English Column


(1830 - 1908)
by G. A. Macdonnell 
There is no more striking figure or more chivalrous player in the chess world than the veteran Mr. H. E. Bird. From the first day he stepped into the chess arena down to the present time he has always attracted attention, if not roused enthusiasm. Probably he never made a move on the board that was not instinct with chess. His natural taste for the game is really genius. Besides genius, Mr. Bird cherishes a love, an unselfish love for the game, such as no first-class chess player I know anything of ever possessed, excepting, perhaps, Anderssen. Some men play the game to win money, others to gain a reputation, a few to vindicate their intellectual supremacy, believing chess to be a criterion in this last respect; but Bird plays chess primarily and principally because he loves a free fight, for the fun and pleasure of the thing. But specially does Bird love a good game, the game in which he has to fight hard and put forth all his strength. He prefers losing a good game to winning a bad one, his adversary's part in the game always delighting him as much as his own. His appetite, too, for chess is enormous. No matter how physically fatigued he may be, or gout-afflicted, or game-sated, he is ever ready for the fray. No champion's glove is ever thrown down at him without his snatching it up and buckling on his armour at once. Like the ruddy youth of old, afterwards the great poet-king, he cannot see a foeman ready for a fight without himself shouting for the battle and rushing to the field. No player has been for so long a time before the public without impairing his strength or diminishing his reputation. It is now forty-seven years since he made his first appearance as a player. 
"I remember him well," said the late S. S. Boden to me, "when he first came to the Divan in 1846, a pretty-faced boy in a jacket, blue-eyed, fair haired, and rosy-cheeked." 
Everybody admired his appearance, and praised his style. At first he received the odds of Queen from Lowe, Williams, and other magnates, but before the lapse of a year he rose to second class, and at the odds of pawn and move gloriously defeated H. T. Buckle, the historian, at that time one of the best players in Europe. In 1851 he played eighteen off-hand games with Herr Anderssen, making even games with him; and with a like result he encountered Szen, Harrwitz, and Lowenthal. In 1866 Bird made a gallant fight against Steinitz, and very nearly succeeded in plucking from the Austrian's brow the laurel wreath with which his recent victory over Anderssen had crowned him. Truly a fine performance, considering that all through the match Bird had to labour hard at his professional work, while Steinitz was perfectly free the livelong day to concoct new openings, and enjoy long walks and Roman baths. 
In 1873 Bird played several matches with Wisker, and, after varying success, ultimately emerged the conqueror. In 1877 bird won the Lowenthal prize in the City tourney, amongst the vanquished being Mason, Blackburne, Potter, and Macdonnell. During the last ten years Bird has seldom missed taking part in international tournaments, and has never failed to win a glory, if not victory he is as quick, as brilliant, and as strong at the present time as ever he was; indeed, in one respect he is stronger - I refer to the openings. Formerly he despised book lore, and had no technical knowledge of openings. This nescience often caused him to drift into a bad position in the early part of the game, and so be beaten by an inferior but book-learned opponent. This weak point of his armour, however, he made good when, some years ago, he resolved to write a book on the openings, and to that end had, of course, to study the subject; and now, in certain débuts - notably the Evans, the Sicilian, and the Bishop's Gambit - Bird is certainly unsurpassed. Mr. Bird works on chess are well known and highly interesting. To name them is to recommend them to masters as well as students. "Chess Masterpieces", "Chess Openings", and "Modern Chess" afford a treasury into which no player can dip without enriching his stores and feasting his imagination. 
At the board Bird is very quick over his moves, and, unlike most quick players, is never impatient with a slow-coach, or ill-humoured when unlucky. He never stamps the pieces on the board as if he were crushing an enemy, or flourished his hand about as if he were grinding a hand-organ or striking a cricket ball; never depreciates a rival's skill, or harbours resentment for a defeat; but is always happy in praising other men's games when they deserve it, and in acknowledging the merits to which he himself may have been obliged to succumb. If he cherished any jealousy at all there is not a particle of meanness or pettiness in it. In short, as a chess player, he looks and acts and plays - as genuine John Bull. 
Socially, Mr. Bird is a singularly pleasant man. To see his good-humoured face is to enjoy a smile, but to see him at a banquet or hear him delivering a post-prandial oration is to experience true happiness. Mr. Bird possesses other gifts besides chess. many years ago I happened to be dinned with Mr. Turquand, the eminent accountant, and he asked if I knew Bird, then a clerk in his house, I what I thought of his chess. I told him Bird was one of the finest players in England. "Indeed" he remarked, "well, he is also one of the cleverest accountants I know; for railway business he is unequalled. Bird afterwards rose to be a partner in the house of Turquand, Young, and Co. His letters and articles on Railways have frequently been published in the Times and other journals. 
Mr. Bird is a man of extraordinary energy. He not merely delights in hard work, but he never fears to break fresh ground and wield unwonted weapons. Thus, during his long illness in 1890-1, when he had to spend several months in St. Thomas's Hospital, suffering constant pain, and at times unable to move, he never lost heart, never gave way to idleness, or sank into despair; but, rightly perceiving that the best thing for him was to employ his mind, and, as far as possible, diversify his pursuits, he at first proceeded to write a new chess book ("Chess for Beginners"; an excellent manual), and then sought out a fresh subject for his meditations. Fortunately, he bethought him of the Bible, and naturally became intensely interested in the question of figures, as set forth in the Books of the Kings and Chronicles. Then the prophecies of Isaiah attracted his attention, and filled him with delight. They awoke the spiritual in his soul, and caused him to exclaim, "How magnificent!". 
from the "Knight and Kings of Chess"