Who Is The Architect Of Modern Chess?

Who Is The Architect Of Modern Chess?

| 36 | Chess Players

I am the proud owner of the obscure volume Pillsbury's Chess Career, published in 1922 by the American Chess Bulletin and written by two English amateurs, Philip Walsingham Sergeant and William Henry Watts. For several months it gathered dust on my shelf, but recently — upon discovering that Netflix does not carry season six of The Walking Dead — I decided to give it the perusal it deserves.

Two paragraphs later, I was hooked:

Harry Nelson Pillsbury was born at Somerville, Massachusetts, on the 5th December, 1872, and died at Frankford, Pennsylvania, on the 17th June, 1906. According to the obituary notice on him in the American Chess Bulletin for July 1907, it was at the age of 16, on Thanksgiving Day, 1888, that he first acquired a knowledge of the moves. Consequently it was within the short space of eighteen years (from which we can deduct two years for his ultimately fatal illness) that he built up his extraordinarily brilliant reputation as a chessplayer.

It is an unwise task to attempt to compare the merits of chessplayers of different periods in history, but we may safely venture upon the opinion that in his native land Pillsbury's reputation was inferior only to Morphy's, while in the whole chess world there have been few great masters who names one can confidently put above Pillsbury's. There is a tendency nowadays, even in the United States, to forget how great he was at chess. 

For the longest time, I was an unwitting purveyor of this tendency. But as I studied Pillsbury's short career, I realized that he outclassed his contemporaries in every aspect of the game. 

He is the architect of modern chess.

At a time when the importance of theoretical knowledge, positional understanding, and endgame skill was massively underappreciated, Pillsbury never wavered in his quest to develop a truly universal style. 

A mere seven years after learning the rules of the game, Pillsbury was invited to the 1895 Hastings Tournament, a marathon round-robin featuring the 22 strongest players in the world. Brimming with confidence, his play resembling that of an experienced modern grandmaster, he stormed through the field and won the event with 16.5/21. Chigorin, Lasker, Steinitz, and Tarrasch — a fearsome quartet that had dominated the European chess scene for more than a decade — could only watch in astonishment. 

Only 22 and already one of the strongest players in the world, Pillsbury contracted syphilis at the 1895 St. Petersburg Quadrangular Tournament. He bore the weight of this terrible scourge for a decade, and succumbed to it on June 17, 1906. I have little doubt that a healthy Pillsbury would have ascended to the throne within five or six years. 

via Wikipedia

Let's take a look at Pillsbury's anachronistic expertise in three areas of the game: the opening, positional play, and the endgame.

The Opening

Pillsbury was one of the few players of his day with a clearly defined and thoughtfully constructed opening repertoire. In terms of theoretical knowledge and common sense, he was leaps and bounds ahead of his time. The following lovely miniature is a case in point. 

Positional Play

Before the publication of Aron Nimzowitsch's revolutionary work My System in 1925, chess was still a fairly one-dimensional game. The importance of positional understanding was still unknown, and a rudimentary comprehension of strategic principles was more than enough to succeed at the highest level. 

As you can guess, Pillsbury was quite removed from the misunderstandings and shortcomings of his day. Indeed, on more than one occasion, he schooled none other than Dr. Siegbert Tarrasch in the finer elements of strategic play. Below is but a specimen.

This game would seem to indicate that Pillsbury acquired a copy of My System 30 years before its release! 


Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Pillsbury's mastery is his endgame skill. I will promptly direct any skeptics to the following brilliant display. (Note: I also analyzed this game in my Chess Life Endgame Column in June 2014. However, I have re-written all verbal annotations.)

In the introduction to Pillsbury's Chess Career, Irving Chernev describes Harry Nelson Pillsbury as "a player whose moves rippled along with effortless ease, a master who could combine the fire and dash of a Morphy with the profound position[al] judgment of a Tarrasch."

I cannot agree more. 

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