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Bruce, Ron (1903 – 1991)

Ronald MacKay Bruce. 

(26.08.1903 – 26.04.1991)

Bruce#1088

Ron Bruce was a true entrepreneur, which brought him success in business and a legacy in chess which survives to this day and fully entitles him to the title of being a Pioneer of Devon Chess. 

He was born in Plymouth, the only son of John and Lydia Bruce (née MacKay), when they were living at 47, Durham Avenue. John Bruce had been brought up in a large family in Ayr but had severed links with them when he moved south to become a ladies hairdresser and wigmaker at one of the smartest salons in the city. In spite of her Scottish name, Lydia had been born in London. 

Ron started work at an auctioneers, but his prospects were somewhat limited by the stammer that stayed with him all his life. His next venture was renting out cigarette machines, re-filling them with packets of 5 whenever necessary. 

He became a member of the Plymouth Chess Club in 1921 and was soon their young star, becoming the Devon Individual Champion in 1924 and winning the Club Championship for the 1st time in the 1924/25 season. For the 4 decades from 1928 – 68 he failed to win it only 5 times. 

His capture of the Plymouth Club Championship in 1925 entitled him to enter the Winter-Wood tournament, a knock-out competition held each summer between the Champions of all clubs affiliated to DCCA. He went on to win this at his first attempt and was a regular winner thereafter. A full list of his victories may be found in the appendices. 

In 1930, when he was 27, he was approached by a fellow club member, Mary Dew, whose 10 year old daughter, Rowena, was showing an aptitude for the game that she felt needed a greater talent than her own to develop to its full potential. So it was that Mrs. Dew took Rowena round to Ron’s house at 126, Old Park Road, for two 1 hour lessons each week; she stayed in the room, partly to chaperone her daughter and partly to pick up some tips for herself. With his speech impediment, it was something of a laboured process, but it worked well enough. Within 5 years his pupil had become FIDE World Girls Champion; he was 32.

Ron with his mother, Lydia, and father-in-law Harvey Dew.

Ron with his mother, Lydia, and father-in-law Harvey Dew.

In 1937 he took his pupil and her mother to Blackpool for the British Championships. Mrs. Dew competed in the 3rd Class Division 2 where she finished with 5½/10 and just out of the prizelist. Her 18 year old daughter on the other hand won the British Ladies Championship with the considerable score of 10/11. The BCM observed “Miss Dew gives all the credit for her success to R. M. Bruce, the Plymouth C.C. captain, who has assiduously coached her for the congress”. Ron went up to Blackpool for the second week to take part in one of the new week-long tournaments, winning his section and pocketing the 1st prize of £1.50.

The following year the Championships were held at Brighton, where Rowena came 3rd on 7½. Her mother scored 4½ in the 3rd Class Div. 1, but the week-long sections had been deemed a failure and were dropped, so Ron did not play as he wouldn’t have been able to spare the time considering his next undertaking, due to start a few days after the Brighton event. 

In 1938 the Plymouth Club was due to celebrate its 50th anniversary, and with Ron that meant doing it in style. A large congress was organised for the 1st full week of September, with the top section of 8 including both current World Champions, Alekhine and Vera Menchik. The top section was completed by Sir George Thomas, Dr. List, the 30-somethings Stuart Milner-Barry and George Wheatcroft, while Devon’s interests were represented by Harold Mallison of Exeter and Ron himself.

The Alekhines meet Plymouth's Lord Mayor.

The Alekhines meet Plymouth's Lord Mayor.

 The Mayor of Plymouth, Mr. E. S. Leatherby and his wife greet Dr. and Mrs. Alekhine at the civic reception for the Plymouth Jubilee Congress. On the right are L. Barford (Arbiter) behind Ald. J. Derbyshire (BCF President).  The real star is clearly Grace Alekhine, a wealthy and stylish patron of the arts with a back-story every bit as exotic as her husband’s. She herself had been a chess champion in France, and after the war had a house in St. Ives.

 Ron would have been happy to stay in the background on such occasions, attending to the detailed arrangements. 

