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Emanuel Lasker: Flipping the Bird

In 1880, at the age of eleven, Emanuel Lasker learned to play the game of chess from his brother.  Within nine years, Lasker would be playing and winning against world class chess masters in both tournament and match play.  In 1894, at the age of 24, Lasker defeated Wilhelm Steinitz to capture the title of World Champion, a title which he would hold exclusively for the next 27 years.

Four years earlier, in 1890, Lasker travelled to Liverpool to compete in a chess tournament.  There, he would meet and defeat Henry Edward Bird (+7 =3 -2).  Bird, who played chess regularly on the world stage from 1849 to 1899, was the namesake of Bird's Opening (ECO A02, A03) and the Ruy Lopez Opening - Bird's Defense (C61).  In addition, one could argue that the Sicilian - Accelerated Fianchetto (B34) would aptly be named the Sicilian - Bird, as Bird's study and use of the opening was a major contributing factor in the emergence of the opening in international play.

Before 1883 the B34 variation of the Sicilian saw very limited use on the world stage.  Between 1883 and 1889 Bird would play the B34 ten times, against the likes of Joseph Blackburne, Max Weiss, Isidor Gunsberg, Josef Noa, Johann Berger, David Baird, Samuel Lipschutz and James Hanham.  Bird utilized the opening with amazing success.  In ten games his record with the B34 was +4 -1 =5.  Following Bird's early successes, other masters around the world began to experiment with the opening, but few could master the position.  Other notable chess players of the day utilized the line only once or twice in competition before giving it up.

 


In Liverpool, 1890,  Bird attempted the B34 against Lasker only once.  After 57 moves, Bird was forced to resign in the face of mate.

In 1892 Bird and Lasker would square off in England once again, and once again Bird would attempt the B34 Sicilian Accelerated Fianchetto.  Lasker's brilliant response rapidly shattered both Bird's position and his burgeoning confidence in the opening.  

After their 1892 game, Bird would play the B34 only twice more in the remaining seven years of his chess career.  Lasker, on the other hand, would go on to utilize the Sicilian Accelerated Fianchetto numerous times throughout his career, with great success.  Between 1892 and 1909 Lasker would play the B34 as black seven times.  His record from the position was a resounding +6 -0 =1, and his white response to B34 would, for a time, replace the traditional line as the best response to 4 ... g6.


Mr. Lasker, Mr. Bird and myself became better acquainted this week, thanks to a chance encounter with the B34 on chess.com, and the research that followed.  You can imagine my surprise when I learned that I had been fortunate enough to accidentally follow in the footsteps of a such a historic champion as Emanuel Lasker.  Having stumbled once again upon history, I felt obliged to share the experience.

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