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.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Hastings 1895: Mikhail Tchigorin, Cornerstone for the Soviet School of Chess

Mikhail Tchigorin ( Chigorin is “western” spelling and will be used in the rest of the text), was born on October 31st in 1850 ( according to the bio in the Hastings manual) and orphaned by age 10. In 1859-68, he was brought up in Gatchina Orphan Boarding School of Emperor Nicholas I. It was there, at age 16 he learned the moves from a teacher. It wouldn’t be until he reached his twenties that Chigorin would get competitive. After starting his career as a government official, he decided to bag that idea and take up chess after having some success in the late 1870’s and early 1880’s with the likes of his teacher, Schiffers and other players like Alapin and Blackburne.

By the time Hastings 1895 rolled around, at age 45, he was considered one of the top 4 or 5 players in the world having played several matches with others in the elite class of chess players. Hastings 1895 was to be his best performance and had he not lost in round 20 against Janowski in only 16 moves, he would have won this event outright!

Prior to that, Pillsbury and Chigorin were neck and neck. He led the pack up until round 10 when he drew against Bird. Pillsbury was either on par or a half point trailing until round 20.

Clearly, against Pillsbury in round 1, he dominated tactically while being a rook down in round 1.

He definitely had a style rooted in the old school of the romantic period as seen in this Kings Gambit. I believe he had an edge tactically and this allowed Pillsbury to take his rook with the advantage of gaining a relentless attack. If you like some swashbuckling, this is one of those that is almost on par with the Anderssen vs Keiseritsky immortal match.

In round 2, he is paired against the OTHER top seed, Lasker.As black, he drives the game into an imbalanced dual bishops against his dual knights. The only concession being a better pawn position for the knights. After a long arduous battle, Lasker makes a subtle rook blunder in this position:

Lasker takes the pawn on d3. Better would have been 55 Bc7 to keep pressure on the kingside advance as well. Steinitz’ annotations suggests that after Bc7, it is unclear that Black can win and a draw might have been eminent.

With the two power houses out of the way, one would think Hastings would be a breeze for Chigorin, but the competition shows that the opposite is true. When faced with a tough position, it’s been noted that Chigorin’s temperament would show an agitated man. However, his playing style featured a well honed tactical ability and an imaginative approach to the opening.

He rejected many of the inflexible doctrines put forward by Tarrasch and Steinitz, but accepted Steinitz' teachings about the soundness of the defensive center. It comes to no surprise that his treatment of the French defense seen in games against Teichmann in Round 6 and Blackburne in Round 8 has his signature 2.Qe2 move designed to delay black from playing 2...d5 because of the tempo grabbing 3.exd5 Qxd5 4.Nc3. In both games, he defends the center rather well before opening it up with an advantage that allows him to either penetrate on the queen side or gain material for a favorable endgame.

His win against Blackburne in round 8 won him a special prize from MR. Bradshaw ( an enlarged photograph of the players at this event ( I’m led to believe) for the first to win 7 games.

In round 14, as black against Kurt Von Bardeleben, he takes down a stonewall attack effectively.

This is partially due to the fact that his opponent plays blindly into an attack that requires the support of his king’s bishop which Chigorin removed early on.

Along with the Prize of 115 british pounds for placing second at this event, he also received a “handsome ring” presented by Mr. J. Cooke and a book, Theory and Practice of Chess by Carlo Salvioli for winning the most Evans Gambits accepted. ( He beat Pollock as Black, Drew against Bird and won Gunsberg as white with the Evans gambit).


He started the St. Petersburg Chess club in Russia and took over Schiffer’s role as Russia’s prominent Chess Teacher at the turn of the century giving lectures, writing articles and supporting periodicals. His tournament results post Hastings included a couple more strong performances at Budapest in 1896 and Cologne in 1898. Sortly after that he had some disappointing results. In 1907 he had an exceptionally poor result which may have been a result of his poor health. Later, in 1908, he died of complications of diabetes and a degenerative liver ( from drinking a little too much).

Through his original talent, lively games and prolific teachings, many Russians regard Mikhail Chigorin as the founder of their 'School of Chess', later to become known as the Soviet School of Chess.

Next up: Harry Nelson Pillsbury