In memory of Dr Chess

Dr Maxwell Sturm at the chessboard.

Of all the players who held the title of national chess champion of Trinidad and Tobago, Dr Maxwell Sturm occupies a unique and distinguished place. Apart from his exploits over the chessboard at home and in the Caribbean, Dr Sturm was also a correspondence player of international repute and a prolific, informed and regular contributor to correspondence chess magazines in several countries.

Born in Brittany, France, of British parents who were both doctors, Dr Sturm led a fascinating life and will be remembered in T&T, his adopted home, not only for his chess prowess but also for his contribution to medicine and the nursing facility he established at the picturesque Bagshot mansion in Maraval where he and his family also lived.

Sturm bought the Edwardian great house shortly after he settled in T&T in the 1940s, thus immediately establishing his social status. He quickly scaled the heights of the local chess world also by winning the national championship in 1945 and again in 1946. It soon became clear, in fact, that Sturm was a player passionately engrossed in the art and science of the game at every level. Apart from his success in T&T, he captured the West Indies title in 1945 when the regional competition was revived after World War II.

Internationally, he earned a formidable reputation as a correspondence player over many years, winning several tournaments in North and South America and Europe and defeating a number of top players including Soviet Grandmaster Dr Bogatyrchuk who was then living in Canada. In the Individual World Correspondence Championship of 1946, he won against top English player Ritson Morry, Francisco Benko of Argentina, A de Sousa of Brazil and George Mathot of Belgium, finishing the six round event on 4.5 points behind the winner Viand of France.

As a writer, Sturm became a regular and valued contributor to leading correspondence chess magazines in Britain, Germany, Iceland, Norway and the United States, the readers of which benefited not only from his erudition in the game and his knowledge of its latest wrinkles—even such esoteric play as the Rubicon variation of the Evans Gambit—but also from his philosophic appreciation of its creative possibilities.

As a formidable player, writer and thinker on the sport of chess, Sturm emerged as a unique and protean figure in the history of the game. The late FE Brassington, journalist and former champion, described him as “a personality in his own right,” having a keen intellect which, however, did not suffer fools gladly.

Competitive Nature

His elder son, Maxwell, remembers his father at their Bagshot House home spending hours over the chessboard analysing correspondence games. “I think he preferred to play chess by mail as it gave him all that time to analyse his moves,”

Maxie, who was my friend at St Mary’s, didn’t follow in his father’s footsteps, although he also went to Aberdeen University. “I played the game only casually because I never liked its competitive nature,” he said. Maxie eventually became an expert in fisheries after doing his PhD in the subject at UWI.

Sturm must have acquired an early fascination with chess since he won the championship at Aberdeen while still an undergraduate. Apart from his play, his life-long absorption in exploring the nature of the game seems almost overwhelming, as can be gleaned from the massive, rambling and often humorous volume he has written on the subject. In his book, Sturm claims to have discovered a “hidden factor” in chess, apart from its actual practice. This factor, he explains, “proves that chess is for the man who will not stop trying, not through any pig headedness, but from his own decision to give the best in him to attain ultimate ends.”

Sturm seems to have personified the factor he claimed to have discovered. What brought this English doctor to Trinidad at the end of the War nobody seems to know. He was then in his mid thirties and had spent some 13 years in the British Army as a commissioned officer, serving in India, Egypt and Palestine. There are unconfirmed stories that he was attached to operations at the port.

Eventually, Sturm and his family became part of the colourful social fabric of the country. When he retired from medicine in 1952, his art-loving wife renovated Bagshot House, transforming it into an elegant hotel and opening a very popular night club, The Gay Cavalier. His daughter, Mary, became one of T&T’s celebrated beauties and his second son, Philip, followed his mother’s artistic taste, specialising in fine antiques. Sturm passed away in 1969, having made a different kind of T&T chess history, as player, writer and philosopher. We may remember him as Dr Chess. Sadly, Bagshot House was demolished in 1999 by its new owners.