Jackson Whipps Showalter: Chess Champion, Curve Ball Pioneer, Cigar Aficionado

Introduction: I serendipitously blundered into the story of an ancestor, Jackson Whipps Showalter, who, it turns out was an interesting heck of a guy – especially when chess was important enough to be routinely covered by papers like the New York Times.

Another Showalter You Should Know

The devilishly handsome, dramatically mustachioed gent pictured above is one Jackson Whipps Showalter.

The family resemblance fairly leaps out at one, doesn’t it?

And, he’s not just another pretty face of the sort that is, after all, standard among the males who populate clan Showalter.1 Jackson Whipps Showalter cut quite a figure in the upper ranks of the international hierarchy of chess, ran a successful tobacco business, was alleged to have thrown the first curve ball, favored a good cigar, and married a smart, beautiful woman.

Update: Nellie Showalter Flashes Ankle, Defeats World Chess Champ; Jackson Whipps Showalter Guffaws.

Kevin Marchese, writing at Chess.com on the occasion of Showalter’s August 7, 2010 induction into the Chess Hall Of Fame, provides a concise summary of Jackson’s family background and education:

Jackson Whipps Showalter was born February5th, 1859 in Minerva (Bracken County), Kentucky. His parents, Freeman Benoni Showalter and Margaret Rachel (Whipps) Showalter, were farmers who migrated from Smithfield (Fayette County), Pennsylvania. He was the youngest of three boys, along with James Watterson Showalter and John William Showalter. The latter went on to be a famous Supreme Court circuit judge in Chicago, Illinois.2 Showalter graduated from Kenyon College (1879) in Ohio and would later graduate from the Kentucky Military Institute (1881) in Frankfurt, Kentucky. . … He would eventually settle in Georgetown, Kentucky. Family legend has it that he rode into town on his horse and attended a land auction in which he purchased a 325-acre farm for $29,000. When asked to make arrangements for payment, he reached into the saddle bags atop his horse and handed them cash. This farm would be the location of Showalter’s successful tobacco business for many years to come.3

Trophy won by Jackson Showalter’s American Team in 1896 Cable Match With British

These excerpts from The Postal Lion: Jackson Showalter and Correspondence Chess (originally posted 15 June 2006) by Neil R. Brennen paint a compelling vision of Jackson Whipps Showalter as a chess player.4

The elder Showalter [Jackson’s father], a man with the curiously chessic middle name of Benoni, probably taught his son chess as a young man. Young Jackson knew the game by the time he graduated from Kentucky Military Institute in 1882. After a few years managing his father’s farm, Showalter moved to New York and began to roar among the chess masters. The tall Southerner probably made quite an impression; The Oxford Companion to Chess wrote that Showalter was “known as the Kentucky Lion after his birthplace and his mane of hair, but also perhaps on account of his playing strength.”

And his playing strength was prodigious. Showalter’s opponents included almost everyone who was anyone on the American chess scene in the 1890s. He was particularly skilled in match play. His match victims include Albin, Barry, Janowski, Judd, Kemeny, Lipschütz, and Whitaker. Losses include two championship matches to Pillsbury, one championship match to Lipschütz, an 1894 match to Lasker, and a 1909 match to Marshall that solidified the latter’s claim to the US Championship. Several of these matches were for the US Championship, a title Showalter had first won in the annual tournaments of the United States Chess association in 1889. Many of the games featured sparkling combinative play and sacrifices, making Showalter many friends among chess amateurs.

Jackson also exhibited another signature Showalter trait – likability.

Showalter was a very likable man, and hardly anyone had a bad word to say about him. Wilhelm Steinitz, who had no shortage of enemies in the chess world, is widely reported to have said Showalter was “one of six men from whom he would accept a cigar.”((Showalter – Lipschutz 1895 match. Compiled by crawfb5 Chessgames.com))

And, it appears likely that Jackson might well have had a cigar on hand to offer Steinitz. The following excerpt, originally published as ‘The Chessboard Kings,’ in the 16 June 1889 New York Times along with a pen-portrait, not only describes Showalter’s appearance and manner but also his predilection for stogies.5


The distinguishing traits of Showalter are a tremendously big pair of blonde mustaches and a frank, open countenance. He is tall and dignified in his bearing, and gentlemanly in his behavior. Like many other players he is fond of a good smoke, and likes to have a general good time after his work is over ...

And again with the cigar,

‘I remember seeing Showalter in a match game with Pillsbury brood 45 minutes over a fourth move. It was a Ruy López. Afterwards there came the explanation. “The cigar was good; and I thought that long looking might uncover some better move and sequel than those used.”6

An even grander description of Jackson’s visual aspect was published in London, 1899 Pen-portraits., an article about the 1899 London Chess Tournament7 (Showalter is fifth from the left in the standing row)

Showalter has the head and hair of a Goliath. He has a way of putting his elbows on his knees and heavily rocking his powerful body, when he reflects, as if a combination demanded the expenditure of muscular force in equal measure to intellectual force.

Returning to Brennan’s account,

[In 1884,] Showalter was a young man in the American South, managing his father’s ranch. Over the board competition was scarce for a player of Showalter’s strength, and so he turned to postal chess. Perhaps his earliest experience with chess by correspondence was a tournament run by the Elmira Telegraph of Elmira, New York.

Jackson was, however, able to travel to other countries for games in later years, as evidenced by these photos of participants in international chess tournaments.

Vienna 1898 Showalter, standing 6th from left

Nuremberg 1896 Showalter, standing, 4th from right

World Chess Links also lists him playing in several other tournaments, including (Cambridge Springs 1904), London (1899), and Paris (1900).

According to Wikipedia,

[Jackson Showalter] won U.S. Championship matches against S. Lipschütz (twice), Max Judd and Albert Hodges. He lost championship matches to Lipschütz, Max Judd, Harry Nelson Pillsbury, and Frank Marshall.

… The variation of the Queen’s Gambit Accepted8 is named after him.

The famous “Capablanca Simplifying Manoeuvre” in the Orthodox Variation of the Queen’s Gambit Declined9 had in fact been used by Showalter in the 1890s, many years before José Raúl Capablanca played it.

Jackson Showalter also edited the chess columns for the New York Sun and New York Record.10

Jackson Whipps Showalter & The World Of Chess

JW Showalter (Rice Gambit Souvenir Supplement American Chess Bulletin, 1905)

Again quoting from Jackson W. Showalter (1859-1935) by Kevin Marchese:

In September of 1888, various representatives of the State Chess Associations met in Cincinnati, Ohio to form the United States Chess Association. Showalter was chosen to be on the first executive committee for this newly formed organization. This also turned out to be the time and place for the 1st U.S. Chess Congress, which Showalter won with a score of 8 wins, 0 losses, and 2 draws. The following year he played in the 6th American Chess Congress (no affiliation with the aforementioned tournament) in New York. The tournament attracted many of the greatest chess players of the era from all over the world. He finished a respectable 9th out of 20 players in the field. Showalter would go on to win two more U.S. Chess Congress tournaments in 1890 (St. Louis) and 1891 (Lexington). Combined with his victory in 1890 at the Chicago tournament, his cumulative record over the course of these three victories was an impressive 29 wins, 2 losses, and 1 draw.

Despite being ill with influenza, Showalter played and lost a hard-fought match (+2 -6 =2) to future world champion Emanuel Lasker of Germany in 1892-93. Lasker was quoted after the match as saying that Showalter gave him the hardest battle of his life. He even went on to say “No man in all my experience ever stood up with such a formidable front as the talented Kentuckian. He is the greatest player I ever met.” …

There is much controversy and speculation as to when Showalter first captured the title of U.S. Chess Champion. Some sources have him as champion in 1890 as a result of his tournament victory at St. Louis, coupled with the inactivity of proposed champion Samuel Lipschutz. Others claim his match victory over Max Judd in 1892 (+7 -4 =3) was for the title. Even his win over Albert Beauregard Hodges (+7 -6 =4) in 1894 has been considered controversial. The only title win that seems to be amicable to most historians is his 1895 conquest of Lipschutz (+7 -4 =3).

