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A Giant from the Past - Henry Edward Bird (part I)

A Giant from the Past - Henry Edward Bird (part I)

Nov 29, 2016, 1:35 AM 6

A few weeks ago, my first book – Henry Edward Bird: A Chess Biography with 1198 games – was released. During the eight years that I worked on the manuscript I didn’t talk much about this project so that the publication came as a surprise for many. But not so much for several members of my first chess club, who knew my fascination for Bird since my earliest years as a chess player. Back then, I was about 13-14 years old, I got really into the game and as general history has also always interested me - chess history was the perfect marriage for me. One day, I won a small booklet, in Dutch, about Henry Edward Bird. His story as well as his games hooked me.

Some of those club members e-mailed me, ordered a few of my books, and asked if giving a lecture on Bird would interest me. This question came as a bit of a surprise, but I didn’t hesitate too long before accepting. So, this will probably happen in 2017. These past few days I brainstormed a bit on the subject and decided to prepare it by writing a few articles on my blog in the meantime. This way I could reach a few more people interested in chess history. So, this will be the first installment, a bit of an introductory one, but it will also contain some chess.

I would like to focus on three subjects. Especially in this post I will dele a bit in the matter of doing research on chess history. The main attention, from the next post onwards, will of course be the life and games of Henry Edward Bird. At the same time I also want to sketch the evolution chess was undergoing during the 19th century (above all in London, the world’s hotspot for chess from 1850 until 1900). Bird was a very important person for chess who, in a certain sense, stood on an equal height with Steinitz (though definitely not on his playing level). With my book I want to restore his reputation that has diminished over time to that of an overrated, marginal chess player, of whom some historians even wrote that a master like George Hatfeild Dingley Gossip, a notorious tail-ender in tournaments, was superior to. In my book I clearly demonstrate that this is not true.

Henry Edward Bird

I began doing research on Bird in 2007, after purchasing Richard Forster’s monumental work on Amos Burn. This book is a very impressive one, in several ways. First of all, this immediately catches the eye, Forster analysed all of Burn’s games at a stunning depth. His notes are insightful and at a very high level (he’s an IM). As a result Burn’s games, which are otherwise a bit dry, really spring to life. “Dull”, by the way, is not completely true. Burn had a fighting attitude, and if he found the right opponent his games become really interesting.

I am also hugely impressed by the overall quality of the text written by Forster. The balance between quoted sources and the author’s interpretation and explanation is truly perfect. Forster writes beautifully, incredibly insightful, without one word too much being used. It reminds me of a Mozart symphony.

The most astonishing about the book, however, is that it was published in 2004, long before the massive digitization took place. Thanks to this evolution, or perhaps revolution?, it became possible to write biographies of more difficult subjects, i.e. of players who dedicated their life to chess. Amos Burn always remained an amateur, he was a successful businessman, and he either played chess in big tournaments (at a national or international level) or played in or for his team in Liverpool. He did not, like players who depended from the game, travel around to give exhibitions or so. Bird was such a player, and for this reason doing research on him is a much more extensive job.

Before continuing with my story on Bird, a little bit of chess by Burn. Many people will know the game Levitzky-Marshall, Breslau 1912, in which Marshall allegedly played the most beautiful chess move ever (after which legend has it that the board was covered by golden coins. See: www.chesshistory.com/winter/extra/marshall1.html). Forster reveals another candidate for this best move ever title, a game played by Burn. Here is the diagram, at the crucial moment. Black to move. I won’t spoil your fun by giving the solution, which can readily be found on the internet.

 Black to move

Now back to 2007. The Burn book, a big hardcover one (it is, by the way still available, but now in softcover in two volumes), was the incentive I needed to begin working on Bird. Why, you may ask? Bird is, many will agree with this, a much more interesting player. He despised draws, always played in the sharpest possible way, didn’t mind losing, and wanted to be original. Bird was also a more interesting chess personality: he was immersed in chess and lived for the game, especially at a later age. This was much less the case for Burn. As it turned out, Bird also had a more interesting personal/professional life, but I was not too much aware of that yet. In any case, my research promised to be a mammoth task. Bird played chess from 1844 until 1899 – no 19th century player has a longer track record (players like Burn, Blackburne or, later, Lasker, played a great deal of their career in the 20th century). As London only remained the world’s chess center until the end of the century, the atmosphere that characterized all of Bird’s career was no longer the same in the years following it.

