15,000 and counting – our record-breaking chess correspondent passes another major milestone

An Irishman’s Diary

JJ Walsh: Exactly 15,000 chess problems later from his first column in 1955, his epic career has broken world records. Photograph: Eric Luke

JJ Walsh: Exactly 15,000 chess problems later from his first column in 1955, his epic career has broken world records. Photograph: Eric Luke

 

When Jim Walsh supplied The Irish Times with daily coverage of the Fischer-Spassky world chess championship of 1972, one of the results was that his wife Maureen was able to buy a pair of fancy new curtains. Another is that he talked the newspaper into running a daily chess problem from then on, rather than the weekly column he had contributed since 1955.

Exactly 15,000 problems later, there is no sign of the curtains closing on an epic career that has already broken world records. In 2016, he became the longest-running chess columnist ever, anywhere, his 61 years and six months eclipsing the previous best: by Hermann Helms of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, whose stint began in 1893 and ended as Walsh was making his debut.

With 66 years to his credit now, the man Myles na gCopaleen used to call “our resident pawnbroker” has no plans for retirement. His next major milestone – touch wood – may be in March 2022, when he turns 90.

The past year has not been without challenges. In January 2020, he needed an operation on a hernia. The wound became infected and it was dangerous time to be in hospital, with rumours abounding of a strange new virus. The Irish Times had to re-run old chess problems for a few weeks, causing concern among Walsh’s aficionados.

But he survived that with only one longer-term inconvenience. His daily newspaper delivery used to be thrown – classic style – into the doorway, or thereabouts. This suddenly presented a challenge – he could no longer pick it up. A quiet word was had with the deliverer. The paper is now placed carefully in the letterbox.

A sadder effect of the pandemic is that it may have finished off the annual reunions of his Belvedere College “Class of 1950”. A dozen or so survivors met as recently as 2019, when one classmate congratulated Jim on being the only one “still in active employment”. If the lunch ever happens again, he suspects he won’t be able to go.

There was a good side to the crisis too. For those in lockdown, chess columns and other indoor entertainments became more important than ever. PJ McGarry spoke for many when, in a letter on this page in May, he thanked Walsh for supplying players with a daily fix at a time when all the clubs were closed.

The compliment was deeply appreciated by the man himself, although he also gets a stream of letters addressed personally and, even when these are critical (as they can be), always responds.

In one way, the pandemic brought him back to the start of his chess-playing life. As a schoolboy in Belvedere, he was a promising rugby player – a hooker – until the great public health scourge of the time ended that. A “TB hip” kept him at home for three years, during which his mother introduced him to chess.

“It was a blessing in disguise, really”, he says of the TB now. A natural at his new game, he was soon representing Ireland in chess Olympiads, including one where he faced World Champion Mikhail Botvinnik of the USSR, who beat him as expected, but only after several hours and having paid him the compliment of sitting down throughout (“the good players often get up and walk around between moves, but he was very respectful to a young player well below his level”).

He also played the aforementioned Myles, aka Brian O’Nolan, when the latter visited his house circa 1949. That was less a challenge. Despite Myles’s public pretensions, he was no grandmaster and his concentration that night was somewhat the worse for whiskey.

Along with a career, chess introduced Jim Walsh to his wife, Maureen Kennedy. A player herself, she became his advisor and critic (“She could be blunt, but she was a great help”). They were just short of 40 years married when she died in 2009: “I still miss her badly.”

Chess has consoled his later years as it enlivened his earlier ones. “It has given me a great life,” he says. His days are strictly regimented now. Up at 7.30am to check that the column has appeared, without glitches, he then polishes off the Simplex Crossword and Sudoko before breakfast (muesli, toast, and half a grapefruit).

He does his writing and research in the mornings “when I’m at my best”. He has an armchair nap in the afternoon, then watches TV before an early bedtime. A carer makes lunch and helps with other things, including shopping. He also gets the London Times daily, in which he always does the “code words” puzzle. The daily brain exercises have stood to him at 89.

“Mentally,” he sums up, “I feel as sharp as ever.”

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