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ChessMaine Profiles: Remembering Fred Wren

04.29.07 April 29, 2007 marks the 107th anniversary of the birth of Fred "Monte" Wren. Mr. Wren was probably best known for his chess columns The Old Woodpusher and Tales of a Woodpusher. Born in Sherman, Maine and a resident of Perry, Maine, Wren had an unimitable style that inspired Fred Reinfeld to write of him, "Chary as I am of superlatives, I have no hesitation in saying that nobody has written more entertainingly or more charmingly of the joys and tribulations of 'the unknown chessplayer.' " During an interview, Mr. Wren stated he began to master chess in 1926 but when asked the date he finally mastered the game he replied, "Leave that space blank, son."

"The Old Woodpusher" Fred "Monte" Wren in Halifax, Nova Scotia in 1947.

Thanks to Carol Bryan for contributing to this report.

Fred M. Wren was born in Sherman, Maine on April 29, 1900. He graduated from Sherman High School and joined the U.S. Army in 1917 at the tender age of sixteen. He served in the Army from April 1917 until May 1919. After World War I he attended the University of Maine for two years. He taught and coached basketball at high schools in Machias, Eastport and Calais. During his teaching tenure Mr. Wren worked during summer vacations as a timber cruiser and scaler for Lincoln Pulpwood Company. It was while teaching French at Eastport High School that Mr. Wren met his future wife Frances Rolfe Gove, the two were married in 1922 and had two children both born at The Hauge, a son William and daughter Helen. In August 1924, Mr. Wren began his career with the U. S. Government as a patrol inspector with the Immigration Service in Calais. One of his responsibilities at that time was dealing with "rum runners." He was stationed at a number of Maine border ports until he transferred to Ellis Island, New York in July 1927. Subsequently, Mr. Wren worked for the Immigration Service at The Hauge and Belgium and as technical advisor in American consulates in Rotterdam and Antwerp. In October 1935 he was named Officer in Charge of U.S. Immigration in Halifax, Nova Scotia, a post he held for ten years. He then became Vice Consul in the Visa Section of the American Consulate, a job that would take him from Halifax to Montreal and Switzerland.

Mr. Wren was a contributor to Chess Life, Chess Review, Canadian Chess Chat, the English magazine Chess the Dutch Schaak-Mat and the American Chess Quarterly. In addition to writing a collection of interesting, entertaining, and humorous articles for Chess Life, he also served at its editor in 1958-60. He wrote under a variety of pen names including, "The Black Knight" and "The Old Woodpusher." His stories are full of wry personal observations that belie a deep love of the game. Despite his self-effacing habit of referring to himself as a "woodpusher," Wren had many fine tournament performances and was Canadian Maritime Champion in 1941 and again in 1945. He earned draws with both former Winnepeg Champion Abe Yanofsky and New Zealand Champion Robert Wade. In 1943-44 Mr. Wren was instrumental in organizing chess in Halifax Public Schools.

In addition to chess Mr. Wren's other love was basketball. A professional basketball performer himself, he coached the Royal Canadian Engineers intermediate team in Halifax and in his first year led them to the city title. He also coached numerous Y.M.C.A. squads and four times won the city title with them. For four years during World War II, he served as president of the Nova Scotia Basketball Association. He was a member of the Y.M.C.A. Board and chaired the Y.M.C.A. Physical Committee. Mr. Wren passed away on August 30, 1978 at the age of 78.

Fred Wren (far right) with the Machias High School Basketball Team in 1924.

Jose Raul Capablanca, World Champion from 1920 to 1927 (wearing hat) with Fred Wren's two-year-old son Bill and an unidentified man in The Netherlands in 1931.

Mr. Wren in Montreal, Canada in 1952.

We reproduce here two of Fred Wren's artices that give a sense of his keen style and gift of portraying the soul of the chessplayer.

By Fred M. Wren, Chess Review 1947

To everyone who has played chess over a period of several years, without ever having attained the heights of city or even club championship, it must be apparent, as it is to me, that the masters, and even the Class A players, dream dreams, think thoughts, devise strategies, and execute tactics which are absolutely incomprehensible to the less accomplished player.

