A Turning Point in Chess History
by Brian Almeida
St. Petersburg, 1895-96, by Robert Sherwood, Caissa Editions 2014, Hardback, Algebraic Notation,124pp. $32.00 (ChessCafe Price $27.20)
This is a heavily revised, new edition of The Match Tournament at St Petersburg 1895-96 by John C. Owen, originally published by Caissa Editions in 1989. Owen’s book of the event presented all the games with annotations taken largely from contemporary commentaries, such as the notes from the 1896 book by Mason and Pollock.
For this volume Robert Sherwood includes the “engaging and enlightening” game introductions written by Owen and reworked the analysis with the strongest available engines (Komodo and Houdini). Sherwood has also added “interesting (and often colorful comments)” from British and German periodicals of that time; while publisher Dale Brandreth includes an introduction and epilogue that puts the tournament into historical context and provides background information on the players and their careers.
There is also a crosstable, round-by-round scores, photographs of the players, an openings index, and a bibliography. However, sorely lacking is a game index that allows the reader to easily find specific encounters between the players. For instance, if you want to find all the games contested between Pillsbury and Lasker, you would need to consult the table of contents for the round-by-round chapter headings, and then turn to each chapter to determine who played who in that round.
The St. Petersburg match tournament featured four of the world’s strongest players: Lasker, Steinitz, Pillsbury, and Chigorin. Each player played the others six times. The event was announced by Chigorin at the end of the Hastings 1895 tournament, which was won by Pillsbury:
“There was one little matter he would like to mention, and that was that the St. Petersburg Chess Club wished to arrange a tournament in St. Petersburg about the end of this year, between five or six recognized chess champions, and were of the opinion that it would not be complete if Mr. Pillsbury did not take part. The club would offer prizes, the first to be £100, and no player would receive less than £30. The club, moreover, wished to play all the expenses of the players. The President of the St. Petersburg Chess Club (M. Sabouroff), who lived in London some thirty years ago, has suggested that, instead of having a one-game tournament, there should be three or four games, and the number of players would be limited. It was hoped that this arrangement would meet with the approval of the chess world.”
Of the five highest scoring players at Hastings, Harry Nelson Pillsbury, Mikhail Chigorin, Emanuel Lasker, Siegbert Tarrasch, and Wilhelm Steinitz, only Tarrasch declined participation. Emanuel Schiffers was suggested as a replacement, but Chigorin was considered to be the strongest Russian player, so the field was limited to four players. This was the only tournament to feature just world championship contenders until The Hague/Moscow in 1948.
The final standings for St. Petersburg were as follows:
- Lasker 11.5-6.5
- Steinitz 9.5-8.5
- Pillsbury 8-10
- Chigorin 7-11
Pillsbury had a fine start, beating Lasker in the first round and scoring 3.5-2.5 in their individual encounters; he was leading the tournament after the first half (scoring 6.5 points), but broke down in the second half of the event (scoring only 1.5). It was suggested by Owen in the 1989 edition that Pillsbury contracted syphilis during the event, which would prove lethal just ten years later, but Dale Brandreth here suggests Pillsbury may have contracted the disease at Hastings and began showing symptoms during this event. Garry Kasparov has suggested that had Pillsbury won his round ten encounter versus Lasker that he could well have won the tournament and forced a world championship match.
Here is that game with select notes and diagrams:
Game 19. Pillsbury – Lasker
Queen’s Gambit Declined (D50)
Played on 4 January 1896.
“If this game is not the most famous tournament game of all time, it has certainly occupied more commentators and anthologists for a longer time than all the rest of the games in this great tournament put together! It is considered Lasker’s greatest combinative triumph – he considered it his best game – and it was symbolic of his elevation to a position head and shoulders above his contemporaries until the coming of Rubinstein and Capablanca. At the same time we may say that this fireworks display also symbolized Pillsbury’s failure ever to obtain backing for a World Championship match with Lasker. It need not have happened that way, but, as in the 9th round, Pillsbury was still playing under a cloud of distraction, still unable to concentrate properly on the business at hand until the need for ‘desperado’ tactics focused his play. In a volatile variation of the Queen’s Gambit, which required sharp play to maintain White’s initiative, he went to sleep and played 7.Qh4, thereby handing the initiative to Lasker! He might have been expected to play instead 7.Bxf6!, which is entirely favorable for White and which Pillsbury played against Lasker at Cambridge Springs when they met for the last time – in Pillsbury’s final tournament, when he was already dying of paresis. By that time his attention span was so attenuated that he had trouble following the thread of a position, with the result that on many days his play was barely a shadow of what it had once been. But he must have been lucid on the day he was to meet Lasker – the champion always kindled Pillsbury’s competitive fires – for he managed to defeat Lasker in a style reminiscent of his heyday, helped no doubt by his extended analysis of the position years before.
