Ballarat Chess Club History
By Kevin Perrin
from Begonia History Book ed. Patrick Cook
When you reflect upon the history of the modern era of the Ballarat Chess Club, the most significant enduring external event has been the staging of the annual Begonia Tournament over 50 consecutive years. The fact that it has managed to survive for such a long period is really quite amazing. I have recorded some of my memories surrounding its origins, and have included the more vivid ones over the years. It is not intended to be a chronological summary of the event as our President and historian, Patrick Cook, has done an excellent job in preparing that summary for this book.
I can well recall riding my bicycle to the early days of Ballarat Chess Club meetings, which were held in the front living room of our President, Andy Miitel, at 7 Urquhart Street in Ballarat. Andy was the main instigator of the Club being reformed on 1 October 1964, after a hiatus of 11 years. Some members of the previous club including Lindsay Gunn, Joseph Cook and Mrs Taube joined the new club. Also at these early meetings were David Lee, Bob and Arthur Koelle, Ralph Van Beek and Don Maciulaitis, who played important roles in starting the Begonia Tournament in 1967. In fact, Joseph Cook competed in that first Begonia event.
The catalyst to stage a major chess tournament in Ballarat was the demise of the Ararat Gold Cup, which had been a very important and successful event in our sister city for many years. It had been held over the Queen’s Birthday long weekend and represented a major tournament on the Australian chess calendar. Players came from Melbourne and interstate in an attempt to take home a prestigious Gold Cup, which was valued at around £80 or about $1,000 today. Members of our club committee decided that Ballarat should hold a chess tournament during the Begonia Festival over the Labour Day long weekend. The Club was encouraged by Malcolm Mackay from Maryborough, who was the prime mover in country chess in Victoria at the time. The Club had no experience in holding such events but that was more than made up for by the enthusiasm of Club members.
The first Begonia Festival Chess Tournament of 1967 was not an open event, but rather one restricted to players who resided at least 30 miles from the Melbourne GPO. Malcolm Mackay agreed to act as Tournament Director (there were no arbiters in those days) and the Club committee and members worked hard to raise funds to stage the inaugural event. I can remember the raffles, white elephant sales and other activities, which were organised. That first event attracted 29 players and was won by veteran local club player Ernest Greenhalgh with a perfect score of six wins from six games. A lightning tournament was held in preference to having a seventh game. Ernie was awarded the first Begonia Cup, which, in a very nice gesture, was donated back to the club several years ago by his family. That historic trophy is displayed at the tournament each year. “Greenie”, as he was affectionately called, was the elder statesman of the Club and won the championship in three distinct eras. He also left the Club a significant bequest, which contributed in no small way to its ongoing financial strength.
In 1969, Emmanuel Basta encouraged the Club to upgrade the Begonia Cup to the Begonia Open. At the time, he was writing a chess column in the Weekly Times, which was instrumental in advancing chess throughout country Victoria. Basta promoted the tournament and encouraged many of the top players from Melbourne and Sydney to enter. It was therefore quite appropriate that he shared the honours at that first Open with another great stalwart and supporter of the event over many years, Doug Hamilton, who went on to win the event three times. There were some other great names in the contemporary Australian chess scene who entered, including Gary Koshnitsky, Geus, Raipalis and Rudzitis. Ballarat was represented by the 15-year-old Arthur Koelle, who went on to win the under 18 Australian Junior title in 1971. Bill Kerr also played in that event and he has been a regular competitor in recent years.
To help raise the money to stage the Begonia Open, Club members undertook further fund raising activities, which even included weekend barbecues and woodcutting on properties of long-standing member, Lindsay Gunn, who owned several forestry plantations. These days out were marvellous fun but it was amazing that no member or family helper was seriously injured in the process.
Past club member, Don Maciulaitis, returned to Ballarat to act as tournament director in 1971 and 1972. At this time, he encouraged me to try my hand as tournament director the following year. While I had been club tournament director for a few years, I had no experience of an open event and so, I undertook the role with great apprehension. However, I do remember the great words of encouragement from Doug Hamilton during that time when the pairing rules were far less clear and there were certainly no Swiss Perfect programs to effectively prepare the draw and write up the cross tables. I am very thankful to Don for giving me the confidence to undertake that role and to players like Doug, Robert, Darryl, Ian, Guy and others for their support over the 34 years during which I continued to be the Arbiter. In that 1973 event at the George Hotel, in which Robert Jamieson recorded the first of his six wins, and the famous pair of Purdy and Koshnitsky (who together wrote the incredible Chess Made Easy) competed, we struck an unexpected problem. After playing the first two games, we were advised by the Hotel management that the main playing room would not be available for the next two morning sessions since it was required as the breakfast room for hotel guests. Those games were hastily moved to other areas including smaller lounges and even along the passageways of the historic hotel.
After the unfortunate experience at the George Hotel, the venue was relocated to the Ballarat Institute of Advanced Education at Mt Helen. That venue provided a very modern, open and spacious playing room and it had the advantage of on-site student accommodation. In 1975, at the height of the Bobby Fischer generated chess euphoria, we had our first attendance of over 100 players when Mike Woodhams won from a field of 112 competitors. That record stood until 2003. Since that time, most years have attracted in excess of 100 players, which is a great achievement for our country-based club. That venue became unavailable when the Ballarat Institute of Advanced Education became the University of Ballarat and classes were scheduled for the Monday of the long weekend.