Even when the score of a game played between masters is published in a magazine or book, and when the fine and subtle variations of masterplay are annotated either by one of the players or by some other master, the ordinary, average Class B player doesn't understand it. He can follow the chain of exclaimation points and question marks which have been distributed by the annotator, and from a certained diagramed position he can carry through the exquisite combination which means glory to one of the players and curtains to the other. But as to how that particular diagramed position happened to be reached, or why most of the moves leading up to the tragedy were made--that is a closed book to him, as it is to me.

In 1931, while the Capablanca-Euwe match was being played, I happened to be living in Holland. Through mutual friends I was presented to Capablanca, and we became good friends. After one of his two victories over Euwe I asked him why Euwe resigned when he did, as it seemed to me there were a lot of pieces on the board, and a lot of play left.

He looked at me as I would look at a four-year-old child who had just asked me a foolish question, and said, "Why, he was a pawn down."

Just like that! I knew that Euwe had lost a pawn, but I still didn't know why he resigned. Then I got my first glimpse of the truth that is still hidden from thousands, maybe millions, who play chess: that the masters are not as we are; that their games are played on a different plane than ours; that when one of them loses a pawn he resigns!

After returning from Europe, I was in Buffalo, New York, for a few years, and I became a member of the strong club which maintained permanent quarters in the Lafayette Hotel. I played in all the club tournaments (in class B of course), and had the privilege of playing skittles games with Class A players, some of whom were either in or on the thin edge of master class. I tooks boards in simultaneous exhibitions given by Marshall, Kashdan, and Alekhine. Marshall let me strangle myself in a close game in which my queen bishop and queen rook were never moved. Kashdan let me set the pace--so I thought--for about twenty moves. Then he looked at his watch, saw that it was getting late, and let me have both barrels in the form of a five-move combination to win a piece.

Against Alekhine I not only did not do well--I didn't even have a good time. Every time the Champion came around he would glare at me as much as to say, "For Pete's sake! Haven't you gone home yet?" and when I would make a faltering move he would make his reply without either looking at the board or even breaking his steady pace around the table. I found out later that his attitude towards his opponents was a pose adopted for use in simultaneous play, the purpose being to soften up his adversaries. They would get so mad that they would make some foolish mistake and quit in disgust. He achieved his purpose with me, for after losing a bishop I resigned.

Having nothing to do for the rest of the evening I stood behind the chair of Dr. Frucella, one of Buffalo's strongest players, to watch the mincemeat the World Champion was bound to make of him. I learned a lot while standing there that night. I noticed Alekhine didn't pass Frucella's board without stopping. I saw that the champ's scowl was just as ferocious as it had been before my board, but there was one tremendous difference--it didn't bother Frucela at all because he never looked at Alekhine. He just sat there and played a game of chess, watching the board all the time, and seeing no more of his famous opponent than an occasional hand moving a piece.

And the moves they made! I couldn't see the reason or the plans behind any of them. Then, all of a suden, with the board still full of pieces, Alekhine resigned, his only loss of the evening. As they shook hands, I think Frucella got his first glimpse of the defeated World Champion.

Later I asked Frucella why Alekhine had resigned. The position looked perfectly innocuous to me. Again the pitying glance from a master chessplayer, and again the simple but meaningless explaination: "Why I had him all tied up, and no matter what he did I was bound to win something."

This was worse than Capablanca's explanation. He, at least, had won a pawn, and Euwe had resigned. But Frucella hadn't won anything--he was just going to win something,--but the champion of the world had seen the inevitable, and had resigned. I still couldn't understand it.

The next day, as I entered the club, Dr. Frucella called to me, and I joined him at a chess table. He had the pieces set up in the final position of the night before. Then, slowly, and with infinite patience, he went through about six different variations to prove the truth of what he had said the night before--that no matter what Alkhine might do, Frucella would win material. At last I could see what they had been talking about the night before. Sure, anyone could see that--but could they? I asked Roy Black, one of the kibitzers, if he had seen the possibilities before Frucella's explanation.

"Sure," he said. "Any chessplayer could see that."

I resented that. "Oh yeah?" I retorted. "I didn't see it, and I'll bet that half of the members of this club wouldn't have seen it either."

"The statement still stands," grinned Black. "Any chessplayer could see it. Maybe some of you woodpushers couldn't see it, although it's as plain as the nose on your face."

So much for ratings and classifications. I had at last found my level. Not Class A. Not Class B. Not even a chessplayer. Just a woodpusher!

