There are few places in the World that could match the illustrious history of draughts playing as that of the City of Belfast.
Draughts in Belfast go back to 1830
Records of draughts having been played in Belfast go back to 1830 when one of Britain’s leading match players, Andrew Blair of Glasgow, came to Belfast to play one of the city’s leading exponents of the time for a stake of £50 aside. This was indeed a considerable sum, which today would probably be equivalent to more than the price of a house.
World Champion James Wyllie of Edinburgh, Scotland, was a frequent visitor to the city in the 1860’s and played games against most of the city’s leading players’ like Mr. Dysart the Auctioneer, John Mc Williams who lived at Berry St., Samuel Gallagher, Mr. Hayes, Wm. Hunter, and Mr. Harper. James Wyllie was made an honorary member of the Belfast club in 1872.
At the turn of the 20th century, there were regular matches being contested for the coveted title of “Belfast City Draughts Champion”, with Charles E. Smith from Brookvale Ave., Antrim Road, being a regular winner. He also won the Ulster Chess Championship of 1906. This period was also a time when draughts clubs flourished around the city, with club teams representing the North Belfast Working Men’s Club, East End Club, Duncairn, St. Paul’s, Ballymacarrett, Willowfield, and Ligoniel, being the leading contestants.
Northern Ireland Championships
During the Easter week-end of 1920, a team of draughts players from Glasgow came across to Belfast City to play a match. The Glasgow team were a formidable bunch and proved too strong for their local opponents, winning by 22 wins to 10, and 26 games drawn. In 1924 the Belfast players promoted a Northern Ireland Championships, which was won by Davy McCullough who was perhaps the city’s finest player that decade. Davy was a shipyard worker, a place where the game was steadily played. It was well known that when they were short of playing pieces, they used to play with a selection of Nuts against the opposing Washers!
The very centre of the social fabric
Even in those days of the great depression, the game of draughts was at the very centre of the social fabric, being played everywhere that people gathered. The atmosphere of the period is well captured in John Simm’s “Farewell to the Hammer” (1992) where he recounts growing up in the Hammer district of the Shankhill, and relates an amusing story around a game of draughts entitled “The day of the chandering woman”. There were large open-air boards in the Botanic Gardens where players gathered in the summer evenings to play games.
World Champion Robert Stewart of Kelty, Scotland, visited Belfast in 1929 during an exhibition tour of the British Isles. He played 12 sessions over a six day period, in which he contested 277 games, winning 227 of them, and drawing the remaining 50 games.
Draughts in 1940’s and 50’s
In the 1940’s and 50’s draughts players would regularly gather in the “Queen Mary Gardens” on the Antrim Road to play games and to discuss the finer points of others which were being contested elsewhere. Leading players there were Alex Watson, Robert Smith, Billy Lough, Albery Quirey, the Mills brothers, Jimmy Patterson and Joe Jillen. It was a period of fierce rivalry between two of Belfast’s greatest players in Robert Silcock and Joe Gilliland. The latter was the owner of a shop in the Smithfield Market area, and he emerged as the supreme draughts player in Ireland during the 1960’s, having won the Northern Ireland Championships on five consecutive occasions, and then defeated the Republic of Ireland champion W. Guerin twice in matches.
In 1957 World Champion Dr. Marion Tinsley from the USA visited Belfast on his five week “goodwill tour” of the British Isles. In all he contested 423 games of which he won 307, drew 115, and lost just one game. That loss was in Belfast to local expert Robert Surgenor, and was one of less than a dozen games which the World Champion lost in a 40 year career! That same year the Northern Ireland players (who mainly came from the Belfast area) challenged England to a friendly International Team Match. They travelled to London and played 8th-12th July, winning 66 games to 33 games, with 100 games drawn.
The 1960’s seen a period of sustained development in draughts, with Northern Ireland players travelling to Glasgow in 1967 to play an International Team Match against the Scottish national team. Against all predictions they drew their match against Scotland’s finest by the score of 20 wins each and 38 games drawn. The following year a team of draughts players from New York arrived in Belfast to play a match in the World Team Championships. The US team was lead by the famous Tom Wiswell of Brooklyn. This match, held at the “International Hotel” was narrowly won by the visiting team who went on to win the world team title outright. While in Belfast, World Champion Tom Wiswell suffered a defeat in a game at the hands of James Patterson.
Turbulent times in the 70’s
The late 1960’s witnessed the beginning of the “troubles” in Northern Ireland, and the game of draughts in Belfast began to suffer. With the increasing turbulence of this period, most draughts activities moved outside Belfast. The last major draughts championship held in Belfast was the Northern Ireland Championship in 1970, held at the British Legion Club on Royal Avenue. A club continued to meet at the Fisherwick Church Hall at Malone Road for a number of years, but all major championships were held outside of the city since then.
Despite these set-backs, the city of Belfast continued to turn out champion draughts players, with David Pilson of Rutherglen St, Ballygomartin, becoming one of it’s most famous. In the 1980’s he had become one of Ireland’s most feared opponents after having won the Northern Ireland Championship, and finishing runner-up in the “southern” Irish Championships.
Draughts in Belfast today
Today there remains the capacity of a major resurgence of draughts in Belfast in this new millennium, with players and promoters like Tom Templeton, Robert Patterson, and Fred Wilson to the fore. In this new climate of social change, there remains a place for the game of draughts to re-emerge as a way of bringing people together in a friendly, non threatening, and competitive atmosphere.