On Howard Staunton

I've written about Paul Morphy extensively on numerous occassions and it should be quite obvious that I'm one of his admirers.  In connection to Morphy, Howard Staunton has been repeatedly, and usually unjustly, demonized.  I'm often bewildered that such an important figure in the development of chess can only be thought within in the relatively unimportant framework of his relation to Morphy.  In light of that, I thought I'd offer some other insight into Staunton through the eyes of an equally important figure in the development of chess who knew him.

The City of London Chess Magazine
Vol. II, pp.12-13, January 1875.


In our December number we made allusion to a communication received by us from Freiherr von Heydebrandt und der Lasa, which contained certain remarks concerning our obituary notice of Staunton, and we stated that we should have liked to have published the same had we the consent of our illustrious correspondent. This having been now accorded to us the letter in question will be found subjoined, and our readers will no doubt be glad that the interesting particulars concerning Staunton which it furnishes should be brought within their knowledge:-

Copenhagen, Nov. 23rd, 1874.

SIR, --- In answer to your communication of October 3rd, I have the pleasure to acknowledge the receipt of all the numbers of your valuable periodical which have hitherto appeared. As to your willingness to publish some of my own games, I regret to state that I do not dispose of a single game played within the last three or four years. Since a very long time, and almost since I left Berlin in 1843, I have gradually retired from the practice of Chess. The few games which, notwithstanding, I still make now and then, are scarcely worth public attention, and it is not myself who ever takes them down. However, induced by the wish of being agreeable to you, I take the liberty to inclose a couple of old games, but even these specimens of a time now nearly forgotten are unsatisfactory, for all such parts of my old collections which were thought fit for publication have been exhausted long ago.
In the August number of your Magazine I have met with an interesting article on our deceased friend Staunton. The paper begins with a parallel between that accomplished master and the late Mr. Buckle. In my opinion, the latter, though very correct in his calculations, and perhaps, in a serious match, a safer player than Staunton, was, nevertheless, inferior to him if we take the whole style of play into consideration. A certain monotony prevails in all the games of Buckle, and the defensive move of K’s P1 in the beginning occurs rather too often. Staunton’s play undoubtedly belonged to a higher and a more varied order of combinations. Your scale of appreciation of the play of the two celebrated amateurs, though it equally tends to deny Buckle’s superiority, does not hold good as far as the indications of time are concerned. You cannot fairly compare Buckle, when playing in Berlin, to Staunton shortly after the London tournament in 1851. Buckle’s visit to Berlin [* He came to Berlin in 1843 with a letter of introduction from Staunton to me.] took place already eight years earlier. He then played some games with Bledow, against whom he lost the majority, but none of the games have been preserved. With me Buckle did not play more than three very indifferent games, of which he lost the first and last and won the second. If you wish to play over these games, I would refer you to the ‘Chess Chronicle’ of February, 1846, pages 53-56, where you will find three games, the last of which, however, in reality was played between Buckle and Hanstein, instead of myself. My third game is reproduced in the ‘Schachzeitung’, 1846, page.88.

From certain remarks towards the end of your article I see that you do not hesitate in declaring that Staunton could sometimes show very unkind feelings in his intercourse with distinguished amateurs as soon as he, for some reason or other, did not like them. These animosities must have exercised a somewhat injurious influence on the common cause of Chess, which Staunton otherwise was always ready to promote. His only excuse, I think, lay in his great irritability of temper, undoubtedly the result of physical sufferings. The fact is that for many years he had been subject to a disease of the heart; this does not appear to be universally known, but to me it seems the clue to some of his peculiarities and several hitherto unexplained incidents. An attack, for instance, of this illness was, I presume, the real cause why, in the middle of the famous match with St. Amant, when in the beginning he had won nearly every game, his strength of a sudden gave way and the opponent got a temporary chance to retrieve his losses.

It will offer, perhaps, some interest to you if I make you acquainted with the following episode relating to Staunton’s state of health, and in reference to his proceedings towards Anderssen:-
After the London tournament, Staunton wished very much to reconquer his previous ascendency [sic] by a new encounter with the winner of the first prize, but as much as I could ascertain, it was constant ill-health that made him postpone the execution of his plan. In 1853, during a visit to Belgium, he had not yet entirely abandoned the idea of the projected match, and when at that time he heard that I had been, some weeks before, in Breslau, and had myself made there a few games with my far-renowned countryman, he came to see me at Brussels with the object, as it appeared to me, not only of playing some games, but also of obtaining, from what I would say about Anderssen’s play, such information as might serve him to fix his determination on the eventual challenge. During his stay in Brussels, you know, I enjoyed the pleasure of making with Staunton a dozen games. One of these games was played on the 19th September late in the evening; you find it reproduced in the ‘Chess Chronicle’, 1853, page 293. In the outset the game was in favour of Staunton, but playing then negligently he lost it somewhat abruptly. The next morning he wrote me a note saying- ‘I have got so severe an attack of my old enemy, palpitation of the heart, that I dare not undergo the excitement of Chess; I hope to be more myself to-morrow.’ And again next day- ‘I regret to say I am still suffering, and think it better to wait another day before I have any mental labour. . . . It was not sitting late that brought on the attack, but nervous irritability at feeling how sadly I have fallen off in mental vigour of play.’

This incident made it evident that Staunton’s physical state did no more allow him to play important games. His project of a meeting with Anderssen fell to the ground, and from this time, I believe, he did not engage in any serious match. In the course of years he frequently alluded to his shattered health, and for the last time he mentioned it on the 29th November, 1873, in a letter which I got from him in return for my sending him a copy of the first portion of Bilguer’s Handbook. ‘I have myself,’ he said, ‘been engaged on a work of the same nature. . . . Many sheets of it were in type this time last year, when I was attacked by my old complaint, . . . and was compelled to lay it aside. The sight of your book will tempt me to resume my own, I hope.’

Having been during more than thirty years on friendly terms with the deceased, I intend to write some words in his memory for the German public, as I have done after Jaenisch's death and for W. Lewis in the ‘Schachzeitung’, 1873, page 128. If I am rightly informed the above-mentioned Chess treatise to which Staunton devoted the last time of his life is about to be published. I will wait for its appearance, as it may be accompanied by valuable biographical information.

Staunton's letter of November last was altogether written in a most friendly tone, and spoke likewise in affectionate terms of other players. 'I was sorry,' he wrote, 'to lose Lewis and St. Amant, my dear friends Bolton and Sir T. Madden, and others of whom we have been deprived, but for Jaenisch I entertained a particular affection, and his loss was proportionately painful to me. He was truly an amiable and an upright man.' I think you were justified in the supposition that Staunton, had he lived longer, might have come to refrain more and more from all offensive steps on his side.

I beg to remain,
Yours respectfully.
Vd. Lasa


For greater insight, please see also:
Staunton's  obituary from the City of London Magazine. August, 1874,
H.J.R. Murray's biography of Staunton in two parts from the 1907 BMC.