A Century of Chess: Napier Matches 1905

A Century of Chess: Napier Matches 1905


Just before retiring from chess at the age of 24, William Napier played a string of matches in England against strong opponents - Henry Atkins, Richard Teichmann, and Jacques Mieses. I probably would skip over these if I weren’t so fond of Napier, a very witty, genial player, reminiscent of Savielly Tartakower. (It's well worth reading over Napier's chess aphorisms as itemized here by Edward Winter. I really think Napier has a claim to being the wittiest chess commentator who's ever lived.)

The occasion for the matches was a tied result in the British championship between Napier and Atkins (Napier had been born in Britain and qualified on those grounds).

After defeating Atkins without difficulty, Napier was challenged by Richard Teichmann, who had been living in England since 1892 but was ineligible to play in the championship. In this match, unfortunately, Napier’s limitations were revealed - a tendency to blunder, which cost him two games, and a certain lack of gravitas in his play.

Teichmann. American Chess Bulletin 1905.

Teichmann, who gives the impression always of a sleeping giant, had very mixed competitive results at this stage of his career, suffering from eye troubles, the pressures of work, and a lethargy in his temperament, which led him to take too many draws in tournaments. But he was a top master, always held in very high esteem by the world’s best, and here he showed his class scoring +4 against Napier.

The matches created a kind of chain reaction, with Jacques Mieses the next player to take on Napier. This was a thematic match - typical of the love for organizational experimentation that characterized this decade - with the players assigned various gambit openings (Evans, Vienna, Danish, King’s Gambit) to play throughout the match. The idea was a festival of combinative chess - in contrast to the ‘scientific style’ then predominating among masters - and the spectators largely got it, sharp, sometimes unsound play, full of dramatic reversals.

Mieses. American Chess Bulletin 1905.

Napier seemed to do much more work than Mieses in this match. He led most of the way, lost both games played in Mieses’ pet Danish Gambit, took the lead again and then blundered horribly in a superior queen endgame so that the match ended in a tie. Sally Simpson calls this a “match that time forgot,” which is about right.

My takeaway from all this, I suppose, is to be disabused of any little fantasy I had that Napier was some sort of genius in occultation, a truly great player taken from the chess world by bourgeois respectability and the need to work a full-time job. He had his moments - particularly at Hanover 1902 and Cambridge Springs 1904 and was a decent second violinist to Pillsbury, sort of in the way that Ragozin seemed to back up Botvinnik or Sargissian Aronian - but these matches reveal a certain superficiality in Napier’s play and give the impression, unfortunately, that he probably did make the right decision in focusing on the insurance business. In that sense, the matches are similar to the farewell tour of Oldrich Duras in 1913 - another player I’m very sympathetic to, charismatic, capable of the sort of dizzying combinations that make one wish he had come closer to the world championship but who is revealed on closer inspection to not quite be able to stand up to the strain of matches against the world’s best.

Napier. American Chess Bulletin 1905.

This was pretty much Lasker’s verdict on the Napier matches. Commenting on Game 4 of Teichmann-Napier, he made it clear that Teichmann’s play was simply of a higher order: “Black [Napier] loses ground continually. For all that his play is in no wise to be blamed but is of a high standard. White’s success is entirely due to the classical manner in which he prepares the attack - taking advantage, as our military critics would put it - of every little cover afforded by the ground…..White’s play is beyond praise.”

In other words, chess was becoming steadily more professional and ‘scientific.’ It was very hard to compete with a true professional like Teichmann, steeped in the classical method. And speculative, combinative, unsound players, like Napier and Mieses, were clearly a step behind.