Chess is the sport of kings. But in the nineteenth century, in the nimble hands of a natural genius, chess was also the sport of former slaves.
Though the name Theophilus Thompson may ring with the wizened tones of ancient scholars, the bearer of the title was raised not in Athenian white robes but in the tattered rags of a slave. Like his parents before him, Thompson was born into slavery in Frederick, Maryland. When his eyes first saw light in 1855, it was a hazy scene, one of shifting histories and crumbling boundaries. Just nine days before his sixth birthday, Civil War wrapped its steely fingers around the heart of the South, and by war’s end, Thompson’s slavery was a matter of his past.
But the youth was still years, and miles, from the chiseled black and white pieces that would mark his place in American history. In 1868 the teenaged Thompson traveled to Carroll County, Maryland, to uphold the mantle of his forebears, if in a slightly different capacity, as a house servant. He remained for two years before returning to his hometown of Frederick.
It was then, in 1870, that Thompson finally laid eyes on the mathematical symphony that is chess. In a spark of fate, the first game he witnessed included John K. Hanshaw, a local chess legend and publisher of The Maryland Chess Review. Whether inspired by all eager minds or Thompson’s alone, Hanshaw decided to pass on the gift of the game and sent his new student home with a chess board and a series of chess problems to solve.
Thompson sunk comfortably into the game, as if dazed and enamored by the kaleidoscope of black and white. He didn’t merely solve the assignments from Hanshaw, he created and solved his own ingenious problems. Within months, even weeks, Thompson sat across the board from experience players, shuffled his sixteen pieces, and emerged victorious. Word of the wunderkind spread, and fame came to rest on Thompson’s doorstep
Or, more accurately, the doorstep of Orestes Brownson, Jr. Brownson was the publisher of the Dubuque Chess Journal, and also the employer of Thompson, who—despite his logical prodigiousness—worked as a servant. But Thompson’s employment in Brownson’s home was no coincidence; in 1873, just one year after first witnessing a game of chess, Brownson helped publish Thompson’s book, Chess Problems: Either to Play and Mate, or Compel Self-mate in Four Moves.
If Thompson was not hailed as a prodigy before his book, he certainly was after. His name rose through the stuffy circles of chess players, his moves remembered and enacted by white-clipped nails around the world. In the July 1874 issue of City of London Chess Magazine, the review of Thompson’s Chess Problems read: “We have been very much pleased indeed with the composition in this book, and consider that they display real genius, both of a conceptive and constructive order. . . . We consider Mr. Thompson a composer of great merit and of rare promise.”
But the promise sketched in the book of Thompson was one never kept. Even as his star continued to rise, it fell, from popular notoriety in highfaluting fields to nominal obscurity almost instantly. Precipitated by the closing of Brownson’s journal, Thompson was left unemployed, and, almost as if he had died, he disappeared. Thompson’s unexpected disappearance from the world he was only just beginning to know inspired the worst speculations: perhaps he had been lynched? How else could such a promising player slip from the grasps of logisticians and masterminds so entirely?
Thankfully, it appears that was not the fate of Thompson after all. Though his history does essentially fade to black after 1874, his name appears in the most bureaucratic of records: the census. First in the 1880 census, at home in Maryland working as an oysterman, and again in 1920, as a married father of two. If not for his unique name, we could chock the census records to chance—but given the signature and his Maryland roots, it’s safe to speculate that this was, indeed, the Theophilus Thompson of chess fame.
And although that ending may seem sad—the prodigy who fades quickly into obscurity after his brief brush with fame—it certainly is not. Perhaps it was a simple life that beckoned to Thompson, just as the call of Frederick once called him home from Carroll County. Or maybe he was pleased simply to be the first black man to achieve recognition as a chess master. Regardless of how long his tenure as a chessman lasted, Thompson did indeed grasp the reins of fate as the servant became the master.