A Century of Chess: Frank Marshall (1900-1909)

A Century of Chess: Frank Marshall (1900-1909)

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A quirk of chess history is the recurring figure of the lone American genius who travels to Europe and takes the continent by storm. This has happened more times, and had a more profound impact on chess, than one might expect. There's Morphy in 1858, Pillsbury in 1895, Capablanca in 1911, Fischer in 1958 - and one can add to that list Reshevsky and Fine in 1935 and Frank Marshall at Paris in 1900. 

Marshall was born in New York in 1877, spent most of his childhood in Montreal, but became the epitome of New York chess. He learned to play as a kid - "I took to it naturally as a duck to water," he wrote in his memoir My Fifty Years of ChessBy the time he won a simultaneous exhibition game against Steinitz and had a bright future predicted for him by a local newspaper, he was, he writes, a complete chess addict. "If I continued to play chess?" he wrote, referring to a line in the newspaper article. "Nothing could have stopped me. There was nothing else I wanted to do. My head was full of it - from morning to night and in my dreams as well....In one clerical job I had I thought I was getting on alright until the boss found out that it was a pocket chess set in my desk drawer that was responsible for my studious attitude." 

His obsessiveness notwithstanding, that boyish, devil-may-care streak, which could come straight out of Mark Twain or Dink Stover, is the attitude that Marshall projected in his writing and in his play as well. "As a chess player I am a little like Jack Dempsey as a fighter," Marshall wrote in a crowd-friendly passage. "Dempsey used to start slugging at the opening gong and never gave an opponent a chance to get started."

That's a philosophy that's mostly been missing in chess history - chess excellence like a boys' adventure story. Pillsbury had it, but as if for a slightly more upscale market, while Marshall's was very much the Saturday matinee version - and his language too ('whacky,' 'weird,' 'humdinger,' 'a little on the wild side,' 'a real 4th of July fireworks show') conveys a sense of a boy who never quite grew up and forms a real contrast with the more sober approach of the European masters. 

Marshall 'won his spurs' by finishing ahead of Marco and Mieses in the London Minor Tournament in 1899 and then was the sensation of Paris 1900, finishing shared third and defeating both Lasker and Pillsbury. "I realized that my entire future in chess might depend on the showing I made in this tournament," Marshall wrote of the event. 

With this result, Marshall was suddenly a first-rank player and an almost automatic recipient for invitations to international tournaments - and based himself out of London for several years to take advantage of the opportunity. But then he ran into an extended sophomore slump. Lasker, who usually was a shrewd judge of talent, thought he was 'another Pollock' (a reference to the British/American master W.H.K. Pollock who had had one great result in 1886). Napier called him 'consistently inconsistent.' Marshall himself fretted that he might be "just a flash in the pan." 

But as soon as Marshall received the invitation to the Vienna 1903 thematic tournament, he somehow felt, he wrote, that 'his luck was due to change.' He finished a strong second there, then started his 'year of years' by tying for first in the Rice Gambit section at Monte Carlo 1904, and, on home soil at Cambridge Springs 1904, had maybe the single best tournament result that anybody had had up to that time. "Absolutely the greatest performance in chess since Zukertort razzle-dazzled his way through the London tourney of 1883," pronounced the ever-trustworthy Philadelphia North American. Lasker agreed that "this marvelous performance holds the record in international chess." Marshall wrote of it: "I began the tournament with quiet confidence, playing with just the right blend of prudence and enterprise. It was one of those times where a player feels that he's 'in the pink.'" 

Suddenly, in a somewhat fallow landscape for world-title chess, Marshall seemed like he might be a worthy world champion - and cemented that impression with a convincing match win over his 'ancient rival' Janowski and then by tearing through a mid-level field at Scheveningen 1905.

