Who Was Henry Ernest Atkins?

Who Was Henry Ernest Atkins?

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As everyone knows, all professional sportsmen have to stay sharp or their fitness and skills will quickly decay. In chess, a few months away from the game is enough to leave you out of sync.

So it’s hard for me to understand how Henry Ernest Atkins (born 1872, died 1955) retained a high level at chess while putting almost all of his energy into teaching mathematics (he was a mathematical scholar in Cambridge in 1890, taught math from 1898 to 1902 at Northampton College, and finally found a permanent post in Huddersfield New College as principal from 1909 to 1936).

math on board

Due to his profession, he always looked at chess as a mere hobby (in fact he hardly studied chess at all) and often ignored the game for many years at a time: he played a handful of tournaments/matches from 1895 to 1914 and then stopped all chess activities until 1920. He played a bit in 1920 to 1922, and then quit again until 1927, when he played in the London Olympiad. And then…you guessed it…he quit again until 1935, playing in the Warsaw 1935 Olympiad at the age of 63!

Henry Ernest Atkins

Atkins via Wikipedia

You might ask, “Who in the world is this guy and was he any good?”

Well, he won the British Chess Championship nine times out of 11 tries!

“Okay, but what about the big guns in Europe? Did he have a chance against them?”

Here are some of the famous chess masters that he battled:

Jacques Mieses, Harry Pillsbury, David Janowsky, Eugene Delmar, Heinrich Wolf, Amo Burn, Jackson Showalter, Adolf Georg Olland, Curt von Bardeleben, Isidor Gunsberg, Wilhelm Cohn, William Napier, Joseph Blackburne, Frederick Yates, Edward Guthlac Sergeant, Stuart Milner-Barry, Oldrich Duras, Efim Bogoljubov, Geza Maroczy, Alexander Alekhine, Akiba Rubinstein, Savielly Tartakower, Max Euwe, Jose Capablanca, Eugene Znosko Borovsky, Richard Reti, Laszlo Szabo, Walter Michel, Petar Trifunovic, Jens Enevoldsen, Erich Eliskases, Jiri Pelikan, William Winter, Lodewijk Prins, Frank Marshall, etc.

“That’s a pretty impressive group. Did these guys beat him up over the board?”

Hardly. Though he didn’t do well against the chess gods (Alekhine, Capablanca, Pillsbury, Reti, Bogoljubov, and Euwe), he stood tall against the rest, including two wins and one loss against Frank Marshall, a win against Rubinstein (the only game they played), a famous victory against Tartakower, victory against Duras (a very strong grandmaster), and two wins against Blackburne with no losses.

It’s clear that he was a very strong player, but after looking at more than 100 of his games, I was rather confused. Sources claim that Atkins was a brilliant positional player (some called him the petit Steinitz), but though I did see some nice positional skills, what struck me was tons of tactical crushes and quite a bit of chaos. Atkins seemed to have no fear, and if you wanted a crazy fight he would be happy to oblige. But “petit Steinitz”? I don’t think so.


Of course, all good players can shine positionally. Here’s a positional game where he simply chewed on his opponent and spat out the bones.

Okay, that was too easy. How about Atkins outplaying the great Chigorin, though White eventually managed to hold onto a draw.

As we've seen in those two games, Atkins appears to be a rather boring bloke. However, that's just not true. As you will soon see, the guy had an invisible hammer and he used it often.



When you just don’t have the time to study openings, you create a repertoire and master it over time (practice makes perfect). With that in mind, as Black Atkins would reply to 1.e4 with 1...e5 with a backup of 1.e4 c5. If White opened with 1.d4 Atkins played 1...d5, or, if he wanted a serious battle, the King’s Indian (1.d4 Nf6 followed by ...g6 and ...Bg7).


As White he went classical via 1.e4, leading to many Ruy Lopez games 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 (For a simultaneous exhibition he sometimes played 2.d4 exd4 3.c3) 2...Nc6 3.Bb5, or the Four Knights — 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Nc3 Nf6) and 1.d4 (lots of 1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 games).

Creating a New System

For a man like Atkins who had a fairly simple opening repertoire, it’s interesting to see that he created a new setup in the Queen’s Gambit Declined in 1902:

Many years later, Emanuel Lasker used the same idea, but in an improved way:

Here’s a famous example with Anand using the The Lasker Defense to win the world championship against Topalov:


Now it's time to show you the REAL Atkins (I wanted to do it in dance, but I guess you will have to see it on the board). Don’t forget to put on your tactical hat!














Frank Marshall was a very strong player in 1902, and two years later was accepted as one of the best players in the world after he won the very strong Cambridge Springs International Chess Congress scoring the incredible 13 out of 15 games ahead of Emanuel Lasker.

In this game Atkins was kicking Marshall all over the board, but now it seems that White has steadied the ship.

Atkins beat Marshall again in the same year, but lost to him in 1903.


James Mason (an Irish man who died in 1905) was, according to Chessmetrics, once rated number two in the world in 1876.


It’s clear that White’s better, but due to the opposite-colored bishops (which often helps the suffering side), how much better?


Hermann von Gottschall was a very strong player who played in many top tournaments in the 1880s right through to 1929. He died in 1933 at the age of 70.


Henry Ernest Atkins, in recognition of his amazing chess career, was given the international master title by FIDE in 1950. I’m happy that he was alive to accept this honor.

I will end this article by showing Atkins' win against Tartakower:

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