Morphy Numbers Revisited: The Mortimer Effect
by Taylor Kingston
As I described in a 2005 article for ChessCafe.com, the concept of a Morphy Number (probably originated by Dutch writer Tim Krabbé [i]), refers to a chain of chess players linking back to the great Paul Morphy (1837-1884). In the late 1850s this young American won the first US championship tournament, then showed himself to be clearly the best in the world by traveling to Europe and defeating almost all the best active players in head-to-head matches, only to give up serious play for the rest of his life soon after. Anyone who played Morphy has an MN of 1, anyone who played an MN1 has an MN of 2, etc.
My 2005 article, Your Morphy Number Is Up, assigned MNs to various prominent players of the past and present, based on research in books, databases, tournament and match crosstables, and other historical sources. For example, then-World Champion Vladimir Kramnik got MN=5, based on playing Tony Miles (at Moscow 1989), who played Samuel Reshevsky (Amsterdam 1977), who played David Janowski (New York 1922), who played Henry Bird (Hastings 1895), who played Morphy in London in 1858. In this way, MNs were calculated for over a hundred players.
However, all these MNs were based on a small group of only four MN1 players: Adolf Anderssen, John Owen, Louis Paulsen, and the aforementioned Bird. These of course were not the only men who played Morphy, but they were the only ones I could find who had long post-Morphy chess careers, and who were prominent enough to be well represented in the historical record, and thus able to give a traceable MN of 2 to posterity. As it turns out, there may well be one other man, not nearly so prominent, who nevertheless could have passed on a Morphy Number to many later masters.
He was James Mortimer, an American born in Richmond, Virginia in 1833. As you can read in an article on him by Jeremy Spinrad in the ChessCafe archives, at the time of Morphy’s European visit, Mortimer was with the US diplomatic service in Paris. There he actually witnessed the Morphy-Anderssen match, and was probably involved on Morphy’s behalf in negotiations with other players. [ii]
One reason it did not occur to me to include Mortimer is that, unlike Anderssen, Owen, Paulsen and Bird, he was not a very good player. As the Spinrad article details, he had some horrendously bad results: =13-14th of 14 with a score of +3 -23 =4 at London 1883, 15th of 17 at Paris 1900 (+2 -14), last of 20 at Monte Carlo 1902 (+1 -18), and last of 29 at Ostend 1907 (+4 -22 =2). That Mortimer kept getting into high-level tournaments over a period spanning several decades seems to have been due far more to his engaging personality than his playing strength. The occasional upsets he scored – for example beating Zukertort, Chigorin, Blackburne and Tartakower – were due more to luck than skill. (See the second part of this article for these and other games, and an attempt to estimate his Elo rating.)
Furthermore in 2005 I knew of no evidence that Mortimer ever played Morphy. He is completely absent from the nearly 500 known surviving Morphy game scores. Morphy’s biographer David Lawson mentions him only twice, very briefly, and says nothing about their ever playing each other, nor does Morphy’s chronicler F.M. Edge.
However, as I learned from Fun with Morphy Numbers, an article posted by Frederick Rhine on the Chicago Chess Blog website in 2010, there is credible testimony, unknown to me in 2005, that Mortimer did indeed play Morphy. Rhine cites, for example, the September 1892 Chess Monthly, which on page 66 states that “In 1853, [Mortimer] was appointed attaché of the United States Legation in Paris, where he had an opportunity of renewing his acquaintance with Paul Morphy. The two countrymen thus became intimate friends. Both being passionately fond of chess, many hundreds of games were played by the master and pupil …” One would expect if this were not true that Mortimer, still alive and living in England at the time, would have issued a correction. Furthermore the British Chess Magazine of July 1971 said, in the obituary of someone who had known him, that “Mortimer had played friendly games with Morphy in Paris in the early sixties of the last century.”
Add to this the fact that in casual games Morphy was usually willing to take on all comers regardless of strength or fame, and it seems quite plausible, even very likely, that Mortimer did play him. And because Mortimer’s chess career, unimpressive though it was, involved a good number of high-level tournaments over several decades, he becomes an important MN1, thus mandating extensive revision of my 2005 Morphy Number table.
