Winner's POV Chapter 15: Second American Chess Congress (Cleveland 1871)

Winner's POV Chapter 15: Second American Chess Congress (Cleveland 1871)

| 0

In Winner's POV, we take a look at tournaments from the 19th century and see the games that allowed the top player to prevail. Some tournaments will be known and famous, others will be more obscure - in a time period where competition is scarce, I believe there is some value in digging for hidden gems in the form of smaller, less known events.

Chapter 15: The Second American Chess Congress

The US chess scene had fallen back into something of a slump, much like that preceding the first ACC back in 1857. However, this time around, the chess clubs of Detroit and Cleveland had little trouble preparing and hosting another congress. While not quite as lavish and long as the first (which lasted for multiple months), it still served as a successful tournament for the American players whose participation in the European tournaments was somewhat unrealistic.

I wish that I could write more, but I don't have too many details about this tournament and its infrastructure. This is the most well-documented tournament of 1871, so it'll have to do.

Format and Prizes

This was a 9-player all-play-all, with two decisive games needing to be played per pairing - that is, all drawn games are replayed. Thankfully, I never found more than two draws in a pairing, so the event wasn't dragged on too much. The time control was 12 moves per hour.

Top prize was $100, which is a stark decrease when you look at the $300 first prize in 1857. In any event, that would apparently be worth $2,443 today, which is a far cry away from the prize fund for today's US Chess Championship (which had a $60,000 grand prize in 2022, with the lowest-placing player receiving $5,500 still). However, professional chess was hardly a viable career at this point, so it's perhaps less of an issue than I'm making it out to be.


The 1870 Edo list has the top of the field as George Henry Mackenzie (5th), Henry Hosmer (34th) and Frederick Elder (35th). Certainly not the strongest field of all time, but given that we're outside of Europe, that's not a huge surprise.

The Winner: George Henry Mackenzie

We last saw Mackenzie at the London 1862 tournament where he played in the handicap event (see here). He emigrated to America in 1863, and while he had a military career while in the country, we're much more concerned with his chess career. While he had made himself known as a strong player, Cleveland 1871 was the first major US event in which he competed, and was the start of a string of domestic successes. Without further delay, it's time to look at the Cleveland 1871 tournament from the Winner's POV.

Round 1: vs. William Haughton

I return to using "round" somewhat liberally, since we once again have a tournament in which players played each other whenever they fancied. I have reason to believe that both of the games played against Haughton took place on the same day, though the games themselves aren't dated and so I'm forced to scrape together information from old newspapers. In any case, I know literally nothing about Haughton, so there's no need for any more of a preamble.

Haughton put up little resistance in the first game, as Mackenzie's Vienna Gambit worked like a charm.

The second game was much more interesting, as Mackenzie met the Evans Gambit with the Compromised Defense, one of the most risky defenses possible for Black. Haughton got an incredible amount of pressure from his Bishops, though Mackenzie stayed uncastled, limiting their game-ending potential. While the technique of both players could be nitpicked, neither committed any egregious errors through the middlegame.

Haughton found an exchange sacrifice that looked to offer pressure against the central Black King, but Mackenzie calculated the line a little further and was able to enact a Queen trade. While the endgame was far from decided, Haughton got careless and failed to anticipate Mackenzie's swift counterattack. The game ended in checkmate on move 29.

Round 2: vs. Arthur Johnston

I know nothing about this guy as well. Probably the most interesting thing is that Mackenzie played both of his games against Johnston and Smith on the same day (so four games in total). Let's take a look at those games, shall we?

The first was another Vienna Gambit where Johnston played 2... f6. Mackenzie's Knight landed in the e6 hole, and the game was over extremely quickly.

The second game was an English, which always results in weird positions when you look at games from this time period. I imagine that this game was played quite quickly, hence why Johnston missed a basic tactic that resulted in him losing a piece. Smooth sailing thus far for the Captain.

Round 3: vs. Harsen Smith

I found an 1869 "Michigan State Chess Association" tournament in which this guy played, where he finished 2nd overall. He played a match against the victor, Otho Michaelis later in the year, drawing (+5-5=2). I suppose it's fair to say that this guy was probably one of the strongest players in Michigan, though the strength of Michigan isn't something I really know how to evaluate.

