And so ends another historic Wimbledon tennis fortnight where the timeless Novak Djokovic becomes only the fourth man in history, after Bjorn Borg, Pete Sampras and Roger Federer to win a fourth consecutive title, as he now nudges up to within one away from equalling Rafael Nadal in a grand slam race that seemingly never ends. But a century ago, it was a distinguished and talented all-round amateur sportsman who blazed a trail in not one but several courts…and also over the chessboard!
Wimbledon 1922 witnessed English baronet Sir George Thomas (1881-72) reach the men’s doubles quarter-finals whilst simultaneously being the country’s best badminton player (his name survives in the Thomas Cup for the men’s world team title) – he was also an internationally ranked squash and table-tennis player – but, primarily, we best remember him competing against the greats at chess, notably at Hastings 1934-35 where he finished first equal in a field that included three past or future world champions, Capablanca, Euwe, and Botvinnik.
A two-times British champion, Thomas won his first national chess title the year after he reached the final 16 at Wimbledon (he also attained a unique sporting double, becoming the British Chess and Badminton Champion in the same year), his second title coming in 1934, and he represented England in the Chess Olympiads of 1927, 1930, 1931, 1933, 1935, 1937 and 1939, captaining the team that year which withdrew from the Buenos Aires Olympiad on the out-break of war.
Sir George Thomas was regarded as a true gentleman and all-round sportsman from a long bygone era when chess was perhaps seen as a more noble pastime. A life lived to the full, he nevertheless enjoyed playing in top chess tournaments until he was nearly 70, and in retirement continued to enthusiastically attend as a keen spectator until the last few years of his life. He died peacefully in his sleep, aged 91, exactly fifty years ago this month, on 23 July 1972 in a London nursing home.
During his long and distinguished career at the board, Thomas has beaten Capablanca, Botvinnik (in consecutive rounds at Hastings 1934-35) and Flohr, but his most memorable game from the annals was not a victory but rather being on the receiving end of a stunningly brilliant miniature during an oft-quoted offhand game played at the City of London Chess Club in 1912, where American visitor Edward Lasker chased the club president’s king right up the board for a spectacular mate.
Photo: The multi-talented Sir George Thomas: Wimbledon quarter-finalist, Badminton national champion and British chess champion!
Edward Lasker – Sir George Thomas
City of London Chess Club, 1912
1.d4 e6 2.Nf3 f5 3.Nc3 Nf6 Instead, 3…d5 would have prevented the menacing manoeuvre that ends with carnage, but then the e5 square would be weakened; not to mention that the annals would be deprived of this fantastic sacrificial gem! 4.Bg5 Be7 5.Bxf6 Bxf6 6.e4 fxe4? This seemingly natural move falls into a cunning trap which even today, more than a century later is well worth a punt down at your local chess club or a weekend tournament. Black should have played 6…0-0 7.Bd3 d5 keeping the centre closed and Black has a solid basis to continue without fear of a big king hunt. 7.Nxe4 b6 8.Ne5 0-0? The last chance to avoid the coming carnage is 8…Bxe5 9.Qh5+ g6 10.Qxe5 0-0 and White is only very marginally better here. 9.Bd3 Bb7 10.Qh5 Qe7 Unwittingly setting up Edward Lasker’s immortal game. 11.Qxh7+!! The stunning queen sacrifice is a precursor for a remarkable king hunt, as Thomas’ king is dragged all the way up the board for one of the game’s most memorable mates. 11…Kxh7 12.Nxf6+ As Reuben Fine was wont to say, the discovered check is the dive bomber of the Chessboard – and here, it leaves Thomas no other option other than for his king to take the walk of shame, as 12…Kh8 13.Ng6 is mate! 12…Kh6 13.Neg4+ Kg5 14.h4+ Kf4 15.g3+ Kf3 16.Be2+! All true of course that Lasker could have won a tad quicker with 16.Kf1 or even 16.0-0, as then Black would have been unable to prevent mate by 17 Nh2 – but that mate is not as aesthetically pleasing as Lasker’s chosen route to immortality. 16…Kg2 17.Rh2+ Kg1 18.Kd2 mate 1-0 Always modest and unassuming and ever ready to appreciate fine play by an opponent who had just beaten him, Lasker – a distant cousin of second world champion Emanuel Lasker – relates that at the conclusion of the game, “Sir George with a smile and a twinkle declared, ‘That was very pretty.’”