I found that I was not alone in this class. I even learned that at least two-thirds of the people who play chess never become chessplayers according to the standard set by Bro. Black. They were, are now, and always will be woodpushers. This doesn't mean that they do not have a lot of fun. It doesn't even mean that they will not knock off a duly qualified "chessplayer" in a skittles game, or even in a tournament game, now and then. It simply means that there is a class of chessplay so far above their modest plane that many of them live a full and satisfying life without ever knowing of its existence.

What a blessing to maintain this blissful ignorance, neither knowing nor caring what Lasker hit Capablanca with in 1914 at St. Petersburg! To be able to make a move without thinking, "Is this what Fine played against Botvinnik at Nottingham?" To be able to play the Fegatello just for fun, and not worrying about wheather or not your opponent had read Pinkus' analysis of that variation. Yes sir, the woodpushers may not make much money by playing or writing about chess, but they do have all the fun.

This fun was denied me. I had played just enough chess to like the game. I had had revealed to me visions of the land beyond the woodpushers' territory--the rich and green realm of the true "chessplayer." The land where five-move combinations were the rule rather than the exception; where master resigned when they lost a pawn; where world champions resigned when they saw they were going to lose material; where simultaneous exhibitions paid the visiting master at least $100 for a few hours' play. Brother, that was for me. How long had this been going on?

I subscribed to Chess Review. I bought books. I studied them all. The strongest players of the Buffalo Chess Club were very considerate of the struggling dub. They played with me, analyzed my games, pointed out my mistakes, praised my triimphs. There was no doubt about it. I was improving, and on the way to becoming a real "chessplayer."

Someone said, "A little knowledge is a dangerous thing." It certainly is dangerous to one's piece of mind if he suddenly gets a yearn to master the strategy and tactics of chess. It is something like being out on a dark night and seeing three or four stars. You get a sudden desire to know something about the science of astronomy. You buy a book on the subject, and you identify the stars you saw the night before. But on the next night you go out and you see the sky filled with thousands of stars, and your book tells you that there are thousands of others which you can't see without a telescope, and thet there are others which you can read about but can never see in your lifetime, even with a telescope, since they are visible only once in nine thousand years. Then you begin to realize that you have not learned a damned thing, except for the fact that no one man can ever hope to more than touch the fringe of the curtain covering a full knowledge of astronomy.

It's just the same with chess. The more you study and learn, the keener becomes the realization that life just isn't long enough to master chess the hard way--the way any woodpusher has to do it. Of course, if you are one of those fortunate mortals who doesn't have to do it the hard way--one of those guys who just knows by instinct, when he begins to play the game, all the things we dubs have to study over and have explained to us--if you are one of those chaps, walk right in and take a master's chair. You can start at a higher level than most of us will ever reach.

Anyway, I learned a little about chess, and graduated to the Class A group in the Buffalo Chess Club. Then I was transferred, spent a few years in various small towns along the Maine border, and finally landed in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Here I found a club in operation, holding weekly meetings in a small hotel.

I learned something the first night I played in that club. I had as my first opponent an elderly clergyman who played a keen game of chess. After playing about a half an hour I lost a bishop, through a stupid oversight on my part. I immediately resigned, and suggested another game.

"Aren't you going to play this one out?" said the old gentleman, looking at me over his glasses.

"There isn't much use to playing you a piece down," I replied.

"We always play them out here," said the clergyman. "No one here gives up until he's mated."

So we played it out, and a few moves later he made a mistake which allowed me to win.

"There," said my opponent, nodding with satisfaction, "that shows you that I was right. You never want to quit a chess gane until you are mated."

From Capablanca and Frucella I had learned that a "chessplayer" resigned when he lost, or saw that he must lose, material of any value. From the good padre in Halifax I learned the slogan of the 'woodpusher"--"Never give up until you are mated."

That slogan has stood me in good stead for the past ten years, and has accounted for many of my wins. Of course, if you are playing against a player of master strength you are not only wasting his time and yours to continue the game after you have lost material--you are also insulting his intellegence. But, on the other hand, we do not meet many masters in this section of the world, and when woodpushers get together the precepts of the masters are forgotten. We play for fun and glory under the unwritten law that it's not enough to establish a winning position--we have to demonstrate the win.

