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The Untold Talent of Joseph Redding: Profiling a Polymathic Chess Expert

Jerry Spinrad

Associate Professor of Computer Science, Vanderbilt University

The ability to access newspaper databases such as America’s Historical Newspapers has revolutionized research in the history and culture of chess. Some aspects of this research require detailed chess knowledge; for example, finding specific games of old masters or tracking changes in chess styles over the years. Other aspects of chess research require no specialized knowledge to appreciate: the atmosphere of chess clubs; rivalries between players, nationalities, and ethnic groups; and the often peculiar personalities of individual players.

Some interesting traits of individual chess players fit with common stereotypes; great masters frequently combine brilliance and unworldliness in a fascinating mixture. As James Mortimer, a 19th-century chess writer, said: "It will be cheering to know that many people are skillful chess players, though in many instances their brains, in a general way, compare unfavourably with the cognitive facilities of a rabbit." Thus, it is said (I believe apocryphally) that world champion Emanuel Lasker's attempt to run a poultry farm failed because he did not realize that this required animals of both sexes.

With access to America’s Historical Newspapers, I sought to learn about chess players who made news in areas ignored by the chess press. Chess was popular in the 19th century, but there were few opportunities for players from different parts of the United States to compete against each other. It was believed that except for a handful of players who would visit the East Coast, all the best players lived in New York, Philadelphia, or Boston. Players occasionally found surprisingly strong opponents in Chicago, New Orleans, and St Louis, but these were considered exceptions.

Due to its distance, the chess center most unknown in the Northeast during the 19th century was California. Towards the end of the century, a number of strong players who visited California reported their shock at the strength of Dr Walter Lovegrove, but I knew little about Californian chess between the 1850s and 1890s.

In the occasional visits of great chess players to California, the name Joseph D. Redding turns up frequently. Johannes Zukertort, one of the two best players in the world at the time, visited San Francisco in 1884. Zukertort split two games against Redding and then lost to Redding in a simultaneous blindfold game, though he avenged himself by beating Redding in a short match. A well-known master named George Hatfield Gossip visited San Francisco in 1888. A tournament was held for the honor of playing against Gossip; Redding won both the tournament, and the match against Gossip. Jackson Showalter, the champion of the United States, visited San Francisco in 1891. Showalter said the San Francisco players were stronger than those in Boston, Philadelphia, or Chicago, and he called Redding the best player he encountered in the city. Redding is a perfect example of an outstanding but unappreciated player due to the relative inaccessibility of California.

Redding was born in 1858, the son of Benjamin B Redding, a well-known Californian for whom the city of Redding, California is named. Although there are few traces of it, Benjamin Redding may also have been a strong chess player, since B.B. Redding is named as the player of a game of chess with human pieces in 1879.

Joseph Redding was educated at the California Military Academy and Harvard, where he directed the college orchestra and was Harvard billiards champion. Returning to San Francisco to start his legal career in 1879, he immediately took a prominent part in the San Francisco arts world as a writer, performer, and musician. By 1884, Redding was secretary of the San Francisco Art Association, and he continued to be associated with the city’s art community for many years.

The first mention I found of Redding in the chess world is from 1881, when he is one of two players on a Mercantile Library team playing a match against a larger team from the Mechanics Institute. By 1884, Redding was a leading San Francisco chess player. He chairs the meeting to arrange for Zukertort's visit to the city. Zukertort gave a blindfold exhibition against 12 opponents, winning nine and drawing one, losing only to Redding and J.F. Welsh. Redding also won an individual game against Zukertort, although he lost a match in which all games started with Zukertort accepting the Evans gambit. Still, Redding won three games against one of the best players in the world at the peak of his powers, no mean feat for an amateur player.

Redding lost a match in 1886 to a local player named Van Vliet, but in 1888 won a San Francisco tournament by beating Dr. B. Marshall and W.R. Lovegrove. Local papers say this let Redding retain his position of Pacific Coast champion. Papers also report that Redding beat Gossip in a match for a purse of $50, which must have surprised the visiting master, and won a telegraph match played against the entire Sacramento Chess Club in 1889. Although Redding continued to be interested in chess, he became less active in the 1890s as other activities took more of his time. Showalter was impressed with Redding’s play during his 1891 visit to San Francisco, and delayed leaving the city to try to arrange a full match against Redding. In 1893, an article on a chess revival in the San Francisco Call notes that longtime champion Redding had given up chess for the law. The San Francisco Chronicle in 1904 called Redding the best amateur chess player in the United States, though this statement was mocked by theChicago Tribune.

Later in life, Redding split his time between New York and San Francisco, appearing in various events at the famous Manhattan Chess Club. He played games with world champions Steinitz, Lasker, and José Raúl Capablanca, and he gave a speech at the annual Manhattan Chess Club dinner in 1907. Some of his later games appeared in print, but none seemed to be games as serious as his earlier ones.