He would successfully defend his title twice in 1896 by defeating both Emil Kemeny (+7 -4 =4) and John Finan Barry (+7 -2 =4). In 1897 he faced the up-and-coming Harry Nelson Pillsbury in arguably the greatest chess match in United States Chess Championship history. Showalter was one victory away from retaining his title against his heavily favored opponent and had the White pieces for the potentially deciding game. In a sixty-move Ponziani opening, Pillsbury was able to prevail and eventually won the match in an extended overtime by the score of 10 wins, 8 losses, and 3 draws. Showalter sought to re-capture his title the following year against Pillsbury, losing in less dramatic fashion by the score of 3 wins, 7 losses, and 2 draws.

During the next three years Showalter traveled abroad to Europe and participated in several international chess tournaments, with mildly disappointing results. Then, after finishing 2nd at the Manhattan Chess Club championship in 1900 to Lipschutz, Showalter went into a retirement of sorts until the 1904 Cambridge Springs international tournament. This would be the greatest collection of chess masters on American soil since 1889 (Sixth American Chess Congress) and briefly drew Showalter back to competitive chess. He would finish a very respectable 5th out of 16 against the impressive likes of Frank Marshall, David Janowski, Emanuel Lasker, Carl Schlechter, Mikhail Chigorin, and Richard Teichmann. What had to be even more satisfying for Showalter was that he finished ahead of Pillsbury and also defeated him in their only encounter of the tournament.

Showalter then disappeared from the chess world for the next several years. Pillsbury tragically passed away in 1906 at the early age of 33. This meant that the U.S. title now defaulted to the previous champion, the retired Jackson W. Showalter.

In 1909, Frank Marshall was overwhelmingly the strongest American player of the time and given that Showalter had stopped playing competitively five years previously, the title was somewhat in limbo. It was ultimately decided that Showalter would either defend his title against the much younger Marshall or relinquish it of his own accord. Showalter decided to play and was eventually overcome by the score of 2 wins, 7 losses, and 3 draws.

He took yet another hiatus of six years after losing the match, returning at the 1915 Western Open in Excelsior, Minnesota and promptly winning first place. He then stayed active in chess for several years, playing in the strong Western Opens (2nd place in 1916 and 1917). His last tournament was the 1926 Western Open in Chicago at the ripe old age of 67. He finished toward the bottom of standings, but was able to muster up one more brilliant win against strong American player, Edward Lasker.

Jackson Showalter Throws A Curve Ball

References to Jackson Showalter inventing the curve ball abound. Most resemble this description from Baseball Almanac:

Most baseball fans don’t know that Jackson Showalter, who is credited with inventing the curve ball, was also a U.S. chess champion in the late 1880’s.

Or, reformatted from the chess world”s point of view, as it is in a review of 2010 Chess Oddities By Alex Dunne (Thinkers Press 2003):

And did you know that Jackson Showalter, the first officially recognized US champion (1890) is also considered the inventor of the curve ball in baseball?

The details of the accomplishment claimed are sometimes modified, as in Showalter’s obituary on page 63 of the March 1935 Chess Review:11

Mr Showalter was famous as a baseball player and was an ardent fan up until the latter part of his life, when bad health kept him at home. He was the first man in Kentucky to pitch a curve ball and one of the seven men who discovered the curve.


Given the existence of documentation of other individuals demonstrating a curve ball before Jackson could have done so,12 the notion that he was the sole inventor of that pitch is unlikely. In any case, I’m not certain how one would determine, in the latter half of the 19th century, who was the first individual to toss a curve in the sovereign state of Kentucky.

It does seem clear that Jackson was a fan of the game. A correspondent on the About.com Baseball Forum accumulated this information:

Jackson Showalter spent 3 years at Kenyon College 1875-1878, Gambier Ohio. He spent 4 years at Cornell University Ithaca, NY. Cornell was first university to recognize baseball as a legitimate subject for academic inquiry. Showalter graduated from the Military Institute in Frankfort in 1882. His chess fame started when he was 30 years old. He has chess ties to Henry Chadwick, British-born American sportswriter who helped organize professional baseball. In 1869 Chadwick began an annual baseball handbook, which later became Spalding’s Official Baseball Guide.

