Centenary of the recorded game
Many were those who must have played chess in Malta before 1880.
It is almost sure that as far back as Carthage, chess must have been played in some shape or form, and considering that Malta played an important role in the Punic Wars, the inhabitants of the then Maltese Archipelago must have witnessed the game at its very origins.
The geographic importance of Malta in the Mediterranean made the island a strategic centre on the chess board of the Feudal System in the 15th century. It was given as a fief to the Knights of the Order of Jerusalem, by the Emperor Charles V of Spain, after the Turkish Sultan had forced them to abandon Rhodes. Early in the 1500, Grandmaster De l’Isle Adam came to Malta bringing with him the remnants of an international Order which for the next 268 years had to flourish and attract other European Langues to its fold.
During all these years and with the increase of the Spanish influence in the Order, it is almost sure that the Castillian and Aragonese branches, brought the game of Don Ruy Lopeq de Segura to Malta. Later, the short French stay, followed by the British intervention early in the 1800, the Maltese began slowly to the hobbies of the elite.
Almost 80 years later, in the first issues of the “Daily Malta Chronicle” the first Maltese chess enthusiast and organiser, Leone Benjacar, recorded his first chess problems and chess articles. His perseverance in trying to organise the game bore fruit some ten years later when other Maltese players such as Monreale, Marich, Ghio, Preziosi, Cesareo and Monpalap Depiro started to meet and play matches and Tournaments of which games are still in existence.
But by the end of the century Benjacar was promoted to Comptroller of Customs and although his followers continued to meet, other records on chess appear only after the 1st World War in 1919.
In the first decade of the 20th Century, future Malta champions were born, but it was due to the two pioneers of Maltese chess, Oreste Pitre and Pawlu Izzo Clarke, that chess continued to strengthen its hold amongst the local people.
First Maltese Abroad
Pitre had the opportunity to meet foreign players including Russian refugees, in Malta, which during the 1914-1918 War, was an island Hospital in the Mediterranean and a refugee centre for Russian soldiers after the 1917 Revolution. In 1922, Oreste Pitre, as government employee was sent on a study course in UK where he played in various County events until he was eventually chosen to play in a National Event which was held in Nottingham (1923/24) where he represented Liverpool. This was the first ever experience of a Maltese taking part in a Tournament outside his own country. On his return to Malta, Pitre found that the nucleus of chess players had grown larger and stronger. During his absence Pawlu Izzo Clarke was meeting foreign challengers, thereby creating enthusiasm amongst rising youngsters. The first official chess Promoter, Croce Bonaci, left no stone unturned to see that Pawlu Izzo Clarke met all the best representatives of the English Fleet and regular meetings of chess players at a well-known coffee house, in Queen Victoria Square, Valletta, nicknamed “Cafe de la Reine”, earned it the much more appropriate title of “the meeting place of the 64 square-eccentrics” Amongst the younger groups appeared two brothers from Senglea, Oscar and Erin Serracino-Inglott. They started a chess club in Cottonera which gathered momentum and became the envy of the Valletta group. In the meantime, a similar group started in Sliema with Pitre at its helm.
The Malta Chess Association
In 1923 the idea to create a Maltese Chess Association was finally becoming a fact. Whereas from 1880 to 1893 Benjacar created the Malta Chess Club in Valletta, Erin Serracino-Inglott increased the membership of chess players to enable him to form an Association. At this stage names of well-known players started cropping up: Carmelo Frisk, the brothers John and Richard Soler, Dr. Warrington, the Elluls, Busuttil, Fsadni and a hist of other names. The first official championships occurred in Malta with the birth of FIDE (1924/25), whilst the first official Congress was in 1926. The first Malta champion was Oscar Serracino-Inglott who won against all his opponents hands down. Oscar being the son of the photographer Anthony Serracino could not have but an excellent photographic souvenir commemorating the acquisition of the Malta title – a photograph playing against himself, not finding any other valid opponent! Regular tournaments, congresses and matches were held until the first international contact was made in 1928, when the well-known Richard Reti accepted to visit the island where he hoped to beat the simultaneous blindfold-chess world record. Time and ill-health followed by his demise did not allow Malta to honour such a great Master.