The main effect is that several prominent masters who were MN3’s on my 2005 list get promoted to MN2: Frank Marshall, Oldrich Duras, Akiba Rubinstein, Ossip Bernstein, Rudolf Spielmann, Aron Nimzovitch, and Savielly Tartakower. Also it prompted me to add a second-tier master, Eugene Znosko-Borovsky. And since they were among the most active players of their day, many who played them and whom I thought to be MN4’s, get upgraded to MN3, and so on down the line. (And incidentally, I am not displeased to say, it promotes me from a 5 to a 4, along with many of the MN5’s from my 2005 list.)
Most important among these new MN2’s are Znosko-Borovsky, Tartakower and Bernstein, all of whom played Mortimer in his last major tournament, Ostend 1907. Znosko-Borovsky played into the late 1940s, Tartakower well into the 1950s, and Bernstein even into the early 1960s, thus bestowing an MN3 on some players still alive today. At the time of my 2005 article I knew of only two MN3’s then living, GMs Andor Lilienthal (since deceased) and Arturo Pomar. As the Rhine article points out, due to the Mortimer effect, there may be many, some notable examples being GMs Pal Benko, Arthur Bisguier, Boris Ivkov, Fridrik Olafsson and Aleksandar Matanović, IM Jonathan Penrose, and British columnist Leonard Barden. Others alive in 2005 but since deceased include former world champion Vasily Smyslov, IM Robert Wade, and top-tier GMs David Bronstein, Svetozar Gligoric, and Bent Larsen.
So, here is the revised Morphy Number list based on the Mortimer Effect. Players are listed in the order of their year of birth. Those added or changed since 2005 are in bold. In each case I have tried to find a player’s earliest link in the Morphy chain, but as with the earlier list, it should not be considered authoritative in that respect.
MN = 0: Paul Charles Morphy (1837-1884)
MN = 1:
Adolf Anderssen (1818-1879), German master who lost a match to Morphy +2 –7 =2, Paris, 1858. The most famous of Morphy’s opponents, winner of London 1851, and considered by many the world’s best after Morphy’s retirement until the rise of Steinitz.
Rev. John Owen (1827-1901), English vicar and avid chess amateur who lost a match with Morphy at pawn-and-move +0 –5 =2 in London, 1858. Not a top-rank master, but he played in many British tournaments circa 1862-1898, and though more were minor than major, he still managed to play many of his era’s best.
Henry Edward Bird (1830-1908), English master who played a dozen informal games with Morphy in London, 1858, losing +1 –10 =1. By virtue of his long career, which included various high-level matches and tournaments into the 1900s, Bird was a major factor in extending the Morphy connection.
Louis Paulsen (1833-1891), German-American master, played Morphy at New York 1857, losing +1 –5 =2. Returning to Europe in 1860, he enjoyed a long and successful tournament and match career. Until about 1880 he was among the world’s best, arguably superior to Anderssen.
James Mortimer (1833-1911): American journalist, playwright and diplomat who lived in Paris 1855-1870 and mostly in England from 1870 on. Died while covering the San Sebastián 1911 tournament as a journalist. Reported to have played many casual games with Morphy in Paris. No more than a mediocre player, he nevertheless appeared in a good many high-level tournaments from 1883 to 1907, and thus, along with Bird, was one of the most important first links in the chain back to Morphy.
MN = 2:
Wilhelm Steinitz (1836-1900): played Anderssen, Paulsen, and Owen at London 1862. In 1866 he played a match with Bird.
Ignatz Kolisch (1837-1889): first played Anderssen in offhand games and a formal match in 1860; Paulsen in a formal match 1860.
George H. Mackenzie (1837-1891): Offhand games with Paulsen 1862; also played Anderssen, Owen, and Bird.
Szymon Winawer (1838-1919): Anderssen and Paulsen at Baden-Baden 1870.
Joseph Henry Blackburne (1841-1924): Offhand games with Paulsen1861, Anderssen 1862, formal games with both at London 1862. Also played Owen and Bird.