The first game was another Vienna Gambit, with Smith getting greedy and gobbling up all of the Kingside pawns. Despite Mackenzie's King having none of its pawns to protect it, he was the one doing the attacking, and won in rather vicious style.

The second game was even faster. Smith went for a rather sharp attack in the Berlin, and Mackenzie's defensive mettle was tested again. It only took one mistake for the counterattack to happen, and Mackenzie once again ripped his opponent's pieces to shreds. The chess he plays is rather violent, but it's hard to argue with six consecutive wins.

Round 4: vs. Henry Harding

Harding was also at the aforementioned Michigan State Chess Association tournament, though he was knocked out in the first round. I also found 5 games he played against Smith, all defending the Evans Gambit, which he lost (+0-2=3). I think it's fair to say that he's a worse player than Smith, however the games show something a little more interesting.

Harding played 1. a3, and while the game initially looked like a moderately popular Sicilian line, it quickly turned into the "usual" nonsense we see in most English games. Mackenzie was showing off his fundamental expertise, as he gradually accumulated an advantage in the middlegame. However, he misjudged a tactic that Harding saw, and Harding was able to simplify the game into an endgame.

Though the endgame was better for Mackenzie, it wasn't out of reach for Harding to hold. However, the Michigan native missed a tactic that allowed Mackenzie to immediately get a passed pawn on f3. A nice Bishop sacrifice quickly wrapped things up as Harding had no way to stop the pawn from promoting.

Mackenzie switched to the Scotch for this game, which turned out to be a poor decision. Although Harding made the first bad move of the game (6... Nh6), it was Mackenzie who had a harder time coordinating the pieces that he left in the center of the board. In fact, Mackenzie dropped a whole Bishop and was worse for the first time in this event.

With his back against the wall, Mackenzie started playing extremely actively, kicking around the Black Queen that had to rush forward to snag the piece. He generated such an attack that Harding was actually compelled to return the piece, though Mackenzie's Kingside pawns meant that an endgame was still favourable for Black. However, the pressure never relented, and Harding had trouble dealing with the threats Mackenzie was generating.

In the end, Harding found nothing better than to trade down into an opposite coloured Bishop endgame, that was drawn. While far from his best game, Mackenzie saving this was a most impressive display, and it's thus the thumbnail for the chapter.

Since two decisive games needed to be played, a second Harding - Mackenzie game was in order. This featured another 1. a3 game which was reverse-Sicilian-ish, but quickly looked much different than the previous. Mackenzie dropped the pawn on b7, and Harding was able to push b4, locking in an extra pawn. How did Mackenzie respond? With violence, of course (on the chess board, if it's not obvious).

Mackenzie's piece play was as efficient as usual, and the pressure was doubtlessly on Harding to defend. He eventually cracked under the pressure, dropping a piece, and checkmate a few moves after. Since only decisive games counted, this meant Mackenzie was on 8/8 through the first half of the field. However, these four players made up the bottom four standings, so the strongest opposition was yet to come.

Round 5: vs. Henry Hosmer

In the preamble, I pointed out that Edo had Hosmer as the second highest-rated player in the field, 34th in the world overall. It's somewhat tricky to evaluate this claim, due to Hosmer only having a couple of games played prior to this tournament; in fact, I only know of three, all of which were played against fellow competitor Max Judd. Let's instead look at the games and see what conclusions we can draw from them.

The first game featured the shift to Mackenzie opening with the Spanish, which he would do for the rest of the event. This particular opening bears his name, and this game was a straightforward win after an early blunder.

Hosmer elected for the King's Gambit for the second game, and the Knight's Gambit was well played by both sides. Although Hosmer probably played better, Mackenzie's defense was tough to crack. His solid play eventually landed him in an endgame with the extra pawn, but it wasn't enough to get more than a draw. Given that it gave him another game with the white pieces, this was hardly a bad result for Mackenzie.

Hosmer finally found Mackenzie's kryptonite in the opening, as his French was pretty horrid; he lost tempi with his Bishop, got his pawns doubled while losing the Bishop pair, and ended up dropping a pawn on the Queenside after they were tripled. It was a position where Black's weaknesses were very hard to find, and so Mackenzie had his work cut out for him.

Unfortunately for the captain, Hosmer was a tough nut to crack. All Kingside attack attempts were thwarted, and Hosmer slowly improved while keeping solid. It was a slow death for Mackenzie, who watched pieces come off the board in pairs before his last Kingside pawn was won. A terrific game for Hosmer, who gave Mackenzie his first loss of the tournament.

