Monster Opening Preparation, Part 2

Monster Opening Preparation, Part 2

| 23 | Opening Theory

In our second installment of Monster Opening Preparation (part 1 here), we’ll take a look at two of the most famous “prep” games ever. Both are highlighted by legends concerning the length of time they prepared/analyzed/pondered their theoretical trap, with one legend verified and the other slightly deconstructed.


Our first legendary tale took place in the great St. Petersburg tournament in 1895-96. Pillsbury was the hottest player on Earth after winning the extremely strong Hastings 1895 event, which happened to be his first international event (before Hastings, all his games were played in the United States).

After that he was recognized as one of the top five players in the world and, as a result, was invited to participate in an epic event in St. Petersburg (the top five players in the world were to play six games against one another -– I should add that Tarrasch withdrew before it started, leaving four players), and once again he took the event by storm, rushing out to a one-point lead (ahead of second-place Lasker) at the halfway point.

I should note that Pillsbury had beaten Lasker 2.5-0.5 in their first three games, so when the tournament continued, it was imperative that Lasker make a statement by stopping the streaking American. The result was the following game:

An absolutely wonderful game, but this clearly had nothing to do with preparation and everything to do with over-the-board creativity. Our monster opening prep occurs after this game, and its name was “revenge.”

Legend has it that Pillsbury discovered an important opening improvement in Lasker’s brilliant win over him in St. Petersburg 1895-96. He analyzed his idea for eight years and finally had a chance to make use of it.

William Napier (a friend of Pillsbury’s) verified this by saying: “We played the position whenever we met, which was often. Years we played it, here and abroad. It became a bore.”

Clearly, what was a bore to Napier was life itself to Pillsbury, who extracted brilliant revenge:

Pillsbury died two years after this win over Lasker.

As we saw, Pillsbury’s innovation didn’t offer White anything special IF Black was able to find all the right moves (which Lasker did!), but very few manage to walk unscathed from a dangerous TN, and even if they do find a way to equality, keep in mind that one side is moving quickly (since he’s worked everything out beforehand) while the other is working like a dog to survive. It’s not unusual for the defender to safely wend his way through the complications, only to collapse and toss the game away. 




The story goes that the American grandmaster Frank Marshall (a legendary attacking player) had come up with a promising gambit against the Ruy Lopez and wanted to use it against Capablanca. Most renditions of this tale claim that Marshall kept this line a secret for several years before he was able to unleash it against the Cuban god.

However, though a long, long wait makes the legend red hot, Capablanca himself set the record straight in a note after 7…0-0: “I now felt that Marshall had prepared something… and had kept it for two years, awaiting the opportunity of playing it in a tournament against me.”

Frank Marshall via wikipedia

So much for “several years.” But preparing a line against a certain foe for two years is still epic in my book, so the whole “let’s prepare a monster gambit so that next time I face off against Capablanca I’ll wipe him off the face of the board” is more than worthy of its legendary status.

But, as is well known for those that studied chess history, the story gets even better since Capablanca not only walked into the “trap” but defended like the genius he was and won the game!

Capablanca wasn’t called a “chess machine” for nothing! The way he effortlessly refuted Marshall’s attack deserves to be the stuff of legend!


What’s interesting is that Marshall not only claimed to have created the line (8...d5, which is now called the Marshall Gambit), but he also claimed that he was the first player to castle on move 7 (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.0-0 Be7 6.Re1 b5 7.Bb3 0-0 –- usually Black played 7...d6 first).

Of course, without databases it’s impossible to ascertain who was first. Indeed, even a database can’t give you a 100 percent guarantee, since many unpublished games might have been “first” in countless lines. Due to this, what’s far more important is who popularized the line and who did the really deep research that made it viable at the highest levels.

It turns out that a game in 1893 not only was the first known game with 7...0-0, but also the first known game with 8...d5! Oddly, it occurred in Capablanca’s birth nation, Cuba! The game was between the very strong (2550 rating according to Edo Chess) Carl Walbrodt vs. four opponents in consultation.

I highly doubt that Marshall was aware of this game. But if one wants to call the line with 8...d5 the Conill/Ostolaza/Lopez/Herrera Gambit, then go for it.

What Marshall clearly did invent was 9.exd5 Nxd5 10.Nxe5 Nxe5 11.Rxe5 Nf6, since before that the only two “Marshall Gambit” games known featured 9...e4. The second game that used the gambit was played by Marshall himself in 1917, a year before he played Capablanca!

HOWEVER, note that it wasn’t played in a tournament, it was a training game. This reminds us of Pillsbury going over his new move again and again with William Napier. Analyzing with friends and even playing training games to get ready for the “real thing” is common and actually helps to verify that Marshall was indeed keeping this line ready for a shot at Capablanca, but only after he ironed things out.

This explains why Marshall played 9...e4 against Frere, but most likely rejected it after further analysis and uncorked 9.exd5 Nxd5 10.Nxe5 Nxe5 11.Rxe5 Nf6 for the first time in history.

This leaves us with one more petite mystery to solve. Who came up with 11...c6?

In Marshall’s super-enjoyable book, My Fifty Years of Chess  (in the Dover edition, the title was changed to Marshall’s Best Games of Chess), there’s an opening theory section at the end of the book which offers up original analysis that Marshall and his friend, Tom Emery, worked on together. Naturally, the pair took a look at the Marshall Gambit.

This is what Marshall wrote:

“I have made some changes in my variation of the Ruy Lopez which tend to strengthen it. The opening moves of this line are as follows":

Okay, the analysis is pretty bad, but what’s important is that Marshall called this line “ variation of the Ruy Lopez,” which clearly shows that he felt he was its creator.

BUT... Marshall’s book first appeared in 1942 (though I have no idea when Marshall and Emery cranked out their analysis –- Marshall made it clear that they had been analyzing together for “many years”).

I bring all this up because the first known game where 11...c6 appeared was Alberto Dulanto – Conel Alexander, Buenos Aires Olympiad 1939.

It doesn’t really matter if Marshall and Emery analyzed 11...c6 in 1936 or 1940, it’s clear that:

  •  Marshall honestly thought that he was the first to ever play 8...d5 (turns out he was the second player to have played it).
  •  Marshall clearly WAS the first to ever play 11...Nf6.
  •  Marshall really did keep the line under wraps so he could use it against Capablanca, though he only waited two years instead of “several.”
  •  Marshall was the first player to deeply analyze the position after 8...d5.
  •  Marshall’s use of 8...d5 put it on the map, and the name “Marshall Gambit” is fully deserved.

I’ll add that after Marshall lost to Capablanca, he played the gambit again (in the same tournament!) and won:


More from IM Silman
The Downs And Ups Of GM Elmars Zemgalis (Silman's Last Article)

The Downs And Ups Of GM Elmars Zemgalis (Silman's Last Article)

How To Build Winning Chess Positions

How To Build Winning Chess Positions