Alexander McDonnell (1798-1835)

England's best chess player of the early 19th century, ironically, was an Irishman. Alexander McDonnell was born in Belfast, Ireland in 1798.

Alexander McDonnell's father and uncle were prominent members of the Belfast society. They were doctors. His father, Alexander, practiced surgery in Belfast while his uncle, James, helped found the Fever Hospital of Belfast and became known as the father of medicine in Belfast.

Alexander, therefore, was well provided for and well educated. In 1816, at age 18, he took a merchant position in the Dutch colony of Demerara in Guyana in the West Indies. Around 1820 he became the Secretary of the Committee of West Indian Merchants and moved to London. This move was good in a couple ways. He avoided the slave uprising in Demerara in 1823 and the position made him wealthy with a lot of free time on his hands.

He started taking lessons from
William Lewis, Teacher of Chess, in 1835. The custom was for the teacher to play at odds and as the student got stronger, decrease the odds. It wasn't long before Lewis couldn't win even with pawn and the move odds and Lewis, wanting to retain his reputation, simply refused to play McDonnell even and by 1830, Lewis wouldn't play him at all.

George Walker founded the Westminster Chess Club in 1831 "in a room upon the first floor of a coffee-house in Bedford-street, Covent-garden, kept by one Huttman", McDonnell joined it as did a lot of prominent men of London.

Soon McDonnell was acknowledged as the leading player in London and therefore in England.

The Westminster Chess Club arranged a series of six matches with
Louis-Charles Mahe de La Bourdonnais who had lost his fortune through bad investments and needed the money, but probably couldn't have resisted the challenge anyway.

All the games were recorded by William Greenwood Walker, the elderly secretary of the Westminster Chess Club, who, as one writer put it, was McDonnell's Boswell. Walker published a book, A selection of Games at Chess by the Late Alexander M'Donnell in 1836, just before he himself died. William Lewis had already published 50 of the games in his 1835 book, Selection of Games at Chess. These two books continued a new, important trend in chess publishing of printing actual games played by the best players of the time. Lewis himself started the trend with his 1832 book, Fifty Games of Chess which have actually been played

The games lasted from June until October of 1834.

McDonnell's results were:
Match #1 +5 -16 =4
Match #2   +5 -4 =0
Match #3   +5 -6 =1
Match #4   +3 -8 =7
Match #5   +4 -7 =1
Match #6   +5 -4 =0
Total=  +27 -45 =13

download games here

Even though McDonnell lost, he played some spectacular chess. The Rev. d’Arblay, (son of Madame d’Arblay, aka Fanny Burney) even wrote a poem, Caissa Rediviva, celebrating McDonnell's heroic efforts. This poem was in response to an 1836 poem, Une Revanche de Waterloo by Joseph Méry, celebrating Bourdonnais' victory.

The games were popularized by the regular press and by the specialized chess publications, often with nationalistic overtones, stirring up unprecedented interest in chess by the common people. Almost immediately after the matches, the Westminster Chess Club swelled to 300 members establishing it as the premier chess club.

The final match had to be cut short. Bourdonnais had some business (creditors) to attend to in Paris and McDonnell, unfortunately, was suffering the effects of Bright’s disease, an inflammatory ailment of the kidneys. He died - a wealthy man - in less than a year - on September 15, 1835 in London.

McDonnell, a bachelor, is usually described as having been a dour man. He has also been described and taciturn as well as imperturbable, showing no emotion whether he was winning or losing. However, it's also said that once out of the public eye he would pace constantly in agitation trying to work out the complications of the game.

He was buried at Kensal Green cemetery n London where Bourdonnais would join in in just five short years.