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         The History and The Culture of Chess

Chess in Early America
January 2006


Benjamin Lynde Oliver.


            Benjamin Lynde Oliver was born at Marblehead, Mass., September 14th, 1788. He was the son of Rev. Thomas Fitch Oliver, who was at that time Rector of the Episcopal Church at Marblehead, whither he had removed from Providence, It I., at  which latter place he was first settled as minister. His mother was a daughter of William Pynchon, a distinguished lawyer of Salem, Mass., and an immediate descendant of the family of that name who were among the original settlers of the colony.

            The subject of this sketch, was a great-grandson of Andrew Oliver, Lieutenant-Governor of the Province of Massachusetts (1770—74), and a grandson of Andrew Oliver, a gentleman of considerable scientific attainments and a scholar and writer of repute, who was also a judge of the Court of Common Pleas for Essex County, which office he held from the year 1761 to the date of the American Revolution. Peter Oliver, for a long time Judge, and during several years Chief-Justice of the Superior Court of the Province of Massachusetts, who will be remembered as one of the refugees, was a brother of the Lieutenant-Governor, and consequently great-uncle to Benjamin Lynde Oliver.

            For four generations back, commencing with the present, the, family may be regarded as Chess-players, and it is believed that the Lieutenant-Governor was also familiar with the game, though upon this point nothing positive can be ascertained. Doctor Benjamin Lynde Oliver, of Salem, an uncle of the Mr. Oliver, under immediate notice, was a Chess-player of extensive reputation, and it is not unlikely that the nephew received the benefit of his instruction. Other members of the family have been interested in the game and have played more or less, but these two, the uncle and nephew, acquired the most celebrity; indeed the nephew was, at the time of his decease, one of the strongest players in the United States and the leading player in New England, which position he had also held for many years previous.

            While his son was quite young, the Rev. Mr. Oliver moved from Marblehead to Garrison Forest, near Baltimore, Md., to assume the rectorship of the church at that place. He died there in the year 1797, his son being then nine years old. After his decease the family returned to Salem, Mass., where they subsequently resided. The following incident, related of young Benjamin Lynde and occurring at that time, furnishes unmistakable evidence that he had already become quite a proficient in Chess.

            His grandfather, Judge Andrew Oliver, gave a dinner party to a number of friends, and after the cloth had been removed, several of the company wishing to witness a game at Chess, the host sent for his grandson to play with him. The boy came, delighted at the opportunity, and after a severe contest, the youth of ten years succeeded in conquering the grandsire of nearly seventy. The gratification experienced by the boy upon this occasion can easily be imagined, and it may also be supposed that the grandfather bore his defeat as a gentleman Chess-player should.

            Of the boyhood and youth of Mr. Oliver, but little can now be learned. He was always reserved and retiring in his manners, and seldom, if ever, mingled with the other boys in their games, preferring to amuse himself: He was, however, during the whole of his life, fond of athletic sports and exercises, and is said to have possessed great muscular strength. Through the influence of the late Mr. Chief-Justice Story, who was a connection of the family, by marriage, he commenced the study of law in the office of Judge Putnam at Salem, Mass., and after the usual course of preparation, began its practice at that place in the year 1810.

            He brought to his profession a keen power of analysis, a mathematical regularity and a comprehensive knowledge of the intricacies and subtleties of the law, that would have won for him a high position at the bar, had not his peculiarity of character and his retiring disposition kept him comparatively aloof from the world. Several of his arguments have been reported at length in the Massachusetts Law-Reports, and afford ample evidence of the possession of talents of a high order.

            In addition to his efforts at the bar, Mr. Oliver was the author of a number of miscellaneous works of considerable note. In 1818 he published “Hints for an Essay on the Pursuit of Happiness. (Designed for common use.)” He subsequently edited “The Law Summary” and “Story’s Pleadings,” and published a valuable work upon “Conveyancing,” of which latter several editions have been printed. In 1832 he issued “The Rights of an American Citizen, with a Commentary on State Rights, and on the Constitution and Policy of the United States.” A copy of this work was forwarded to M. Thiers, then Minister of Foreign Affairs in France, and the author received a letter from that distinguished statesman, in which the production is highly complimented.

