Reginald Pryce Michell

In 1988 G.H. Diggle contributed the following anniversary article on R.P. Michell:

‘R.P. Michell (1873-1938), who died 50 years ago this May, is ranked in Harry Golombek’s Encyclopedia as “a British Master”, and this estimate seems to have been agreed by everyone except Michell himself. “Had my chess activities been less restrained”, he wrote in 1922, “I might have become half a class better than at present – might, in fact, have become a Minor Master. Prodigious.” On his coming first in the Brighton Congress in 1904, over F.J. Lee, P.S. Leonhardt, and “Mr G.A. Thomas” as he then was, the BCM invited him to write as a new “celebrity” and send his photograph for reproduction. He replied: “I think the article will occupy quite space enough, considering that after all it only deals with an amateur player and not with one of the important masters.” And when at the great London Tournament of 1922 Michell won the Major Open, which included several masters, W.H. Watts in compiling Chess Pie had the greatest difficulty in getting a specimen game out of him – there wasn’t one good enough. 

In one sense Michell’s estimate of himself was right. A civil servant at the Admiralty, he never let chess get on top of his work. He hardly ever played abroad, but was rather to be found competing in the formidable City of London Championship, and taking his holidays to fit in with the British Championship itself – though he was second several times and frequently in the first four, the immovable H.E. Atkins always stood, or rather towered, in his way. His greatest pride (though he played in eight Anglo-American Cable Matches with a level score) was his West London top-board record over 16 years – 93 wins, 59 draws, 22 losses. 

As his career spanned 43 years (1895-1938) he encountered a vast panorama of opponents, ranging from the Reverend John Owen in 1895 (1-0) to such “glorious remnants” from the ’30s still remaining as “H.G.” and W. Ritson Morry, whom he met in his final Championship appearance in 1937. In between dawn and sunset, and divided by the 1914-18 War, came the Edwardian decade when his customary competitors included Atkins, Blackburne, Blake, Palmer, Shoosmith and Ward, and the post-war period when they faded away in favour of the emerging Goldstein, Gurnhill, Wheatcroft and Thomas (A.R.B.). Though frequently a prize-winner, Michell seldom “electrified” the Press or the gallery. Steadiness was his strong point – his efforts were usually summarized as follows: “played soundly and consistently throughout”, “no fireworks, but made few mistakes”, “does not skittle, but aims at accurate play even in offhand games”, “takes losses with his usual composure”. Only one incident seems ever to have disturbed his courteous equanimity. At Marienbad, 1925 there was “a crowd round the adjourned game he has just quitted. Comments and suggestions to his opponent are being freely expressed, till Michell, striding quickly to the centre of the group, with a single movement of the hand sweeps all the pieces off the board. The group breaks up, and his opponent flushes at the unspoken criticism” (BCM, July 1925, pages 295-296). 

Another instance of his strong principles occurred at Hastings, 1934-1935, when in the final round he partially marred the “finest hour” of his friend and frequent opponent Sir George Thomas, who stood ahead of everyone else. And “everyone else” included Capablanca, Lilienthal, Botvinnik, Euwe and Flohr – yet only Euwe could overtake him if he lost. But Michell, though himself quite out of the running, refused to “go easy”, played for a win, and got it, depriving Sir George of a clear “first” in a magnificent “field”. At the prize-giving Flohr “expressed a wonder whether any other country could have furnished such an example”. 

Although at Marienbad, 1925 when, aged 52, he was (in his own words) “overweighted” by Nimzowitsch, Rubinstein, Réti, Tartakower and Spielmann, ending bottom but one, he did better against foreign masters when they came to Britain, his best being Margate, 1923, where he was equal second with Bogoljubow, Alekhine and Muffang. His win in 53 moves against the first-named was called by du Mont “a game for the connoisseur”. At Hastings, 1925-26 he was third to Alekhine and Vidmar, but in the following year (for the steadiest player can never avoid one disastrous tournament if he perseveres) he lost eight games off the reel with a score of one. However, in 1930-31 he was fourth, drawing with Capablanca in 38 moves, and in 1932-33 fifth, beating Sultan Khan and drawing with Flohr. But after reaching 60 his scores began to decline. The 1936-37 Tournament saw an exceptionally strong foreign entry, including Alekhine, Fine, Eliskases and Vidmar. To give younger Britons a chance, Michell “cordially placed himself in the hands of the organizers for classification”. So his last two Hastings appearances were in the Premier Reserves – third in 1936-37 and ninth in 1937-38. Clearly his health was deteriorating – and a month later he contracted neuritis and never recovered. During his last illness his wife (herself twice British Ladies’ Champion) had to read to him all the available chess news right up to the end. 

One last feat remains to be told. About 1926 Michell defeated the writer, then on holiday in town, in an offhand game. William Winter, whom I had met at the Gambit Café and who (though rather intolerant of “duffers”, as he called them) had a kindly streak where youthful players were concerned, asked me if I would like to see the famous City of London Club, where he was just going. I was in the Seventh Heaven when he took me round, and introduced me to the “Hon. Sec.” – the venerable J.H. Blake, who promptly enrolled me as a Country Member (one guinea a year) and procured me a game with none other than R.P.M., who happened to be on the premises and disengaged. So I faced the bespectacled veteran and his slightly “walrus” moustache. Neither on our introduction nor throughout the game did his manner give the slightest indication that he was not playing another master. However, one or two portly “lounge lizards”, eager to witness the “brutal baptism” of some incongruous youth who had somehow penetrated their precincts, gathered round, their very waistcoats saturated with sadistic expectation. Michell soon got an overwhelming attack on the king’s side, whereupon one “sarcastic old beast” observed: “You seem to have got the gentleman somewhat tied up”. “My QRP is weak” was all the change he could get out of R.P.M.’