What drew Redding's attention away from chess? Let us start with Redding's legal career. At age 23, he was a rising legal star. Before he turned 30, Redding won a case before the Supreme Court of the United States, which had important legal ramifications on limits of Federal Laws. Redding defended an Indian accused of murder on his reservation, arguing that reservations were not subject to the jurisdiction of the United States and that the matter should be decided by tribal law. Winning a case before the Supreme Court put Redding among the elite lawyers of California. A biography of prominent San Franciscans from 1892 gives his legal income as $15,000-20,000 per year, a large figure for a young lawyer. I will not discuss all the famous cases he handled, but I must mention a sideline that brought Redding an even higher level of wealth and prominence.

Railroad magnate Collis Huntington left an estate of 40 million dollars to his nephew Henry E Huntington. Princess Clara Von Hatzfeldt claimed to be the adopted daughter of Huntington, though this point was disputed. Redding intervened on her behalf, winning the Princess six million dollars. Redding received $300,000, at that time the largest fee ever paid to a lawyer in a case involving only individuals (The American, Oct/Nov 1901, pg 532). Redding became a go-to lawyer for disputed wills. Mrs. Charles Yerkes, whose aged millionaire husband attempted to rewrite his will against her shortly before his death, offered Redding 20% of the value of the estate to defend her rights; she received the inheritance.

Although Redding continued to practice law, these and other large settlements allowed him to spend more time on his other passions. Chief among these was music. His musical career through 1889 is treated in a biography of Redding from Bench and Bar in California: History, Anecdotes, Reminiscences Volume 3, which also gives a detailed treatment of his early legal career. Redding toured as a musical prodigy at age thirteen. A list of his early musical compositions is given in the Bench and Bar biography, which also includes an interesting statement by Redding on his theory of music. Redding felt that music, like perfume, could be appreciated without special training; he believed strongly in popular music, and faulted some classicists for failing to appreciate the importance of melody. One early song of Redding's, called "Aloha to Hawaii,” achieved significant popular success.

With his finances secured, Redding set his musical sights higher. Redding collaborated with well-known operetta writer Victor Herbert on a grand opera, with Redding writing the libretto. The result was a hugely anticipated opera called Natoma, set in California in the 1820s. This opera earned Redding a measure of immortality, though not the desired sort. Natoma has been called the greatest flop of all time. Meredith Willson described the reception in New York as follows: "The disaster became apparent early in the first act, and by the intermission all the people who were able to attend the reception ... were clutching at their bosoms in agony, knowing that they couldn't possibly go to this reception and couldn't possibly not go." Much of the blame was laid on Redding's libretto. Critics hammered the opera, but popular receptions of Natoma were generally quite good (The Independent, Volume 70, pages 659-660). About the negative reviews, Herbert, Redding’s collaborator, said: "Never write an opera in English. In English they understand it. Here in America they swallow the most idiotic plot as long as it's in German, French, Italian, or anything they can't understand." Redding's other claim to operatic fame was Fay-Yen-Fah, for which he wrote the music. Fay-Yen-Fah was the first American opera produced in France, and Redding was awarded the ribbon of the French Legion of Honor for this achievement.

Chess players have a reputation for being socially awkward. Redding, by contrast, was considered the life of every party, always ready with an amusing speech, a comic song, or a good story. Sometimes called a bon-vivant, he attended many grand social events, and according to one modern source was even linked romantically to a famous beauty of the time.

A story from the Chicago Tribune of Jan 17, 1904, shows Redding’s can-do American spirit. Redding shared a hotel hallway in London with the Emperor of the Sahara. Redding got in to take the lift downstairs, but the lift did not move. "Why don't you go down?," inquired Redding of the lift man. "Beg pardon, sir," replied the other, "I am waiting for his majesty." Redding waited for a few minutes, and took out his watch. "Look here," he demanded, "Are you going to take me downstairs or not?" There was the same reply as before. Redding took the man by the collar, put him out, shut the door, pulled the rope, and went down alone. His majesty had to walk.

Redding’s two children died at ages which seem particularly painful. His older daughter Myra died in 1897 at the age of 13. The death of Redding's younger daughter, Josephine, made international news. Josephine served as a Red Cross nurse with the French army during World War I. She received the Cross of the Legion of Honor for bravery on the battlefield, but died a few months later at age 22. Her obituaries attribute her death to neglecting her own health while overtaxing treating others.

