The Man Who Was Ahead Of His Time
Ask chess players about the period known as romantic chess and they will probably mention the names of La Bourdonnais, Anderssen and Morphy. Indeed, all three of them were called unofficial world champions of their time.
It also helps that they played the sparkling games engraved in the chess history books.
These games even have their own nicknames: Immortal Game, Evergreen Game, Opera Game. And who could forget the famous Black pawn trio on the second rank?
It is a shame that most modern chess players may have forgotten about Howard Staunton.
Staunton via Wikipedia.
For many years, my whole knowledge about him could be summarized in three lines:
- He was one of the best players in the world
- He skillfully avoided a match vs. Morphy despite numerous challenges from the great American player.
- Some openings and the famous chess set were named after him.
It didn't help that I never saw any books about this great player and I don't even know if such a book exists. But throughout my career, working on different chess topics, I couldn't help but notice many remarkable games played by Staunton.
Moreover, I think that Staunton influenced modern chess probably more than any other chess player from the period of chess romanticism. The sheer fact that pretty much all modern top events use the famous Staunton chess set is already big evidence in favor of this claim.
Since I am not a chess historian, it is difficult for me to say for sure if Staunton was indeed the best player in the world before Morphy and if he indeed deliberately dodged the match vs. Morphy. Instead I want to talk about Staunton's chess heritage.
At least three opening lines are named after the great Englishman:
Staunton's Opening (known these days as Ponziani Opening):
While the English is one of the most popular modern openings (O.K., I am very biased here since for at least 10 years of my chess career I opened every single game with White by pushing the -c-pawn), the Staunton Gambit and the Ponziani Opening never became really popular.
The fact that Magnus Carlsen played the Ponziani once as a surprise weapon only underlines this fact.
It is Staunton's middlegame ideas that made him one of the best players of his time. Almost all leading chess players of that time played so-called "romantic chess," which according to Wikipedia "was characterized by swashbuckling attacks, clever combinations, brash piece sacrifices and dynamic games. Winning was secondary to winning with style. These games were focused more on artistic expression, rather than technical mastery or long-term planning."
Of course, Staunton could play this kind of chess pretty well:
The game is full of mistakes, but remember, "Winning was secondary to winning with style!"
The following game is much better quality-wise. Also it is a harbinger of two similar gems.
In all three games White sacrificed his queen by playing exf6, and each time the sacrifice was more complex compared to its predecessors!
Try your attacking skills! Can you find the way Howard Staunton checkmated his opponents in the following games?
So far it might look like Staunton was just a typical player of 19th century, and you are probably wondering how was he ahead of his time? We'll discuss that in the next installment of this column.