There followed a very successful period of six years at the Ballarat Grammar School, which also had onsite accommodation for players. It was during that period that we saw the emergence of the up and coming Guy West in 1979 and Darryl Johansen in 1980. Guy formed a close tie with Ballarat and produced a great win in the 1984/85 Australian Open Championship held by the club. The rise and continued dominance of Darryl Johansen has been the most amazing story of the first 50 years of the Begonia Tournament. He has managed to win the event on 13 occasions, more than double the times of the next nearest winners — Robert Jamieson and Guy West with six wins each and Ian Rogers and Stephen Solomon on five wins apiece. Unfortunately, we had to move from that venue when one of the players left a mysterious substance behind in their room after his departure! I was summoned to the bursar’s office the next day and told in no uncertain terms that such behaviour could not be condoned and that we would have to make alternative arrangements for the next year.
Subsequently, there was the 1982 event at the Old Ballarat Village, where my most vivid memory was having to deal with a complete power failure, which turned the game on the Saturday evening into a state of complete chaos, until the power was restored after about 30 minutes. This was also the first year when Ian Rogers recorded one of his five successes. However, the problems with that location were enough for us to seek out yet another venue. We did our homework very carefully and fortunately, we were very lucky to find a location that was to last us for the next 31 years.
The Old Gaol at the School of Mines Ballarat (SMB) campus in the centre of town was a great venue and a firm favourite with players and spectators alike. One of the major attractions was ‘The Pit’, which was a sunken area where the top 20 players were paired. Players and visitors were able to watch the games from over the railing like spectators in a coliseum whilst the gladiators did battle. In 1986, we asked Colin McKenzie from Koroit, who was a regular player and a sign writer, to design and make a very large banner to promote the tournament. He did a great job and his artwork still survives and is displayed at the tournament each year.
The SMB was a great venue and it holds many fantastic memories. Some are stronger than others, but none more dramatic for me than in 1999 when Nigel Barrow and I were trapped in the elevator for about an hour whilst the emergency rescue team were called to free the prisoners. We were very disappointed to have to move from that popular venue, but time had caught up with it. This was very evident in the final year when, during heatwave conditions in Ballarat, the players struggled to contend with playing conditions with the lack of any effective cooling system. The building had not been maintained very well over the 31 years, and we were also facing closure of access to the areas that were needed to cope with an entry far exceeding 100 players and post-game analysis. These factors prompted us to seek out a new home for the 48th Begonia Open.
After a diligent search, we were very pleased to find the current venue and to have struck up a very good relationship with Ballarat Clarendon College. The College are great supporters of the role of chess in helping in the education and development of their students. This is a very enlightened approach and we are especially keen to foster our relationship. The College also boasts a chess club that is regularly attended by over 40 juniors. Having our club Vice President, Chris Segrave, as a teacher at the College is also an added advantage. The Sewell Pavilion is an extremely good venue for a chess tournament and the nearby overflow facilities mean that it can cater for a very large entry as well as simultaneous activities.
This golden anniversary tournament promises to be a memorable occasion. The club is very pleased to have secured the participation of former world champion candidate and journalist, Grandmaster Nigel Short, from the UK. His involvement has acted as a catalyst for us to attract commitments to play from what is likely to be the strongest field of local players ever assembled to compete in Ballarat. From an historic perspective, the Club is also delighted that Arthur Koelle and I, who both competed in the first Begonia tournament, will be co-competitors once again. Arthur is making a special trip back to his home city from Germany for the event. His father, Bob, who also played in the first event, will be there to watch as the games unfold. We are hoping that many past competitors will accept our invitations to play and/or return to Ballarat to revive memories and renew acquaintances.
Thank you to all the players who have competed at the tournament over the years. Apart from the big names who have won the event and had their names recorded for all to see, there are those who have rolled up to support the tournament year after year. People like Roland Brockman, Angelo Tsagarakis and Alistair Anderson would have played at the Begonia around 30 times; their support and that of numerous others is greatly appreciated. It is very rewarding to the organisers to be able to greet players returning to Ballarat to compete again, renew friendships or just to visit the event to see how it is going.
The support of our sponsors over many years has helped the event to survive. None more so than the original one, Jacques Engelander, whose company Novag was a sponsor for 12 years and who diligently operated his chess computer as a fierce competitor for much of that time. More recently, that mantle has fallen on David Cordover, who has generously provided support for numerous years via Chess World and Tornelo. Other strong support has been received from Chess Ideas, Frangos Restaurant, Craig’s Royal Hotel and Nevett Ford. In 1999, major sponsorships were received from Visy Industries and the National Safety Council of Australia, which resulted in record prizes being offered for that year.
There are many others who should be thanked for their non-cash assistance —the loyal band of members and families of the Ballarat club (too many to mention), who have made great contributions over the years that added to the success of the event — their support is acknowledged. The support of the various Arbiters is acknowledged and, particularly that of Gary Wastell and Leonid Sandler when, as Presidents of Chess Victoria, they brought chess sets and clocks from that body to ensure that sufficient equipment was available.
One aspect of the tournament that we have always strived to achieve was financial independence and a record of never failing to deliver on our advertised prizes. We have always viewed that as critical. We also wanted to be able to offer those players, who competed for the various rating groups, the opportunity to win a meaningful prize. While few players enter chess tournaments to win the cash prizes, we see it as very important that they do receive a realistic reward if they perform very well. That is probably inherent in our roots as a country club.
What of the future? This year is likely to mark the end of the more active roles of President Patrick Cook and myself. However, the Club is very fortunate to have a strong committee with members of the calibre of Chris Segrave (Vice President) Anna Yates (Secretary), Robert Loveband (Webmaster) and Bjorn Lategan (Tournament Director) to form its nucleus and drive the Begonia Tournament onward to be a strong and active event on the Australian chess scene into the future. For my part, I have been very proud to have been able to make a contribution, initially as a player and committee member, then as arbiter and more recently as tournament manager. Patrick and I are hoping that we will be able to be active as competitors at many future Begonia Chess Tournaments.