A Century of Chess: Cambridge Springs 1904
Cambridge Springs masters outside the Rider Hotel. Steve Etzel.

A Century of Chess: Cambridge Springs 1904

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If you’ve been reading the posts in this series in order, the guiding narrative will have seemed to be the rise and then the long sophomore slump of Frank Marshall. Marshall burst onto the international scene by finishing shared third at the great Paris tournament of 1900, winning his games against both Lasker and Pillsbury, and then reverted to bring a second-tier master, capable of tactical wizardry but also maddeningly inconsistent. He finished second at a King’s Gambit thematic tournament in 1903 and shared first at another in 1904 but the tide really turned with his startling win at Cambridge Springs 1904, the marquee event of its era. Marshall won with a score of +11-0=4, two full points ahead of his nearest rivals.

American Chess Bulletin

Marshall modestly attributed his win to familiarity with the American players, whom the European masters tended to underestimate. He wrote, "I began the tournament with quiet confidence. It was one of those times when a player feels he is in the pink. I played with just the right blend of enterprise and prudence, not too riskily, not too cautiously."

American Chess Bulletin

His games from the tournament are very clean and easy - there are no ‘Marshall swindles,’ but there’s a good sense of when to imbalance the position and an ability to find a clear path through complexities. Marshall would never again have a result like Cambridge Springs, but the tournament vaulted him into the first rank of masters - and led him, before the end of the year, to issue a challenge to Lasker for the world championship. 

For a while it looked as if it might be Janowski’s tournament. He was playing high-class slashing chess but lost to the American outsider Fox and then to both his rivals, Marshall and Lasker. Undeterred, Janowski immediately after the tournament challenged Marshall to a match, the second of an eventual five between them. 

For Lasker, the tournament must have felt like a déjà vu to Hastings 1895, when he played well but not superlatively and an American underdog swept the field. The tournament was Lasker’s first in five years and his failure to win raised old questions able his legitimacy as world champion.

American Chess Bulletin 1904.

However, he won probably the single most famous game of his career - the double-edged queenless middlegame with Napier. Napier, the loser, said it was the best game that he himself had ever played. Lasker's last-round win over Janowski - somehow emerging unscathed from a vicious attack - gave him equal second place. 

And here is a fighting draw between Lasker and Marshall, illustrating some of the best qualities of both players.

As for the rest of the crosstable, Georg Marco had one of his best-ever results, coming in fourth. Jackson Showalter “covered himself in glory,” as Marshall put it, by taking fifth - the high point of his tournament career. Carl Schlechter disappointed but had the consolation of the brilliancy prize for his win over Lasker - one of the best attacking games he ever played. (Schlechter was in one of the phases of his career when he suddenly attacked like a wild man.)

The great sorrow of Cambridge Springs was the decline of Harry Pillsbury, the tournament’s ‘host’ who was clearly not well ("his friends were astonished by seeing the expression of his eyes dulled," Lasker wrote) and would die two years later at the age of 33. Pillsbury finished in the lower half of the crosstable, but his win over Lasker is one of the most moving events in chess history. Pillsbury had lost to Lasker in a complicated line of the Queen’s Gambit at St Petersburg 1896 - that’s the game with the two rook sacrifices on a3 - then lost ground at the tournament and lost his best chance to challenge Lasker for the world championship. (To add insult to injury, it was also at St Petersburg, rumor has it, where he contracted the syphilis that later killed him.) After the tournament, Pillsbury continued to analyze the line. "We played the position whenever we met, which was often," Napier recalled. "Years we played it. It became a bore." As the story has it, Pillsbury had planned to unveil his surprise in the eventual world championship match against Lasker, but realizing that he was sick and that this might be his last chance, he played the variation here and won in a scintillating 30-move attack.

This is, sad to say, also effectively goodbye to William Napier, who, like so many talented chessplayers, married a girl, got a good job - and was lost to chess. He was the wittiest chess writer of his generation, and a very gracious sportsman, and, had he continued playing, it’s easy to imagine him having had a similar career as Savielly Tartakower as a both a writer and top-notch player.

The more you read about Cambridge Springs, the more improbable the whole event seems - to have the marquee chess tournament of a generation held in a Western Pennsylvania town with a population of 1,500 - and for the cream of European chess to actually travel all the way to America to play in it. There is the meeting of the masters with President Theodore Roosevelt, there is the first-class travel of the masters on the SS Pretoria and the two hundred journalists who are supposed to have traveled to Cambridge Springs and raptly followed the tournament.

SS Pretoria. Wikipedia.

The explanation for all this munificence is that William D. Rider had built a mammoth hotel in Cambridge Springs, a strategic railroad spot halfway between New York and Chicago with a mineral waters spring, and looked to promote chess as part of it, very much in the way that chess tournaments had become linked to European water spas at the time.

Unfortunately, Rider died the next year and the hotel burned to the ground in the '30s and the population of Cambridge Springs now is pretty much exactly the same as what it was in 1904.

Steve Etzel

I was very surprised to realize that the Cambridge Springs Variation wasn’t actually invented at this tournament. It was first played by Emanuel Lasker in 1892, appeared three times at its namesake tournament although without impressing much. But  it caught on afterwards, part of a new wave of defenses for black in the Queen’s Gambit that looked for counterplay early without settling into the passive defense of the Orthodox Variation.

There is abundant online information about Cambridge Springs. Thanks to AJ Goldsby, Steve Etzel, Edward Winter, Kevin Spraggett, Andy Soltis. Etzel in particular has a website dedicated to the tournament: