Macdonnell, Alexander (DNB00)

MACDONNELL, ALEXANDER (1798–1835), chess-player, the son of Alexander Macdonnell (d. 21 April 1843), a Belfast physician, born at Belfast in 1798, was bred to a mercantile life, and carried on an extensive business at Demerara between 1820 and 1830. He wrote several able pamphlets on economic questions, and was soon after 1830 appointed secretary to the West India Committee of Merchants, his duties being to watch the progress of bills connected with the West Indies through parliament. He was trained as a chess-player by William Lewis (1787-1870) [q. v.], but, having got over the odds of 'pawn and move,' Lewis refused to meet him on equal terms, and from the foundation of the Westminster Chess Club in 1833 Macdonnell was tacitly admitted to be the best English player. In June 1834 Louis Charles Mahe de Labourdonnais, secretary of the Paris Chess Club, and a pupil of the old French champion, Des Chapelles, came over to England and challenged Macdonnell's supremacy. Then commenced at the Westminster Club in Bedford Street, in the presence of a large concourse of amateurs, a famous series of encounters, the interest of which has remained unrivalled in the history of chess. La Bourdonnais spoke no English and Macdonnell no French, and the only word that passed between them was ‘check.’ The struggle began with three phenomenally long games, which were all drawn. Slowly, however, the Frenchman obtained the advantage, and of the eighty-eight games played won forty-four, fourteen games being drawn. The play of both men increased in brilliancy as this great contest proceeded. The duel was at length interrupted by Labourdonnais's recall to Paris, and before the antagonists could again meet Macdonnell died, at the boarding-house in Tavistock Square where he had long resided, on 14 Sept. 1835 (Gent. Mag. 1835, ii. 442). He was buried in Kensal Green cemetery, where five years later his great opponent was also interred. Macdonnell was unmarried.

With the exception of Howard Staunton [q. v.] there is perhaps no native British player who has displayed such a strong innate faculty for chess as Macdonnell, who is entitled to rank with Morphy, Paulsen, and Labourdonnais among the greatest masters of the game in modern times. A large number of his games are extant. A selection, including eighty-five of his games with Labourdonnais, was published by William Greenwood Walker, ‘the most enthusiastic of chess recorders,’ in 1836. Fifty of the match games had previously been issued by William Lewis (1835, 8vo), but Walker's version is the more trustworthy.

[Materials kindly furnished by the Rev. W. Wayte; Chess-Player's Chronicle, 1843, pp. 369–81; Chess-Player's Magazine, 1864, pp. 161–6; Le Palamède, 1836, vol. i. freq.]

T. S.