Mieses and Alekhine
Other contacts had already been made and in 1930 Master Mieses of Germany did come to Malta leaving quite a good impression on the local players even though he was already over 70. His visit created more interest in the game and only five years later, Malta was fortunate enough, through the efforts of Erin Serracino-Inglott and against all financial difficulties, to host the World Champion Alexander Alekhine. Even though Alekhine was about to lose his title to Dr. Max Euwe, his dynamism, alertness, memory and fast play, worthy of this giant of World Chess left the Maltese opponents flabbergasted and hopelessly aware of their lack of proficiency in the game. It was then quite obvious that in order to obtain better knowledge of the game the Maltese players had to meet other players from other countries. The opportunity came to Erin Serracino-Inglott, who in 1938 went to Brighton, England, to play in an international event. Here he met again Mieses, other players like Klein, as well as B.H. Wood and H. Golombek.
World War II and After
The II World Was disrupted not only the local scene but also the international one. However, in the war years other younger players were coming to the fore. It must be stated here the as early as 1938 the Soler, Serracino-Inglott, Frisk domination was starting to be threatened by a newcomer quite young at the time, Wilfred Attard. When the war years were over Attard really became a name to contend with and eventually won the Malta title a considerable number of times. However the war itself generated other younger players blooming in the years 1946-1950. At the first post-war Congress, a Boys’ Championship was introduced. At the tender age of 10, Mario Serracino-Inglott won the first title. The nucleus of young players coming up included G. Mifsud Bonnici, Harry Camilleri, followed after a couple of years by Adriano Gouder and Claude Sollars all earmarked to become future Malta Champions. Linking the two generations even through their own age difference were the brothers Godfrey and Herbert Darmanin, Godrey later becoming the first Honorary Life President of the Malta Chess Federation. 1946 to 1956 could easily be called the golden years of Chess in Malta.
Following in the footsteps of Benjacar and Serracino-Inglott, Mike Spiteri, known to his friends as ‘Kilin’, injected the required enthusiasm and energy, through his indefaticable chess columns in the newspapers, to increase the number of chess players on the island to a peak never yet reached. There were at the time more than 15 chess circles all over the Island, including one in Gozo, boasting each of an average of 40 to 50 players and all named after past World Champions starting from Morphy to Lasker. As in the pre-war years it all started by the opening of a chess club in St. Julians controlled ably by the Darmanin brothers, and another chess club in Cospicua resuscatated by Erin Serracino-Inglott both clubs appropriately named after Alekhime and Capablance respectively.
Mike Spiteri managed to receive an invitation from Count dal Verme in 1957, to send represetatives for the La Spezia International. Wilfred Attard led Mario Serracino-Inglott and Harry Camilleri to their first foreign post-war encounter. Later that same year through contacts made at La Spezia, in the International Team event at Vrnjacka Banja, Yugoslavia. In this particular instance the Maltese Government, then with a Labour Administration, subsidised the fares for five players and together with the group of three that went to La Spezia were added the brothers Wanni and Richie Soler. The Maltese players were now introduced to foreign international masters, much as Ivkov, and Lehmann as well as strong players from Spain, France and other nations. The idea to organise that same year the first International event in Malta met with success and the Malta Chess Association, then affiliated with the British Chess Federation looked for direct links with FIDE in order to expand and participate in official International events. Dr. Max Euwe visited Malta in 1959, when he gave some simultaneous exhibitions. The subject of Malta’s affiliation to FIDE was discussed and Euwe himself promised to ‘sponsor’ it. That same year Malta became a full FIDE member and confirmed part in 1960 in the Chess Olympiads. Since 1960 Malta has been invited to take part in all FIDE events but due to lack of financial support it was only possible to take part when these occurred within reasonable distances. The first to achieve FIDE international recognition and rating was Harry Camilleri. His experience coupled with continued efforts of players like Attard and Gouder to take part in locally organised international events achieved for Malta, eventually, another two players on the rating list.
First Awareness – ELO Ratings
The years 1966-1973 were dedicated to more specialised study of the system by two local players, Michael Saliba and Victor Cilia Vincenti. An Elo system for local standards was evolved providing proof that the organisation of future International events in Malta had to be well studied in order to achieve the required results. Hence the idea of the International Rating events which started in 1975, occurring regularly each year, until the February 1980 event which acquired for Malta more rated players. During these years, particularly the early seventies, the Malta Chess Federation passed through great difficulties. It had lost previously a valid President in Louis Dingli and seemed to be finding it hard to find the right substitute at the helm. However, chess players continued to face difficulties with personal sacrifices in order to assert themselves in the international field. After 1976 the situation became untenable and the Federation found a valid representative in Joe Pisani Rossi, who not only continued the International Rating Tournaments, but also succeeded to acquire the right to hold the Olympiads in Malta – the first ever developing country of its size to attempt such a feat.