Round 6: vs. Max Judd

The only other person to have a portrait (that I could find), Judd was quite special due to his longevity; he played in every American Chess Congress from 1871 to 1904 (ie the 2nd to the 7th). He emigrated to America (from Poland) the year before Mackenzie, but didn't have any serious play until this tournament. Let's look at Judd's debut.

Mackenzie's next attempt to use the Spanish variation that bears his name had mixed success. Though he was able to delete one of Judd's Bishops, Judd played accurately to equalize in the middlegame. With neither player getting a tangible advantage, they traded Rooks and played an endgame with each side having a Queen and two minor pieces.

Interestingly, this endgame was played on for quite some time. Though Mackenzie was the first one to make a mistake, it was Judd whose mistake was capitalized on first. He dropped a pawn and had to allow a pair of minor pieces to come off the board, so Mackenzie was better. Still, it was a fight, and endgames are always tricky. 

In the very end, Judd had secured a tablebase draw in the Queen endgame, but he placed his Queen on the wrong square. Mackenzie's three move sequence ended in a crucial fork, and the endgame slugfest was finished. A strong defensive effort from Judd, but Mackenzie was critical when he needed to be.

The second game was much more straightforward. Judd played an Exchange Spanish variant, leaving Mackenzie with the Bishop pair that he utilized quite effectively. He picked up two of Judd's pawns, and the endgame was (albeit not perfect) converted.

There's one interesting part at the very end where Mackenzie blundered an entire Rook, but Judd didn't see it. I'm not sure if that's the actual game score, or if a couple of moves were misplaced, but I present it as I found it.

Round 7: vs. Preston Ware

This is the same Ware for which the Ware Opening/Defense is named (1. a4 or 1... a5). He used these two moves almost exclusively at the 5th American Chess Congress in 1880, which we'll talk about later. For now, let's examine his 1871 games.

The first game was an absolute stomp. We've seen beforehand why you don't want to play f5 on the Black side of the French, and the result here wasn't much different. Ware didn't do too well, is what I'm saying.

The second game was also a complete stomp, although it took longer. Ware's Bishop on b2 was never going to see the light of day, while Mackenzie first tore open the Kingside, before opening up the center for his Rook to infiltrate. Don't let the longer length lead you astray, this was complete domination that practically handed Mackenzie the tournament already.

Round 8: vs. Frederick Elder

Elder was the 3rd strongest player according to Edo, though he had lost both games to Hosmer, as well as one each to Ware and Judd. While first place was probably out of reach, defeating Mackenzie twice might allow Elder to claim second, so there were certainly still stakes on these games.

The Staunton Gambit was employed by Elder in this first game, though it didn't really amount to much of anything. In fact, the position was rather dull right up until the Rooks were traded. It was another endgame with Queens and minor pieces, which Mackenzie had already played and had good chances to push.

Elder's technique was not the best, and soon he had dropped a pawn and allowed Mackenzie's pieces to advance. Still, Mackenzie had to be precise to find the win, which was easier said than done. Once the Queens came off the board, Elder was able to build a fortress, and after more than 70 moves, the draw was agreed. Given that Elder gets another game with White, this is hardly a bad result.

The second game was another stomp, with all of the American Chess Congress having trouble dealing with Mackenzie's 5. d4. Although Elder started off fine, 12... f6 was the move that started the domino effect that ended in the complete collapse of his position. Yet another fast victory for Mackenzie.

The last game was a rare collapse for Mackenzie, who was lazy and dropped a piece. Although it's not the first piece he blundered in this tournament, he wasn't able to get anything in exchange for it, and resigned rather quickly. An anticlimactic final game, but with the tournament already clinched, it hardly mattered.


With two more wins than 2nd place, Mackenzie had a fairly comfortable win in the first American Chess Congress in almost 15 years. It's possibly a stretch to call him the strongest player in America, since Paul Morphy was still very much alive, but he was the strongest active player, at least for now. 1874 was the year of the Third American Chess Congress, so we'll be seeing Mackenzie's "title defense" of sorts relatively soon.

Chapter 14

Chapter 13

Chapter 12

Chapter 11

Chapter 10 (contains links to chapters 6-9)

Chapter 5 (contains links to chapters 1-4)