By Fred M. Wren, Chess Review 1936

While on the Continent in 1933, I received a telegram from my chief requesting me to come to London for a conference. At any season of the year London holds a great facinationfor me, but at this particular time, after a cold, foggy Dutch winter that telegram seemed a passport to the promised land. London, with its theatres, its great stores, its hot night spots! Oh, boy!

As I entered the train in The Hague I found that I had to share a compartment with a young Hollander who gave me the usual "Dag, mijnheer" and subsided into the protection of his morning paper. I produced one of my own and prepared to spend a silent three hours before reaching Flushing where I was to get on the boat for England. The International Team Tournament in Folkestone had just been won by the American chess team, and my paper contained the game played between Kashdan and Flohr. I was trying to follow the game through in my head when my companion broke all traditions and spoke.

"Do you, perhaps, play chess?"

"Yes, a little."

"Have you a pocket set?"

"No. I came away in such a hurry that I forgot to put it in my bag."

Can you, perhaps, play without sight of the board?"

"Not very well, but we'll try it if you like."

"All right. I'll start. E2-e4."

Wow! I knew enough about the Dutch nomenclature of the pieces and their system of notation to follow a game printed in the paper, but to carry on a mental game in this style was morethan I had bargained for. I did the best I could, but after about 15 moves I got mixed up with my d's and e's and resigned.

Then it was my turn to play White. I decided that my only chance was to spring something which would either win or lose in a hurry, so I chose a Muzio. The opening seemed to bother him, and I hoped I had found something which was new to him. When he pushed the pawn to KN5, I played N-B3 instead of castling. "so," said he, "the McDonnell variation of the Muzio! Do they still play that in America?" What could I do with a bird like that? By the time we reached Flushing where we got on the boat he had won five or six games, and I had lost interest in mental chess, but I was just aching to get at him over the board. We squared ourselves away at a table in the smoke-room of the ship, gave the steward orders to produce a chess set and board and went at it.

From Flushing to Harwich we played steadily and finished 21 games. From Harwich to London in the train we accounted for nine more. (I forgot to say that we bought the set from the steward on the ship, paying him the equivalent of $4.00 for the outfit. I suppose he pocketed this sum, and reported that some crazy Dutchman had stolen the set, but that was his lookout.) I had engaged a room in the Victoria Hotel in London. My opponent had engaged one in another hotel, but he never went near it and came to the Victoria with me. We played most of that night in the hotel. The next morning I went to my conference, and two hours later was back in the hotel playing chess. We played until after midnight that night.

The following morning we played on the boat train again, and all the way across the Channel, and again on the train from Flushing to The Hague where I disembarked. When we parted, never to meet again, I had won the board and setby a score of 46 wins against his 42. The dozen or so draws which we played were not counted.

I have often wondered what he thought about that trip in his more lucid moments. I wonder what he went to London for anyway? Whatever it was he must have taken care of itin the two hours that I spent in my chief's office, for when I returned to the hotel he was there waiting for me, and he was not out of my sight at any other time during the waking hours of our trip. I didn't even know his name, and I'm sure he didn't know mine. He did volunteer the information that he came from Groningen, in Holland, and that he once had been city chess champion there, but that's all I know about him. All, except for the following facts:

1. That he had a double fianchetto attack which I never weathered.
2. That he was a sucker when defending a Ruy Lopez.
3. That he was a chess fiend whose enthusiasm for the game equaled my own.

And my vacation in London! Not a show did I see; not a night club did I visit. I didn't even buy the usual trip present for the wife. One day and two nights in London, and I was out of the hotel just two hours! To misquote the words of a song popular a few years ago, "You call it Love, but I call it Goofy"--to the nth degree.


Dan, thanks for posting these articles. I love Mr. Wren's writing style and his wise yet humble observations about the chessplaying mind.

Very nice article about my father! I'm the little guy pictured in the 1931 photo of Mr Capablanca.

Bill Wren

Just read the article about my father and enjoyed it very much and I know my brother will too, although I don't know what he will think seeing a photo of himself as a two-year-old. Thank you.

Good work Dan. I will send the Wren/Gruber family the link. I think they will be very pleased. Possibly the "Quoddy Tides" will pick it up. Carol B. in Perry.

A wonderful article. It took me down memory lane. I was familiar with Fred. Thank you so much.

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