But it wasn't to be. He lost badly to Siegbert Tarrasch in what was effectively a candidates match and then was whitewashed by Emanuel Lasker in a 1907 world championship match

It turned out that there were real limits to Marshall's approach to the game. My contention is that he played a variant of 'hope chess' - the thing that beginners are instructed never to do. Instead of looking for the objectively best move in the position, he tended to string together some far-fetched path to a victory - a combination maybe six or eight moves deep - and steer towards that. He really was brilliant at it - some of his combinations are the most beautiful ever played, and his approach brought him to the top of international chess - but against the very best in the world, players with machine-like accuracy, his combinations broke down. In the later half of the decade, with some of the magic dust worn off, he alternated middling tournament results with dominating performances as at Nuremberg 1906 and Dusseldorf 1908, but one last crushing match defeat - to the virtually unknown Jose Raúl Capablanca - made it painfully clear that he would never again be a world title contender. 

Still, Marshall went on to be part of the world's elite for the next two decades - a member of the initial grandmaster class of 1914 and the champion of the United States almost until his death. And the boys' adventure story feeling stayed there for the rest of his career - with Marshall again and again (in his endorsement of Capablanca at San Sebastian 1911, his somewhat charitable match with Janowski in 1916) proving to be one of the great sportsmen of the game. 

Marshall's Style 

1. Hope Chess

This is my theory about Marshall, as outlined above. The tendency is to divide players into the categories of 'classical' and 'Romantic,' with Marshall as one of the standard bearers of Romanticism. This was the popular view at the time - the chess journalist Reichhelm getting so carried away after Cambridge Springs that he predicted that "the old pawn-grabbing style would be superseded by a new style combining the best of Morphy and Marshall." That's of course a bit too crude - Marshall was perfectly of grabbing pawns and of playing positionally - but my feeling is that the divide is somehow even more fundamental than that, between 'right players' and 'wrong players.' Marshall was one of the greatest of the 'wrong players' - a list that would include Chigorin, Duras, Spielmann, Tal, Larsen - where the idea is to find the most direct path to a win, generating problems for one's opponent, and without worrying too much about some analyst coming up with the 'objective refutation.' As Chigorin put it in 1903, describing Marshall, "One of the participants called Marshall a swindler, a charlatan. But his charlatan, so to speak, risky play is more to my liking than any 'correct' play by first-class players." 

2. The Swindle

Closely connected to 'hope chess,' actually, is the 'swindle.' Marshall is more closely associated with this theme than any other and even wrote a book on the subject. Soltis wrote that, especially in later years, "his prowess at rescuing the irretrievable took on magical proportions." But, like all magic tricks, Marshall's gift for the swindle had a basis in technique and in a certain kind of mindset. Players tend to miss swindles because they are thinking 'backwards' - they know that they have been outplayed and therefore deserve to lose. Marshall, like a plucky hero in some adventure story, had the ability to constantly resituate himself and start from scratch - to find some combination somewhere in the position and then work towards that without worrying himself needlessly if his opponent also had a winning line somewhere. 

3. The h-pawn

Certain players get connected with specific pieces and moves - for Tarrasch it's the light-squared bishop, for Botvinnik the f-pawn, for Pillsbury the move Kt-K5. For Marshall, more than any hustler in any city park, his piece was the king rook's pawn. His most famous wins - the Pipe Game against Burn and its sequel against Marco - were simple cases of pushing the h-pawn against a castled king. That's a trick that every patzer knows, but Marshall was willing to push the h-pawn in front of his own castled king and to uncork an h-pawn advance seemingly out of nowhere, as in the game with Schlechter below. This all may sound trivial, but it's reflective of Marshall's approach to chess - an interest in attacking on the wings long before the position has stabilized in the center. 

Marshall in the Opening

One thing about Marshall is that he was a tireless opening innovator - "contributed many a startling move to the technique of the openings," wrote Capablanca. All serious chess players know the Marshall Defense with 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 d5 and the Marshall Attack in the Ruy Lopez, but Marshall gets credit for numerous ideas that aren't typically attributed to him - for instance, 4...Nd4 in the Four Knights, which is known as the Rubinstein Variation - and the Franco-Sicilian and Schliemann Variations could easily, in their entirety, be named after him.

A club player looking for ways to take opponents out of the books could do worse than to steal a half-dozen or dozen of Marshall's ideas, but, combined with Marshall's inveterate Romanticism, there was also a strong professional streak, and many of his contributions were about finding some new idea deep in a theoretical variation that flipped the evaluation on a particular line.