Johannes Zukertort (1842-1888): Innumerable offhand and serious games with Anderssen from 1864 on; Paulsen, Hamburg 1869.
Amos Burn (1848-1925): Owen, Liverpool CC 1870; Bird, consultation game, Glasgow, 1875; Paulsen, Frankfurt 1887.
James Mason (1849-1905): Bird, Philadelphia 1876; Anderssen, Paris 1878; Paulsen, Wiesbaden 1880; Owen, Hereford 1885.
Mikhail Chigorin (1850-1908): Paulsen, Berlin 1881; Bird, London 1883.
Isidor Gunsberg (1854-1930): Paulsen and Bird, Nuremberg 1883; Owen, Hereford 1885.
Semyon Alapin (1856-1923): Paulsen, Frankfurt 1887; Bird, match 1889; Owen, Manchester 1890.
Jackson Showalter (1860-1935): Bird, New York 1889.
Siegbert Tarrasch (1862-1934): Bird, Hamburg 1885. Also Paulsen and Owen.
S. Lipschütz (1863-1905): Bird, London 1886.
Jacques Mieses (1865-1954): Paulsen, Nuremberg 1888; Bird, Hastings1895.
Emanuel Lasker (1868-1941): Bird, match, Liverpool 1890.
Richard Teichmann (1868-1925): Bird, London 1894.
David Janowski (1868-1927): de Rivière, Paris 1892; Bird, Hastings 1895.
Geza Maróczy (1870-1951): Owen, Hastings 1895 (amateur section); Bird, London 1899.
Harry N. Pillsbury (1872-1906): Bird, Hastings 1895.
Reginald P. Michell (1873-1938): Owen, Hastings 1895 (amateur section).
Carl Schlechter (1874-1918): Bird, Hastings 1895.
Frank Marshall (1877-1944): Mortimer, Paris 1900.
Oldrich Duras (1882-1957): Mortimer, Ostend 1907.
Akiba Rubinstein (1882-1961): Mortimer, Ostend 1907.
Ossip Bernstein (1882-1962): Mortimer, Ostend 1907.
Rudolf Spielmann (1883-1942): Mortimer, Ostend 1907.
Eugene Znosko-Borovsky (1884-1954): Mortimer, Ostend 1907.
Aron Nimzovitch (1886-1935): Mortimer, Ostend 1907.
Savielly Tartakower (1887-1956): Mortimer, Ostend 1907.
MN = 3:
Milan Vidmar (1885-1962): Chigorin, Tarrasch, Janowski and Schlechter, Nuremberg 1906.
Edward Lasker (1885-1981): Mieses and Janowski, Scheveningen 1913.
Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968): Mieses, Maróczy.
J.R. Capablanca (1888-1942): Burn, Tarrasch, Janowski, Teichmann, Maróczy and Schlechter, San Sebastian 1911.
Efim Bogolyubov (1889-1952): Tarrasch and Janowski, Mannheim 1914.
Norman T. Whitaker (1890-1975): Showalter, match 1916.
Alexander Alekhine (1892-1946): Tarrasch, Teichmann and Schlechter, Hamburg 1910.
Friedrich Sämisch (1896-1975): Lasker, Moscow 1925.
Max Euwe (1901-1981): Maróczy, Amsterdam 1920.
George Koltanowski (1903-2000): Michell, London 1922.
Herman Steiner (1905-1955): Maróczy, New York 1926-27.
Philip Stuart Milner-Barry (1906-1995): Maróczy, London 1932.
Salo Flohr (1908-1983): Maróczy, Rogaska Slatina 1929.
Gideon Stahlberg (1908-1967), Nimzovitch, match, Gothenburg, 1934.
Miguel Najdorf (1910-1997): Tartakower, match, 1935.
Samuel Reshevsky (1911-1992): Janowski, New York 1922.
Mikhail Botvinnik (1911-1993): Michell, Hastings 1934-35.
Erich Eliskases (1913-1997): Em. Lasker, Moscow 1936.
Alexander Kotov (1913-1981): Tartakower, Saltsjöbaden 1948.
