Remembering Alexander McDonnell (22-iv-1798 14-ix-1835)

We do not have a reliable image of Alexander McDonnell
We do not have a reliable image of Alexander McDonnell

We remember Alexander McDonnell who died aged 37 on September 14th, 1835 in Tavistock Square, London.

Please note : We have referenced a number of secondary and tertiary sources on AM and they agree on heritage. However, following painstaking research of primary sources by James O’Fee and Tim Harding it has been demonstrated that the father of AM was not Dr. Alexander McDonnell but, in fact, Thomas McDonnell, a merchant.

Also, we do not have a primary source confirming the date of birth. 22-iv-1798 was obtained from the family tree of a distant relative.

Hopefully we will be permitted to publish further details unearthed by James O’Fee

Alexander McDonnell was born on Tuesday, May 22nd 1798 in Belfast, Antrim, Northern Ireland to Dr Alexander McDonnell, age 34. His mother is unknown.

His (half-)brother Robert died (in a riding accident) on 19 July 1818 in Belfast, Antrim, when Alexander was 20 years old. He also had one sister, Eliza (Elizabeth)

From The Oxford Companion to Chess (OUP, 1983) by Hooper & Whyld :

The best player in England around 1830, Born in Belfast, the son of a doctor, he spent some years in the West Indies and later worked in London as
secretary of the Committee of West Indian Merchants. William Lewis, who taught McDonnell in the 1820s, soon found that he could not successfully offer odds of pawn and move to his pupil; but challenged to play even Lewis declined, fearing for his reputation.

From June to October 1834 McDonnell played six matches against La Bourdonnais; of the 85 games that were played McDonnell won 27, drew 13, and lost 45. McDonnell’s lack of experience against strong opponents was a serious handicap. On occasion his combinative play could be brilliant and imaginative, but his opening play (based on Lewis’s teachings) and his technique were inferior. He is described as ‘quiet, reserved, outwardly imperturbable’ with ‘an insular sense of’decorum’, quite different from his extrovert opponent.

Whereas La Bourdonnais played fast and with ease, McDonnell concentrated at length upon his moves and retired from a playing session exhausted, sometimes ‘walking his room the greater part of the night in a dreadful state of excitement’. His contemporaries believed that this long period of stress hastened his death from Bright’s disease. The games were regarded as the finest ever played. They were first published in England where they greatly stimulated interest in the game.

Unlike his great rival, McDonnell died wealthy; besides chess he was interested in political economy on which he wrote half a dozen books or
pamphlets.”

From The Encyclopedia of Chess (Robert Hale, 1970 & 1976) by Anne Sunnucks :

“The greatest player Ireland has ever (1976) produced, McDonnell is remembered mainly for his series of games against La Bourdonnais in 1834 which were described by Morphy as ‘beautiful models of chess strategy’.

The son of a Belfast doctor, McDonnell’s profession of Secretary to the Committee of West India Merchants brought him to London., where he took chess lessons from William Lewis and as a member of the West London Chess Club soon established the reputation of being the strongest amateur of his day. He was also a strong blindfold player.

In 1823 he lost some games against La Bourdonnais. These were probably played in Paris, since there is no record of the players meeting in England. In 1834 La Bourdonnais came to London, and a further contest was arranged. There are a number of conflicting reports on the sub-division of the games into matches,but a total of 84 games were played, of which McDonnell scored +27-44=13 before La Bourdonnais was recalled to Paris on business.

It was intended that the series should be continued, but before this could be arranged McDonnell fell ill with Bright’s disease and died on 14th September 1835.”

From The Encyclopedia of Chess (Batsford, 1983) by Harry Golombek :

“Britain’s leading player before Staunton. McDonnell was Irish born, the son of a Belfast doctor. He was secretary to the Committee of West India Merchants in London. After he studied chess with Lewis, he rose to the front rank of British players.

In 1834 he was engaged in a marathon series of matches with the visiting French champion La Bourdonnais. Five complete matches of varying lengths were played and a sixth was left unfinished, comprising a probable total of 85 games (there is some dispute among chess historians over the details of the final two matches), with the victory going to La Bourdonnais by 45 games to 27 with 13 draws. The standard of play was high and these contests did much to kindle interest in chess in both France and England. McDonnell died the following years of Bright’s disease.”

Edward Winter in Chess Notes writes

From Wikipedia :

“Alexander McDonnell (1798–1835) was an Irish chess master, who contested a series of six matches with the world’s leading player Louis-Charles Mahé de La Bourdonnais in the summer of 1834.

In 1825 he became a pupil of William Lewis, who was then the leading player in Britain. But soon McDonnell had become so good that Lewis, fearing for his reputation, simply refused to play him anymore.

Around 1825–1826, McDonnell played Captain Evans, while the latter was on shore leave in London. McDonnell was beaten with what is now regarded in chess circles as the creation of the Evans Gambit (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Bc5 4.b4).[3]

La Bourdonnais matches
Main article: La Bourdonnais – McDonnell chess matches
At that time the world’s strongest player was the French aristocrat Louis-Charles Mahé de La Bourdonnais. Between June and October 1834 La Bourdonnais and McDonnell played a series of six matches, a total of eighty-five games, at the Westminster Chess Club in London. McDonnell won the second match, while La Bourdonnais won first, third, fourth and fifth. The sixth match was unfinished.

In the first game of the third match, McDonnell successfully introduced a new variation in the King’s Gambit (1.e4 e5 2.f4 exf4 3.Nf3 g5 4.Bc4 g4 5.Nc3) known today as the McDonnell Gambit.”

We are not convinced that the photograph above is of AM. We received this reply from Tim Harding :

“I don’t recall ever seeing ANY image that was definitely of him, but I have referred your enquiry to James O’Fee in Belfast who is probably the only person who might know of one.

It doesn’t help that he had in Belfast an almost exact contemporary of the same name (who came to work in Dublin and long outlived the chess player) and there is some issue about which one was the son of a doctor and which the son of a merchant. So even if you found an image online it’s more likely to be of the wrong man.

Unless I am wrong there was never any image of Alexander McDonnell in a chess context.
The main chance would perhaps be in connection with his lobbying for the Demerara planters.

Best wishes
Tim”

There is a darker side to AMs life