Chess Archaeology HomeChess is a scientific game and its literature ought to be placed on the basis of the strictest truthfulness, which is the foundation of all scientific research.W. Steinitz

The McConnell Family Notebooks, Part I
Researched by John Paul Phillips

    I came by this piece of American chess history rather by accident.  I was playing out the 1996 Karpov-Kamsky games from the newsgroup when my friend and co-worker, Mark Sherrouse, came by.  He remarked that he too played chess and that his great-great grandfather, James McConnell, used to play with Paul Morphy.  He had a notebook of James’ with some gamescores in it, and said he could bring it in sometime for me to look at.  Needless to say, I was impressed and eagerly accepted.  I said that the notebook must be over a hundred year old, Mark agreed it was that old and it required some care in handling.  I mentioned that some chess archivists may be interested in the scores, and that I could get some information from the chess archives on James McConnell.  Mark said sure, he’d like that.
    After he left, I was rather in a state of disbelief.  After a moment, I looked up the e-mail addresses of a couple individuals from the chess newsgroup that I had come to respect for their discussions there.  One was Nick Pope, and I asked him if he knew of a James McConnell, the ancestor that Mark mentioned, and what the archives had on him and if he could recommend any chess archivists.  Nick recommended himself since he was extremely interested, and was kind enough to give me a biographical outline on James McConnell and sent me the 8 games on record between McConnell and Morphy, all won by Morphy, plus some other games against Steinitz and Pillsbury.
    However, it was a while before Mark Sherrouse was able to dig up the notebook, having left it with his mother for safekeeping since he was changing locations in his company, eventually ending up in California.  In the meanwhile, I called up the library at Louisiana State University where Mark said he saw some writings on McConnell there.  They said that one book on Morphy had some mentions of McConnell, and they were kind enough to e-mail me the titles of nine books on Morphy at their library.  Nick Pope did some checking and told me that the McConnell notebook could be significant because the New Orleans Chess, Checkers and Whist Club lost most of their records and Morphy memorabilia collection in an 1890 fire.
    So when Mark was able to mail me copies of the notebook, I was really excited and it was a bit of a letdown to see that it belonged to James McConnell Jr., the son of the James McConnell who had played with Morphy.  All of the gamescores were after 1890, being between 1894 and 1909 with a total of 34 games, several with notes by opposing players and a few bits of analysis.  Nick Pope was able to confirm that some of the games were the first recorded instances of the Kiel variation to the Center-Counter Defense, employed by James McConnell Jr.  Oddly enough, while there were records of the father in the chess archives, there were none of the son, even though the games showed him to be a solid chessplayer.  But the main thing that really hit me about the notebooks were the autographs.  Jose Raul Capablanca’s signature was in it, as flamboyant as the man himself!  Other signatures were from Pillsbury, Marshall, Maróczy, Lasker, Tartakower, Marco, Löwy and a few other.  Also included were a couple of clippings, one of a 1903 game between Pillsbury and Tarrasch, and one announcing a competition for the city title at the New Orleans club, marked “T.P. Sept. 16/23”, which mentioned the younger James McConnell and a 17-year Mexican boy named Charles Torre.  There also was a letter from Maróczy to McConnell Jr. indicating a friendship between the two.
    It was really exciting to see those signatures of chess giants of a bygone era, but I was looking forward to possibly seeing some undiscovered Morphy games.  However, Mark Sherrouse mentioned in his accompanying letter about seeing a reference to the Manuscripts Division at Tulane University Library, so I called them up the following day and found that they had a large collection entitled McConnell Family Papers, dating from 1723 to 1962, with the bulk being between 1868 and 1934, mostly legal papers since the McConnell family was rather prominent, having several lawyers, including James McConnell Sr.  The library sent me an inventory list, 15 pages long with 4565 items, so I could give it to Mark Sherrouse.  The people at Tulane were kind enough to look for any chess references in the James McConnell Sr. materials, and came up with a letter from William Steinitz to James McConnell Sr. discussing Morphy, and a 1886 game between the two won by McConnell and annotated by Steinitz.  There was another notebook kept by the elder McConnell with 23 games, some against Captain Mackenzie and Bird, plus a couple of letters from father to son about Capablanca’s visit to New Orleans in 1909.
     Still no Morphy, but the 1886 McConnell-Steinitz game was a real find, since it was never recorded in the archives and it had been annotated by Steinitz.  What’s more, McConnell announced a mate in 6 moves by the 22nd move, quite an accomplishment against one considered to be the reigning world chess champion at that time.  I’m really glad that my digging turned up quite a gem, and Mark tells me that this has really stirred up his family and created new interest in their family history, and we may do some more contributions regarding the McConnell chessplayers.  In all, it was almost a full year from when Mark told me about the notebook to when I received copies of the material at Tulane University library.

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