From the Brooklyn Eagle, Oct 17, 1893: The article is called A Fair Chess Expert, and it remarks that while chess champion Jackson Showalter is an excellent amateur baseball player and the noted pitcher of the Lexington team, his young wife is also a fan of baseball and quite an expert at chess. Mrs. Showalter often accompanied her husband on trips, and it is often noted that both she and their child play chess.

And, Edward Winter, writing at Chess Notes Archive, responds to the claim that Jackson was the curve ball instigator,

[the claim that Jackson Showalter invented the curve ball] was mentioned, sourcelessly, by A. Soltis on page 30 of the April 1980 Chess Life. On the general subject of Showalter and baseball we can give a couple of quotes from pages 242-245 of the June 1892 BCM [British Chess Magazine]:

‘… he received a first-class school and college education – which included baseball.’

‘His tendency is the national game of baseball – in England he would have been a cricketer with a good strain of football thrown in. He travelled with the Georgetown baseball team, of which he was the only amateur, in a successful Southern tour some years ago, encountering all the crack teams from the Ohio River to the Gulf, New Orleans included. … He is a baseball crank.’




Credit Due Department: Curve ball illustration by Silver SpoonOwn work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

Originally posted Mar 11, 2009 at 1HeckOfAGuy.com, a predecessor of AllanShowalter.com

  1. My genealogically astute brethren have informed me that almost all of the Showalters in this country are descendants of Christian Showalter or Jacob Showalter, Swiss Mennonite brothers who immigrated to Pennsylvania as adults with their families in 1740 and 1750, respectively. I have fastidiously avoided investigating this claim, thus eliminating hours of tedious and possibly counterproductive research to establish my family ties to another Showalter. If you’re willing to admit your name is “Showalter” or “Schowalter,” I’m willing to claim you as kin – whether you like it or not. []
  2. According to Wikipedia, in 1895, Grover Cleveland appointed John William Showalter to the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. []
  3. Update: 19 December 2011: This post originally excerpted material from The Postal Lion: Jackson Showalter and Correspondence Chess (originally posted 15 June 2006) by Neil R. Brennen. Because new and more complete biographical data is now available from Jackson W. Showalter (1859-1935) by Kevin Marchese, I have replaced portions of this section of the original post with the material from Marchese’s excellent summary. []
  4. The actual chess games played by Jackson Showalter are recorded on many sites. A handy compendium of his games set forth in algebraic notation and in java animation, along with annotations and analysis, can be found at Chess Games. []
  5. Chess Notes Archives []
  6. From item 26 in Napier’s Amenities and Background of Chess-Play (New York, 1934), quoted in Chess Notes Archive []
  7. London, 1899 Pen-portraits, André de M. La Stratégie, 15 July 1899. Pp 210-213 []
  8. 1. d4 d5 2. c4 dxc4 3. Nc3 []
  9. 1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3. Nc3 Nf6 4. Bg5 Be7 5. e3 Nbd7 6. Nf3 0-0 7. Rc1 c6 8. Bd3 dxc4 9. Bxc4 Nd5 []
  10. The Steinitz Papers: Letters and Documents of the First World Chess Champion By William Steinitz, Kurt Landsberger. McFarland, 2002. p 307 []
  11. Chess Notes Archives []
  12. E.g., ‘In baseball, the pitcher attempts to get the batter to strike out by throwing a variety of tricky pitches. One of the oldest is the “curveball”, in which the pitcher puts a spin on the baseball such that it appears to curve away from the batter and then back towards him as it travels from the pitcher’s throwing arm to home plate. The curveball has been a part of baseball since the 1860s or early 1870s and is generally regarded as having been invented around 1867 by William “Candy” Cummings, although there are several other claimants. The first recorded use of the term “curveball” is in the New York Herald on 7 July 1874. From The Dickson Baseball Dictionary by Paul Dickson (New York, 1989. P 118). []

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