KindredSpirit’s Kaleidoscope: 50 Years Ago in American Chess

The chess players of the United States represented by the official US chess organ, United States Chess Federation, can and should be proud of a grand old champion of journalistic integrity of the highest order.  Long before recognition of the USCF, the US chess official national bodies were known as the American Chess Federation and the National Chess Federation, that collaborated together in forming eventually the United States Chess Federation.

I first heard of Hermann Helms from my brother and subsequent reading of his Chess Review magazine copies.  That magazine carried the Bill Lombardy memorial in the February 1963 issue and excellent article on the life and achievements of Hermann Helms, 1870-1963 by John Collins and friends.

He was born in Brooklyn, NY on January 5, 1870.  His family moved to Germany.  While on the sea crossing, his father died.  The family resided with his paternal grandparents, uncle Hermann, whom he was named after, his mother and brother for seven years when they returned to North America, settling in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada residing there for another seven years. At the age of 17, he returned to the United States, settling in Brooklyn, NY.  He had received a quality education in Hamburg and Halifax.

It was a school chum in Halifax who taught Helms to play (how often this has happened to many first attracted by cassia) and he developed rapidly in Brooklyn.  Another game that attracted him was cricket where he captained a team and was secretary of the Brooklyn Cricket Club.

He considered Emanuel Lasker to be the hardiest chess fighter of all time.

In his youth he was a bookkeeper for a few years which might account for his skill at journalism, reporting, and leadership in chess work as organizer, tournament director and writer for three newspapers; he founded the American Chess Bulletin which was the official organ of the National Chess Federation.  For many years he reported both cricket and soccer for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, NY Times and through the medium of Flannery News Service which he operated and later owned.

In 1889, he helped organize the Chess and Checker Club of the Central YMCA Branch, serving as secretary for 3-years.  He joined in 1892, the famous old Brooklyn Chess Club and was a member of the team led by Harry Nelson Pillsbury, “Hero of Hastings” and won the club title twice in 1895-6.  From 1896-1910, he played  for the U.S. and Brooklyn Chess Club against England in five cable matches.

Of course as his skills advanced in both chess and journalism, he established a remarkable chess record. He began writing a column in October 1893 for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle and continued until the paper folded in 1955.

In 1898, Helms married May Whitney, a well-known musician and painter who died in 1943.  She was a member of the Mozart sextet, a group made up of her parents, two sisters, a brother and herself.  They had one daughter who died at age 40.  She helped her father at the office and sometimes was his companion to tournaments and assisted in reporting the results.

Together with Hartwig Cassel, died 1926, began publishing the American Chess Bulletin, a magazine devoted to the interests of all branches of chess literature at home and abroad.  They jointly organized and directed the famous and historic 1904 Cambridge Springs Tournament and several New York City events from which the magazine evolved.  In his office at 150 Nassau Street, New York, NY, Helms presided as publisher, editor, reporter, and annotator for over 50-years until his death.  He won the NY State Championship 19-years after leaving Halifax and repeated it again in 19-years in 1925!  He wrote for the New York Times for over 50-years, retiring in 1962; a column in the NY World for 15-years, 10-years each with the New York Post, NY Telegram and Sun and another NY Sun later taken over by the World Telegram in 1926.

He was an industrious chess devotee and was a great inspiration for blitz and postal chess. He arranged a huge 253 board team match between Philadelphia and New York and another 100 board team match between Brooklyn and Chicago. He was honored as the vice president of the Pillsbury National Correspondence Chess Association and involved in the amalgamation of various correspondence bodies which form the Correspondence Chess League of America.

In 1923, he directed the Ninth American Chess Congress at Lake Hopatcong which led indirectly to the famous 1924 New York International Tournament, at the Alamac Hotel.  He wrote a book of the tournament with notes by Alekhine. He organized simultaneous exhibitions for Alekhine, Capablanca, Lasker, Maroczy and Marshall.  These included two spectacular events by Alekhine and Capablanca  In 1931 and 1932, respectively, staged at the Seventh Regiment Armory in New York that had a brass band on hand.  Each grandmaster encountered two hundred opponents on 50-boards, with a record attendance.  This was a product of achievement cherished by Helms for the remainder of his life.

At Syracuse, NY, 1943, George Sturgis, president of the A.C.F. bestowed upon him the honorary title of “Dean of American Chess” that lasted until his death.  He was a regular attendee at the Marshall and Manhattan chess clubs where he loved to play blitz chess.  He attended the Strong Place Baptist Church in downtown Brooklyn, believed in “old-time religion” and practiced the old-time virtues of honor, honesty, courage, frugality, and forthrightness. Strict, and sometimes aloof, he was withal kindly, patient, understanding, a warmhearted dear friend with an extraordinarily sweet smile.  The many visits to the Collins home where he would bring ice cream and sweets but just have a cup of tea which Ethel Collins, John’s sister, was expert.  As old people do, Hermann would reminisce about his life and play and discuss chess with his good friend, John Collins.

His aggressive and fighting chess I present here to celebrate his prowess and skill for the game.

White:  Frank J. Marshall   vs.  Black:  Hermann Helms   Opening:  Ponziani

1.  P-K4  P-K4 /  2. N-KB3  N-QB3 /  3. P-B3   P-Q4 / 4. Q-R4  P-B3 /  5. B-N5  N-K2  /  6. O-O   P-QR3 /  7. P x P   P x B /  8. Q x R  N x P /  9.  P-QN4   B-Q3 /  10.  Q-R3  O-O /  11. P-Q3  P-R3  /  12. B-K3  P-QN3  /  13. Q-N3  B-K3  / 14. N-R3  Q-K1 /  15. Q-B2  N/3-K2 /  16. P-Q4  B-KB4 /  17. Q-N3  P-K5  /  18. N-R4  B-K3  / 19. P-N3  P-KB4  /  20. Q-B2  P-N4  / 21. N-N2  P-B5 /  22. B-Q2  P-B6 /  23. Q x P  B-R6  /  24. N-K3  N-B5 /  25. P x N   R x P /  26. N-Q5  R x Q  /  27. N-B6ch  K-B2/  28. N x Q  K x N   /  29. N x P  R-N5ch /  30. K-R1  B-N7ch  / 31. K-N1  B x Pch  / 32. K x B  R-R5ch / 33. K-N3  N-B4 checkmate!

Helms  defeated Marshall in the 1906 NY State Championship and had done so in the 1897 Brooklyn Chess Club Championship as well.  I would say that he was a true champion of the game with an entertaining style that, had he spent more time on tournament play, there is no telling where he would rank, certainly a top chess master level.

Hermann Helms died peacefully on Wednesday, January 9, 1963 at 2 pm.  Rev. Robert L. Dillon officiated. Relatives, friends, business associates and several chess notables attended the service. Several beautiful floral pieces were sent. Interment was at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn.

So thus ended a rich and fulfilled life of a wise and industrious kind man who lived life to the fullest.  He was beloved by many who came to know him.  Miss Catherine Sullivan, a friend and devoted secretary-assistant of Helms for over 35-years and associates contributed to the author in Chess Review to make this a memorable past life in American chess history–50-years ago. I thank CR for its excellence in giving me, for one, the opportunity to enrich the American chess scene for my readers.

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