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General May 3, 2022 | 5:26 PMby FM Yosha Iglesias

Forgotten Genius: Ellen Gilbert, the First Queen of Chess

Born the same year as Paul Morphy, Ellen Gilbert, née Strong (April 30, 1837 – February 12, 1900), was arguably the best woman chess player and the best correspondence chess player of both genders of the 19th century! Known by every chess lover back then, she now seems to be forgotten by all except a few specialized historians. It is time to pay tribute to the first Queen of Chess.

If like me, you were not aware of the old Anglo-Saxon customs, you might be surprised by the initials "J. W." instead of "E." The explanation gives a glimpse at the sexism of the time: a married woman or a widow, if addressed as 'Mrs.,' was referred to by her husband's first name, not hers. Hence Mrs. John W. Gilbert. 

If you prefer watching videos over reading, here is the one I made on my YouTube channel.

Ellen E. Strong was a teacher in Hartford, Connecticut, when she met John W. Gilbert, a local builder with whom she shared a passion for chess. The Hartford Chess Club was a typical 19th Century gentlemen-only club where the idea of a woman joining, even more so a woman of social standing, would have seemed laughable. This prompted Ellen and John to establish the Queen's Chess Club, open to both genders, where Ellen was recognized as the best player. The local newspaper described her as the first woman capable of playing blindfolded.

Ellen had to turn to correspondence chess to find proper adversity while escaping the ambient misogyny. 

Some of the Queen's jewelry

Let's start with a combination considered iconic in the 19th century but which seems to have been lost to history. 

Ellen Gilbert vs. William Berry, corr. 1875

A quiet Spanish Game had turned into this wild opposite-side castling position. Ellen just sacced a pawn on b5 and was ready to meet 21...Bxb5 with 22.e6!! As 22...Bxe2 23.exf7 forks both rooks, Black tried 22...Qg6

23.Qxb5!! is a blow that should have forced resignation, but Black continued as if nothing happened with 23...f4.

Correspondence games were costly at that time, and you could not just tell your opponent, "Oh come on, now, just resign!". 

According to the then tradition, there was a way to end the game, though: to announce the forced mate. 

"Which forced mate?" you might be wondering. "White is winning, but mating should take another 20 moves".

Well, not 20, but 19 moves.

With her next move, 24.Rxa6! Ellen announced mate in 19 moves (!), providing a lengthy analysis to prove her claim. Here is the main line:

24...bxa6 25. Qxa6+ Kb8 26.Qb5+ Kc8 27.Qd7+ Kb8 28.Bxf4 gxf4 29.Qb5+ Kc8 30.Ra1 Ba3 31.Rxa3 Qb1+ 32.Qxb1 Rxe6 33.Ra7 Kd7 34.Qb5+ Rc6 35.Nf5 Re8 36.Qd5+ Kc8 37.Nd6+ Kd7 38.Nxe8+ Ke7 39.Qxc6 Kf8 40.Rxc7 Kg8 41.Qg6+ Kf8 42.Qf7# 

Her opponent had no choice but to admit defeat.

Such a performance did not go unnoticed. Here is an excerpt from the 1875 City of London Chess Magazine quoted by Edward Winter. The author, W. Potter, denounces the sexism reigning in the chess world by showing a feminist touch that is all the more appreciable that it seems anachronistic in this Victorian period. 

We present this month a correspondence game – taken by us from the Hartford Times – between Mrs Gilbert, of Hartford, Connecticut, the strongest lady player in the United States, and Mr Berry, of Beverly, Massachusetts, in which the former announces a mate in 19 moves.

The immeasurable superiority of trousers chess is often vaunted, and the natural incapability of women for excellence in the game is deduced from certain propositions, any one of which is a fact taken for granted, though neither self-evident nor demonstrable.

The strength of men’s prejudices and of their boot-holding extremities are generally about on a par, and very often they cooperate. Their physical superiority they use first as a force, and then as an argument. Excluding the ladies by the rule of fist from clubs and associations, discouraging their home play, and pooh-poohing their first timid efforts, the masculine countenance then lights up with an idiotic grin which seconds the enunciation.

“Women play? Can’t do it, sir; Nature wills otherwise. Let them cook and sew, that’s what they can do, sir.”

Very much would we like to get hold of one of these oracles, place before him the position in which Mrs Gilbert announced “checkmate in 19 moves”, and ask him to find out how it was to be done.
If, moreover, we could extract from him a pledge that he would not dine until he had solved it, then our cup of happiness would be overflowing, for we should have delicious visions of many dinnerless days as the just punishment of irrational prejudication.

There is this further to be said, that to study a position when you are told there is a mate in 19 moves is quite a different thing from conceiving the idea of it in the first instance, and then working up the possibility into a certainty. Mrs Gilbert says that it was one of the severest intellectual tasks she ever attempted. We have no doubt of it, especially in a case like the present, where the defence is not forced to a particular line of play.

