History of Kilkenny Chess Congress

John Bradley

This article part of the series: History of Kilkenny Chess Club - 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

John Bradley is an archaeologist who works in the Department of History at NUI Maynooth. He has been a member of Kilkenny Chess Club since 1971.

Established in 1977

The Kilkenny Chess Tournament was established in 1977 at a time when only a handful of tournaments were held in Ireland. The aim was to sharpen the skills of Kilkenny players. The most important tournaments of the 1970s were those held at Dundrum, Co. Dublin, by Henry Higgins and Jim Joyce, which regularly included masters and grandmasters. They may have provided the inspiration for Kilkenny.

From the beginning the tournament attracted the cream of Irish chess and in retrospect it can be seen that its history falls into two parts. The first stretched from 1977 to 1992, when the open tournament was an almost exclusively Irish affair, The second began in 1993, when the renamed Masters' Tournament attracted British and continental players. It has always retained an intimate and local following but the international flavour is regularly reflected in the analysis' rooms where the conversation will be held in Russian and Dutch.

Information on the early tournaments is scarce. Tournament commentaries only begin in the 1990s and no game score survives (unless it is in personal possession) before 1993. The author would be delighted to receive copies or transcripts of scores, which will be added to an on-going data base.

From the Metropole to the Club House

In 1977 the tournament was held over the first weekend of December and it remained as such until 1990 when it was fixed as the last weekend in November, the date on which it continues to be played. The initial event was held in the Metropole Hotel but with its closure in 1984, the location of the tournament moved about before settling in 1989 on the Club House Hotel.

The prize fund always depended on sponsorship augmented by player's fees, which together also had to pay the costs of hiring the playing facilities as well as normal running expenses such as publicity and advertising. The prize fund was £350 in 1977 but by 1981 it had risen to £700, just at the time when the numbers attending the tournament began to fall. Smithwick's Brewery and the Kilkenny People [italics, Una if you can] were sponsors from the beginning, while Irish TV Rentals (through the person of a club member Louis Plunkett) and the Bank of Ireland added to the fund from time to time. Generally the donations were small, cumulatively adding to about half the prize fund and if the tournament was to be viable, it has to attract a set number of players. The financing of the tournament was a careful balancing act and, undoubtedly it benefited from the fact that the first tournament director, Liam Brady, was an accountant and his successors were successful businessmen.

At first the competition was divided into two sections, an Open Tournament, which, as its name implied, was open to all, and a section called 'Stars Barred' that had a grading restriction set at 1600. Within a few years, however, the increasing number (and strength) of the entries made the disparity between players in the Open too great and so a third section, an intermediate category, was created in 1982. This was known as the Major Tournament and was for players with a rating of 1500-1850. The third section was renamed the Junior Tournament and was confined to players with a grading below 1500, although for a time in the late 80s and early 90s it was for players with a rating below 1400.

Fluctuating Numbers

From the beginning the numbers attending showed that the congress fulfilled a need beyond the immediate confines of the Kilkenny Chess Club. About 100 players participated for each of the first three years before the attendance jumped to 150 in 1980. Although small in terms of English weekenders (940 players participated in the Islington Congress of 1978), the numbers were good in terms of Ireland. The strength of the tournament also increased in 1980 with the presence of fourteen players graded over 2000. This was to be a false dawn, however, because while the Open remained strong, and was sometimes stronger than the Irish championship, the overall numbers attending dropped significantly in the early 80s reaching a low of 65 in 1985. The decrease probably reflected the overall performance of the Irish economy during those years with many players emigrating and with less disposable income to afford the travel and accommodation costs of a chess weekend. A number of weekend tournaments folded at this time (Waterford and Wexford, for example) and Kilkenny gradually became the magnet for players in the south-east, attracting competitors from Carlow, Rathdowney, Thurles and Waterford. Further afield, contingents of players came annually from Belfast, Castlebar, Cork, Dublin (where Dublin CC, Kevin Barry CC and Rathmines CC were particularly supportive), Ennis and Limerick. By 1988 when numbers were back up to 140, Kilkenny was the most important and longest established weekender tournament outside Dublin. The diversity of the base was shown in 1991 when, out of a total of 138 competitors, players from thirty-eight Irish clubs were present.

As regards the breakdown of numbers, the ratio in the early years between those playing in the Open and the Stars Barred was approximately 4:6 but with the creation of a three-fold division in 1982 it became roughly 1.5: 2.5: 6, showing that the Major drew a higher percentage of players from the Open than from the Junior section. Over the years the numbers playing in the Junior section increased, particularly with the presence of what seemed like entire classes of schoolchildren from Ennis, Rathdowney and Kilkenny. By 1992, when 104 competed in the Junior, that section had become as large as the original tournament.

