Jozsef Szen. The First Star of Hungarian Chess.

Jozsef Szen. The First Star of Hungarian Chess.


Well, it's been a while since I did anything on Hungarian players - one I have always intended to get round to was Jozsef ( other version available!!  ) Szen. 

In the last decade or so there have been various investigations into him - Bottlik in Quarterly for Chess History No.9 being the most important, with derived pieces on the internet, for example on Chess Cafe and by our own batgirl,   

as well as edochess, which gives his known results, plus the batgirl article. So lets take a quick look - focusing on the chess rather than the biography which can be found in those sources. 

Sadly the examples we have of his chess are rather more limited than they might have been - a work on him was planned by the publisher Istvan Marki, who died before completing it and the material was lost forever.

He was born in Pest on July 9th, 1805 into an intelligent middle class family, and earned a degree in law. Passably knowledgeable in at least 5 languages, he eventually cemented a position  as the municipal archivist in Budapest, as we would call it now.

Already into his 30's he undertook a 'tour of Europe' between 1836 and 1839, and established his reputation as a chess player. Notably in 1836 he was in Paris, and played a series of games with the great De La Bourdonnais, who conceded the odds of Pawn and two.  Bottlik gives the final result as 13-12 in Szen's favour, while La Bourdonnais says the scores were roughly equal. (He also made a plus score against Boncourt.)

One 'nice little earner' of his on his travels was the 'Three Pawns Problem', which is included in the header. He would play the position for side-bets. Moving first, he would back himself to win, moving second, to draw.

This little problem became much discussed as a result - in England, firstly Walker, and later Staunton,, devoted pages of their books to it.

e.g. Walker's 'New Treatise On Chess', had the position as it's frontispiece.

On returning to Hungary, he helped to found  the Pest Chess Club, along with this man, - 

Vincent/Wenzel ( other versions available!) Grimm. Wiki via Elke Rehder collection.

( More on him here :-  

The two of them, along with a young Lowenthal, famously contested a correspondence match with Paris, which they won by 2-0 ( Paris refusing to draw one game due to having a lost position in the other ) where the 'Hungarian Defence' made it's debut into top class chess.

O.K., lets get to some chess!!

On the same tour of Europe, whilst in England he played some games with another fascinating figure - the one time chairman of the London Stock Exchange Frederick Lokes Slous. ( two games between them were published later in the Chess Players Chronicle.) 

Frederick Lokes Slous courtesy the Selous Family Archives. ( a poor quality version can be found on the internet on genealogy sites)

 One game was particularly interesting.

All three of the Hungarian players mentioned above were invited to the first international tournament - London 1851. Sadly - as you will see from the batgirl article liked to - Grimm was not able to take part.

I won't go into too much detail - you can find loads on the internet about the tournament. Szen was a little unlucky - he came up against Anderssen in the second round. There are a couple of stories surrounding the match. the players agreed to share whatever prize money they won at the end of the tournament, which provoked some condemnation. Part of the agreement was that the player with the higher prize would give 1/3 of that to the other. You have to remember that the players had to fund themselves, and pay their own travel, lodgings, expenses, etc. Neither was particularly well off ( Anderssen only managed to take part due to Staunton's generosity)

Anderssen was younger than Szen in chess terms, and throughout his career had days where he was unrecognisable. Against Szen he started very badly - see the games that follow - but eventually came through to win. Afterwards Szen just demolished his opponents - 8 1/2 out of 9, I think - to take 5th prize.

The first game contains the second story - no source given, so I can't verify it - and was a disaster for Szen.

However, he pulled himself together - helped by some Anderssen blunders - to take the lead in the match.

It seems that 1851 was the peak of Szen's powers as a player. Not only was he 46 years old by then, but his health had started to deteriorate

O.K. before we go any further, lets quickly mention Szen's other contribution to endgame theory. Back in the first half of the 19th century the ending of Rook and Bishop against rook was the subject of much debate, with analysts trying to find ways for the defender to avoid the losing position so brilliantly analysed by Philidor.

One successful attempt was the 'Szen Position', which is still important 'must know' theory even today.

Szen Position. White draws by 'long side' defence, rather than pinning the Bishop along a file..

O.K. Starting to run myself out of time here, so will quickly throw in some more games.

Bottlik gives the score of a series of games in Vienna between between Szen and Ernst Falkbeer

as equal over 20 games - +9, -9, =2. sadly, surviving games are limited.

To finish, a game I rather like, against a strong Paris amateur of the times - (he met some good players, but I have never tried to find out more about him!) - with a couple of very nice little technical touches.