An active Queen of Chess
Chess has long been regarded as a male-dominated pursuit, occupied by bespectacled, unkempt, lonely fanatics with, frankly, nothing better to do!
Arthur Crankworth - A review of popular hobbies in Britain (Taylor Publishing/Oxford University Press - 1941)
Whilst many modern players very aptly fit the description given, others have definitely broken the mould, adding a diversity of character, charm and talent to the game.
We fondly remember some of the most brilliant female players in the history of the royal game and their impact on the game.
Monty's BrideUntil 1963, the highest ranked female player was England's women's champion Miss Hamisham (an old widow who took chess up as a way "...to pass time before I expire"). Ruth Montgomery then arrived on the scene.
Mrs Montgomery became the widow of heart surgeon Mr Monty ("The Python") Montgomery who enjoyed good success himself as a player in the 1940s, winning the Bristol and Avon Championship no less than 5 times over that decade.
Despite the highest regard professionally, he could be an arrogant show-off when by the 64 squares:
M Montgomery - A Knight, 1948 Round 8 of Bristol and Avon Championships, Bristol's WAAF Community HallBoth a classical enthusiast and a mickey-taker, Monty refused the winning line 27. Qf7+!! Nxf7 28. Nd7+ Kg8 29. Bxf7#, for reasons known only to himself, choosing to unnecessarily do away with an additional rook en route 27. Re8+?! Rxe8 28. Qf7+ etc.
Monty passed to the next life in 1952. 1
What a single lady!After Monty's untimely passing, Mrs Montgomery took up various activities to fill her time including cryptography, debating and chess. Unlikely her husband who could be prickly and patronising when at the board, Ruth was a kind, intelligent and polite lady.
Unbeknownst to many players of the era, as her interest in chess grew, she published puzzles in many newspapers under her nom de plume, Gerald B Lazonby. The challenges included a number of very instructive endgame studies:
G B Lazonby - Black to play and hold the draw!!Herald Newspaper, 8 January 1954
This was described in a biographer (Charles Windsor) as
"A classic study in understanding the position and relative roles of the pieces. White is desperate to queen his KN pawn, either in isolation or with the support of the KR pawn. Black has no time for RxKR pawn nor has white time for P-KN8 queens and checks!"
Such was the success of the weekly articles that many sought to find Mr Lazonby, of course intially without success. It was only later when demonstrating her understanding of key lines in her games that others made the connection that not only did Mrs Montgomery have a superb knowledge of these puzzles but may, in fact, be the author! 2
Playing CareerMuch to the general amusement of many of her close friends who had long since settled with families, Mrs M took up serious competition at the age of 48, playing first in regional tournaments and later tried out in the British Championships in 1963, coming a close second (+8 =4 -0) to Mr W Dorritt (+9 =3 -0), the reigning champion.
Whilst she was sadly never able to achieve prize winning success at a national level, she remained a top player throughout the sixties and most significantly a highly regarded enigmatologist 3 throughout her life. She is fondly remembered for playing one of the best games ever recorded by a British player in the above mentioned tournament.
Mrs R Montgomery (Bristol, Lady) - Oliver Fagin (London, Gentleman)1963 British Chess Championships, Bath, Round 8
"A fine game from the highest scoring lady of the tournament, Mrs Ruth Montgomery (widow). In this game, ‘Mrs M’ capitalises on some over-zealous play from Mr Fagin in the opening stage of the game, after which he conducts the rest of the game on the back foot!"
J P Argyle, Tournament Booklet, 1963 British Chess Archives
Sadly, as befell most talented female players before the modern era, the victory was not recognised in good grace by her opponent who accused her of “dressing inappropriately, making eyes at him throughout the game and wearing an offensive scent, which could only lead him to distraction.”
Whilst these claims were never retracted by Mr Fagin, the tournament organiser and chief arbiter, Mr H M Paunch denounced the claims as “poor sportsmanship and utter embarrassment” stating Mrs M was a modest lady with good manners and fine character 6 . Mr Fagin was not invited to future championships after this.
It would be unfair to end any discussion of Ruth Montgomery without mention of her most famous studies of chess combinations, which are given below:
Classic Montgomery PuzzlesI have chosen the most notoriously cheeky puzzles. Whilst valid, these were not her richest in terms of depth but are very entertaining: A very cheeky puzzle designed to dumb-found. White simply castles long, picking up the rook! 7 "Well Watson, only once all logical routes have been considered..." - the legal exf6 en passant mates! Becoming hoarse from all the screaming, white promotes to a knight, checking and rendering the king helpless! 8
- Monty is said to have an exceptionally allergic reaction to nuts. Whilst sabotage was suggested, no criminal charges were brough against a Mr A Allenby for offering Mr M a "Long Run" chocolate bar one lunchtime. The tasty snack contained clear traces of nuts, leading to an inevitable anaphylatic shock. They were due to meet in the next round.
- Welsh biscuit magnate and amateur player Mr Horace Evans (1931 – 1987) was the first to make this connection in his article for the Cardiff chess chronicle in 1961 “A puzzling new breed of chess player”. Known for his sensitive nature and comical temper, many players would jest with Mr H Evans with shouts of “Oh crumbs!” or “He’s crackers!” This led to the famous Bourbon Biscuit debacle in the Welsh championship of 1958 when a friend offered him a bourbon, instead of his favourite custard cream, suggesting to his rotund and abusive opponent this was some kind of code to move his queen to b2, rather than c2. The claim was rejected by the Arbiter Mr J Smedley on the basis that neither move had any merit and the position was a dead draw anyway.
- As well as composing chess puzzles, she also wrote for “Science Monthly’s” column “Just one more thing…” – the favourite page of many readers. The section would take logical puzzles from leading visionaries as a test of mental aptitude for the readers. These puzzles, as well as some of her chess puzzles, were used to test general intelligence in the British Secret Service Entrant Papers in the late 1950s and early 60s before more formalised testing was introduced. Her most famous non-chess puzzle was called the “vibrating head” and it is reckoned to be one of “the most brilliant detective puzzles ever contrived” (Harold Mortimer – pp 48 “A history of English Puzzles 1842 – 1971”) .
- PP 50, J P Argyle, Tournament Booklet, 1963 British Chess Archives diagram 5.2 [Montgomery – Fagin]
- PP 51, ibid, note to black’s 17th move
- It is unclear from historical records but rumours within the chess world at that time imply potential chess playing suitors did often ask for Mrs M’s hand. However, a fine devotee of her puzzles and her community, she declined all offers, remaining instead good friends with many players throughout the remainder of her life.
- Later renamed “Don’t be cheeky, Mrs M”
- By the mid-sixties, Lazonby had been “outed” and Mrs M needed not fear negative feedback as a puzzle maker. A combination with many pieces and a forcing line is now known as a “Mrs M” amongst the puzzle community.