Born 1849

by G. A. Macdonnell,

from "The Knights and Kings of Chess".

One day in 1878 I was talking at the Grand Divan to a friend who had just returned from America, when he suddenly exclaimed, "Here comes James Mason!" I turned round, and perceived a perky agile youth tripping jauntily along the floor towards the upper end of the room. Presently he sat down by my side and joined in the conversation. Having satisfied myself that he was the veritable ""James Mason, of New York", I proposed to take him to a neighbouring restaurant and introduce him to certain chess players who frequented it. He accepted the invitation, and we sallied forth together. My heart, I confess, from the very first moment of our meeting warmed towards Mason.

Lively was his talk, and cheery the tone of his voice. Moreover, his bright dark eyes, clean-cut features, and classic-shaped head excited my admiration, and made me take pleasure in looking at him. Amongst others I introduced him to a writer famous for the profundity of his knowledge, and the Proteanism of his head-gear - an ex-chess champion too.

- Pleased to meet you, sir - observed Mason. - Have something with me!

- No, thank you - replied the great man.

- Oh, you must; have a Scotch with me.

- Thank you, sir, I've just had a Scotch, and don't wish for any more at present.

- Oh, you won't have a Scotch. Well, then have a beer.

- Sir, I don't drink beer on the top of spirits.

- Oh, you won't have a beer - well, then - have a cigar with me.

- Sir, I don't care to smoke just now, and when I do, I have my pipe, and I prefer it.

- You are a queer fellow, you won't have a Scotch, you won't have a beer, or even a cigar. Well then (here he glanced at our friend's head gear, and then loudly and laughingly cried out), well, my Christian friend, have a hat with me.

Immediately the tempted one burst into a fit of laughter, and inwardly swore eternal friendship with Mason.

James Mason is one of the most powerful match players in the world. Steinitz might beat him in a match, but his victory would not be a foregone conclusion. When challenged by Mason, the Austrian certainly shouted for the battle, but he turned away his face from the arena.

He was "willing to wound, but afraid to strike". In the correspondence that took place upon that occasion, Mason displayed epistolary talents of a remarkable nature.

Chessically these two champions are very much alike in style. In profundity, caution-cum-boldness, power of absorption in the game, no matter how dull or uninteresting the position; capacity for doing nothing but keeping the game together, of waiting upon Providence, and praying for happy accident, in thorough soundness of judgement, coupled with lynx-eyedness for all, even infinitesimal, weak points in a position, in freedom from blundering, and talent for winning "won" games. In these, and perhaps some other respects, these two great players stand about equal.

But in one respect, and that of the utmost importance in matches, the advantage belongs to the Austrian. He regards chess as the most serious and grand thing in the world, and consequently ever strives to put forth the maximum of his strength, and never grudges adopting the means, no matter how unpleasant in themselves, necessary to enable him to enter the fight in the best possible condition; whereas Mason, though fond of chess and proud of his skill in the game, is yet too much inclined to regard the game as a piece of fun, and consequently is apt to be careless in his habits of life and contemptuous of training for the combat. Mason, the truth, often plays as if he desired rather to show his adversary that he could beat him, than to inflict upon him the actual beating.

Mason never takes care of himself, neither before nor during a contest. Truly has it been said by L. Hoffer in the Fortnightly Review: "As soon as each game is over he reserves the right of spending the interval until the next game as he himself pleases". And again the same writer happily observes: "If Mason could only play as well as Steinitz between the last move of one game and the first move of the next, I would back him against all creation".

Still Mason has played some splendid games. His victory over Winawer in the tournament of Vienna, 1882, has not been surpassed by any modern performance. It lifted up the victor, temporarily at all events, to the level of Anderssen in his palmiest days. O si sic omnia, and Steinitz's match-sceptre would soon be in the Hibernico-American's hands.

Mason loves his friends, and has a kind word even for his enemies. He delights in fun, and is an expert in dry humour. Here is an instance. On one occasion Zed visited Aldershot, and was entertained there for some days by General G. Upon his return to London somebody asked how he had spent his time there.

Well, - said the courageous doctor, - every morning after breakfast, by the General's order, a horse, a large handsome animal, was brought to the door for my use. It was a very high horse, sixteen hands at least. And I used to mount him and ride about the country for two hours or three hours etc.

The incident was reported to Mason.

- What? - said he. - Zed mount - get upon a high horse and ride it. I don't believe it.

- Why?

- Why? Because if once he got up upon a high horse he would never get down. He would be riding it now; he would ride it for ever!

G. A. Macdonnell