The human mind with difficulty grasps such a succession of sequences, even with the solution given, and such an achievement in one of the depreciated female sex ought to have two effects – shake the prejudices of men and create self-confidence in women. We should like to see chess become more general among the latter.

In the following game, I dare think that Gilbert showed a level of chess never reached by her contemporaries, Morphy included. Admittedly, it was correspondence chess.

William Hotchkin vs. Ellen Gilbert, corr. 1874

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Bc5 4.b4 Bxb4 5.c3 Bc5 6.O-O d6 7.d4 exd4 8.cxd4 Bb6 9.d5 Na5 10.Bb2 Ne7! 11.Bd3 O-O 12.Nc3 Ng6 13.Ne2 c5! 14.Qd2 Bc7! 15.Ng3 f6! 16. Kh1! Rb8! 17.Rac1 b5 18.Nf5

If you complain about chess nowadays being about reciting theory and regret the good old time of Romantic Chess, you might be disappointed. Players have reached a tabiya of the then-popular 5...Bc5 Evans Gambit (a move which, by the way, has been rehabilitated by modern engines). 

This position was considered by all the best players in the world as much better for White. The clever move 16.Kh1! intends Rg1 and g4-g5, a plan recalling Charles Henry Stanley vs. Paul Morphy, 1857

Adolf Anderssen first crushed Louis Paulsen in 1868 after 18...Rb7 19.g4 Bb8 20.Rg1 Ne5 21.Bxe5 fxe5 22.Ng5 Re8 23.Rg3 h6 24.Nf3 Rf8 25.Rh3 Nc4 26.Bxc4 bxc4 27.Rg1 Qe8

28.Nxh6+! Kh7 29.Nf5+ Kg8 30.Qg5 Bxf5 31.gxf5 1-0

 One year later, Anderssen went on to demolish Johannes Zukertort. 

18...b4 19.Rg1 Bb6 20.g4 Ne5 21.Bxe5 dxe5 22.Rg3 Rf7 23.g5 Bxf5 24.exf5 Qxd5 25.gxf6 Rd8 26.Rcg1 Kh8 27.fxg7+ Kg8 28.Qh6 Qd6 29.Qxh7+!! 1-0

The position before 29.Qxh7+!! 1-0 which forces mate in 4 moves 29...Kxh7 30.f6+! Kg8 31.Bh7+! Kxh7 32.g8=Q+! Rxg8 33.Rh3#

The same Zukertort learned from his defeat and won the following game against Jean Dufresne in 1870 with another brilliant final combination!

18...c4 19.Be2  b4  20.Bd4 c3 21.Qd1 Bb6 22.g4 Ne5 23.Bxb6 Qxb6 24.N3d4 Nac4 25.Ne6 Rf7 26.Rg1 Qxf2 27.Rg2 Qb6 28.Bxc4 Nxc4 29.Qe1 Rbb7 30.g5 fxg5 31.Rxg5 Kh8 32.Qh4 Ne5 33.Rcg1 Nf3 1-0

"I announce mate in 5 moves"

Here Zukertort announced mate in 5 moves, thus ending the game. Funnily enough, it was the same final blow that Zukertort had fallen victim to against Anderssen: 34.Qxh7+!! Kxh7 35.Rh5+ Kg8 36.Nh6+ Kh8 37.Nxf7+ Kg8 38.Rxg7#

So what was Ellen Gilbert doing? Was she not aware of the recent games of the best players in the world?

She was. She also understood the position better than them.

Like Dufresne, she played 18...c4! and after 19.Be2 she introduced the strong novelty 19...Qe8!! showing perfect chess understanding.


19...Qe8!! not only attacks the e4-pawn but also sidesteps a potential fork after N3d4-c6!
20.Ng3?! White should have tried 20.N3d4!? Qxe4 21.Bf3 Qf4! -/+ with some counterplay.

Black is up a pawn, but the a5-knight is poorly placed. 
20...Nb7! 21.Nd4 Nc5 22.Rfe1 Ne5 23.Rc2 Ned3 24.Bxd3 Nxd3 And voilà!

Why do we associate the d3 Octopus Knight with Karpov-Kasparov, Game 16, 1985, and not with this gem, played more than a century before?

25.Re2 Bb6 26.f4 Bg4 27.Nf3 Qc8 28.Nf1 Nxb2!

White resigned as 29.Qxb2 is met by c3!

One should never analyze an ancient jewel with modern engines as they will always coldly point to some defects. But just to be sure, I did ask Stockfish 15 its verdict about this 150-year-old game:

  • 0 Blunders
  • 0 Mistakes
  • 0 Inaccuracies 
  • 19 Average centipawn loss

Longest announced mates

Ellen Gilbert played on first board for the American team in the 1879 USA vs. England Correspondence Chess Match. 