Redding achieved some fame in various arenas, but his grandest and oddest attempt to make his mark on the world came in an unlikely area. Redding was a member of the California Fish Commission. The fish commission was usually a quiet legislative backwater, but Redding had grand ideas. Some of these, such as attempts to restock rivers, were substantial but not novel. Redding's attempt to change the fish-eating patterns of Americans (he called carp "a first class food-fish, if properly treated, and should in time become to fish what potatos are to vegetables") were immortalized in verse by Ambrose Bierce.

Here lies Joseph Redding, who gave us the catfish. He dined upon every fish except that fish. 'Twas touching to hear him expounding his fad. With a heart full of zeal and a mouth full of shad. The catfish miaowed with unspeakable woe. When Death, the lone fisherman, landed their Jo.

This was not Redding's only appearance in Bierce’s writings. The Devil's Dictionary has the cryptic definition: Ichthyologist, n. A Jo Redding.

And Bierce’s Black Beetles in Amber contains this poem:

A Fish Commissioner

Great Joseph D. Redding - illustrious name! - 
Considered a fish-horn the trumpet of Fame. 
That goddess was angry, and what do you think?
Her trumpet she filled with a gallon of ink,
And all through the Press, with a devilish glee, 
She sputtered and spattered the name of J.D.

Redding's greatest effort as Fish Commissioner was his attempt to bring lobsters to California. Redding's was not the first attempt, which sent 26 lobsters from Maine to California. The lobsters were sent with plugs in their claws to prevent mutilation during transport. Amazingly, the lobsters were dumped into the ocean, without even removing these plugs! Unsurprisingly, no traces of the lobsters appeared afterwards.

By contrast, Redding mobilized immense resources to bring lobsters to California. Instead of 26 lobsters, Redding brought an entire refrigerator car. He arranged for a ship to come with a group of scientists to perform research on the Pacific Coast, timing the lobster delivery to match with this visit. The scientists would give advice, and the ship would place the lobsters in remote areas far from fishermen. Redding surmounted many obstacles for transporting the lobsters. A key person at the Eastern end of the operation died at a critical moment. An interstate commerce bill threw a wrench into plans, which necessitated pleading with the President himself to exempt the lobster shipment from the regulations. These delays threw off a tight schedule. Delivery was put back to summer, and a heat wave killed half of the lobsters. After years of planning, 325 lobsters arrived in California, carrying hundreds of thousands of eggs. The scientists assisted in delivering them to several spots on the California coast. No lobster fishing was allowed for five years after the delivery.

Newspaper correspondents asked periodically about the success of the experiment. Early reports were of success, mixed with warnings that lobsters had appeared in markets while they should have been left alone to develop.

Redding maintained an interest in the lobsters, offering rewards for documented evidence of their survival. In my favorite piece of evidence, the quality of lobster salad in a town where lobsters were placed was said to have improved. Eventually the stories dwindled away, and Redding's attempt to change the ecology of the United States must be declared a failure.

Is Joseph Redding remembered today? Despite his talent in various fields, he is not really immortalized by his chess, his legal career, his music, or his pisciculture. However, one work of Redding survives in the popular culture.

Redding was a leading figure in the Bohemian Club of San Francisco. The Bohemian Club was envisioned as a place where interesting people could have fun, with little attention to standard social rules. Over the years, many rich and powerful people, including every Republican president since Coolidge, have been members of the club.

Of many things Redding did for the Bohemian Club, one is particularly notable. Redding invented a ceremony called "The Cremation of Care," which involves an elaborate theatrical production, a 40-foot stone statue of an owl, and Druid rituals, with Redding as the high priest. Redding's ceremony was much praised at the time for its beauty. The Cremation of Care, originally conceived as the club production for that year, became the defining annual club ceremony.

Flash forward 100 years, and what do we see? Immensely powerful men, Druid priests, strange symbols; it can only be a vast and monstrous plot! The Cremation of Care has come to be a key element of conspiracy theories. The Bohemians have been accused of being an occult group, the central evil force behind the New World Order, the real instigators of 9/11, etc. The Creation of Care has inspired protesters to lead a counter-ceremony called The Resurrection of Care.

How would Joseph Redding react to hearing about such controversy? Whether he would be pleased at the survival of his work, or irritated by the interpretations, he would love telling stories about it. Redding’s chess games deserve more attention than can be given here. I intend to write a follow-up article for a chess audience which includes analyzed chess games, to give Joseph Redding a bit of the chess immortality he deserves.

Jerry Spinrad is Associate Professor of Computer Science at Vanderbilt University. His research is in the area of graph algorithms, with a particular focus on recognition algorithms for classes of graphs with interesting representations. Examples of classes of such graphs include permutation graphs, comparability graphs, circular-arc graphs, circle graphs, trapezoid graphs, and two dimensional partial orders. He received a BS in Computer Science from Yale University and a PhD in Computer Science from Princeton University.

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