Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Hastings 1895: Harry Nelson Pillsbury, the Hero of Hastings

Born on December 5th, 1872, he was 22 at the time of this tournament. He learned chess in 1888 at the relatively late age of 15. His first chess teacher was Addison Smith, a member of the Boston Chess Club who lived in Somerville. Pillsbury grew up in Philadelphia and made a name for himself at the Franklin Chess Club.

He didn’t start taking this game seriously until he was 17 years old when, in 1890, Pillsbury played a series of Evans Gambits with the veteran Baltimore expert, H.N. Stone. He was one of the inventors of the Stone-Ware defense in the Evans. Pillsbury smashed him 5-2.
His knowledge of openings showed his resourcefulness to garnish older variations with his own added twists. This is especially seen in a couple Evans Gambits ( against Bird I covered back in the first chapter of this series). With Schiffers, he plays a 5…Bd6 , something not seen in Europe since the days of Kieseritzky and Mayet. Having trained with this variation from local American players H.N Stone, he had an advantage over his European contemporaries. Oddly enough, playing this against both Shiffers and Bird, was a bit of a risk since both opponents would have been old enough to remember games by Mayet and Kieseritzky.

His treatment of the Ruy Lopez against Teichmann, produced what was barely known as the Barnes Defense ( 3…g6) back in those days later became known as the Smyslov Variation of the Ruy Lopez and takes on a very positional feel. But in this position:

Teichmann allows Pillsbury to plant a dangerous knight on g4 followed up with a series of forcing moves.

Tarrasch uses the Tarrasch defense against Pillsbury power 1.d4 system but in the end a carefully staged knight sac seen here counters the queen side push. Throughout this game, black’s plan was to capitalize on a queenside push while White kept the pressure on the kingside. This finally comes to a head starting with the characteristic Ne5 leading what will later be called the “Pillsbury attack”.

He meets Steinitz in round 7. He picks up a small advantage in the opening and holds on to it. His aggressive handling of the Tarrasch defense of the QGD allows him to weaken black’s kingside pawns and gave him a more flexible position.

Clearly, at Hastings 1895, Pillsbury had command of the popular QGD Orthodox defense from the white side. Several of the first few rounds he was victorious as he dispatched his queens bishop early to g5 pinning Black’s knight and delayed the king bishop until the decision was made on how to handle the center.
Effective use of semi-open c-files distracts Burns for instance, as he is busily defending the weak c-pawn, BAM!

Bxh7 and a series of attacks crumbles an undefended king. He managed to handle a solid semi slav ( Moscow variation) defense with Tinsley in a difficult Rook vs Knight endgame in round 19.

His last round victory over Gunsburg ( who by the way was the man in the automaton known as the Mephisto ... a copy of the older one known as "the Turk") was almost drawn. He thought as long as he had a draw he would win. Upon learning of Chigorin's win over Schlechter, he managed to pull a win out of a drawn position.

(223) Pillsbury,H - Gunsberg,I []Hastings (21), 1895
1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6 3.e3 g6 4.Nc3 Bg7 5.Nf3 Nf6 6.Bd3 0-0 7.Ne5 dxc4 8.Bxc4 Nd5 9.f4 Be6 10.Qb3 b5 11.Bxd5 Bxd5 12.Nxd5 Qxd5 13.Qxd5 cxd5 14.Nd3 Nd7 15.Bd2 Rfc8 16.Ke2 e6 17.Rhc1 Bf8 18.Rxc8 Rxc8 19.Rc1 Rxc1 20.Bxc1 Bd6 21.Bd2 Kf8 22.Bb4 Ke7 23.Bc5 a6 24.b4 f6 25.g4 Bxc5 26.bxc5 Nb8 27.f5 g5 28.Nb4 a5 29.c6 Kd6 30.fxe6 Nxc6 31.Nxc6 Kxc6 32.e4 dxe4 33.d5+ Kd6 34.Ke3 b4 35.Kxe4 a4 36.Kd4 h5 37.gxh5 a3 38.Kc4 f5 39.h6 f4 40.h7 1-0

His style of play at the turn of the century and that of others like Lasker, with attacks on h7 and knights on e5 and so forth, prompted the dawn of hypermodernism and the Indian defense. The Fianchetto of the king’s bishop was an early remedy for Bxh7 attacks and knight and queen mating nets.

Pillsbury was also know for his ability as a very strong blindfold chess player, and could play checkers and chess simultaneously while playing a hand of whist(a trick taking card game), and reciting a list of long words. He’s been known to play up to 22 blindfold games at a time.

He was a bit quirly at the tournament. He refused to stay at the hotel where everyone else stayed and preferred the quiet solitude at another establishment down the road.

He was virtually an unknown at this event. He walked in and finished ahead of great players like Lasker, Chigorin, Tarrasch and Steinitz. He’s been called the “Hero of Hastings” or the “ sensation of Hastings” for his first place finish that netted 150 pounds.


His next big tournament was in Saint Petersburg the same year, a six-round round-robin tournament between four of the top five finishers at Hastings (Pillsbury, Chigorin, Lasker and Steinitz; Tarrasch did not play). Pillsbury appears to have contracted syphilis prior to the start of the event. Although he was in the lead after the first half of the tournament (Pillsbury 6½ points out of 9, Lasker 5½, Steinitz 4½, Chigorin 1½), he was affected by severe headaches and scored only 1½/9 in the second half, ultimately finishing third (Lasker 11½/18, Steinitz 9½, Pillsbury 8, Chigorin 7). He lost a critical fourth cycle encounter to Lasker.

In spite of his ill health, Pillsbury beat American champion Jackson Showalter in 1897 to win the U.S. Chess Championship, a title he held until his death in 1906.

Poor health would prevent him from realizing his full potential throughout the rest of his life. The stigma surrounding syphilis makes it unlikely that he sought medical treatment. He succumbed to the illness in 1906.

Pillsbury is buried in Laurel Hill Cemetery in Reading, MA. A ceremony honoring the 100th anniversary of the death of Harry Nelson Pillsbury was held on June 17,2006 in Laurel Hill Cemetery. A memorial marker was unveiled at that time. Guests of honor at the ceremony were Pillsbury's great-grandniece, Deborah Hart of South Hadley, and her son, Christopher Logan Hart, a resident of Hastings, England

I want to finish this series with a wrap up of the other players not already mentioned.


From the patzer said...

"Born on December 5th, 1872"

I guess Pillsbury has a new fan since he was born almost exactly 100 years before me (2 days difference). :-)

James Stripes said...

Nice summary of H.N. Pillsbury's short but remarkable chess career. Perhaps you can shed some light on my quest for the origins of the term Pillsbury's Mate for a particular checkmate pattern similar to Morphy's Mate. I've written a piece highlighting some essentials of what I've so far learned at my
Chess Skills

Blue Devil Knight said...

Excellent work as always!!! Great fun on a Saturday afternoon going through this.