The newly-formed West of England Chess Union’s first act in 1947 was to organise the first WECU individual championship. In its first year, this took the form of a 7 round all-play-all, the 8 players involved being, Ron Bruce, Frank Kitto, Andrew Thomas, Harold Mallison, Ron Slade, (all Devon), Chris Sullivan, David Hooper and H. V. Trevenen. A classic photograph of this event may be found elsewhere on the website.
Almost 60 years on, Slade was the last of this illustrious group still alive, having lived quietly for 30 years in deepest Cornwall, almost forgotten by the chess world, having long since given up active play.
He was born in Plymouth in 1917 and attended the local Secondary School for Boys. He was very active in sport at school, playing rugby for Devon Schoolboys and Plymouth Albion reserves, but a sporting injury (shoulder) at the age of 18 put an end to that and he started to take his chess more seriously. There had been a chess club at his school and he had been the Devon Junior Champion in 1931. He attended the Plymouth Club, where the stars at that time were Ron Bruce and Jack Goodman. They were careful, solid, positional players who would never dream of sacrificing a piece in cold blood, and the young Slade felt this was the style he should emulate.
He improved rapidly, but just as he felt ready to mount a challenge for the championship of the Plymouth Club, war broke out and he moved to Bristol to work as a fitter and turner for the National Smelting Company. On the Bristol chess scene he mixed with a different group of players. One of his first games was against Chris Sullivan, who sacrificed a whole piece and proceeded to blow his position apart. This was a revelation to young Ron who hadn’t fully appreciated good players could play in such a cavalier, daredevil manner, and he quickly realised this was the way he really wanted to play and changed his style accordingly.
He went in for sharp, critical lines which had to be “felt” rather than calculated. As in walking a tightrope, it was little surprise that he fell off from time to time. Peter Copping, another strong westcountry player, joked that he was surprised Ron had taken to chess, as poker would have suited him better.
Slade first became Gloucestershire champion in 1947, holding it for four consecutive years, in 1949 jointly with Max Poolake. In addition, in 1948 he was his club champion, Bristol & Clifton and the Bristol League Individual Champion, and the Gloucestershire Champion, a unique achievement at the time. In addition, he was Gloucestershire Match Captain, playing on Board 1.
Slade playing at the 1948 WECU Championship, alongside fellow Pioneer F. E. A. Kitto.
He was certainly the star of the Bristol chess circuit at this time, giving simultaneous displays and talks to local clubs.
On Tuesday November 24th 1949 he took on 12 members of the Kingswood Chess Club, conceding a draw and 3 losses.
In July 1950, he visited the Downend Club, Bristol, and took on their club champion, H. R. Howell, their Knockout Champion, H. Frankson and the Club President, W. Rolls, in a simultaneous blindfold match, winning 2 of the games.
After the War, the Downend Club had no premises and members were forced to play in each others’ houses. The club chairman was W. Rolls, a builder who was determined to solve the problem by building a clubroom himself. The new premises were opened 15th June 1950 and Ron Slade was specially invited to do the honours.
It was indeed a busy summer for Slade. After the official opening, he returned shortly afterwards to the Downend Club to give another simultaneous display, taking on 21 opponents and beating 20 of them. The following week, he went to the Kingswood Club for another simultaneous match, which was to be his last appointment in Bristol as was shortly due to move to Kent. At the end, to mark his great contribution to Bristol chess in only 4 years, he was presented with a copy of Murray’s great work, “A History of Chess”. Pictured left are Mrs. A. Wilson-Osborne making the presentation, W. A. Ellis, Chairman of the Kingswood Club, A. Wilson-Osborne, W.E.C.U. President, Mrs. Eileen Slade and C. Welch. At the end of his life, this was the one item of his chess memorabilia that he wished to be retained within his wider family – he had no children.
He moved to Kent, and won the Kent Championship even before his successor as Gloucester Champion had been decided – he was thus champion of two very different counties at the same time – very probably a unique achievement among our pioneers.
He is pictured left taking on 31 members of the Tunbridge Wells Club on 21st February 1953, winning 27 and drawing 3 games. As if simultaneous play is not difficult enough, he appears to have had the added problem of having to play looking over each player’s shoulder!
He did not break his connection with westcountry chess after leaving Bristol in 1950 as he dearly wished to become West of England Champion, but found that his knife-edge style was not well-suited to a 7 round contest against the likes of Thomas, Kitto, Aitken et al. Inevitably he would fall off the tightrope from time to time, spoiling his chances. The closest he got initially was 2nd= in 1951 at Weymouth. The picture on the left is a detail from the group photograph of the WECU Congress when it returned to Weymouth in 1955, Ron with his wife, Eileen.
Eventually he won the title in 1958 at Newquay, and having achieved this aim, he didn’t compete in the WECU Championship again.
WECU Champion at last. Receiving the cup at the Penolver Hotel, Newquay, Easter 1958.
Below: The full group of players and some wives at Newquay 1958. Slade is partly hidden in the 2nd row standing; wife Eileen to his right.
Also visible: Ken Bloodworth (extreme right rear); Ron Powis (2 away); George Wheeler (adjacent); Dr. Jim Aitkin (seated); Philip Walker (future WECU Champion – arms folded near right-hand gatepost); Andrew Thomas (leaning on column).
He continued playing in the Civil Service Championship which he won twice in the late 1950s. On the career front, he started work at the British Museum in 1955 and went on to a responsible post at the British Library.
A group involved in the Civil Service Championships, Slade sitting to the right of the trophy table.
Notwithstanding his various championship wins during the post-war years, his results were always somewhat variable, the reason for which lay in his dangerous playing style. But he was very clear that chess is a game that can be played intuitively very well, and is more fun than relying on cold calculation.
To illustrate this point, he told the story of his visit to the 1951 Hastings Congress where, having taken a day’s leave from his job at the British Library, he spent the afternoon watching Gligoric take on Gerald Abrahams. As the opening was one he regularly played himself, he was particularly interested in the way the game developed, and he stuck with it. Abrahams seemed to be doing well until Gligoric suddenly opened up the centre and Abrahams’ position collapsed. The two players retired to the analysis room and Ron asked if they would mind him sitting in. He watched, and several times Abrahams asked his opponent, “What would you have done if I’d played such and such a move”. Several times Gligoric suggested a plausible line of play, but on other occasions said he hadn’t even considered certain other moves because it was “not the right sort of move”.
Some years later, that very game was published, not by Gligoric, with long explanatory notes on moves that 10 minutes after the game Gligoric had said he hadn’t even considered. This hitherto unrecorded example of a great player using his intuition rather than intricate calculation Ron found most impressive as it accorded with his own philosophy.
He retired to Lelant, near St. Ives in 1977, where he tried local league chess for a season, but found that his individual style did not necessarily lend itself to the demands of playing for a team; he didn’t like anxious team captains standing at his shoulder chewing their nails, and he retired from active chess altogether. Yet his best games are most enjoyable, and fortunately for two years before he died, he cooperated with Keverel Chess in trying to resurrect a representative collection of these, most of which would otherwise have been lost to posterity.
As the Devon-born player who won probably the greatest range of titles, champion of three different counties, the West of England, Bristol League and the Civil Service, he fully deserves a place in this Hall of Fame.
(c) R. H. Jones. 2009