“After having lost the initiative in this game, Pillsbury refused to face facts: he castled ‘into it,’ allowed his Queen to be isolated on the King side, useless for defense, and pursued a will-o’-the-wisp attack on the King side. Did Lasker ever fail to take advantage of a head start like that? His double rook sacrifice has always appealed, and his final mate in 5 on an open board has the beauty of a composition, but the ‘why’ may be more pertinent than the ‘how’! It is worth noting that of the six games between these two players at St. Petersburg Lasker won only one.” (Owen)
1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.Nf3 c5 5.Bg5 cxd4 6.Qxd4 Nc67.Qh4
The epic encounter Pillsbury–Lasker at Cambridge Springs, 1904, would see the improvement 7.Bxf6! Gxf6 (7…Nxd4?! 8.Bxd8 Nc2+ 9.Kd2 Nxa1 10.Bh4 dxc4 11.e3 Nb3+ 12.axb3cxb3 13.Bc4 with an edge to White; or 8…Nxf3+ 9.gxf3 Kxd8 10.cxd5 exd5 11.0-0-0 and 12.Nxd5, with a pawn) 8.Qh4 dxc4 9.Rd1 Bd7 10.e3 when 10…f5 would have been a lot safer than the 10…Ne5 played. Pillsbury won in brilliant style.
7…Be7 8.0-0-0?! Qa5 9.e3 Bd7 10.Kb1 h6! 11.cxd5 exd5 12.Nd4 0-0
Lasker relieves the pressure and acquires the two bishops.
The “attack” with 13.Bxh6 gxh6 14.Qxh6 is quickly halted by 14…Ne4.
13…Bxf6 14.Qh5 Nxd4 15.exd4 Be6
Clearly envisioning his 17th move in response to the f-pawn advance.
Pillsbury is not thinking of defense in this part of the game, but very good here is 16.Bc4! Rfd8 17.Bb3=/+, better securing his castled position prior to kingside counterplay. The bishop could then go to c2, aiming at the kingside, if an opportunity arose.
Universally praised, but in light of Pillsbury’s drawing chances later it would in fact be stronger to play 17…Bd7 18.Qf3 Bc6 19.g4 b5; e.g., 20.Bg2 (20.h4? B4 21.Ne2 Ba4 22.b3 Bb5 – threatening 23…Rc2! – 23.Nc1 Rc3 24.Qg2 Bxf1; 23.g5 Qa3 24.Nc1 Bxd4 -+) 20…Rfd8 21.Ne2 b4 22.Nc1 Bb5 intending …Qc7 and …a7-a5, etc., with a blistering attack.
Pillsbury can in fact take the rook: 19.bxa3! Qb6+ 20.Bb5! (pulling the Queen off the dark squares) 20…Qxb5+ 21.Ka1 fxe6 22.Qh3 Qe2 23.Kb1 Rc8 (23…Bh4 24.Rhg1 and Rc1 should be okay for White) 24.Rd2! Qxd2 (24…Qa6 25.Rhd1=) 25.Qxe6+ Kh7 26.Qxc8 Qxd4 27.Qc2+ with what looks like a drawn ending.
Just not 20.Ka1? Bxd4+ 21.Rxd4 Qxd4+ 22.Kb1 fxe6 23.Be2 Qe4+ 24.Ka1 Rf2 25.Re1 Qd4+ 26.Kb1 Qb2-+. Nor 20.Kc2? Rc8+ 21.Kd2 Qxd4+ 22.Ke1 Qe3+ 23.Be2 fxe6 24.Qh3 Bc3+ 25.Kf1 Rf8+ 26.Bf3 Ba5 and 27…Bb6-+.
