Robert Stewart (1873-1941)
by Norrie Reid


Robert Stewart was born in Kelty, Fife, on the 31st August 1873, a mere two hundred yards from the Bridge House, Blairadam, where he was to live most of his life. His father was an enthusiastic lover of draughts and introduced his son to the game. Robert joined the Kelty Draughts Club in 1886, quickly becoming an extremely strong player. By the early 1890's he had reached a level of excellence which allowed him to defeat Richard Jordan in 1893.

Stewart won the Scottish Championship in 1894, 1895, 1900, 1901 and 1902 - a remarkable achievement considering the quality of opposition at the time. Facing such formidable opponents as Richard Jordan, James Ferrie, Henderson, Buchanan , Searight, Freedman and others, he achieved the outstanding score of 35-8-129. Moreover, in the three England v Scotland matches his figures were 5-0-26, and in the Britain v USA match of 1905 he recorded a fine 7-0-32. From 1901 Stewart went 21 years without the loss of one game in public. That lost game came in the 1922 victory over the American Champion Newel Banks (2-1-37), which secured him the World Championship in a match played in the City Halls, Glasgow for 500 in prize money. Given that he had effectively retired from match play in 1905 and would consequently be short of practice (unlike Banks!), this result was truly an outstanding one. On his return to Kelty he was to be feted with bands playing and crowds cheering. However Robert was a very reserved man and left the train at the station before Kelty and then walked home to avoid the crowds.

Other local accounts of the man confirm him as slightly eccentric (normal for a genius?). He could, for example, pass a close member of his family in the middle of a country lane without a word; he would spend much time wandering through Blairadam estate with his pocket draughts set (now in my possession) thinking, maybe, of his latest "cook" - an expression used for a previously unknown "killer" move.

As well as his championship successes, Stewart established a prodigious record in exhibitions and demonstrations. For example as a "blindfold" player (ie without sight of the board) he was outstanding, as the figures for his last three displays indicate:-

Cowden Beith in 1904 (14-0-0)
Peebles in 1905 (12-0-3)
Carlisle in 1905 (19-0-6)

This man was capable of much more! Similarly as a simultaneous performer, his record defies comment: 1101-0-182.

After the 1922 match he played no other (shades of Bobby Fischer!). The Americans attempted to arrange another World Title match and claimed that Stewart would not play. Stewart always totally denies this; in fact he claimed that he had "On four occasions.....accepted proposals to cross the Atlantic. On each occasion the matter fizzled out because America could not raise the money....." Where the truth lay is now hard to pinpoint - the unhappy effect was that Stewart really retired in 1922. He was scheduled to play Sam Levy of England for the title in 1937 but resigned it due to ill health.

Robert Stewart died in 1941 and is buried in Kirk O' Beith cemetery close to his home in Fife.

Addendum by Norrie Stewart

So keen were the American challengers to recover the World's title that in 1934 the Scottish giant was offered a match in America for stakes comprising 300 for a win, lose or draw and 200 expenses. Though a flu victim at the time and unable to accept the invitation, Mr Stewart had his own opinions about a challenge match on the other side of the Atlantic. Eventually in 1937 he decided to retire from the arena in which he had thrilled thousands of of admirers and announced "I am now the retired , undefeated , world draughts champion." It was with obvious grief that Mr Stewart made the decision for he had held the title for 15 and a half years. To the Kelty genius who had never known defeat his exit was particularly unfortunate as the step had to be taken pratically on the eve of a World's championship match for 200 a-side with Mr Samuel Levy , Manchester.