The Berlin Pleiades

Sep 26, 2009, 8:52 PM 5,924 Reads 10 Comments



Chess did not flourish at Berlin in the early part of the century. The Napoleonic times were too politically sad—the expression is Von der Lasa's—and after the great national uprising still too stern and serious for men to devote themselves to a game. If there were any players of a really high degree of skill, they were not remembered in the next generation. The oldest Berlin Chess Club was founded in 1803 ; and one of its rules, almost incredible as it would now seem, was that military men were excluded. Deschapelles, who visited Berlin four years later, declared that there was no member of the Club to whom he could not give the odds of a Rook. The Frenchman's reputation for blaque was at least as great as his Chess fame; and many of his statements, notably his assertion that he had acquired his whole force in four days from the time he learnt the moves, require to be taken with a large handful of salt. There may also have been stronger players outside the Club, whom he did not meet; and Mendheim was almost certainly among them. The works of Allgaier (Vienna 1795) and Koch (Magdeburg 1801) continued to be reprinted with improvements, and show that Chess retained some vitality, both in North and South Germany, throughout this gloomy period. At the close of it Mendheim himself brought out his first Chess book (Berlin 1814); but it was only a pocket volume of 60 small pages.
With the peace of 1815 came improvement, slowly however at first. It was long before Berlin rivalled the Chess fame of Deschapelles and Labourdonnais in France, or of Sarratt and Lewis in England. The old Club, which singularly enough called itself the Great Club, maintained the same exclusive principles; the original players went on sleepily playing with one another till they died off, and made no attempt to provide for a succession of young blood, or in any way to train the rising generation. We fancy we have heard, even in these more progressive days, of English provincial clubs content to vegetate after this fashion. Mendheim was not admitted to this Club as a full member, but only as a " standing guest," with what would now be called honorary membership. The correspondence matches of the old Berlin Club against Breslau and Hamburg, which are now almost the only records of its existence, were conducted by him single-handed. He founded, however, a younger club in 1828, and remained the leading spirit in it till his death in 1836. This club met in a pleasant locality called the Blumengarten (Flower Garden) which, has now long ceased to exist. It was here that, under Mendheim's training, the famous group of players were formed, known from their number as the Pleiads, who a few years later raised the Berlin school to a foremost place among the Chess centres of Europe. The period from 1837 to 1843 is indicated by Von der Lasa, in his Chess Recollections (Schacherinnerungen) as that in which they were at their zenith, culminating with the publication of the Handbuch in the latter year. We do not think that they produced any individual player quite equal to Labourdonnais at the beginning or Staunton at the close of this period, and their reputation was no doubt less widely diffused than that of the contemporary French and English champions. But not even London or Paris, so far as our knowledge of those times extends, could have boasted as many as seven stars of equal magnitude. None of them, it should be added, were Chess-players and nothing else. They were all men of liberal professions and of culture, qualified to adorn Berlin society at a time when it was much less military than at present, and when the tone was given to it by such men as King Frederick William IV, Alexander von Humboldt, and Bunsen. Several of them, as will be seen, were really remarkable for their intellectual gifts, and their varied acquirements. We shall first notice them in the order of seniority, and then touch upon the question, not easy to answer dogmatically, of their comparative Chess skill.
Dr Ludwig Erdmann Bledow (July 27, 1795 – August 6, 1846)Dr. L. Bledow, the doyen of the band, was born at Berlin in 1795, and was already a player of mature years and much experience at the beginning of the period we are now considering. To a knowledge of mathematics evinced by his employment as teacher in more than one public day school, he added an acquaintance with modern languages unusual even among his highly educated countrymen. Thus he was essentially a learned player, familiar with the Italian authors of the last century and the English school of which Lewis is the central figure; while these, the latter especially, were little known to his comrades. He amassed a fine Chess library in various languages, which Kossak notes in 1846 as one of the two best private collections then existing, the other being George Walker's. Both these were men of moderate means, and brought more skill than capital to the pursuit of book-hunting; and they have since been eclipsed by such magnificent collectors as Rinington Wilson the Yorkshire squire, George Allen of Philadelphia and, we believe, some other Americans. On Bledow's death his Chess books were, as we were informed by Staunton, first offered for sale in England ; but they found a more appropriate home in the Royal Library at Berlin. During his life-time he was in general chary of allowing others to see or borrow his treasures, treating his learning as something of a monopoly: he made an exception, however, in favour of Von der Lasa when editing the Handbuch. In other respects this great monument of Berlin Chess owed little to Bledow, as he was not much given to original analysis. He conducted many games by correspondence ; often spent his holidays playing in the German cities, such as Hamburg and Breslau ; and thus made the acquaintance of nearly all the leading players, at least of his own country. Of knight-errantry abroad in quest of opponents there is no mention. Being a man of social qualities and a good correspondent, his acquaintances often ripened into friendships which were well kept up : he became, we are told, the adviser of a large Chess public, was in request as umpire in matches, and was thus well qualified for the position he ultimately achieved, that of founder of the first German Chess magazine. He had made proposals to a Prague publisher as early as 1844 ; but it was not until July 1846 that the first number of the Schachzeitung appeared. In the following month he died, having long been in declining health. In the words of his friend Kossak, " he was permitted to pioneer the way for others by the opening number only, and then was torn from us for ever." His pet creation is now in its 41st year of uninterrupted prosperity : under a succession of able editors it has enjoyed the inestimable advantage of having always the same publishers (Messrs. Veit and Co., at first in Berlin, since 1859 at Leipzig). At the time of his death he had been for a short period President of the Berlin Chess Club, the same, we believe, which now exists : the old exclusive club having been reorganised about 1840 on a more liberal footing. His rank as a Chess master in practical play is rather difficult to decide. The contemporary estimate by Kossak, an intimate personal friend writing in the first moments of loss, certainly requires some abatement: he compares him to Labourdonnais, and says that " Bledow has died unconquered," naming most of the German masters of the day, and the Hungarians Szen and Lowenthal, as either his equals or his inferiors. Von der Lasa, whose modesty scarcely allows him to do justice to himself, nevertheless lets us see that there is another side to the question. Owing to the state of his health, Bledow had gradually withdrawn from serious play for some years before his death. In many cases his games do not represent the topmost strength of his opponents. Horwitz, Anderssen, Buckle had only played with him long before they culminated ; and as the superiority of Hanstein and Von der Lasa asserted itself more and more unequivocally he gave up playing with them and took refuge in odds-giving. Even in his best days there was, on the testimony of both these masters, a distinctly weak side to his play. He shone more in inventing ingenious attacks than in the defence of difficult positions; he generally evaded the King's Gambit by 2 B to B 4, and when he accepted it, defended it badly; he was brilliant, but given to setting traps, which gave rise to a comparison between his style and that of Greco. Only occasionally did he carry out far-reaching combinations with a continuity of execution (Consequenz) which reminded men of Anderssen or Labourdonnais. His physical endurance seems never to have been tested by long match games ; and there is, on the whole, sufficient evidence that he was not of the stuff of which the greatest players are made. As an interesting and important figure, however, in the Chess world he has claimed a rather disproportionate amount of our space.