Before talking a bit more about Bird I’d like to delve into the subject of doing research in chess history first. I was very lucky that my research began at the time when the first historical chess books and newspapers became digitized. They provide an incredible amount of directly accessible information, which facilitated my task enormously. But there are also more traditional institutions that helped me a lot – libraries in the first instance. Two stand out: Cleveland and The Hague. The first one is the largest. Its collection was founded by John G. White, and he also provided funds for the staff to help people all over the world doing investigations. Staff browsed through chess columns for me, which rendered me several games. They made copies of microfilms for me (at a minimal cost), due to which I had easy access to essential columns like The Field, Land and Water and Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News. Their most interesting contribution was checking the correspondence by Miron Hazeltine, a prominent chess columnist. As a result I got copies of highly fascinating letters by Bird. Several photos in my book also come from the Cleveland collection.

Letter by Bird to Hazeltine, in which he denounces the attitude of Captain Mackenzie.

The library of The Hague, the second-largest in the world, is relatively close to where I live. I made four trips to it, for three days each, and they were all frantic. Each time I copied hundreds of items and each time I found a lot of new information on Bird or on some other side project I am working on. It took me quite some trouble to get hold of the most fascinating item: a small notebook from the St. James’s Chess Club. I asked for it on two trips, but on both occasions it was missing. A third time they had found it – and it proved to be a rich source for me! This small, old, booklet contains several games that were written down by Johann Jacob Löwenthal. The first games in it were played by Bird at the end of 1858. It provides ammunition to refute Bird’s claim that prior and after Morphy’s visit to England he was completely absent from chess. Also, it contains the very first game in which Bird defended himself against the Ruy Lopez with 3…Nd4 – the following game I found in which he employed this variation that would ultimately carry his name was played nearly a decade later.

The notebook's cover

The first known game in which Bird played 3...Nd4, against Löwenthal.

Towards the end of my research, I made a few discoveries at the National Archives of England. All in all there are three cases that came for the Court of Chancery in which Bird was involved. One of them was already mentioned by Tim Harding in his book Eminent Victorian Chess Players, but he didn’t delve too deeply in the matter. Two other cases were only added to the catalogue in 2014 or 2015, and I was able to check them in the last year of my research. The information I got from it, combined with information from newspapers, allowed me to reconstruct a crucial period in Bird’s life, from 1851 until 1855. As a result of which a highly detailed picture of the man’s life emerged.

The digitization of sources was essential for me to begin this project. Thanks to this, I found dozens, if not hundreds of games in Canadian, American, English and Australian sources. I found a lot of his chess life, but also of his personal and professional life. I was lucky to have chosen a subject whose life was so fascinating, a feeling that I hope the reader of my book will also experience.

Finally, there were many smaller archives, family archives, … I was able to trace back two descendants of Bird’s niece who live in Australia. Bird’s partner in his accountancy firm has a descendant living in Japan. I found a letter by Bird in the archive of James McHenry which learned me the existence of a second accountancy firm in which he was active. I got in touch with a descendant of the Medley family who allowed me to use a few original photos in my book. One of them, for me this is the most beautiful picture in the book, shows us Louis Paulsen in England around 1861. Another new picture is of William Wayte, from the Eton archives. A few pictures coming from the Medley archive I could not use, sadly. One of these is the following fascinating one. It is preserved in a small album with only photos of chess players. There is no link with chess in this picture, so these men may have had nothing to do with the game, but I suspect they have. The man on the right reminds me of John Cochrane, of whom only a line drawing exists. I don’t know the identity of the other man. Earlier on I thought it could have been Bernhard Horwitz, but this was highly, highly tentative. Drawings of Horwitz are quite different from this man on the photo.

courtesy Nigel Webb

John Cochrane, as can be found on the internet (from the Scientific American Supplement)

