When Men Were Men

When Men Were Men

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During the romantic era of chess, MEN WERE MEN. They played gambits. They went for mate. They drank whisky while pondering their next attacking move. If someone made a material sacrifice (which loses if the opponent simply refuses the “gift”), a real man would take it and dare his opponent to beat him.

And if some attractive women were watching the games, the players didn’t notice since they only had eyes for the enemy king!

Steinitz wrote the following account of his physical battle with the hard-drinking Blackburne (who was also known as the Black Death):

“After a few words Blackburne pounced upon me and hammered at my face and eyes with fullest force about a dozen blows...but at last I had the good fortune to release myself from his drunken grip, and I broke the window pane with his head, which sobered him down a little.”

Blackburne via Wikipedia

It’s clear that watching these guys go at it was far more fun in those days than watching games today!

“No mercy!” was the romantic battle cry. If one of these chess gods played someone in a simultaneous exhibition, he would do his best to rend his opponent limb from limb. If a dying old woman said that her biggest dream was to play one game against a Blackburne or Adolf Anderssen, he would go to the hospital, wipe her out as quickly and brutally as possible, and then leave (his bloodlust satisfied for that moment).


Here’s Blackburne playing in a simultaneous exhibition. He was blindfolded while his opponent was able to clearly see how his king was hunted from one side of the board to the other. See if you can find Blackburne’s brutal continuation.

One of the greatest attackers of all time was Adolf Anderssen, whose two most famous games are called the “Immortal Game” and the “Evergreen Game.”

Anderssen via Wikipedia

Here is a great example of both players going for a kingside mate at the same time. Can you find what Anderssen found?

White, who is a rook down, threatens both Rd8 doubled discovered checkmate and the simple Qxc1. White seems to be doing fine, but he missed one move.

Impressive! The problem is that when these romantic players defined chess as a human version of a cockfight -- though their attacking skills were off the chart -- other areas of the game were, at times, pathetic. Here is Anderssen (and his opponent!) playing an endgame at about beginner strength:

Though a one-trick-pony attacker will create some amazing works of art, the many games he lost when his attack fell on its face are often ignored. In the following game Anderssen throws everything (including the kitchen sink) at his opponent. And when there was nothing left to throw, he resigned.

Okay, I’ve been playing with you (just a bit). Though the monsters of the romantic era attacked at (almost) every opportunity, many were savvy enough to realize when these kinds of attacks were simply not going to work. When that happened they would (gasp!) switch into positional mode and, in many cases, it turned out that they were quite proficient!

Burn was a master of defense, but once he tied you up and left you in a helpless state, he would turn into a carnivore and demonstrate his attacking/tactical skills.

In modern times, we still have masters of attack. But all of them (Tal, Kasparov, Shirov, etc.) understood that in the majority of cases, brute force won’t get the job done.

Most top-flight games are won or lost by strategic acumen and excellent endgame technique. In a nutshell: if you don’t have the whole package of balanced skills, then don’t expect to reach the heights you might be dreaming of.

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