Montreal’s Best Club of the 1970s
I participated in my first Montreal interscholastic chess tournament over the Xmas school holidays of 1969/70.
In those days school chess was a team activity, usually 4 boards each team, with schools allowed to enter more than one team if there was enough interest. My Rosemount High School team was a spirited group of amateurs with no previous tournament experience, and what we lacked in technique and formal training we made up for in enthusiasm and motivation.
Interscholastic chess in those days consisted of a number of preliminary qualification tournaments, with the top finishing teams going forward to the city finals. Hundreds of youngsters participated that year, and I made many friendships that I still maintain to this day.
The main force behind organized chess in Montreal back then was D.Ledain (1900-1978).Ledain was an interesting individual, having dedicated his entire life to playing and actively promoting the game. He became Monteal Champion in 1924 and Canadian Correspondence Champion in 1947. Ledain was also the Montreal Gazette chess columnist from 1949 to his death in 1978.
But Ledain’s real legacy was his organizational skill, and several generations of Montreal players owe a great deal to this labour. By the time that I appeared on the scene in Montreal, it was normal to have regular seasonal tournaments and city championships. Little has changed from this basic format to this very day!
The interscholastics attracted hundreds of participants each year and Ledain was very active in promoting school/junior chess. Once he even visited Rosemount High School and organized a tournament while he was there. I played several off-hand games with him at the time, and he recounted of the time he drew a simultaneous exhibition game against Alekhine in 1923! He seemed to encourage me to play chess…Ledain’s style was very personal, one to one contact.
It was in these preliminary qualification tournaments that I first heard of the Alekhine Chess Club, the most popular chess spot in Montreal at the time. I made a mental note to try to visit the club, and in early February 1970 I finally mustered the courage to do so.
The Alekhine Chess Club was located at the Berri Metro Station in downtown Montreal, in the adjoining showmart. The showmart has since been demolished, but in those days it was a very active place , with a very large gym-like area on the first floor. This gym served for holding rock concerts, karate demonstrations and other sporting activities. But at most times it served as a roller skating rink (!) and was very popular with the younger crowd.
The Alekhine Chess Club had first opened 0n July 11 of 1969, and shared premises with the USSR-Quebec Cultural Association. To be fair, I believe that it was due to the good will of that Association that the chess club was allowed to use the premises! Boris Spassky, the World Champion at the time, was the honorary president of the club (infact, in August 1971 Spassky actually visited the club and gave a simultaneous exhibition)
To reach the club it was necessary to exit the Metro, walk past the roller skating rink , and continue down a corridor until you came to a barber shop. Opposite the barber shop were the elevators to the upper floors of the showmart. The Alekhine Chess Club/USSR-Quebec Cultural Association was located in room 3124.
As I walked into the club , the first thing that struck me was how small and cramped it all was. It seemed like a long corridor! Stuffy and windowless was what I expected (it was that, also!) from reading one of my chess books about what chess clubs were like. There were people sitting and playing chess on long tables that seemed to extend right to the back of the club.
Artur Langlois, the colourful director of the Alekhine Chess Club, immediately noticed me and came up and welcomed me to the club. Before I could say much more, I found myself sitting opposite an elderly gentleman playing a game. Langlois was not one to waste time in getting a new member!
I still remember that at one point Langlois came up to watch the game (I was white, it was still in the opening phase, an exchange variation of the Grunfeld (one of the few lines I knew at the time!)), and he nodded his head and said to me that I had a very impressive centre! Artur had earned himself another member!
Artur Langlois was one of the most dynamic individuals that I have ever met in Montreal chess. A stocky man in his early 40’s at the time, unmarried and always well dressed with a jacket, Langlois’ life seemed to revolve around the chess club. It was his life. He used to organize blitz tournaments every week (I think that Hugh Brodie got his start doing rating lists of these massive round robbin events), mandatory opening tournaments once every month or so, simuls and other activities. Langlois kept the club in constant motion!
But he was a terrible player! Artur would like to play (with white) 1.c4 and 2.f4! He would lose to all of us, and yet still refuse to admit that it was for any other reason than he was unlucky. And he would never refuse to play 10 minute blitz chess with anyone , providing there was a small stake involved (usually 50cents or a dollar). Everyone took money from him.
I have to admit that I also took Artur’s money from time to time! As I quickly developed into a reasonably strong blitz player ( the Alekhine Chess Club provided this opportunity since I became a regular visitor on the weekends) I found myself having to give 10-2 odds to Artur, and then knight odds to play for the same money. And poor Artur did not increase his winning percentage!
Langlois personal life was something of a mystery to all of us. From time to time I would be invited to his home to see his magnificent chess library and chess set collection. I had never seen such a large collection of chess books up to that time! Invariably we would soon end up playing more blitz! Often I would borrow some of his chess books for a week or so, and this helped me to improve.
Artur’s home was something like a disorganized museum. Scattered everywhere were art objects (marble and bronze statues, paintings (some of them erotic!) and sculptures; Amazing collections of rare books; expensive furniture and what not. Langlois was a collector of things, and he used to constantly add to his collection each week and his home simply was running out of living space. To maintain a balance, he would sell some of his collections.
Artur Langlois was quite a character! He singlehandedly ran the Alekhine Chess Club. The club remained at the Berri showmart until the middle of 1972 when we started to meet on St.Hubert street (I assume that the USSR-Quebec cultural association moved…and the club conveniently followed!) and later on St. Denis street. Finally, when the cultural association gave the boot to the club, the Alekhine chess club met every Friday at a local Cegep. Finally, towards the end of 1979 the Alekhine Chess Club simply died.
