The idea of a regular chess match between Oxford and Cambridge Universities was first suggested in 1853 by Howard Staunton. In 1871 the Oxford University Chess Club challenged Cambridge to a match, but at that time the Cambridge Club was only for dons, who refused the challenge from undergraduates. Not until 28 March 1873 did the first official over-the-board Varsity match take place at the City of London Chess Club. Since then it has been the oldest continuous fixture in the chess calendar, interrupted only by the war years. The winning team is awarded, to hold for a year, a handsome gold cup presented in 1953 by Miss Margaret Pugh.
A women’s board was introduced in 1978 to determine the result in the event of a drawn match. However, since 1982 the matches comprise eight boards with at least one woman player in each team, the board ranking being determined solely by playing strength.
To emphasise the undergraduate nature of the competition, all players must be resident bona fide students of the universities, with at least three members of each team studying for a first degree.
In the 20th century, it is remarkable how many British Champions had played in the Varsity match. In addition, to those named below, H E Atkins, William Winter, Alan Phillips and Hugh Alexander played for Cambridge and Leonard Barden and Peter Lee played for Oxford. A feature of recent years has been the increasingly international nature of the teams.
Looking at the history of the match, Cambridge retained the lead in the series until 1956 when Oxford won 4 – 3, Henry Mutkin winning on board two for Oxford. Then Oxford went ahead until 1970 when Cambridge – inspired by the presence of Raymond Keene and Bill Hartston – began a remarkable run of 11 straight victories. In their wake came a procession of first-class Cambridge players including Welsh champions Howard Williams and John Cooper, GMs Michael Stean and Jonathan Mestel and IMs Paul Littlewood and Shaun Taulbut. Although Oxford had its stars, GMs Jon Speelman, John Nunn together with IMs Andrew Whiteley, George Botterill and Peter Markland, Cambridge had greater strength in the lower boards.
However, in 1981 the tide turned and Oxford, with GMs William Watson, Jonathan Levitt, Colin McNab, David Norwood and IMs David Goodman, David Cummings, Ken Regan, Peter Wells, James Howell, Geoff Lawton, Stuart Rachels and Darshan Kumaran achieved a run of eight consecutive victories and eventually regained the lead.
In 1995 Cambridge squared the series again and subsequently moved ahead, despite Oxford fielding GM Luke McShane on board one in 2004 and 2005.
After 134 matches the overall score stands at: Cambridge 58, Oxford 54, Drawn 22.
In the early years the Varsity Chess Match was played in a variety of venues.
In 1973 the event was held for the first time at the Royal Automobile Club clubhouse in Pall Mall, London, for the Centenary match. By invitation of the RAC Chess Club committee, the match has been played each year at this ideal venue since 1978.
The committee’s Honorary President, Henry Mutkin, captained Oxford on board one in 1957 and has been a driving force of the event to the present day. Other officers of the committee are Chairman Stephen Meyler, match captain Robert Matthews, and honorary secretary Henry McWatters.