The only woman in the competition, Ellen was paired against George Gossip, a man regarded as one of the, if not the best correspondence player in the world, who was also capable of shining over the board. Steinitz described Gossip's 1889 game against Jackson Showalter as "One of the finest specimens of sacrificing play on record." The first World Chess Champion added, "Mr. Gossip deserves the highest praise for the ingenuity and depth of combination which he displayed in this game."

Showalter vs. Gossip


Steinitz: "The initiation of a masterly combination eight moves deep."

24.Bxh4 Nf3+! 25.gxf3 Bxf3+ 26.Bg3 

26...Qxg3+!! 27. hxg3 Rxg3+! 28.Kh2 Bxf2 29.Bh3 Rxh3+! 0-1

The other players widely criticized the American captain's choice of pairing a woman against such a player.

So was it a mismatch? Were we heading towards a bloodbath? Did Ellen not deserve to play on the first board? 

Oh yes, it was. Oh yes, we were. Oh yes, she did.

Ellen Gilbert won all four games. Her 4-0 triumph gave America a 27-23 overall victory over England. And when Gossip was late to resign, Gilbert did what she did best: announce crazily long forced mates!

"I announce mate in 21 moves"

She backed up her claim with this main line: 

36. Nxg6+ Kg8 37. Qxg7+ Kxg7 38. Nxf8 Rxf8 39. Re7+ Rf7 40. Rxh7+ Kxh7 41. Rxf7+ Kg6 42. Rxc7 Ba8 43. Ra7 Bb7 44. Rxb7 Kf6 45. h4 Kg6 46. Rc7 Kf6 47. Rxc6+ Ke7 48. h5 Kd7 49. Rg6 Ke7 50. c6 a5 51. c7 Kd7 52.h6 Kxc7 53. h7 a4 54. h8=Q axb3 55. Qh7+ Kc8 56. Rg8# 

After 56.Rg8#

The following game is likely to be the longest forced mate ever announced without using a computer!

"I announce mate in 35 moves."

According to Ellen Gilbert, White's best defense was:

 42...g5 43. hxg5 hxg5 44. Bd8 Kf4 45. e5 g4 46. Bxc7 g3 47. e6+ Kf3 48. Be5 g2 49. Bd4 Ke2 50. e7 Kf1 51. Kc3 g1=Q 52. Bxg1 Kxg1 53.Kd3 Kf2 54. Kd2 Kf3 55. Kd3 Kf4 56. Kc4 Ke5 57. Kb4 Ke6 58. Kc4 Kxe7 59. Kb4 Ke6 60. Kc4 Ke5 61. Kc3 Ke4 62. Kc4 Ke3 63. Kc3 Ke2 64. Kb4 Kd2 65. Ka3 Kc2 66.Kb4 Kxb2 67. Ka5 a3 68. Kb6 a2 69. Kxc6 a1=Q 70. Kd7 Ka3 71. c6 b2 72. c7 b1=Q 73. c8=Q Qd4+ 74. Ke7 Qh7+ 75. Ke6 Qg6+ 76. Ke7 Qdd6# 

After 76...Qdd6#

Her games were published, analyzed, and acclaimed by Zukertort and Steinitz. The first World Champion confirmed the validity of her analysis. 

Ellen Gilbert was offered a gold watch to celebrate her victory, while fans composed poems and problems in honor of the newly hailed Queen of Chess.

White to play and mate in 3 moves. Composed by J. Zim

Q - dedicated to the Queen of Chess, in honor of her first victory in the International Tourney. 
New York Clipper, July 19, 1879.

1.Rc5! bxc5 2.Kd6 c4 3.Bxf6#

The first woman chess composer?

Speaking of problems, I prefer the following mate in 3 moves, composed by the Queen herself in 1860!

White to play and mate in 3 moves. Composed by Ellen Gilbert.

It was actually a mate in 4 moves, with 1.Qc2-c7+ Bb4-d6 as the first move, but I dare think it's more beautiful presented as a mate in 3. 

The solution is a perfect example of the then newly created Plachutta theme. I invite you to find it and post it in the comments.

Blindness and oblivion

Gilbert's match against Gossip marked the pinnacle of her career, but sadly, also its end. 

Gradually becoming blind, Ellen Gilbert quit correspondence chess. Like a handover, she waited for the 20th century to pass away.

Ellen E. Gilbert died on February 12, 1900. The Hartford Times obituary described her as "a lady of fine character, much esteemed by her friends, and as modest as she was kind."

The chess world, which had relegated her to correspondence play, had already forgotten her.  

It was not easy to find sources to prepare this article, and I'm grateful to the passionate people who wrote them. 

I hope this article will help Ellen Gilbert's genius to dazzle new players.

See also:

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