A Century of Chess: Mikhail Chigorin (1900-1909)

A Century of Chess: Mikhail Chigorin (1900-1909)

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Spassky said that Keres was 'Gulliver among the Lilliputians, a real giant,' and that Botvinnik, however great his results may have been, was, in the end, nothing more than 'the leader of the Lilliputians.'

That seems to be a good summation of the chess world's view of the longstanding quarrel between Chigorin and Steinitz. Steinitz won - there's no question about that, won two world championship matches against Chigorin, and his approach become canonical as the 'modern' or 'classical' school while Chigorin receded towards a Romantic past - but for a significant number of great masters, both in the classical and especially the Soviet era, Chigorin was something like the 'Lost Cause,' embodying a perspective towards chess that valued beauty and originality over the harsh truth of concrete results. "It is difficult to explain to a modern audience what the name of Chigorin meant," wrote Duras. Spielmann called him "an endless melody of irrationality, the unexplored, the inexhaustible." And Znoso-Borovsky, speaking from a Russian perspective, said simply, "He is the whole of our chess life." 

For instance - this Soviet stamp

By the 1900s there was no possibility anymore that Chigorin could be a contender for the world title - the last hopes of that had gone out at St Petersburg 1896. He was in more of an emeritus status, usually finishing towards the upper-middle of the pack in tournaments, and remaining a dangerous opponent virtually right up until his death in January, 1908 (he had played in his last international tournament only four months earlier). And on the rare occasions when he had a superlative result, the chess elite celebrated as if some sacred principle had been upheld. Marshall, for instance, wrote that he was more-than-satisfied to finish behind Chigorin at the King's Gambit thematic tournament at Vienna 1903: "Coming in second to Chigorin was no disgrace for the old Russian had made a lifelong study of the King's Gambit and had a deeper knowledge of this intricate opening than has ever been possessed by any other man." 

It's not so easy from the outside to understand what it was about Chigorin that generated such loyalty in other players. He spoke no other languages except Russian and sometimes had spates with tournament organizers, as in his years-long quarrel with Prince Dadian, but, essentially, everybody noticed and revered his unbridled passion for chess, the way he would study all the other games during a tournament round "as if they were of infinitely more interest to him than his own," or the "bundle of nervous energy" that he presented at the board. "He lived only through chess and for chess," his daughter recalled - telling the story of the 'perfect silence' in their apartment so as not to disrupt Chigorin's study of the chessboard; his habit of leaving guests the moment some combination came to him; his tic of inserting some chess move into the middle of a conversation on a completely separate topic; and then the last hours of his life when he would 'incessantly move the pieces of his traveling chess set' or 'talk to someone invisible about chess.'  

That obvious adoration for the game came through as well in his style, and what impressed the chess world so much was the way that he kept relentlessly digging into the inner depths of the game in search of new ideas. This was true in his never-ending opening exploration, and in his ability to create games of startling beauty (usually by finding unlikely ways to harmonize his pieces), and by his sometimes self-defeating insistence on trying to challenge the reigning precepts of chess wisdom (in the most famous case continuing to champion the knight long after the chess world had switched its preference to the bishop). As Chigorin put it, contrasting himself to Steinitz: "I wanted to demonstrate in my struggles with him that it is possible to oppose his exaggeratedly solid positions with elements more characteristic of art: the personal treatment of a position, imagination, fantasy." Of course, the player he resembles more than anybody is Vassily Ivanchuk. As the commentators at the London Candidates tournament put it, Ivanchuk is - like Chigorin - the 'joker in the pack,' both of them capable of losing on time forfeits in winning positions or committing colossal blunders (as Chigorin famously did, overlooking a mate in two in the 1892 world championship match) or carrying out wild experiments in the opening in important games, but for the cognoscenti it was the deeper truth that mattered, and during the London 2013 broadcast Jon Speelman might just as well have been talking about Chigorin when he put aside all sporting results and said of Ivanchuk, "I always thought he was the best, really."  


1. Combinations

Chigorin's most beautiful wins have a particular texture to them. I wouldn't necessarily call them wild, Tal-like attacks. It's more that there's just a sense of constant energy, his pieces always knitting themselves tighter together, and then at critical moments he always chooses the most interesting, daring path. The underlying belief - and this is what has been so attractive to so many great players - seems to be that a high-level chess game shouldn't be won by some strategic advantage in the middlegame and then simplification to a won ending but by some sort of a leap of faith, a decisive moment in which one side rolls the dice on a beautiful combination. Out of many attractive Chigorin games, I'm choosing two - a win over Pillsbury, which cost Pillsbury first place at the 1902 Monte Carlo tournament, and has the aspect of a dance at a fast tempo, both players looking for the winning sally and Chigorin getting his in first; and a startling win over Marco, which showcases Chigorin's ability to look for daring combinative ideas deep into the endgame. 

2. The Knights 

For chess novitiates, Chigorin is best known as the oddball master who preferred knights to bishops. That's, for instance how Robert Byrne referred to him in a fairly recent article - writing that "there has never been a leading player as eccentric as Mikhail Chigorin," which seems to me to be overlooking a a lot of very eccentric leading players. I don't find that this belief seems to influence Chigorin's play all that much - he was certainly very capable of using the bishops effectively, as in the Marco game above - but this much-anthologized game with Mortimer can stand in for his abilities with the knights. 

Chigorin in the Opening

Chigorin really was one of the great opening innovators, and, preparing for this post, I've been struck at how many 'standard' ideas in the modern chess player's repertoire actually come from him. The most famous are the Chigorin Defense with 1.d4 d5 2.c4 Nc6!?, which is a bit too adventuresome to have made it as a grandmaster opening but is certainly beloved of club and blitz players (and, not so surprisingly, of Alexander Morozevich), and the Chigorin Variation of the Ruy Lopez. Actually, credit for the Chigorin Variation seems to go to Carl Schlechter, but Chigorin was the first player to win with it, and, after his game against Duras, it entered into mainstream master practice, becoming one of the leading chess tabiyas and, in a sense, black's default response to the Ruy Lopez. 

And here are a few of Chigorin's less-well-known opening contributions. It's a surprise, given the famous story of Marshall's long-awaited unveiling of the Marshall Attack in the Ruy Lopez in the game against Capablanca, to discover that Chigorin had actually found the key idea thirteen years earlier.

Chigorin developed all the key ideas of the 'Spassky Variation' of the Caro-Kann, which, like the 'Marshall Attack' and 'Chigorin Variation,' is also very much a main line. Chigorin didn't push the h-pawn all the way to h5, but that's a detail; he had the critical idea of bringing his king all the way to a1 and then attacking on the queenside. 

And it turns out that early in the 1900s, Chigorin was fooling around with the Indian Defenses, which wouldn't become a viable part of opening praxis until, really, the 1920s.

It's possible to think of the King's Indian formation - both for white and black - as an extension of Chigorin's peculiar anti-French system with 2.Qe2, which is accompanied by an early kingside fianchetto and protection of the strong point at K4. 

And then there all the opening branches that Chigorin discovered and that nobody else has picked up on. These are abundant, but it's worth checking out his idea of 4...Bd6 in the Ruy Lopez, as played in a loss to Marco, or 3...Bb4 and 4....c6, as in this game against Marshall, which really deserves to have been tested many more times than it has been. 


- The recollections of Chigorin's daughter Olga Kusakova-Chigorina is some of the best writing on chess obsession that I've ever come across and paint an indelible portrait of what it's like to truly be completely dedicated to the game. 

- The quotes on Chigorin are largely taken from Jimmy Adams' book on him.