Carl Schorn (October 16, 1803 – October 7, 1850)     The next in standing were the two painters, Schorn and Horwitz. It was only by courtesy, it would seem, or to make up the mystic number seven, that the former was reckoned among the Pleiads; he must have been on quite a different plane from the rest; but he was as much above Horwitz as an artist as he was below him as a Chess-player. Carl Schorn was born at Dusseldorf in 1802, and was at Berlin till 1839 or 1840, when he visited Italy and finally settled at Munich. There he died in October 1850, within a week of Hanstein, leaving unfinished a picture of the Deluge which he was painting for the art-loving ex-king Louis I. The obituary notices, we are told, paid a handsome tribute to his artistic powers ; but the writer in the Schalizeitung naturally treats of him only from the Chessplayer's point of view. After his morning's work in the studio he came every day to the Blumengarten to smoke a clay pipe of portentous length, to smash the smaller fry at Chess, to look on at the great men and occasionally try conclusions with them, and to enliven them all with the flashes of his wit and humour. His fun was ferocious on the surface, kind-hearted at bottom, and he never gave real pain. In his style of play, as in everything else, he was an original, insisting that Chess should be treated as an art only and not as a science (here the artist nature breaks out) and laughing at the learned pundits or " Chess Brahmins " as he called them. They held on their way unmoved, and the result was the Handbuch. In reality he had acquired by practice and observation, without book study, a very fair knowledge of the openings : his eccentric style broke down in the long run against a sounder method, but he sometimes scored off the champions and gave them " splitting head-aches " by his puzzling combinations. The Chess world of Berlin was poorer at his departure, occurring as it did nearly at the same time with that of Horwitz and the removal of Bilguer by death.

Bernhard Horwitz (1807-1885)     Of Horwitz's Berlin days little remains to be said, while of his later career our readers may have already heard more than enough. In 1837, when Von der Lasa first joined the Chess circle as a mere youth, he thought Horwitz inferior to Bledow, and soon was himself able to play up to him. But Bledow had then reached his full strength, while Horwitz, who ripened slowly, had not. He unquestionably improved during the first six or seven years after he came to England, and was in his best form from about 1849, the date of his second match with Harrwitz, till 1852, when he easily defeated Lowenthal. The short notice of him in the October Schachzeitung admits that he "developed into a champion of the first rank." We may be allowed to express a wish that Baron v. d. Lasa, the only living depositary of the old Berlin traditions, will favour the world with some fuller account of Horwitz's earlier days.

Karl Mayet (August 11, 1810 – May 18, 1868)     Mayet and Hanstein were cousins, brought up together and warmly attached throughout life ; both able men, yet contrasted in their physical and intellectual characteristics. Carl Mayet, the elder and long the survivor of the two (1810-1868), was of French descent; he was tall and slight with very handsome features, muscular and courageous ; and seems to have led a singularly happy and successful life. He entered the legal profession, and attained judicial rank ; but about 1860, finding that he could make a better provision for his family at the bar, he resigned his post and "once more pleaded before the bench on which he had sat as a judge." As a Chess-player, with many fine qualities he was much given to oversights, and often threw away advantages already obtained. He was a good analyst, and contributed to the original Handbuch the section on the Buy Lopez, an old opening which (strange to say) till taken in hand by the Berlin school was never thought to yield any attack worth speaking of! Memory, however, was not one of his strong points, and his own analysis often escaped him in actual play. He took part in the London Tournament of 1851, and was thrown out in the first round by Captain Kennedy. It may seem presumptuous to differ from Von der Lasa, who places Mayet almost on a level with the foremost Pleiads, and above Horwitz. Whatever may have been their relative scores in early days, Horwitz had not been standing still during the dozen years that had elapsed since he left Berlin, and at his best was, we cannot doubt, the stronger player. Mayet certainly shows to very little advantage in his published games, perhaps because he did not preserve them himself. But there is other evidence. "We are told on excellent authority that it was said of Mayet in Berlin when he was young, " he will be a great player ; " and when he was old, " he has been a great player." His reputation, like some others, had a past and a future, but no present. There is no record of achievements in public play, in the "past tense of the indicative mood " -which Mr. Potter so sturdily prefers to " the great might-have-beens."  As it is, we place him not among the second-rates but among the weaker first-rates. We have before now had occasion to insist that there are Masters and Masters.

     With Hanstein we reach a "bright particular star" in the constellation. He was a year younger than Mayet, and the cousins as mere youths were already ardent devotees of the game when in 1830 they made the tour of Switzerland in the company of a pocket chess-board. Wilhelm Hanstein was the son of a Lutheran clergyman, and found his vocation in the Prussian civil service. He died at the age of thirty-nine, the shortest life save one among the Pleiads ; but not, like Bilguer, too soon for the development of his powers. 
     Considerable pathos is thrown into the accounts of him by his admiring friends in the Schachzeitung for 1850 ; verse as well as prose is brought into requisition ; and the whole ends with an "apotheosis." He was small in person, with a fine intellectual head but a feeble frame ; and his whole life was a struggle against narrow means and ill health, sustained by the devotion of his friends who loved him for his brilliant gifts and attractive character. His official duties were laborious and exacting, and he had to be at the beck and call of a minister who showed some want of consideration. Yet he found time for the study of English, French, and Italian literature ; for the cultivation of his poetic talent, of which we printed a charming specimen in the December number ; for the pleasures of music and society; for an extensive correspondence and the joint editing of the Schachzeitung after Bledow's death. Of a number of pieces translated by him from Longfellow, one of his favourite authors, "The Twilight" is the only one published. To our mind it shows a power of rendering the simpler English ballad poetry into German of equal simplicity, closely yet not baldly, which we had thought peculiar to Freiligrath among recent German poets. As a Chessplayer Hanstein appears to have possessed every great quality : his style of play we are told was "slow and quiet"; and he showed himself a typical member of the Berlin school which produced the Handbuch. With originality fortified but not overlaid by learning ; with memory and observation for his own mistakes and those of others; with a preference for attacking openings and at the same time readiness to allow his opponent to choose the opening and patience in a difficult defence—he was just the man to enlarge the bounds of Chess theory by solid and lasting acquisitions. Novelties which a solitary worker like Jaenisch poured forth, profusely indeed but in a somewhat crude form, when tested by Hanstein and his associates in practical  play had the nonsense knocked out of them and thus in the end became "classical." In Hanstein the union of genius with sound judgment was complete.