The final table was:- 

    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Tot.
1 Thomas, Sir G. A. X ½ 1 1 ½ 1 1 1 6
2 Alekhine A. A. ½ X ½ 1 1 1 1 1 6
3 List, Dr. P. 0 ½ X 0 1 ½ ½ 1
4 Milner-Barry, P. S. 0 0 1 X 0 1 1 ½
5 Menchik, V. ½ 0 0 1 X 0 ½ 1 3
6 Mallison, H. V. 0 0 ½ 0   X ½ ½
7 Wheatcroft, G. S. 0 0 ½ 0 ½ ½ X 1
8 Bruce, R. M. 0 0 0 ½ 0 ½ 0 X 1

 This was a fine victory by the veteran Thomas. In BCM, Golombek summed up Ron’s performance thus:

Bruce lives in Plymouth and finds it very difficult to get first class practice. He was obviously unaccustomed to playing with such opponents but showed that with more good practice he would do much better. 

The 7 rounds were played in 6 days. The Tuesday was particularly tough, with a game in the morning, the afternoon reserved for adjournments and the Round 3 game in the evening. The draw had determined that Ron would face Alekhine in the morning with Black. He tried the Caro-Kann but was cut down in a game that lasted 11 moves and 30 minutes and entered the chess literature. His opponent for the evening game was Vera Menchik, which he also lost. His one consolation was his subsequent claim to have been the only person to have played two current world champions on the same day in serious play; he dined out on that story for the next half century. 

There were 9 other American sections of 8, and among the prizewinners were B. H. Wood and the 12 year old Elaine Saunders, shortly to become the next British Ladies Champion. 

On Saturday April 1st 1939 Ron and Rowena were playing for Plymouth in an away match against Paignton in the Bremridge Cup, Devon’s premier team tournament. Ron won his game on Board 1 against their captain, Frank Pitt-Fox, though Plymouth didn’t go on to win the cup that year. It may have been the date or the exhilaration of a win under his belt, but there must have been something in the air that day, for on the way back to Plymouth, Ron suddenly pulled the car into a lay-by at South Brent. He didn’t know what made him do it at that particular moment, it was just on a whim, but he proposed marriage to his sole passenger. Rowena accepted, though they would have to wait till she was 21 the following year, which they duly did, eventually marrying on 13th July 1940. This little episode explained the name they gave to their family home, Brent Whim – they had got engaged at Brent on a whim. From then on, every time they passed that spot on the old A38 they would just touch hands and smile to each other. Which went to show how, beneath that stern and sometimes forbidding exterior, Ron was just an old romantic at heart. 

The 1939 British Championships moved to Bournemouth but with the political uncertainty of the time, and the absence of the top players competing in the Rio de Janeiro Olympiad, the men’s championship was scrapped in favour of a more general Premier Tournament which included Euwe and Landau of the Netherlands. The usual trio of Ron, Rowena and her mother spent the fortnight there. Ron scored 4/11 in the Major Open A behind the likes of Znosko-Borovsky, Sämisch and the Drs. Fazekas and List, but ahead of his club mate, Jack Goodman. 

The Ladies Championship proceeded as usual but Rowena was well and truly upstaged by 13 year old Elaine Saunders who scored 10/11 without a loss, while she recorded a very modest 5. Her head may have been full of wedding plans.  

Enjoying the sea air on Bournemouth promenade - August 1939

Enjoying the sea air on Bournemouth promenade - August 1939

 

13th July 1940 - The happy couple leaving the church.

13th July 1940 - The happy couple leaving the church.

 At this time, Ron had a shop in the city centre selling shoes on a credit basis, but this was destroyed along with much else in the Plymouth blitz of April 1941.  After the War, as the city centre was slowly rebuilt, Ron joined forces with a colleague called Syme Hewitt and they set up H & B Credit Traders. They had large premises in the city where a wide range of household goods could be acquired for cash or on credit. A large team of reps covered most of West Devon and Cornwall, calling on customers’ houses, collecting weekly payments and offering further goods from a catalogue. It was a very successful venture in its post-war heyday, and many UK cities had similar, relatively small operations but it was thing of its time and eventually, with the rising prosperity of the ‘60s, nationwide firms gradually took over. As the economic basis of their business was gradually undermined Ron and Syme sold out their shop to the Greenshield Stamp Company, a company then on the rise, and now, in its turn, gone forever. They retained a small shop at Plympton for a time until they both retired when Syme’s son took it over.