Although Mr. Oliver did not take any active part in politics, still he wrote many able political pamphlets that were published anonymously, and were received with marked consideration by the public. He also edited the Salem Observer during the first year of its existence (1823), and was afterwards a contributor to its columns. With the theory of music he was quite familiar; was possessed of a refined musical taste, and composed many pieces. One or two musical works, comprising of his own compositions, principally songs, have been published.

            Mr. Oliver was married at Salem, Mass., in the year 1827, and moved to Boston in 1830, residing first in Acorn Street and subsequently in Eliot Street. He continued the practice of the law’ till his decease, devoting himself exclusively to office business. His office was in State Street, and in the immediate vicinity were the offices of Messrs. Dexter, Fuller, Paine, and other Chess-players, with whom he frequently enjoyed a game at Chess. During the month of September, 1841, Mr. J. W. Schulten, who still enjoys a wide reputation as a Chess-player, visited Boston, by invitation of Max Isnard, French Consul at that place, for the purpose of contesting a match at Chess with Mr. Oliver. This match was won by Mr. Oliver. The following month Mr. Schulten returned to Boston, accompanied by Mr. Vezin of Philadelphia, one of the foremost Chess men of the time, to play another match with Mr. Oliver. This contest was decided in favor of Mr. Schulten. Mr. Vezin and Mr. Oliver also contested four games, each winning two. In the autumn of 1842 Mr. Oliver visited Philadelphia and met the players of that city at the Athenaeum. He played a number of games with Mr. Vezin, the final result being in favor of Mr. Vezin, though Mr. Oliver won a match of five games against this gentleman. He won a majority of games from other players at the Athenaeum to whom he gave odds. In May, 1843, Mr. Eugene Rousseau, of New Orleans, came to Boston to take the steamer for Europe and called upon Mr. Oliver. Several parties were contested between them with a slight advantage in favor of Mr. Oliver.

            During his residence in Boston he played frequently with the leading amateurs, Messrs. Dexter, Picquet, Greene, Fuller, Paine, Isnard, Eekley, Ingraham, Hammond, Russell, and others. With Mr. Dexter he played upon even terms; to Mr. Picquet he gave the odds of Pawn and two moves and to the others the Queen’s Knight. On the occasions of Maelzel’s visits to Boston with the Automaton Chess-player, he met Schlumberger, who played the automaton, quite often in private, and they participated in a large number of games. Mr. Oliver did not play with the Automaton in public. Schlumberger pronounced Mr. Oliver one of the five best players in the United States.

            During the later years of his life Mr. Oliver resided at Malden, a few miles from Boston, walking to and from the city regularly. He was troubled for a number of years with disease of the heart, and died from that cause, Sunday morning, June 18, 1843, at the age of fifty-five years. The day previous to his decease he had attended to the business of his office, walking into the city as was his custom, and during the evening appeared in his usual health. It is a somewhat singular coincidence that both uncle and nephew should have died from the same complaint.

            Mr. Oliver was indefatigably industrious and a man of extensive and varied reading and of great learning. He is spoken of as affable and courteous in his manners, though of a retiring disposition, and all who enjoyed his acquaintance, remember him as an agreeable companion, an accomplished gentleman, and a large-hearted, upright man. As a Chess-player he was cool and self-possessed; rarely, if ever, committed an  oversight, and could never be found inattentive. He always placed a proper value upon his game, and played to win. In analysis he was very thorough, and his combinations, though lacking the brilliancy of other amateurs, were sound and instructive, His careful attention to the details of the game enabled him to take advantage of any error of his antagonists, and made him a formidable opponent even to the best players. He was exceedingly fond of the game, and gave much of his time and attention to its study. In his Journal he writes at various times, “I am resolved to play no more Chess for eight or nine months,” or “I am determined to trouble myself about Chess no more with any one who cannot beat Mr. Picquet ;“—but the temptation to resume proves too strong, and the entries of the following week allude to his playing another match with Mr. Picquet or giving the Knight to Dr. Greene, or Mr. Fuller, or some other amateur. Mr. Oliver’s presence in Boston, and example as a player, together with his well-earned reputation, which was regarded with pride by his contemporaries, undoubtedly did much to foster and encourage the cultivation of Chess, and the devotees of the game to-day should cherish and honor his memory as the leading Chess-player of New England in former years. 

Prof. George Allen
From the Book of the First American Chess Congress, 1859.

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