Friday 1 January 2016

Staunton's Chess-Player's Handbook

(2 variants of the first edition of 1847)

Happy New Year and welcome to the first of my occasional articles which I hope will be of interest to chess book collectors everywhere.

The Chess-Player's Handbook by Howard Staunton is one of the first antiquarian chess books acquired by collectors since it is readily available and inexpensive. We are all familiar with the attractive red blind-stamped cloth binding with the gilt chess-board on the front cover, the beautiful colour frontispiece of the Sphynx chess problem and the 518 pages of tightly packed text on all aspects of the game. 


Henry G. Bohn commenced the publication of his various "Library" series' in 1846 and The Chess-Player's Handbook was the first book in Bohn's Scientific Library when it was published in 1847. Staunton's Chess Player's Companion (1849) was the fifth book in the series.

The Handbook was an instant success (Staunton was able to promote the book in his Chess-Player's Chronicle and through his column in The Illustrated London News) and has continually been praised ever since. For example, H J R Murray in A History of Chess, Oxford, 1913, states on p885: ‘[Staunton's] Chess-Player's Handbook, London, 1847, took rank at once as the leading English text-book on chess and added greatly to his reputation both at home and abroad. Although it was admittedly based upon the German Handbuch, it contains much original analysis and exhibits throughout an independence of judgement which added greatly to the value of the work.  Few chess books have had a larger sale.´

Richard Eales says in Chess The History of a Game, London, 1985, p137: `[Staunton] wrote valuable books, particularly The Chess-Player's Handbook of 1847, which replaced Lewis's Lessons and became the standard reference book for English club players down to the end of the century´, and Harry Golombek included Staunton, alongside Philidor, Lasker, Reti and Nimzowitsch, in his article "Writers Who Have Changed Chess History" in Chess Treasury of the Air edited by Terence Tiller, Harmondsworth, 1966, principally on account of his Chess-Player's Handbook.

Wilhelm Steinitz declared in his International Chess Magazine for October 1888 p307: `no original Chess work by any first-class author has been published in the English language since the first appearance of Staunton's Handbook 44 years ago (Should be 41).

The colour frontis was unfortunately printed incorrectly in the first edition as the black rook on a1 and the black knight on b1 were omitted. This resulted in the Sphynx problem being solvable in 6 moves rather than the intended 11 moves.  This error was referred to in The Chess Player's Chronicle of Saturday 10th July 1847 (volume VIII) on p220,  and subsequently on p226 and p266, in Notices to Correspondents, and this was amended for the second edition of 1848. Nevertheless, the amended problem could now be solved in 9 moves.

1847 edition
1848 edition

An error on page 412 of the 1847 Handbook regarding the analysis of an ending was pointed out in a letter from Oxoniensis (R. B. Brien) published in the CPC volume VIII on p267. This was also amended in the 1848 edition.  

A further error in the Handbook was brought to the attention of readers of the CPC on p362 of volume VIII where Staunton included a footnote to the effect that some words were omitted from a note on p68 in the Handbook by mistake. This error was also corrected in the 1848 edition but was also corrected in later printings of the first edition of 1847. I have five copies of the 1847 edition and one has the correction which appears on p68 as follows: 

First printing of 1847 edition p68

Later printing of 1847 edition p68

This is the variant that I refer to in the heading.

I will write about the numbers of copies published and the relative scarcity (or otherwise) of the first edition in a later article.

                                      © Michael Clapham 2016

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