 As soon as peace was restored in 1945, Ron’s chess career resumed its normal pattern, though this time in partnership with his wife whose chess profile, with its international dimension, was far higher than his own. This was never allowed to come between them, however, as he was happier out of the limelight and she always gave Ron full credit for her own chess achievements. Every year followed a similar pattern; the New Year would find them at Hastings, Easter would be the West of England Congress and August involved the British Championships, where Rowena won the Ladies Championship eleven times. Weekends would be taken up with either county or Devon league matches, and midweek they would be contesting the various tournaments in the Plymouth Club, or playing Bridge on a strictly non-competitive basis. 

In 1947, he took on the Captaincy of the Devon team after Harold Mallison was forced to retire due to failing eyesight, probably exacerbated by his experiences in the trenches in the Great War. Ron was to do this job for exactly 40 years. 

Devon v Middlesex 1947

Devon v Middlesex 1947

Ron Bruce’s 1st season as Devon Match Captain found then contesting the final of the S.C.C.U. Championship in a match against Middlesex at the Red Lion Inn, Salisbury, March 29th 1947. They lost to a much stronger side.

They are, in board order:-

1. H. V. Mallison (tieless- drew with Gabriel Wood); 2. F. E. A. Kitto (not shown as he was probably late, as was usual – drew with W. Winter); 3. Ron Bruce (seated 4th from left – drew with König); 4. R. A. “Ron” Slade standing 2nd left – lost to Dr. List); J. B. “Jack” Goodman (seated extreme left played J. Stone); 6. J. Gibson (drew with M. Blaine); 7. R. W. Hornbrook (drew with Stephen Crockett); 8. Rowena Bruce (drew with J. Gilchrist); 9. G. J. Cradock (lost to J. D. Soloman); 10. G. T. Womack (drew with W. S. Wallis); 11. W. H. Regan (lost to A. Hussain); 12. C. Soper (drew with M. Adler); 13. T. J. Hart (lost to J. E. Redon); 14. R. B. Copleston (seated 2nd from right – lost to C. Jahn); 15; F. H. Light (lost to G. Rutland); 16. G. D. Crowther (lost to J. Anstey).

 In 1948 the Plymouth Club was due to celebrate its Diamond Jubilee and, almost in defiance of Plymouth’s wartime destruction, it was decided to hold another celebratory event on much the same lines as that a decade earlier. The star attraction this time was Max Euwe, at that time the only person alive who had been World Champion, with the Lithuanian-born Dr. List returning. Ron again represented the home club and he was joined by the new kid on the Devon block, Frank Kitto, and Andrew Thomas of Blundell’s School, Tiverton. The other home country players were Dennis Horne (27), Gabriel Wood (45) and William Winter (50). There were about 100 players involved all together.

The event was a triumph for Kitto who tied for 1st place with Euwe. Ron paid the usual price for his back-room work. In fact, he was drawn against Euwe and Kitto in rounds 1 and 2 respectively and his losses to them so early on doubtless put them on the winning track and Ron on the downward path. 

Euwe v Bruce 1948

Euwe v Bruce 1948

 Above: Ron on his way to a 1st round loss against Euwe.

                                    The final chart

    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Total  
1 M. Euwe X 1 0 ½ ½ 1 1 1 5 1st=
2 F. E. A. Kitto 0 X ½ 1 1 1 ½ 1 5 1st=
3 G. Wood 1 ½ X 0 1 0 1 1 3rd
4 D. M. Horne ½ 0 1 X 1 ½ ½ 0 4th
5 A. R. B. Thomas ½ 0 0 0 X 1 1 ½ 3 5th=
6 W. Winter 0 0 1 ½ 0 X ½ 1 3 5th=
7 Dr. P. M. List 0 ½ 0 ½ 0 ½ X 1 7th
8 R. M. Bruce 0 0 0 1 ½ 0 0 X 8th

 

 

 

 

 

 

Plymouth Diamond Jubilee Congress

Plymouth Diamond Jubilee Congress

 Above: The group photograph of the Plymouth Diamond Jubilee Congress.