19…Rxf7 20.bxa3 Qb6+ 21.Bb5
Too late, unfortunately.
Lasker, reportedly already in time trouble, misses the direct 22…Qc4! (23.Qg4 Re7! And there is no counter to the threat …Re2) 23…Bxd4 (threatening both 24…Qb5+ and 24…Rf2, either one forcing mate); e.g., 24.Rxd4 (24.Qh3 Rf6 25.Rxd4 Rb6+!-+) 24…Qxd4 25.Rd1 Qe4+ 26.Ka1 Rf5-+.
23.Rd2! Rc4 24.Rhd1?
The saving clause at this point is 24.Re1! (threatening 25.Qe8+ Qxe8 26.Rxe8+ Kh7 27.Kb1 b6 28.Ra8, with the better ending) 24…Qa5 (24…Kf8 25.Rf2 Qc6 26.Rxf6+ gxf6 27.Qxh6+ Kg8 28.Qg6+ and a draw; or 24…Bxd4+ 25.Rxd4 Rxd426.Re8+, when Black has to give up the Queen to avoid mate) 25.Re8+ Kh7 26.Qf5+ g6 27.Re7+ Bxe7 28.Qf7+, with perpetual check.
24…Qc6! 25.Kb1 Bg5 26.Re1 (26.Qe2 Bxd2 27.Qxd2 Qd6-+, Black winning a vital pawn) 26…Qb6+ 27.Rb2 (27.Ka1 Qf6 28.Qe8+ Kh7 29.Qe2 Bxd2 30.Qxd2 Rxd4-+) 27…Qc7 28.Qd1 (there is nothing else) 28…Rc1+ 29.Qxc1 Bxc1 30.Rxc1 Qxh2 31.Rd2 Qf4, though the two rooks would be a formidable defensive force in the ending.
Now, 26.Rc2, reducing his opponent’s attacking force, would give White the edge.
Pillsbury, probably also in time pressure – the time control is at move 30 – misses 26.Kb1!, which not only holds but gives him a palpable advantage; e.g., 26…Rxa3 (26…Qb5+ 27.Rb2 Qc6 28.Rb3 Rc4 29.Rb4 Rc3 30.Re!+/-, with a difficult but favorable endgame for White) 27.Rc1 Qb5+ (27…Rc3 28.Rxc3 Qxc3 29.Qxd5+ Kh8 30.Rd1+-) 28.Rb2 Qd3+ (there certainly is nothing better) 29.Qxd3 Rxd3 20.Rxb7 Bxd4 31.Rd7 with a tough ending that he might prove able to win. This would appear to be Pillsbury’s last chance to stay in the game.
26…Rxa3 27.Qe6+ Kh7 28.Kxa3 Qc3+ 29.Ka4 b5+ 30.Kxb5 Qc4+
“White resigns; on 31.Ka5, 31…Bd8+ follows.” (DWs) “A very interesting game, which shows a quite different side to Lasker, namely that of a bold combination player.” (DSz)
Another key encounter for Pillsbury was his round 16 game versus Steinitz; a 100-move marathon won by the latter. Owen introduces it as follows:
“If Pillsbury, with 7 points, is to win Second Prize ahead of Steinitz, who has 7.5, he must win here, especially since he has the White pieces. Unfortunately, he still hadn’t learned that Steinitz could seldom be run down by direct attack; he had to be outmaneuvered first. Even as the old champion’s playing strength began to slip away, he remained an infinitely patient master of defense. He knew that the ambitious Pillsbury would go all out, so he waited, confident of the outcome.”
St. Petersburg, 1895-96 is a terrific account of this historic event, and it even includes the two exhibition games played on the final two days. Owen notes that “It is a pity that far less attention is paid to these exhibition game than to the games in the tournament. They both demonstrate the superiority of the younger generation in positional judgment – even when dealing with the older generation’s favorite openings!”
My assessment of this product:
Order St. Petersburg, 1895-96
by Robert Sherwood
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