Also interesting were the few e-mails I exchanged with Sarah Sipple (maiden name Bird), nearly a decade ago. After a few mails she no longer replied. Tim Harding contacted her a bit later and didn’t receive any reply at all. I guess she lost her interest in genealogy. She set up a very interesting site, with the pedigree of her family. She wrote to me that her grandfather, Gordon Bird, possessed a rich family archive. He was the grandson of Edward Daniel Pidding Bird, the brother of Henry Edward. One can only dream of what he had in his possession. Gordon Bird died in 2005 in France and his archives went lost…


My research speeded up in September 2012 when I received an e-mail from Robbie Franklin, the founder as well as chess editor of McFarland. He had heard from Tim Harding, with whom I had mailed earlier on, that I was working on Bird. McFarland was the publishing company I had in mind from the very beginning onwards, so I was very pleased that they would publish my book. The format of the book was soon decided about, though it cost me some time to take the decision to analyse but a part of Bird’s games and not everyone, like Forster had done. I agreed to deliver the manuscript three years later, which happened, and the past year was spent to the editing and publishing of the book.


Before finishing this first couplet of the Bird story I would like to delve a bit into Bird’s reputation as a chess player and what remained of it, more than a century after his death. I guess that everyone playing chess at a club nowadays knows his name, but only because of the openings bearing it. Above all 1.f4 and 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Nd4. Bird also made contributions to the Italian Opening (with an early a4-b4 assault) and some smaller ones. The funniest idea he had was against the most boring of openings (his words), the French. At that time, the Exchange Variation was used mostly. Bird wished to prevent it radically, so after 1.e4 e6 he came up with 2.Bb5. He found himself in good company in looking for original ways to deal with the French. Steinitz played 2.e5 and Chigorin 2.Qe2. Bird often encountered 2…a6 3.Ba4 b5 4.Bb3 c5, when he got what he wanted: an original position. In Vienna he scored 3,5/4 with this line. I wonder, however, what Bird – who despised draws, would do after 2…Qg5, forcing 3.Bf1, and then 3…Qd8. A repetition of moves?

Bird enjoyed a very good reputation during his life. He was considered a very strong chess player (undoubtedly of GM strength if one has to compare it to today’s norms, the title didn’t exist back then) – one of the strongest in the world though evidently not as strong as Steinitz, Lasker or players of a slightly lesser status as Zukertort or Chigorin. He was a very popular player, due to his accessibility, his attractive playing style, his very social attitude and the principles he defended against the evolution chess was undergoing (more about this later). All these sentiments evaporated rashly once Bird had to quit chess due to health problems, and at the time of his death, in 1908, he was considered a relic of a by-gone age. Since that time, Bird got stereotyped as an erratic and original player. All the substance of his life went lost, no-one knew about his chess adventures anymore or the hundreds of fascinating games he left behind. Striking is how Fred Reinfeld, in 1947, wrote about Bird in his book British Chess Masters: Past and Present: “More than one generation of chess players has been familiar with Bird’s reputation for originality, waywardness and even eccentricity. To moderns, this reputation is nothing more than an echo of the distant past.” As we mentioned above already, England’s foremost historian Kenneth Whyld even wrote that Gossip was probably better than Bird.

Until now, just one historically valuable essay had been written on Bird – in 2012 by Tim Harding, in Eminent …, the book mentioned above. Very interesting is how he described his initial feeling about the man, which shows how impregnated he was by the traditional view on Bird: “Research for this chapter began with the impression that Bird was something of a rogue who achieved little of substance.” At the end of his research, Harding’s opinion had “altered greatly in his favor.”

This and the following blog entries will, hopefully, also increase the reader’s interest for Henry Edward Bird, the man and the player. Of course, what you will read here is only the top of the iceberg. Much more information on Bird’s life, his chess, and the times he lived in can be found in my book. I analysed some 450 games in it, mostly very deeply. This analysis is not just pc-generated, I tried to explain the ideas and motives behind the moves. Despite having played them over a countless number of times they remain to interest me. As I don’t want to leave you without presenting a bit more of real chess I give here a very first, randomly-picked, game played by Bird. Notes in the book are evidently much more extensive than I can give them here.

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