The Dreaded Cunningham

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Here's a rather long and involved posting on the Cunningham that I had created for another forum a while back and which I'm reposting now for anyone who might be interested in such things:


    When I first started playing the King's Gambit, oh so many years ago, my "bête noire" was the Cunningham Defense.  It seemed no matter how I tried to maneuver around it, I ended up worse off.  I'm not one for memorizing lines or for studying openings deeply as I play chess for fun, not for work, but the Cunningham forced me to look at master games for some understanding (I do look at a lot of games).

     First some background for those interested in the texture as well as the sustenance.

The Cunningham Defence, 1. e4 e5 2. f4 exf4 3. Nf3 Be7, is named after the Scotsman Alexander Cunningham, "the celebrated editor and emendator of Horace"  ("Q. Horatii Flacci Poemata"), living at the Hague where he taught both the civil and canon laws in the  early 18th century ( not to be confused with the Scottish historian of the same name who authored the great book "History of Great Britain" and who was partially educated in Holland).   Originally called, "Three Pawn's Gambit" by it's inventor , Captain Joseph Bertin (1690-1736 - who self-published a book called, "The noble Game of Chess: printed for the author, and sold only at Slaughter's Coffee-house, in St. Martin's Lane." in 1735. ), it was played more frequently by Cunningham who was considered by many to be the best chess player in all of Europe in the early 1700's.  Philidor, who came on the scene more than15 years after Cunningham's death in Dec. 1730 (born 1654), named the moves given above after Cunningham.   (the Three Pawn Gambit is now a variation of the Cunningham/Bertin Defense: 1. e4 e5 2. f4 exf4 3. Nf3 Be7 4. Bc4 Bh4+ 5. g3 fxg3 6. O-O gxh2+ 7. Kh1.

A little more history:
quoted from "Chess" by Richard Twiss 1787

     Dr. Steuart used often to play with him [Cunningham], at Lord May's, at the game of Checs, which he understood better than any man in England, in his time.
     Mr. Cunningham was domesticated with Lord Sunderland, and the Duke of Argyle; and was no less acceptable as an eminent player at Chess than as a critic, and a man of general knowledge and information.
     When Lord Sunderland was at the Hague, he contracted a particular intimacy with Mr. Cunningham, as they were both remarkable Chess-players. Whenever his Lordship was at leisure, he either drove to Cunningham's lodgings, which were at some distance, or sent his carriage for him. After playing for a course of time, Lord Sunderland land discovered, that he who was jolted in the carriage before they fat down, was always sure to lose every game: for which reason, he gave over going to Cunningham's, but always sent for him, and always beat him, to his no small astonishment, as he was conscious that he understood the game as well as his adversary.
   At last, when he was very much out of humour, Lord Sunderland told him the trick, and Cunningham insisted, that they should drive to one another's lodgings alternately, which confirmed his Lordship's observation, and restored Cunningham to his former level; for, from that time, they won and lost alternately.
     This fact, which appears not at all incredible, for the streets of the Hague were not, in the last century, so smooth as those of London are at present, proves how nicely the capacities of Sunderland and Cunningham were balanced against each other.
     While Mr. Cunningham resided at the Hague, a German Prince, hearing of our author's great skill in the game of Chess, came to that city with a view of playing with him at that truly noble amusement. The Prince, whose name is not mentioned, informed Mr. Cunningham, by a note, of the purpose of his coming to the Hague. Mr. Ogilvie, lord of Cluny, a Scotch Gentleman in the Dutch service, who passed with many for little better than an ingenious madman, happened to be with Mr. Cunningham when he received the note, to whom he said, "That he did not choose to risk his reputation, for the knowledge of the game of Chess, with a person whom he did not know; and wished, that Cluny would go and play a game or two with the Prince, in the character of one of Mr. Cunningham's disciples."  
     Cluny agreed to go; and Mr. Cunningham is said to have written to the Prince to this purpose: That although he had the honour of receiving his Highness's invitation to play a game at Chess with him, he could not accept of that honour, as business of a particular nature would not permit him at that time; but rather than his Highness should be disappointed, he had sent one of his scholars to give him some entertainment that evening: and that, if his scholar should be beaten, he would do himself the honour of waiting on him (the Prince) next day, and would play with him as many games as he should choose. Cluny accordingly went, and beat the Prince every game they played. Early next morning, the Prince left the Hague, sensible, that if he was shamefully defeated by the scholar, he had, if possible, still less chance of success with the master. It is a fact, that may be depended on, that Mr. Cunningham and Cluny never played so much as a single game at Chess during their whole lives ; and that Mr. Cunningham was esteemed a much better player than Cluny."

     A letter  from a Clergyman of high reputation of the Church of Scotland," is then quoted thus:
     "Cunningham, the critic, and editor of Horace, was the best player at Chess in Europe. His grand nephew, George Logan, was so proud of this talent of his uncle's, that that he pretended to have inherited from him, what, I dare say, was only imitation, a very great turn for all games in which thinking is concerned, such as Chess, Whist, &c. and believed it to be connected with superior genius, till he found that women and fools could beat him."
     This Mr. Cunningham died in Scotland in 1732, aged above eighty years. [this is inaccurate: he died in December, 1730]


Hopefully in this thread we'll discuss the Cunningham and White's options.