Plymouth Institute  9th – 14th August 1948. 

Euwe is seated extreme left. Next to him is Denis Pereira Gray, later knighted for his services to medicine. At Euwe’s right shoulder is A. R. B. Thomas with the Gandalf-like Winter at his right shoulder. Rowena and her mother are seated together left centre, while Ron Slade has his hands on knees. Frank Kitto is standing front row extreme left.

In the back row, Ron Bruce is standing in front of the right guy rope with Ken Bloodworth beside the left one, and he has Leonard Barden on the left.

 At the closing ceremony Dr. List paid a graceful tribute to the organisers, the “unknown soldiers of the chess world”, without whom chess would be at a standstill. Ron was not least among that hard-working band. 

By 1950 Ron had accrued much experience in organising commemorative chess events, and as the Devon County Chess Association was then approaching its own 50th anniversary it was natural that the idea of a similar event should arise. A committee was formed on which both Ron and Rowena were key members. The Treasurer was Frank Willett who lived in Paignton and he was aware that the Trustees of the Singer Estate had recently sold their family house and grounds, Oldway Mansion, to the local council for use by the public. Thus it was that DCCA’s Golden Jubilee Congress was held at Oldway. So successful was it that it continued there for the next 60 years. 

In 1987 Ron had completed 40 years as County Captain and was due to stand down. Members of the Devon team chipped in for a gift to be presented at his last match, against Gloucestershire at Ilminster. Beforehand, a discreet enquiry was made to Rowena as to what kind of item might best be appreciated by him, and she was very clear – he would like a small 2-bar electric fire as he felt the cold at home. This begged the question as to why, if this was the case, given his very comfortable means, he hadn’t run to central heating at home. In fact, he and Rowena had always lived very frugally. One of his trademarks was the Russian-style fur hat which he wore wherever he went throughout the winter months. What was less well-known was the fact that he generally wore it around the house as well. He even wore it in the bath!  The presentation went ahead as planned, the County President saying a few inadequate words of appreciation in front of the other 62 players. Ron could barely speak as a tear or two rolled down his cheek. 

His health had started to give out in these his final years; two operations for skin cancer on his scalp were followed by the gradual onset of Parkinson’s Disease, but unknown to anyone he had also developed lung cancer which was what ultimately brought about his death at the age of 86. 

When in 1983 the British Chess Federation introduced an annual award in recognition of outstanding and long-standing contributions to chess organisation, called the President’s Award, Ron and Rowena were high on the list of candidates and received it in its 2nd year. The magnitude of their combined input was clear and undeniable. Ron was never at ease socially but through his obvious dedication inspired a loyalty among his fellow team and committee members that led to Devon always punching above its weight. 

His role in the creation of the Paignton Congress makes him a true Pioneer of Devon chess.

 ©  R. H. Jones. 2010 – All rights reserved. 

Appendix.

His record of trophy wins.

Plymouth Ch.

Devon Individual Ch.

Winter-Wood

West of England Ch.

 

1924

 

 

1925

 

1925

 

1928

 

1928

 

1929

1929

1929

 

1930

1930

1930

 

1931

 

1931

 

1932

 

1932

 

1933

 

 

 

1934

 

 

 

1937

 

 

 

1938

 

 

 

1939

 

 

 

1940

 

 

 

1945

 

 

 

1946

 

 

 

1947

 

 

 

1948

1948

1948

 

1949

 

1949

 

1950

1950

1950

 

 

 

 

1951 tied with Kitto

1952

1952

1952

 

1953

 

1953

 

1954

 

1954

 

1955

 

1955

 

 

1956

 

 

1957

 

1957

 

1958

 

 

 

1959

 

1959

 

1960

 

 

 

1961

 

 

 

1962

 

 

 

1964

 

 

 

1965

 

1965

 

1966

 

 

 

1967

 

1967

 

 Bibliography: 

Testimony of Rona Ross-Bryant.

B.C.M. & Chess. 

Picture credits: All photographs courtesy of Rona Ross-Bryant except the following:- 

Both group photographs – author’s collection. 

Both newspaper pictures – Western Morning News.

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