The Berlin Pleiades
THE BERLIN PLEIADS.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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,
[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.]
note: the photos were not in the originial article and, except for that of v.d. Lasa and Bilguer, were extracted from wikipedia.