I suppose Langlois could not find a place that was willing to allow the club to stay. Perhaps Artur simply grew tired of doing all the work. But Artur still remained a part of the chess community, visiting local tournaments and inviting people to his home to play chess and admire his latest collections that he had aquired. I remember he visited my match with Igor Ivanov in early 1987, showing up for each game. When I won the 6th game , levelling the match score, Artur came up to me and congratulated me. He told me that some victories were worth more than 1 point…
Artur died in late 1987, at the age of 60. To many Montrealers of my generation we will never forget him. The Alekhine Chess Club and Artur Langlois were one and the same!
Below is a photo that Artur Langlois took in July 1971 (he often had a camera with him) and which he, many years later, presented it to me as some sort of momento. It has remained with me thru all of these years since and has travelled thousands of kilometres with me to Europe. I keep it in my chess library . It is one of the earliest photos that I have of myself. The photo has endured (like me), but is showing signs of wear and tear, cracking and fading (probably like me also!).
This photo shows play during the 4th round (a Sunday morning round) of a 5 round weekend tournament (the 3rd Alekhine Open) held at the Alekhine Chess Club in July 1971. According to Hugh Brodie, a grand total of 76 players participated (including my older brother Jimmy), which is impressive considering how small the club was and that the Fischer boom had not yet taken place! The photo indicates how cramped the players were at the table. Notice that there was hardly any space for my scoresheet, let alone our elbows!
The tournament entry fee was 10 dollars (perhaps there was a discount for juniors, I do not remember) and first prize was 100 dollars. The winner of the tournament was Jaques Labelle (5-0), followed by C. Coudari, R. Rubin, J.P. Beauchamp, and D. Switkes (4.5-0.5)
The round before I had defeated Leo Williams with the black pieces. Unfortunately, I did not keep my scoresheets at that time so I do not have the game, but I do remember that the opening was a Najdorf Sicilian (Variation 6.Bg5). White castled Q-side and I started an impressive attack against Leo’s king.
Williams, L – Spraggett K.
Alekhine Chess Club Round 3, 1971.
1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 d6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 Nf6 5. Nc3 a6 6. Bg5 e6 7. f4 Be7 8. Qf3 Qc7 9. O-O-O Nbd7 10. g4 b5 11. Bxf6 Nxf6 12. g5 Nd7 13. f5 Nc5 14. fxe6 fxe6 15. h4 b4 16. Nce2 e5 17. Nf5 O-O 18. Neg3 Be6 19. Kb1
Unfortunately, I don’t remember how the game continued (it was so long ago) but I do clearly remember that a very strange position later arose where I had my Rook at c2, my Knight at b2 and my Bishop on a2! Ofcourse there were many other pieces on the board, but the Queen side looked like:
Something like this really happened on the Q-side!
Leo was rapidly crushed and I think that some of the spectators were quite shocked at how a relative unknown like myself could rapidly dispatch one of Montreal’s leading stars.
Probably influenced by this episode, Coudari decided to take no chances with me and played a very positional and boring style of game…but he achieved what he wanted: I was gradually outplayed and never presented any real problems to my more experienced (and stronger) adversary.
I had just played my 14th move (…Nd7) and was in the process of pressing my clock. Coudari was reaching for his pen to record my move:
Coudari,C vs Spraggett,K
Alekhine Chess Club , Montreal 1971
1. c4 Nf6 2. d4 g6 3. Nc3 Bg7 4. e4 d6 5. g3 O-O 6. Bg2 Nbd7 7. Nf3 e5 8. O-O c6 9. dxe5 Nxe5 10. Nxe5 dxe5 11. Qa4 Re8 12. Rd1 Qc7 13. b4 Be6 14. Bf1 Nd7
15. Be3 Bf8 16. Rac1 a5 17. b5 Nc5 18. Qc2 Bg4 19. Be2 Bxe2 20. Qxe2 Rad8 21. Rf1 Ne6 22. bxc6 bxc6 23. f4 Nd4 24. Qf2 Bg7 25. f5 Rd7 26. Na4 Bf8 27. c5 gxf5 28. exf5 Rd5 29. Rc4 Qd8 30. Rfc1 Qf6 31. Nc3 Qxf5 32. Bxd4 exd4 33. Nxd5 Qxd5 34. Qxd4 Qxd4 35. Rxd4 Re5 36. Rg4 Kh8 37. Rgc4 f5 38. R1c2 Kg7 39. Kg2 Kf6 40. Ra4 [1:0]
Returning to the above photo, one can see Dr. J.Labelle (who won the tournament) to the immediate right of Coudari. Labelle comes from a family of mathematicians (all of his brothers!). For quite a while he was the strongest french speaking player in Quebec, and an excellent blindfold player in his own right. In 1979 Labelle and I joined forces with Gilles Brodeur, Pierre Jodoin and Pierre Lemyre to co-author a book on the 1979 Montreal Super Tournament.
Two players to my left we can see Fitzsimmons, a strong A-level player who just recently passed away, only months away from his retirement. A very likeable fellow, we played dozens of blitz games during the years the Alekhine Chess Club was functioning at the Berri Showmart.
Although it is difficult to make out, against the wall (immediately behind Coudari) were posters of all of the world champions. One of the nice things about the club was the sense of chess tradition. No one ever came away from the Alekhine without picking up some history lesson…