Arrival of the Masters

The competition fulfilled its purpose from the beginning. Generally speaking, about half of the club membership participated in any one tournament with sixteen (out of twenty-four) members playing in the 1981 competition. Liam Brady was a stalwart, playing in every tournament during these years even when he had the added task of being tournament director. In 1978 he won a grading prize and three years later, in 1981, he came joint second in the Open, which remained the best result of any Kilkenny player until the arrival of GM Alexander Baburin, NM Eamon Keogh and IM Mark Quinn, more than a decade later. In 1986, playing in the Major, Liam won a further grading prize. Donal Fennelly, another established player, came equal fourth in the 1980 Open, won grading prizes in the 1983 and 1986 Majors, and shared second place in the 1985 Major. Another player on Kilkenny's first team, Louis Plunkett, won a grading prize in the 1979 Open and a further one in the 1983 Major, while Jack Lowry came joint-second in the 1985 Major and won a grading prize in the 1989 Major. Tom McGrath won the 1978 Stars barred and was part of Kilkenny's successful 1979 Heidenfeld team, which was promoted to the Armstrong. Jim Hayes, another established player, won a grading prize in the 1986 Junior and came joint second in the 1988 Junior. Newcomer Maurice Buckley won a grading prize in the 1982 and 1983 Junior competitions and graduated to win another in the 1991 Major, by which time he had become a formidable member of Kilkenny's senior team. Kevin Walsh, who was to become a prominent player in the club, won the 1988 Junior.

The tournament also succeeded in its aim of nurturing young Kilkenny talent. During the early years its most promising player was Fergal O'Dwyer. In 1979, as a fourteen-year old, he won the Stars Barred convincingly with 5.5/6 and must have savoured the fact that his first prize of £120 was more than that awarded to the winners of the Open, where three players had to share first place. Fergal narrowly missed out on winning the 1980 Stars Barred and progressed on to the Open where, on his first attempt, he won a grading prize in 1981. He won the Major in 1984, before his improved rating consigned him irretrievably to the Open, where he finished joint-fifth in 1987, scored 4/6 in 1989 and won a grading prize in 1991.

Junior Development & 'The Tournament of Champions'

Other young Kilkenny players who used the tournament to improve their skills were Finnian Curran, who won the Junior in 1984, and Robert Weymss, who came joint-second in the 1982 and 1983 Juniors, clear second in the 1984 Junior, and was equal first in the 1985 Junior. Twin brothers, Darragh and Paul Lowry both won grading prizes in the 1986 Junior, when aged thirteen. Both improved significantly within a short time. Darragh came second in the 1988 Major while Paul came joint-second in the 1991 Major.

The tournament also played a role in developing Irish chess talent generally. Colm Daly, for instance, won the Major in 1983 before progressing onto the Open, where he shared first place on two occasions, in 1986 and 1990, before winning it outright in 1991. As the tournament became an established fixture on the Irish chess circuit, the Open increasingly became a battleground between the strongest Irish players. Of the sixteen Open Tournaments held between 1977 and 1992, the winner on fifteen occasions was either a current or past Irish champion. On the remaining instance, in 1989, the then Irish champion, Colm Daly, had to be content with third place. Accordingly, it seems fair to describe the first phase form 1977-92 as 'The Tournament of Champions'.

Kilkenny Masters Competitors
Competitors at the Kilkenny Masters 2013

Winners of the Kilkenny Open Chess Congress

1977: Anthony McCarthy, D.E. Rumens and Philip Short
1978: Paul Delaney and Anthony McCarthy
1979: Paul Delaney, Colm Barry and Philip Short
1980: Philip Short
1981: Pat Carton
1982: Eddie O'Reilly
1983: Eddie O'Reilly and P. O Tuathail [there should be a fada on the O]
1984: David Dunne
1985: Eugene Curtin
1986: Colm Barry and Colm Daly
1987: Tom Clarke
1988: John Delaney
1989: Ivan Andersen (Denmark) and Gerry O'Connell
1990: Colm Daly and Mel Kennedy
1991: Colm Daly
1992: Eamon Keogh
1993: Alexander Baburin

Winners of the Kilkenny Masters

1994: Alexander Baburin
1995: Mark Quinn (=Alexander Baburin, Mark Orr)
1996: Michael Adams
1997: Michael Adams
1998: Stuart Conquest (=Bogdan Lalic, Luke McShane)
1999: Bogdan Lalic (=Julian Hodgson)
2000: Luke McShane
2001: Ian Rogers (=Luke McShane)
2004: Rashid Ziatdinov (=Stuart Conquest)
2005: Alexander Baburin
2006: Mark Hebden
2007: Gawain Jones (=Alexander Baburin, Stuart Conquest)
2008: Tony Kosten
2009: Sam Collins
2010: Ivan Cheparinov (=Sam Collins)
2011: Gawain Jones
2012: Mark Hebden (=Gawain Jones)
2013: Krasimir Rusev

Created 2014-01-26 ◦ Last updated 2014-07-23 ◦ Editor UOB

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