What can we learn from chess history?

by admin on April 18, 2012

I’m really not a big expert on chess history. However, at Mike Splane’s latest chess salon last weekend, I talked about my recent game from the Reno tournament in the Bird Variation (Blackburne Subvariation) of the Ruy Lopez. (That’s 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 Nd4 4. Nxd4 ed 5. O-O g6.) Mike said, “I have the book for you.”

He went back and rummaged in his library and came out with Blackburne’s Chess Games, a Dover reprint of an 1899 book with the more old-fashioned title Mr. Blackburne’s Games at Chess. When’s the last time you saw “Mr.” in a book title? And who plays “at” chess any more?

The games are as old-fashioned as the title, but nevertheless a delight. The openings are King’s Gambits and Vienna Games and Danish Gambits, all the old romantic openings. Many of them are from simultaneous exhibitions or simultaneous blindfold matches, of which Blackburne played many. (He gave his first exhibition, playing ten games blindfolded, at the age of 19 — only one year after he learned the game!Is that sick or what?!)

As you’d expect, there are lots of brilliant combinations. I like this one, from a 20-game simul in 1898, and I showed it to my chess club at the Aptos Public Library yesterday.

After 21. ... h5. White to move.

FEN: r2r3k/pppb1R2/2n2R2/3N2qp/2BPP1p1/2P5/PP2K1P1/7Q w – – 0 1

Interestingly, my younger students struggled with this one, although I gave them lots of hints. I asked them, “Which White piece is not really participating in the attack yet? How might we get it into the attack?” and “Which Black pieces are defending his king? Is there any way to remove that piece from the defense?”

After ten minutes of getting nowhere, I was going to tell them the answer, but then one of my older students (a regular of Gjon Feinstein’s classes, but this was the first time she had come to the Aptos club) raised her hand. “22. Qh4,” she said. And of course, that is the key move. Blackburne played 22. Qh4!! (deflection) Qxh4 23. Rh6+ Kg8 24. Rxd7+ Kf8 25. Rh8 mate.

Afterwards the girl who had found the solution explained to me that she hadn’t spoken up earlier because she wanted to give the younger kids a chance. That was really nice of her.

But I was left wondering why the younger kids couldn’t get it. Partly, I think, they just don’t know how to listen. They’re too eager to suggest their own moves and they don’t really listen, and process, what I tell them.

Another thing that I find interesting about this example — and perhaps these old-time games in general — is how many different ways there are to learn from them. In chess club we were basically doing what Blackburne intended back in 1899: we were using the position for tactical training. It was too hard for the young kids and just right for the older kid.

But for the seasoned tournament player, I think that the more interesting positions actually come earlier in the game. The finishing combination is cool and all that, but really we wonder, what did Black do wrong to get into a position like this? Then we look back at the game, with a modern computer at our side, and we discover that White’s play was just as suspect as Black’s!

Here is the complete game, followed by one position that surprised me.

Position after 11. ... Bd6. White to move.

FEN: r1bq3r/ppp3k1/2nb1n1p/3N4/2BPPBpP/8/PPP3P1/R2QK2R w KQ – 0 1

Here I was a little surprised to see 12. Nxf6, when the natural move for White is 12. O-O, getting the king to (relative) safety and getting more pieces into the attack. After 12. Nxf6 Qxf6 13. Be3 Bg3+, White’s king is needlessly exposed to counterattack.

Why did Blackburne, perhaps a GM-strength player in the era before GM’s, play such a move? I think it’s a mistake of arrogance or perhaps even laziness. He’s played hundreds of exhibitions in his life, and he knows that his amateur opponent is not going to take advantage of the exposed king. And he was right.

Going over the game with Rybka, it’s easy to see that Black lost because he had a purely defensive mindset. He had several chances to play tactical tricks that would have taken advantage of the king’s position at e2. For example, 14. … Be6 or 20. … g3 would have been improvements. But it’s best not to think of these as “tricks.” They are logical, sensible moves that attempt to develop Black’s problem piece, the QB, as quickly and as actively as possible. The pins and checks are enabling devices, not tricks.

I also think it’s interesting to compare Black’s lame defense in this game with the game Mayer-Tartakower 1906 (same opening, same era) where we see how a strong master defends the position with active moves that exploit the vulnerability of White’s king. This was the era when good defensive play was starting to make the romantic openings untenable in master tournaments, and the Tartakower game shows you why.

See the PGN viewer above for more details. If you can’t read the PGN file, the most important message is this: “The best way to defend most positions is, ironically, to defend as little as possible, but to carry the fight to the opponent with aggressive moves.”

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Forward Chess April 19, 2016 at 10:56 pm

Nice post! I guess you have shared some great information for the new chess players. Thanks for sharing your experience with us.


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