Master Roberts

Edward Winter

(1998, with updates)

Nineteenth-century chess is commonly surmised to have been dominated by hoary, briar-puffing venerables, and it is true enough that the chess clubs were not pulsating with young blood. Where exceptions existed then, they have been forgotten now. About J.D. Roberts of Ireland, for instance, chess sources do not provide even a basic biography. Page 44 of A History of the Dublin Chess Club by A.A. Luce (Dublin, circa 1965) records that Roberts became a member in 1879 but otherwise reveals nothing. The January 1881 Chess Monthly (page 147) wrote, ‘The champion boy of Ireland – Master Roberts is not 15 years yet’, which would imply that he was born in the first part of 1866, and the same issue (pages 147-149) gave two of his games:

H. Fisher – John Drew Roberts
Dublin, 1880
Bishop’s Opening

1 e4 e5 2 Bc4 Bc5 3 Qe2 Nc6 4 c3 Nf6 5 d3 O-O 6 Bg5 d6 7 b4 Bb6 8 a4 a6 9 Nd2 Be6 10 f4 h6 11 Bxf6 Qxf6 12 f5 Bxc4 13 Nxc4 Ba7 14 Nf3


14…d5 15 exd5 e4 16 d4 exf3 17 Qxf3 Rfe8+ 18 Kd2 Nxd4 19 cxd4 Qxd4+ 20 Qd3 Qf2+ 21 Kc3 Re2 22 Rac1 Rae8 23 Rhf1 Qxg2 24 Rf3 Bf2 25 Rc2 Bd4+ 26 Kxd4 Rxc2 27 Ne3 Qxf3 28 Nxc2 Qf2+ 29 White resigns.

H. Fisher – John Drew Roberts
Dublin, 1880
Ruy López

1 e4 e5 2 Nf3 Nc6 3 Bb5 a6 4 Ba4 Nf6 5 d3 d6 6 c3 b5 7 Bb3 Be7 8 Nbd2 O-O 9 Nf1 d5 10 exd5 Nxd5 11 Bxd5 Qxd5 12 Ne3 Qd8 13 O-O f5 14 Qb3+ Kh8 15 Qd5 Bd7 16 Nxe5 Nxe5 17 Qxe5 Bd6 18 Qd5 f4 19 Nd1 Qh4 20 f3 Rae8 21 Qd4 Re2 22 Kh1


22…Rxg2 23 Kxg2 Bh3+ and wins.

The next specimen was one of three consultation games played simultaneously by Steinitz:

John Drew Roberts and C. Tuthill – Wilhelm Steinitz
Dublin, 12 January 1881
Two Knights’ Defence

1 e4 e5 2 Nf3 Nc6 3 Bc4 Nf6 4 Ng5 Nxe4 (Very seldom seen, although Steinitz himself had successfully faced it in an informal game against Wilson in London in 1862.) 5 Bxf7+ Ke7 6 d3 Nf6 7 Bb3 d5 8 f4 Bg4 9 Qd2 h6 10 fxe5 hxg5 11 Qxg5 Nxe5 12 Qxe5+ Kd7 13 Nc3 Bd6 14 Qg5 Qe7+ 15 Qe3


15…Qf8 16 Bd2 Re8 17 Ne4 Nxe4 18 dxe4 Rxe4 19 Bxd5


Black gave mate in two moves.

This game is absent from the various collections of Steinitz’s games, and its finish was confused. A number of publications (e.g. the Philadelphia Times and Cincinnati Commercial of 1881) gave Steinitz’s 18th move as ‘18…RxRP’. So did the Chess Player’s Chronicle of 25 January 1881 (pages 38-39), but it printed a correction in the following issue (1 February 1881, page 57).

A further game by the prodigy:

J.D. Roberts – J. Cairns
Dublin, 1881 (?)
Evans Gambit Accepted

1 e4 e5 2 Nf3 Nc6 3 Bc4 Bc5 4 b4 Bxb4 5 c3 Ba5 6 O-O d6 7 d4 exd4 8 Qb3 Qf6 9 e5 dxe5 10 Re1 Nge7 11 Bg5 Qf5 12 Bxe7 Kxe7


13 Nxe5 Nxe5 14 f4 Qxf4 15 Qb5 Be6 16 Bxe6 Kxe6 17 Qxa5 b6 18 Qb5 dxc3 19 Qc6+ Kf5 20 Qxc3 Ke6 21 Na3 Rhd8 22 Nb5 c5 23 Nc7+ Kd6 24 Nxa8 Qd4+ 25 Qxd4 cxd4 26 Nc7 Nd3 27 Red1 Nb2 28 Rxd4+ Kxc7 29 Rc1+ and wins.

Source: Brentano’s Chess Monthly, July 1881, pages 134-135.

The magazine stated that the occasion was a match which Roberts (this time only ‘the boy champion of Dublin’) had won by the odd game against Cairns, ‘one of the strongest local players’. Roberts went on to study at Cambridge University (Sidney Sussex College), and won his top-board game against C.D. Locock in the 1885 Oxford-Cambridge match. Two years later he was at Hertford College, Oxford, and on 5 March 1887 he played first board in a match between old and present members of the University Club, losing both of his games (to G.E. Wainwright). Page 156 of the April 1887 BCM described Roberts as ‘erst of Dublin, who as a youth displayed such precocity in chess some years ago’. No longer could he be regarded as a special talent.

Courtesy of the Oxford and Cambridge Universities, some further biographical information can be supplied. The son of Michael Roberts (who was Professor of Mathematics at Trinity College, Dublin), John Drew Roberts was born in Kingstown, Dublin on 23 October 1864. (It will thus be noted that the above-quoted Chess Monthly report of his age was incorrect.) After studying at Sherbourne School, he matriculated at Cambridge in 1883 and at Oxford in 1887. He was ordained in 1893 and served in various livings. His last appointment was as Vicar of St Andrew’s, South Wimbledon, and he died on 8 June 1931. He received a six-line obituary on page 316 of the July 1931 BCM which misreported his playing record at university and made no mention of his earlier exploits.

The Roberts v Cairns game was annotated by Steinitz in his Field column of 14 May 1881 with this introduction:

‘The following lively game was played some time back at Dublin between Master Roberts, the boy champion of Dublin, against [sic] Mr Cairns, one of the strongest local players, in a match which was won by the former with the odd game.’

A further specimen of his play was given on page 77 of A Chess Omnibus:


J.D. Roberts-C., Dublin, 1881 (?)

The game ended 12 Re4 Bxa1 13 Qb1 Bc3 14 Rh4 g6 15 Qxg6+ hxg6 16 Bf6 and mate next move.

Source: the Chess Monthly, March 1881, page 216.

Gerard Killoran (Ilkley, England) sends this game involving Roberts from page 463 of the Illustrated London News, 8 May 1880:


1 e4 e5 2 Nf3 Nc6 3 Bb5 a6 4 Ba4 Nf6 5 d3 b5 6 Bb3 Bc5 7 O-O O-O 8 c3 d5 9 exd5 Nxd5 10 Nxe5


10...Bxf2+ 11 Rxf2 Nxe5 12 Qh5 Re8 13 d4 Nf6 14 Rxf6 Qxf6 15 dxe5 Rxe5 16 Qd1 Bg4 17 Qf1 Rf5 18 Qe1 Re5 19 Qf1 Rf5 Drawn.


Latest update: 31 May 2022.

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