Lodewijk Prins (1913-1999): Mieses, Hastings 1945-46.
Reuben Fine (1914-1993): Maróczy, Zandvoort 1936.
Arnold Denker (1914-2005): Em. Lasker, simul 1938.
Paul Keres (1916-1975): Maróczy, Dresden 1936.
Laszlo Szabó (1917-1998): Spielmann, Sopron 1934.
Isaac Boleslavsky (1919-1977): Bernstein and Tartakower, Groningen 1946.
Robert Wade (1921-2008): Tartakower, Staunton Memorial 1951.
Vasily Smyslov (1921-2010): Tartakower and Bernstein, Groningen 1946.
Martin Christoffel (1922-2001): Mieses, Hastings 1945-46.
Svetozar Gligoric (1923-2012): Tartakower, Saltsjöbaden 1948.
David Bronstein (1924-2006): Tartakower, Saltsjöbaden 1948.
Abe Yanofsky (1925-2000): Tartakower, Saltsjöbaden 1948.
Pal Benko (1928): Tartakower, Budapest 1948.
Arthur Bisguier (1929): Tartakower, Southsea 1950.
Leonard Barden (1929): Tartakower, Southsea 1950.
Aleksandar Matanović (1930): Tartakower, Bled 1950.
Arturo Pomar (1931): Tartakower, London 1946
Borislav Ivkov (1933): Tartakower, Bled 1950.
Jonathan Penrose (1933): Znosko-Borovsky, London 1948.
Fridrik Olafsson (1935): Tartakower, Hastings 1953-54.
Bent Larsen (1935-2010): Bernstein, Amsterdam Olympiad 1954.
MN = 4:
Semyon Furman (1920-1978): Flohr, Moscow 1948.
Yuri Averbakh (1922): Botvinnik, Moscow Championship 1943-44.
Efim Geller (1925-1998): Flohr, Moscow 1949.
Ratmir Kholmov (1925): Botvinnik, Moscow 1947.
Mark Taimanov (1926): Flohr, Moscow 1948.
Tigran Petrosian (1929-1984): Keres, Tbilisi 1946.
Donald Byrne (1930-1976): H. Steiner, Pittsburgh 1946.
Viktor Korchnoi (1931): Flohr, Minsk 1952.
Lev Polugaevsky (1934-1995): Keres, Tbilisi 1959.
Mikhail Tal (1936-1992): Keres, Riga-Tallinn 1954.
Boris Spassky (1937): Flohr and Botvinnik, Moscow 1955.
Lajos Portisch (1937): Botvinnik, Leipzig Olympiad 1960.
Robert J. Fischer (1943-2008): Reshevsky, New York 1956-57.
Vlastimil Hort (1944): Flohr, Polanica Zdroj 1967.
Hans Ree (1944): Duchamp, correspondence, 1961.
Mark Dvoretsky (1947): Keres, Moscow 1973.
Bruce Pandolfini (1947): Reshevsky, offhand, 1973.
Robert Hübner (1948): Reshevsky, Palma 1970.
Tim Harding (1948): Botvinnik, simul 1967.
Taylor Kingston (1949): Simuls with Bisguier and Benko, San Diego, 1965-66. My one regret about being promoted to MN4 is that as the oldest MN5, I was at the top of that part of the 2005 list. The only way my name could appear above so many great players! [sigh]
Lubomir Ljubojevic (1950): Reshevsky, Palma 1970.
Jan Timman (1951): Keres, Amsterdam 1971.
Ulf Andersson (1951): Reshevsky, Palma 1971.
Anatoly Karpov (1951): Reshevsky, Skopje 1976.
Rafael Vaganian (1951): Reshevsky, Skopje 1976.
Alexander Beliavsky (1951): Reshevsky, Vilnius 1978.
Zoltan Ribli (1951): Szabó, Hungarian Championship 1967.
Tony Miles (1955-2001): Reshevsky, Amsterdam 1977.
John Nunn (1955): Bronstein, Hastings 1975-76.
Jonathan Speelman (1956): Szabó and Smyslov, Hastings 1981-82.
Mikhail Gurevich (1959): Smyslov, Moscow 1988.
Yasser Seirawan (1960): Reshevsky, Lone Pine 1977.
Artur Yusupov (1960): Gligoric, Vrbas 1980.
Nigel Davies (1960): Bisguier, Lone Pine 1981.
Predrag Nikolic (1960): Smyslov, Portoroz/Lubljana 1985.
Garry Kasparov (1963): Smyslov, team match, 1975.
Gary Lane (1964): Botvinnik, simul, London 1981(?).
Valery Salov (1964): Smyslov, Moscow 1988.
Nigel Short (1965): Reshevsky, Lugano 1986.
Alexander Khalifman (1966): Smyslov, Moscow 1988.
Susan Polgar (1969): Flohr, simul, Budapest 1978.
Vasily Ivanchuk (1969): Smyslov, Moscow 1988.
Viswanathan Anand (1969): Smyslov, Groningen 1989.
Carsten Hansen (1971): Larsen, simul, Sonderso, 1982.
Alexei Shirov (1972): Smyslov, Tallinn, 1996.
Gata Kamsky (1974): Smyslov, New York Open 1990.
Veselin Topalov (1975): Larsen, Spain 1992.
Peter Svidler (1976): Smyslov, Moscow 1992.
Judit Polgar (1976): Bronstein, Hungary 1988.
Ruslan Ponomariov (1983): Gligoric, Cannes 1998.
MN = 5:
It was remarkable how short the Mortimer Effect made this list. Most on it got promoted by playing Smyslov, Bronstein, Gligoric, or Larsen, all very active players with long careers. Of course there are probably millions of MN5’s; generally I included only the most prominent on my 2005 list. I felt that one, at least, should be added: the newly crowned World Champion, Magnus Carlsen.
Dan Heisman (1950): D. Byrne, offhand, 1969.
Boris Gelfand (1968): Miles, Amsterdam 1988.
Karsten Müller (1970): Hort, Germany 1994.
Michael Adams (1971): Short, Swansea 1987.
Joel Lautier (1973): Andersson, Cannes 1989.
Vladimir Kramnik (1975): Miles, Moscow 1989.
Peter Leko (1979): Karpov, Spain 1993.
Rustam Kasimdzhanov (1979): Hübner, Bad Wiessee 1997.
Magnus Carlsen (1990): Timman, Reykjavik 2004.
More on Mortimer
Dr. Arpad Elo did not include Mortimer among those for whom he calculated historical ratings in his 1978 book The Rating of Chessplayers, Past and Present, but one can find enough data to make an educated guess. For example, Elo rated Polish master Samuel Rosenthal (1837-1902) at a five-year peak of 2470. Mortimer played a ten-game match with him in 1867, losing +2 -7 =1, a 25% score. Using Elo’s “Win Expectancy” table, that translates to a rating difference of about 200 points, which, assuming Rosenthal was at 2470 in 1867, puts Mortimer at about 2270.
Another indication is the tournament London 1883, where Mortimer scored +3 -23 =4, or 16.67%. That event is estimated to have been at a strength of FIDE Category 10, [iii] i.e. an average Elo of 2476 to 2500. Mortimer’s score indicates a rating about 280 points lower, i.e. 2220 at best.
Jeff Sonas’ Chessmetrics web-site is a bit kinder to Mortimer. Sonas’ ratings generally reflect the same relative rankings as Elo’s, but tend to be about 100 to 150 points higher; for example Elo puts Capablanca’s five-year peak at 2725, while Sonas has him in the area of 2825 to 2875. As can be seen here, he has Mortimer varying from the mid-2300s to the high 2400s over the years 1867-1909. He pegs Manchester 1890 as Mortimer’s best performance, a +7 -9 =3 score (44%) against opposition rated 2570, for a TPR of 2541. Elo gives historical ratings for 15 of that event’s 20 players, and using those figures yields a TPR of about 2430, which is consistent, taking into account the Elo/Sonas point differential.
However, a strong dissent can be derived from one of GM John Nunn’s books, [iv] in which he estimated that the German player Hugo Süchting (1874-1916), a contemporary of Mortimer with a better record, would today be rated only about 2100 at best (Elo put him at 2450). The two had one tournament in common, Ostend 1907. Süchting scored +11 -14 =3 to place =18-19th, while Mortimer came 29th, dead last, scoring only +4 -22 =2. By Elo’s table that indicates a rating difference of about 180 points, so if Süchting was only 2100, the indication is that Mortimer was only a bit over 1900.
A further argument could be made from analysis of Mortimer’s games. His two biggest upsets, against Zukertort and Chigorin at London 1883, were outright lucky flukes. Both games came in very late rounds. Zukertort had already clinched first prize, and both he and Chigorin clearly suffered from fatigue, reaching winning positions and then blundering. Here is the crucial position from the Zukertort game:White has several ways to win, best probably being 23.Rfd1 Rbd8 24.Qh3 Qc6 25.Qh4+ Ke8 26.e6 etc. Instead, Zukertort hallucinated: 23.Rxd7+? Kxd7 24.Qf7+ Kc8 25.e6 Ba6 26.Rc1 Rd8 27.e7 Kb7 28.exd8Q Rxd8 White has regained the sacrificed rook but is now down a pawn. Still, he can hold on if he makes Luft for his king by, say, 29.h3 or 29.h4. A sample line is 29.h3 Rd2 30.Ne6 Qd6 31.Nc5+ Kb6 (if 31…Kb8?! 32.Nxa6+ Qxa6 33.Be5 Qc8 34.Rc5 and White still has chances, e.g. 34…Bb6? 35.Bxc7+ Bxc7 36.Rb5+ Bb6 37.Qf4+ Kb7 38.Qxd2 and wins) 32.Na4+ Kb7 33.Nc5+ etc., with perpetual check. But Zukertort fails to see the danger to his king.
29.Ne6? Rd5! – Mortimer finds Black’s only good move. 30.Bf6 – If 30.Nxc7?? Rf5!, the point of 29…Rd5. 30…Qc6!It must have given tail-ender Mortimer quite a thrill to offer his queen to the man many regarded as the best in the world at the time. Of course if 31.Rxc6 Rd1#. 31.Ra1Bc4 32.Qe7 Qd6 – Tantamount to resignation. 33.Qxd6 Rxd6 34.Nc5+ Kc6 35.Ne4 Re6 36.f3 Bb6+ 37.Kh1 Bd5 38.Rc1+ Kb5 39.Bg5 Bxe4 40.fxe4 Rxe4 41.h4 h6 42.Bd8 c5 0-1
Chigorin, who in their first game beat Mortimer in only nineteen moves, also had him on the ropes in their second:Here Chigorin needed only to end the pesky checks with the rather obvious 33…g6, leaving White only a choice of whether to lose by 34.Kxh1 Qxf2, or 34.Ne4 Nxf2 35.Nxc5 Nxd3. Instead the great Russian master played the incomprehensible 33…f5?? 34.Qxf5+ Qxf5 35.Rxf5 Ng3 36.Ra5 Rf6? – Another inexplicable error. There was no need to give up another pawn. After 36…a6 or 36…Re7 it’s doubtful Mortimer would have sufficient skill to win such an endgame. 37.Rxa7 h5 38.h4 Rf1+ 39.Kh2 Nf5 40.Ra4 Rf2 41.Ne4? – Mortimer errs in return. 41.Rb4 would have retained his advantage. 41…Rxb2 42.Ng5+ Kg6?? The final blunder, inexplicable for someone of Chigorin’s stature. After 42…Kh6 Black still had good drawing chances. Now he loses a piece and the game. 43.Ra6+ Nd6 44.Rxd6+ Kf5 45.Rd5+ Kg6 46.a3 Rb3 47.Ra5 Kh6 48.Ra6+ g6 49.Ra8 Kg7 50.Ra7+ Kf6 51.Rf7+ Ke5 52.Rf3 Rb2 53.Kg3 Rd2 54.Re3+ Kf5 55.Re5+ 1–0
If we dismiss these two games as flukes, and consider Mortimer’s “real” score at London 1883 then to be only +1 -25 =4, a mere 10%, then his TPR for that event goes down to about 2140 at best.
Far more often it was Mortimer who blundered. A glaring example is his game with W.H.K. Pollock at London 1887:13…Kh8?? – A move demonstrating a sense of danger akin to a shrimp’s whistling ability. 14.f5 Ne5 15.f6 – Even stronger is 15…Rf4 immediately. 15…g6 16.Qh6 Rg8 17.Rf4 Nf3+ 18.Rxf3 Qe8 19.Rf4 Qf8 20.Qxh7+! 1–0
A similar example is Mortimer’s game with Leonhardt at Ostend 1907:Mortimer, Black, is behind in development and needs to play something like 13…Nd7. Instead, he has a meltdown: 13…b5?? 14.Nxb5! Nxc4 – If 14…cxb5 15.Bd5 Bb7 16.Bxb7 Nxb7 17.Nf7+ etc. 15.Qxc4 cxb5 16.Nf7+ Rxf7 – Forced, since if 16…Kg8?? 17.Nh6+ and smothered mate. 17.Qxf7 17…Nc6 – The Be7 cannot move due to 18.Re8, so White is able to win back his sacrificed piece. 18.Bg5 – 18.d5 is also quite sufficient. 18…Qf8 19.Rxe7 Qxf7 20.Rxf7 Be6 21.Rc7 Nxd4 22.Rd1 Ne2+ 23.Kf1 Re8 24.Kxe2 Bb3+ 25.Kd2 Bxd1 26.Kxd1 1–0
This lack of a sense of danger, which shows up again and again in his games, was probably Mortimer’s most serious flaw as a chess player. One last, glaring example, from the 1867 Rosenthal match:Mortimer, Black, stands already clearly worse, and must obviously move his queen, but not to just any square: only f4, g5 or h4 will do, so that the queen can then go to h6 to defend g7. Instead he played 17…Qf5??, and quickly resigned after 18.Qc3.
I once thought that Mortimer pulled off another major upset, of George Mackenzie (1837-1891), a Scottish-American master among the world’s top five or ten in the 1880s, but I was mistaken. Though Mortimer did play him at London 1883, he scored only one draw in their three games. The Mackenzie he did beat, at London 1904, was Arthur John Mackenzie, a player of no great repute (who nonetheless managed to place well above him in that event, 11th of 17, while Mortimer was dead last).
In Mortimer’s last two big upsets, at Ostend 1907 against Blackburne and Tartakower, he played better, and was never in danger of losing, but still the games are not all that impressive. Blackburne, then in his mid-sixties and well past his prime, gambited a pawn early but then never gained a compensating initiative. After playing rather lackadaisically for twenty-seven moves, he suddenly and unwisely tried to force matters:28…f5?? 29.gxf5 gxf5 30.Qh5! – One can only presume that Blackburne overlooked this strong riposte. If now 30…Kg8 to unpin the h-pawn, then 31.Nxf5 is crushing, threatening 32.Nxg7 and 33.Bxe5. 30…fxe4 31.Ng6+ Decisive. Blackburne tries for a swindle, but Mortimer handles the not very complex complications well. 31…Kg8 32.Nxf8 e3+ 33.Kg1 e2 34.Nxd7 exf1Q+ 35.Kxf1 Nxd7 36.Bxh7+ Kf8 37.Qf5+ Ke7 38.Bg8 Kd8 39.Bxe5 Qc6 40.Qxd7+ Qxd7 41.Rxd7+ Kxd7 42.Bxg7 1–0
In the other Ostend upset, overly optimistic and aggressive opening play by Tartakower gave Mortimer a strong position, but only further mistakes by his future top-ten opponent allowed him to win.
