Theophilus Thompson was born into slavery in Maryland in April 1855. After emancipation in 1868, the young Thompson worked as a house servant, among other menial jobs.
But his life took a dramatic turn in 1872, when he encountered chess for the first time. One of the players in this first game he watched was John Hanshew, who was the publisher of the Maryland Chess Review at the time. Observing Thompson’s evident fascination with the game, Hanshew gave Thompson a chessboard and a number of chess problems to solve.
Thompson immediately took to chess, and just the following year, at the age of eighteen, he published a book of called Chess Problems: Either to Play and Mate, Or Compel Self-mate in Four Moves. This book, as well as his performance in a number of chess tournaments, earned him significant notoriety.
He is believed to be the first published Black chess problemist.
Thompson’s future after the success of his book is very unclear. He had worked as a servant for Orestes Brownson Jr., the editor of the Dubuque Chess Journal, and publisher of Thompson’s book, but in 1875 Brownson died and Thompson was suddenly unemployed. Some accounts have him living well into the 1900s, but most historians seem to agree that he took up work as an oysterman in Maryland, where he died from complications of tuberculosis in his mid twenties.
Nevertheless, Thompson’s impact on the chess world is undeniable. His only book is long out of print, but you can read a scan of it here.
Several instructors at Chess Institute of Canada have digitized a number of his chess problems, a project we hope to continue.
In the panel below you will find two items. The first is one of Thompson’s more delightful creations: White to play and checkmate in two. The original publication claims that there are ten solutions to this puzzle, but we have found thirteen, with the possibility of even more!
The second is a great example of Thompson’s prowess as a chess player, demolishing his opponent in a mere twenty-two moves!
You can learn more about Theophilus Thompson, and other prominent Black chess players, in The Chess Drum, among other sources, and view his recorded chess games here.
This is the first in a series of pieces exploring chess in the context of Black History Month. Click on Black History Month to learn more about Black chess players, the African history of chess, and other issues relating to chess and race.