Titanic and Chess Trivia
by Bill Wall

April 15, 2016 marks the 104th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. The RMS Titanic had several chess boards and pieces aboard where passengers could play chess. Chess sets could be checked out to the second class passengers after filling out an application and giving it to the Saloon Steward. RMS stands for Royal Mail Steamer because the Titanic carried mail under the auspices of His Majesty's postal authorities in England. There were several chess-related mail items that the Titanic was carrying to the United States.

The Titanic had the capability of passengers playing chess with other passengers on other ocean liners as much as 1,000 miles away. Ocean liners had been using the wireless radio to play chess while sailing since the early 1900s. The ship that rescued the survivors, the RMS Carpathia, had been playing wireless chess since July 1905, when a game of chess was played by wireless between the Carpathia and the Baltic in the Atlantic Ocean. The game ended in a draw after 30 moves.

It was still a frequent occurrence for chess matches to be played by wireless by ships at sea (source: Across the Atlantic by Wireless by Francis Collins). However, playing chess by wireless was likely to cause disturbance to the reception of more important messages, such as distress calls.

The Titanic ran its first sea trial on May 31, 1911.

The Titanic was originally scheduled to start its maiden voyage on March 20, 1912, but its sister ship, the Olympic, collided with another ship and had to be repaired first. The Olympic was the only survivor of her sister ships Titanic and Britannic, and later passengers included Jose Capablanca, Frank Marshall, and Emanuel Lasker. Chess sets and boards were on all the White star ocean liners. Chess was also played on their wireless radios between ship to ship.

On April 10, 1912, the White Star line, RMS Titanic, left Southampton, England. At the time of its launch, it was the largest man-made object ever to move on the planet.

On April 14, 1912, the Titanic hit an iceberg at 11:40 pm, ship's time. The lookouts in the crow's nest did not have binoculars. Having binoculars might have prevented the tragedy.

As soon as the ship hit the iceberg, the Titanic senior wireless operator, Jack Phillips (who died in the freezing water), sent "CQD" (CQ signified a general call and D represented distress) in Morse code, which was common on British ships. The junior radio operator, Harold Bride (he survived the sinking), jokingly suggest using the new code "SOS" (SOS did not stand for anything, such as Save Our Ship. It was selected because of the distinct sound it makes in Morse code). The operators alternated between the two (no proof that they also sent out "P-K4"). In the case of the Titanic, subsequent inquiry showed delay in other vessels going to its rescue were due partly to the mishap occurring when the majority of operators were listening in on a non-commercial wavelength for the Cape Cod press. If the wireless of the Titanic had been used to play chess, the ship may have been rescued faster. The SS Californian was only 18 miles away from the Titanic, but did not receive its distress signal since the operator had gone to bed. It also didn't help that the Titanic's senior operator told the Californian wireless operator to "shut up" during a flurry of transmissions on the crowded wireless channel. The last wireless transmission on the Titanic was at 12:27 am local ship time.

The Titanic also had the world's largest whistles and could be heard 11 miles away.

On April 15, 1912, at 2:20 a.m., the Titanic broke apart, foundered, and sunk in two pieces. The Titanic is the only ocean liner ever sunk by an iceberg. It was 370 miles off the coast of Newfoundland when it sank in 2.2 miles of water to the ocean bottom (discovered in 1985).

On April 15, 1912, the Cunard liner RMS Carpathia arrived on scene at 4 am and brought aboard 705 survivors. Over 1,500 were lost at sea (in 1945, the German vessel Wilhelm Gustloff was torpedoed by a Russian submarine with the loss of nearly 9,400 lives). Charles Joughin, the ship's baker, was able to tread water for two hours before being rescued by the Carpathia with little ill-effects. He had consumed a large amount of whiskey before being tossed into the sea.

Passengers included John Jacob Astor IV (the richest passenger worth $85 million, or $2 billion in today's currency), Benjamin Guggenheim, and Isidor Straus. J.P. Morgan, Alfred Vanderbilt, and Milton Hershey cancelled at the last minute but had tickets for the maiden voyage. Gugliemo Marconi, inventor of wireless telegraphy, was offered a free passage on the Titanic, but chose to go to America via the Lusitania three days prior to the launch of the Titanic.

One of the first class passengers was Peter Dennis Daly. His hobby was playing correspondence chess with overseas opponents. (source: Encyclopedia Titanica)

Another victim of the Titanic was Jacques Futrelle (1875-1912), an American journalist and mystery writer. He wrote about chess and short detective stories featuring Professor Augustus Van Dusen, also known as "The Thinking Machine."

For a while, it was thought that U.S. chess champion Frank J. Marshall was on the Titanic. Mr. and Mrs. Marshall were on the passenger list of the Titanic. It turned out to be Henty Marshall and not Frank Marshall. Frank was still in Paris giving chess exhibitions. (source: Brooklyn Daily Eagle, April 18, 1912 and April 20, 1912)

Only 306 of 1,500 bodies were ever found after the disaster, including John Jacob Astor's body.

Letters with enclosed chess diagrams that were to be used by A.C. White in one of his famous "Christmas Series" books were lost. On was a four-mover by Wolfgang Pauly.

The June, 1912 edition of The Chess Amateur had an article on the Titanic disaster on page 633.

When the RMS Lusitania was torpedoed and sank in 1915, about 300 copies of one of Alain C. White's Christmas series chess problems books was lost. This made this book the rarest of the Christmas Series and a copy was sold at the Klittich auction in 2014for 2,200 euros. F. G. Naumann also went down with the ship. He was a famous chess patron (he sponsored Monte Carlo 1902 and the Cambridge Springs International in 1904).

In 1916, the Titanic's sister ship, the Britannic (bigger than the Titanic), hit an underwater German mine in the Aegean Sea and sank. Only 30 lives were lost out of 1,065 passengers as they had enough lifeboats for every passenger.

In 1953, the movie Titanic, starring Clifton Webb, Barbara Stanwyck, Robert Wagner, and Richard Basehart, had several scenes with chess in it. One scene has some chess players playing chess in the middle of a busy second class crowd. Another chess scene occurs just after the ship hit the iceberg. Two nearly bald men are playing chess in the first class section of the ship and they continue to play, unaware that the ship just hit an iceberg.

On July 23, 2014, a chessboard made from Titanic wood was sold for $16,385 by auctioneers Philip Weiss Auctions in Lynbrook, New York. The chessboard was made by William Parker, carpenter aboard the SS Minia, one of four ships chartered by White Star to locate bodies drifting in the Atlantic after Titanic sank. The board was originally in the Manitoba Museum of the Titanic.

In the book, Raise the Titanic! by Clvie Cussler, there are several references to chess.

In the book, Voices from the Carpathia: Rescuing RMS Titanic by George Behe, there is a description of some of the survivors playing chess.

There have been several Titanic chess sets. One of the more expensive ones was designed by T.Q.B. Art. There is also a Titanic chess set at City Hall in Belfast, Ireland. The figures of both sets represent actual people who had a connection to the Titanic, including the captain, Edward John Smith, and the designer, Thomas Andrews.

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