Mortimer-Tartakower, Ostend 1907: 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 g6 5.Be3 Bg7 6.c4 d6 7.Nc3 Nf6 8.Be2 Bd7 9.0–0 0–0 10.Qd2 Ne8Beginning a flawed plan. Better to prepare queenside counterplay with Ra8-b8, a7-a6, b7-b5 etc. 11.f4 f5?! – Black’s intended follow-up, but too bold. 12.exf5 gxf5 13.Bf3 Nxd4 14.Bxd4 e5? In for a penny, in for a pound, but this is unsound. Better, say, 14…Bc6 15.Bxg7 Nxg7. 15.Bd5+ Kh8 16.Be3?! Mortimer retreats when he should advance. Best was 16.fxe5 dxe5 17.Bc5 Rf6 18.Bxb7 , winning a pawn. Now, and perhaps at several subsequent points, Black could greatly diminish White’s advantage with e5-e4, locking up the center. But he never does.
16…Qc7 17.Rac1 a6 18.Qf2 Bc6 19.Rfd1 Nf620.h3 – Again, too much timidity. There was no reason not to play 20.fxe5, since if 20…Ng4 21.exd6 Qxd6 22.Qf4 Be5 23.Bd4 and White stays a sound pawn up. 20…Rae8 21.fxe5 dxe5? Losing the exchange. Correct was 21…Rxe5, though then White is still better. 22.Bc5 Rg8 23.Bxg8 Rxg8 24.Bd6 – Apparently from fear of 24…Bxg2 and 25…Ne4, but again this is overly timid. Best was 24.Nd5 Bxd5 25.cxd5, and if 25…Ne4 26.Qxf5 Nxc5 27.Qf2 b6 28.b4 +–.
24…Qf7?? – The decisive mistake. Relatively best was 24…Qc8 , and if 25.Bxe5 Bxg2 26.Kxg2 Ne4 27.Nxe4 Bxe5+ 28.Ng5 Rxg5+ with a loose enough position to give Black some drawing chances. 25.Bxe5 – Even better was 25.Qxf5 Qxc4 26.Nd5 Qe2 27.Re1 Qd2 28.Rcd1 Qh6 29.Ne7 Nd5 (if 29…Rd8 30.Nxc6 bxc6 31.Bxe5+–) 30.Nxg8 Qxd6 31.Qf7 and wins. 25…Nh5?? From bad to worse. Necessary was 25…Ne4. Now for the rest of the game Mortimer plays the best move almost every time. 26.Bxg7+ Qxg7 27.Nd5 Ng3 28.Rc2 Qg5 29.Qd4+ Rg7 30.Nf4 Qh6 31.Qe5 Kg8 32.Rd8+ Kf7 33.Qc7+ Kf6 34.Rd6+ Kg5 35.Qd8+ 1–0
Not the sort of game one expects from a player with a historical Elo of 2560, as Tartakower was, but still it is to Mortimer’s credit that he stood equal or better all the way through, even if his play was overly cautious.
So where to peg Mortimer rating-wise? My own inclination is to side more with Nunn than Sonas. I have faced a good many players of 2300+ strength over the years, and few if any ever played as badly as Mortimer often did. When he was in good form (or his opponent was badly off), Mortimer could play creditable chess, but such occasions were too few and far between to put him in the upper reaches of today’s National Masters. I can’t see him going any higher than USCF mid-class A or low expert strength today, perhaps above Elo 1900 but no higher than 2100.
Nevertheless, as a link in the Morphy Number chain, it appears that Mortimer ranks with such greats as Paulsen and Anderssen. For that, many chess players alive today may be grateful. I certainly am.
[ii] “In the presence of witnesses, Morphy authorized a fellow American, probably James Mortimer, to propose to Harrwitz on his behalf a second match …”: Lawson, David, Paul Morphy: The Pride and Sorrow of Chess, David McKay Company, New York, 1976, p. 181.
[iii] Fox & James, The Even More Complete Chess Addict, Faber & Faber, London, 1993, p. 127.
[iv] John Nunn’s Chess Puzzle Book, Gambit Publications, London, 1999. Nunn based his conclusion on examination of Süchting’s games from Carlsbad 1911. His conclusions were disputed by Swiss IM Richard Forster in a ChessCafe.com column of May 1999.
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