Paul Rudolf von Bilguer ( September 21, 1815 – September 16, 1840)     The youngest of the Pleiads were the two whose names are most closely associated with the Handbuch. Paul Rudolph von Bilguer, its projector and principal author (though comparatively little of his work remains in the last edition) was born in 1815, and died before completing his twenty-fifth year. His friends and coadjutors testified their regard by giving him the sole credit of the great work: the title-page for some time ran "edited by Von der Lasa," but in later editions the name of Bilguer stands alone in its glory. He chose for his own especial province the Two Knights' Defence, and published an exhaustive monograph of fully 200 variations upon it (Das Zweispringerspiel im Nachzuye u. s. w.) The results are condensed in the Handbuch, and this chapter remains almost unaltered when nearly every other opening has been revolutionised. In Schachz. 1855 p. 13 Von der Lasa declares that he has known no one more highly or variously gifted for Chess than his departed friend. He excelled alike in practical play (including the blindfold game), book knowledge and original analysis. In this short life there was, it must be confessed, more promise than performance : none of Bilguer's published games appear to us quite to come up to the highest standard ; and, setting aside the phenomenal Morphy, we cannot but remember the great successes of Von der Lasa himself, of Buckle, Harrwitz, Blackburne, De Vere and Wisker at an equally early age. Bilguer came of a noble family, as the " von" shows, originally of Coire, Switzerland : his great-grandfather migrated to North Germany and was an army surgeon in the Seven Years' War. His father was a colonel, and Bilguer like Horwitz was a Mecklenburger by birth. He early showed talent, especially for mathematics, and would have chosen the law as his profession; but for family reasons he entered the army and became a lieutenant at eighteen. He was studying at the military college as a commissioned officer when, in 1837, he formed the acquaintance and soon the intimate friendship of Von der Lasa : he had then already acquired considerable proficiency at Chess. His other recreations were music, a taste often found among Chess-players, and literature ; and he contributed many reviews to the periodicals of the day. For several years he had suffered from lung disease, which ultimately carried him off; about a year and a half before he died he had to retire from the army invalided ; and his sufferings at the close were very great, but most patiently borne. In Arthur Marriott, who died at the same age and of the same complaint, we have perhaps lost an English Bilguer.

Tassilo, Baron von Heydebrand und der Lasa (October 17, 1818,  –  July 27, 1899)     Of the one still living member of this brilliant band considerations of good taste oblige us to speak with some reserve. Baron von Heydebrand und der Lasa, having long been a figure in the political and diplomatic world, has never sought to thrust his Chess personality into prominence or to furnish autobiographical details. He has merely authorised his successor in the Editorship of the Handbuch to publish the date of his birth, Oct. 17, 1818. Since he entered the diplomatic service in 1845, the Baron has seldom been resident at any of the great Chess centres ; and his career as a match-playing Master may be said to have then terminated. He played, it is true, a series of games with Staunton at Brussels in 1853, and won a majority : but Staunton himself had then been for a year or two en relraite as a past rather than an actual Master, and the games in question were played without a stake and not considered a match. We have always understood that the primacy of the Pleiads was regarded as shared equally between Hanstein and Von der Lasa, the claims of the two never having been tested by a set match. But we must allow ourselves the pleasure of quoting a remark of George Walker's from the preface to his Chess Studies: " Der Lasa ranks as the finest player of Germany, his game uniting the brilliant and the solid in the just proportions requisite to constitute real excellence."  When these words were written, in 1844, by one who had every means of judging from the published games of the period and who was moreover an excellent and (at least where foreigners were concerned) an impartial critic, the object of them had not completed his twenty-sixth year. He retired almost immediately afterwards, having not yet reached the prime of life but being still young enough to improve if his vocation had allowed him the opportunity of first-rate practice. With the exception of Morphy, we do not know of any Chess career more remarkable than this. As is well known, Von der Lasa continued to superintend the Handbuch down to the fifth edition, 1874, maintaining his position against young and able rivals as the first theorist of the day.

     Those who have followed us thus far will be prepared for the grouping of the Pleiads according to strength, on which we now venture. At the head stand Von der Lasa and Hanstein, the only two, as we think, who would now be reckoned to belong to the inner circle of the world's great players. Next to these we place Horwitz, taking him at his best and not as he was in his Berlin days, Bledow, and Bilguer as regards actual performance. We are willing to believe, on the authority of his friends, that this last youthful genius had the capacity for rising to the highest rank of all if he had lived longer and been blessed with stronger health: but we must distinguish between the actual and the potential. A step below these comes Mayet, and Schorn brings up the rear. May the last survivor of the Pleiads long continue above the horizon,
" Fair as a star when only one
Is shining in the sky."

[literature. Berliner Schacherinnerungen, by Von der Lasa, prefixed to his edition of Greco and Lucena, 1859. Life of Bilguer in Preface to Handbuch(omitted in the last edition). Obituary Notices of Bledow, Schachz. 1846 (extracts translated in C. P. C. same year) ; of Hanstein and Schorn, Schachz. 1850 (these three by Kossak); of Bilguer, by Lehfeldt, Schachz. 1852 ; of Mayet, by Von der Lasa, Schachz. 1868.] 
                                                            -Rev. William Wayte.
                                                             The British Chess Magazine 1886


note: the photos were not in the originial article and, except for that of v.d. Lasa and Bilguer, were extracted from wikipedia.


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