Everything Old Is New Again, or of the 1880s

Everything Old Is New Again, or of the 1880s

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While researching Szymon Winawer for my line of work, I came across two fascinating small articles that could have as well been written in the comments section of this year. The first is dated 1883, published as a part of the London International Chess Tournament book edited by J. I. Minchin.

"Concerning this game, which otherwise would require no comment, Mr. Blackburne made a formal complaint to the Committee charging both players with transgressing the 15th Rule* of the Tournament, a charge which the Committee refused to entertain. It is sufficient to point out that Mr. Steinitz had at this time lost two games in endeavouring to evade the perpetual check in this Opening. It was impossible for Mr. Winawer to know that M. Rosenthal would play the form of the Opening leading to this early draw, and when he had so played it was not to be expected that Mr. Winawer would run the great risk of a lost game to avoid the draw. The Steinitz Opening certainly affords the second player, content with a draw and anxious for a day's rest, the opportunity to secure his object very easily, but to charge players with entering into a compact on such grounds is a monstrous assumption."

*Rule 15: "Each competitor is bound in honour to play all his games with his full strength, and in behalf of other competitors no player is allowed to waive any exaction of a penalty, either under the rules of the Tournament or the general laws of Chess. All arrangements which may influence the final result of the Tournment, unless sanctioned by the Committee, are prohibited, and all parties proved guilty of the same will be expelled from the Tournament, with the forfeit of entrance fee and deposit."

A quick theoretical draw played between two top grandmasters in an elite chess tournament... 139 years ago. Makes you see the modern Berlin and Grunfeld draws in a new light, doesn't it?

The second article is even closer to modern chess fan commentary, since it was written by a fan and sent to the British Chess Magazine (1892, pp. 496-497)

Scoring in Tournaments

To the editor of the B.C.M.


If the principal object of a Masters' Tournament is the equitable distribution of money prizes amongst a limited number of recognized experts, Mr. W. Sonneborn's system, from a commercial point of view, is a satisfactory one. Tournament play will become a matter of business rather than a matter of skill, and a competitor must look to his score before deciding whether to risk playing to win, or, with less courage and more prudence, modestly offering a draw, perhaps on the tenth or twelfth move. It often happens that a player's claim to a prize is secure; a drawn game or a win suits his purpose equally well; there is no money at stake; - what then? - a dozen book moves accurately played - a draw offered - the inferior player eagerly jumps at the bait - and this is a specimen of Master play. Caissa has abdicated in favour of commerce - it is no longer "aut Caesar aut nullus," but "half a loaf is better than no bread." I do not think any system of scoring can be conducive to the highest interest of chess, which makes two games, however short, dull, or uninteresting, of equal value to one victory. Outsiders who watch tournaments, expect high-class play, and look upon the mathematical accuracy with which the money is apportioned as an element of quite secondary importance; they except that if A occupies a higher place in the final list of honours than B, it is because A has played better chess, and not because A scored half points for several incomplete games, which C, D, and E might have won, had this state of their score made it worth their while. The present system of scoring (and in this respect Sonneborn's is no improvement) is all in favour of the dull safe player who sticks to a defensive game, whilst the imaginative player, who dearly loves a bold piece of strategy, is at a disadvantage. The system of scoring in cricket matches, viz.: to deduct losses from wins, and ignore drawn games altogether, works out in practice exactly the same as the present system. It would introduce minus quantities into the score, but would not transpose the position of a single player. I overlooked this fact in my former letter.

The Object of a tournament should, I think, be primarily to promote high-class play, and secondarily to reward by suitable prizes those who have distinguished themselves most in the contest - it is only bu discussing the question in all its bearings that the opinion of the chess world can be ascertained. I would suggest that the growing tendency of some players to play for a draw from the very commencement of the game should be sternly discouraged. To do this let a won game score three points and a drawn game one point. If this sytem had been adopted at the recent Dresden Tournament, the following changes would take place in the final order of precedence: instead of Marco and Walbrodt tieing for fourth and fifth places, and Winawer and Bardeleben tieing for sixth and seventh, there would have been no ties, the order would have been, fourth Marco, fifth Winawer, sixth Bardeleben, and seventh Walbrodt. Winawer who played brilliantly, and only won a single game less than Dr. Tarrasch, would have found his bold play rewarded, whilst Walbrodt, who actually won fewer games than Dr. Noa (the fourteenth on the list) would have found his series of draws, however creditable to so young a player, rather less profitable. Schottlander, Scheve, and Albin tied for eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth places under the actual system of scoring, but as Albin won six games, Schottlander five, and Scheve only four, the tie would have been dissolved, and the order of merit would have been Albin eleven, Schottlander twelve, and Scheve thirteen, under the system I suggest. Again Noa and Mieses tied, but Noa would under the proposed system, have been one point ahead of Mieses.

It is hardly to be supposed however that if won games had scored three points, and draws one point, there would have been no alteration in the actual number of games won and lost. The alteration in the system of scoring would have put the players on their mettle, there would have probably been a much larger number of completed games, and the general character of the play might have been possibly less sound, but more brilliant, more original, more chivalrous. In the Dresden Tournament, out of one hundred and seventy-eight games played, eighty-four were drawn, and some of the drawn games might have been played equally well by an ordinary match player at a provincial club. Trusting that other pens than mine will add weight to the importance of an improved system of scoring.

I am, Sir,

Yours truly,

H. R. Hatherly.

NOTE. - I prefer won games counting as three and drawn games one, - to won games counting one and drawn a third, as the fractions in making out a tabular statement of the result of a tournament are a nuisance to the chess player as well as to the compositor. Let us have some mercy, even on the (printer's) devil.

Add "distribution of Elo points" to "distribution of money", and you'll get a disturbingly modern comment on the state of chess, made 130 years ago. Indeed, the more something changes, the more it stays the same, and everything old is new again.

As a bonus: Rudolf Charousek, the young Hungarian genius who died very young of tuberculosis, seemed to be Ian Nepomniachtchi, Alireza Firouzja and Hikaru Nakamura all rolled into one, shaken and stirred.

Berlin, 1897. The youthful genius Charousek, the greatest phenomenon since Morphy, surprised everybody by his incisive and original style, his marvellous memory, and youthful energy. He never sat one second opposite his opponent after he had made his move. He had always to be called when it was his move. Winawer remonstrated with him; Charousek replying that he was always ready when it was his move. Winawer said "That is true enough, but you are never at the board after having made your move, and when I play chess I like to have an opponent." (The Field, 31st December 1910.)

...The mystery of Charousek's absence was solved at the Berlin Tournament. He was surrounded by a crowd of admirers, to whom he was showing the whole of the games that were in progress at the time. The youthful genius had not only played his own game, but had found time to get the score of all the others, and also to put marginal notes to most of them. Someone once said that genius was simply "an infinite capacity for taking pains". This conception was clearly demonstrated in the young Hungarian's success. (The Nottinghamshire Guardian, Charousek obituary, 12th May 1900.)

Youthful like Firouzja, never at the board like Nepo in his match with Carlsen, and livestreaming the whole tournament for his followers more than a century before livestreaming was even a thing, like Nakamura. Everything old is indeed new again!