Nr.13, pages 347/348.

Combe's second appearance in the Scottish Championship was 1934, after which his law studies kept him from tournament play for five years.

He next played in the Scottish Championship in 1939, when the tournament was held in Aberdeen. Although Fairhurst was not playing, the tournament was one of the strongest championships ever held up to that point. Former champions Aitken and Page had entered, as had William Winter from England, who had been British Champion in 1935 and 1936. This might have been Combe's best opportunity to win the Scottish Championship, but although he scored 6½/9, he was overtaken by the American student, Max Pavey, against whom Combe recorded his only loss in the tournament.

'In 1940 Combe became a partner in an Elgin law firm, and so began a long forced isolation from tournaments, and in fact any over-the-board chess. For Elgin, a small but pretty town in the North of Scotland, had no chess players of Combe calibre, and he has never taken to correspondence chess. Instead he spent most of his evenings studying deeply the great games of the masters to be found in his now large chess library.' [BCM 1947, p5.]

The same article went on to discuss how deeply Combe had absorded the masters' styles, based on the years of reading. They used Combe's own words:

"In chess I was soon faced with a crucial problem-should I play like Capablanca, or should I play in the style of Alekhine? Or again, was the teaching of Tarrasch the true faith, or should I follow the eclectic Lasker? No doubt the cynic will say, play half as well as any of these, and you will have done your bit. This is not a satisfactory answer to the worried student.

"This harrowing dualism of outlook often bothered me far more than the play of my opponent. It was not so bad when I got through a whole game as a disciple of Lasker, but often I would experience a change of faith in the course of a single game. Unknown to my opponent, Lasker would get up from my chair and steal silently away, leaving Capablanca to take his place. It was all very disconcerting. It would be interesting to hear if any other chess player is beset with the same absurd perplexities."

So, after six years of book study, and the reorganisation of chess life after the end of World War Two, Combe entered the Scottish Championship 1946, held in Glasgow in April. There were only five entries, and yet again Combe failed to win the title, coming second behind the winner, Fairhurst.

The BCM 1947 continues:

'He enjoyed this tournament immensely, and thirsting for more he entered for the Blackpool Congress Premier. However, at the last moment unforeseen business detained Combe in Elgin and he had to telegraph his withdrawal. Determined not to be deprived of his summer chess, he then entered for Nottingham. But for this most fortunate business delay Scotland might have boasted merely a Blackpool Premier winner instead of a British Champion.

British Championship 1946 - Nottingham

His success in the British Championship resulted in Combe (who celebrated his 34th birthday during the tournament), receiving invitations to play at Prague, Barcelona, and Hastings. Due to his professional committments, however, Combe had to decline to play in any of these events.

Also, in 1947, it was announced that Combe would represent Scotland at the FIDE Zonal tournament at Hilversum, Holland, but he never played in that event either.

In fact, Combe did not play in any major tournaments after 1946, nor did he play in another Scottish championship tournament. He did, however, venture forth to play in the match Scotland v England in September, 1951.

In the years after 1946 Combe contented himself with club and match play for the Bon Accord CC in Aberdeen. His last club match game was on January 19th 1952, a few weeks before his death, when he won against Dr C.A.V. Leser of the College Club (Glasgow University).

In the BCM 1947 article Combe offered some of his own personal rules of play:-

1. Restraint in attack.
2. Aggression in defence.
3. Above all, and at all times, harmonious play with ALL the pieces over the WHOLE board.

To be avoided
1. Opportunist attacks or skirmishes, however superficially attractive.
2. Purely passive defence, even if the alternative means sacrifice of material.
3. Ignoring, even for a single move, the well-being and functions of each one of one's own pieces.

For practical play, especially in close or half-open positions, he offers this advice:-

"If it seems that you have built up your game to a peak of perfection, from which, however, further advance appears difficult or impossible, consider whether the next move should not be a PAWN move, an alteration of the pawn-skeleton to give greater activity to some piece or pieces, or to reveal structural pawn-weaknesses on the other side."

Combe considered Kurt Richter's book Kombinationen (Combinations) as a fine book for pre-tournament study.

Combe's professional background:
Mr Derek Laing, formerly a solicitor in private practice, and latterly a consultant with Wink & Mackenzie, has been researching material on the history of the legal firms in the North East of Scotland. He kindly confirmed details of Combe's professional background.

Combe was admitted as a solicitor in Scotland in 1938. He was assumed as a partner of Wink & Mackenzie (Elgin) in 1940. He remained with this firm until the end of 1949, after which he joined the firm of Brander and Cruickshank, 14 Bonaccord Square, Aberdeen, as a partner.

His information included the following observation about Combe's abilities: 'He was an extremely able court practitioner according to one of the older Elgin solicitors I spoke to, so much so that he is thought to have had the talent and ability to become an advocate in Edinburgh. Had he done so, he might have very well advanced to K.C./Q.C.'

At the time of his 1946 British Championship win, Combe was particularly busy with professional responsibilities. Apart from his work at the firm of Wink & Mackenzie, he filled several public offices, including Clerk of the Peace for the county of Moray, Burgh Procurator-Fiscal of Elgin, and Burgh Procurator of Burghead. He was also the secretary of several limited companies and local societies.

In 1951 the Scottish Chess Association submitted the names of Combe, Dr J.M. Aitken and W.A. Fairhurst to FIDE, to be considered for the title of International Master. At that time there was no formal rating system and decisions regarding FIDE titles were made by a committee. Only Fairhurst was granted the IM title.

The obituary in the BCM 1952 (by W.A. Fairhurst) had a few errors. It stated that Combe's first Scottish Championship was 1932, when in fact it was 1933. It also said that Combe had lost only one game, to Broadbent, at the 1946 British Championship. However, Combe also lost to Parr.

Combe's death was officially recorded as barbiturate poisoning (suicide).

It would be a long time before another Scottish-born player won the British Championship. Jonathan Rowson captured the title title in 2004, and won again in 2005 and 2006.

British Chess Magazine - 1929, p 344; 1932, p 427; 1947, pp 4-6; 1952, pp 106-7;
CHESS 1946, pp 2,3, 5; 1951, March. p 117; 1952, March, p 110;
Derek Laing;
Andy Ansel (USA), who provided the Simonson-Combe game.

Compiled by Alan McGowan

updated 30/4/2020