This reply to  1. e4 e5 2. f4 exf4 3. Nf3 - 3...Be7 introduces the Cunningham Defense.  Black is developing and threatening 4...Bh4+ and after 5.Nxh4 Qxh4, neither of White's 2 possibilities, 6. g3 or 6. Ke2 look promising.  So, what's white to do?
One thing is to change one's preconception:  To allow the check at h4 isn't necessarily bad.

With that in mind, White, if he wants, can play 4. Bc4 with confidence, giving us this position:


After this, Black has several playable options. He can play Bh4+ (Classical Defense), Nf6 (Modern or Euwe Defense), the most common, but d6 is sometimes played with generally poor results.  Nc6 has a simply terrible reputation.

So, we'll first look at Bh4+


Now, thanks to White's previous clearance of the Bishop square, he now has 2 options, Kf1 or g3.

This is my own favorite part of this opening.  While Kf1 gives up castling, it's a good more nonetheless and we'll look at it later.  Right now we'll examine the move I like the best : g3 or the Bertin Gambit, leading into the Three Pawns Gambit in which White is able to castle easily:

Now, Black's seemingly strong attack grinds to a halt and it's White who threatens a counter-punch of f7.

The following game by Fedor Dus-Chotimirsky against an amateur demonstates the dangerous waters in which Black may fall.


A few more games featuring the "Wild Cummingham" or the "Three Pawn Gambit" variation:

The first was between Lionel Kieseritsky (playing Black) and Dr. Hugo-Leonhard Von Guttceit in 1832 (not yet a doctor, since he was only born in 1811 and died in 1882). This was before Kieseritsky moved from Dorpat to Paris where he lorded over the Café de la Regence for many years.



Heyderbrand von der Lasa was one of the strongest players of the 19th century. Due to his position as an abassador, he seldom played competitively (as opposed to casually). He did, however, contribute to the scientific study of the game. Below is one of his rare competitive games - a Three Pawn Gambit.



In 1859, Paul Morphy played this variation against HE Bird who was just one of Morphy's 5 master opponents in this, his only sighted simul.


Isodor Gunsberg got his chess start as the director of the pseudo-automaton Mephisto. He fulfilled that full-time role from 1879-1889. In the game below, Mephisto plays the Wild Cunningham against an unsuspecting amateur:





A more modern game was played between Bill Wall and and an opponent in a tournament in Dayton, Ohio in 1981:


The last game comes from a simul given by David Bronstein in 1990:



Let's look at White's second option after 1. e4 e5 2. f4 exf4 3. Nf3 Be7 4. Bc4 Bh4+ , which would be to move the King with 5. Kh1

Once again, Black seems to use his aggression to disadvantage White with loss of castling and defensive action, but Black's advantage is in part illusional.

Instead of giving away pawns as in the Wild Cunningham line, White simply moves his King. This gives White certain advantages and certain disadvantages. The main idea I want to stress here is not to be afraid about losing the right to castle because White has the initiative and can usually castle maunally, and while the King is in an awkward spot, Black's Bishop, his only developed piece, isn't winning any prize positionally either.

Below, Stienitz beats HE Bird in Vienna, 1873, playing 5. Kf1:

A few years later Semion Alapin took out Alexander Fritz with the same opening:


This old opening made it's way into the 20th century. In 1969 David Bronstein employed a somewhat different variation, deferring Kf1 until the 9th move, against 50 years woman master, Chantal Chaude de Silans, in this casual game:

More recently, 1997 at the Viking Games, Alexei Fedorov unleashed it against an unprepared Peter Heine Nielsen in tournament play:


As noted, Black has several options if White plays 4. Bc4 in the Cunningham. We already looked at 4...Bh4+ and how White can repond, but Black can simply develop with 4...Nf6.  This is called the Modern or Euwe Defense.

Let's examne what Black is up to.  The Knight move of course develops a piece, as opening moves should, helps prepare for castling and attacks Whites e4 pawn.   On the down-side, it temporarily blocks the dark Bishop, allowing for Ng5 (though I've never seen that played) or can be driven off by the simple 5.e5.


Here is a pair of correspondence games in which Hungarian player Istvan Revesz plays against the Modern Defense.  Revesz' rating at the time was 1940 and his highest rating was 2120 in 1993, his last active year. His first opponent, Mr. Saliekovics, is otherwise unknown, but his second opponent, whose rating at the time is unknown to me, was rated 2578 correspondence in 2007.



The next 2 losers with the modern defense need no introduction.



Now for some unsual variations in the Cunningham Defense.

IM Lawrence Day, who played some of my favorite games with his creative style, won this KG in the 1972 Toronto Chess Club championship with a most unusual handling of the Cunningham.

25 years later, Nigel Short used that same treatment against Jeroen Piket:

In the following game Black plays 4. . . d6 which seems to passive for this opening.

I have to put the idea (which I received from member dahal32) of White playing  4. h4  under unusual treatments.  I only found 34 game in which this was attempted and most of these game were lower rated players.  Of those games, Black won the great majority, winning 17, drawing 8, losing only 9. The only line that seemed better for White, where he won 2 out of the 3 games in that line was when Black played  4 . . .Nc6.  The most popular move for Black was 4. . .Nf6. It was also Black's best line.

Here is a game in which White wins against that line: