Harry Nelson Pillsbury

Full name
Harry Nelson Pillsbury
Life
Dec 5, 1872 - Jun 17, 1906 (age 33)‎
Place of birth
Somerville, Massachusetts, United States
Federation
United States

Bio

Harry Nelson Pillsbury was a shooting star of chess: after winning the star-studded 1895 Hastings tournament and the American championship in 1898, he became very ill until passing away in 1906 at the age of just 33. Although he continued playing into the early 20th century with some success and played well vs. Emanuel Lasker, Pillsbury never was able to challenge for the world championship.

Early Career

Pillsbury was born near Boston, Massachusetts, U.S., in 1872. He did not start playing chess until the age of 16, but was nonetheless a quick study. By 1892 he was living in New York and played a three-game pawn-odds match against World Champion Wilhelm Steinitz and won two of the games.

Hastings 1895

Pillsbury’s first international tournament came at Hastings, England, in 1895. Twenty-two players competed in a single round-robin. Among them were the world champion Lasker, former world champion Steinitz, and several of Europe’s other top players, including Mikhail Chigorin and Siegbert Tarrasch.

Hastings 1895
Eighteen of the 22 participants at the 1895 Hastings tournament. Pillsbury is seated, fourth from the right, between Lasker and Tarrasch. Image in the public domain in the United States.

To start his foray into international chess, Pillsbury drew one of the toughest matchups, Chigorin. He lost the opening game but adjusted quickly, delivering a great attacking performance against Tarrasch (see “Best Game” below) in the second round. From then on, the previously obscure American lost just two more games—to Lasker and Carl Schlechter

But the first round loss to Chigorin loomed large as Pillsbury led by just a half-point entering his final round contest against Isidor Gunsberg. The story goes that Pillsbury thought a draw was enough to win the tournament and thus played a very tame opening. However, eventually realizing that Chigorin was likely to win his game, Pillsbury bore down to to defeat Gunsberg and retain his half-point lead. With that, he had won one of the strongest tournaments in chess history to that point.

St. Petersburg 1895-1896

Pillsbury’s performance at Hastings (+15 -3 =3) instantly turned him into a big-name player. The top five finishers at Hastings—Pillsbury, Chigorin, Lasker, Tarrasch and Steinitz—were invited to play in St. Petersburg, Russia, later that year. All but Tarrasch accepted.

In the first half of the sextuple round-robin (everyone playing each other six times), Pillsbury was as dominant as he’d been at Hastings. He won five games while losing just one for a 6.5/9 score that put him into the lead. Among his first-half wins were two victories against Lasker, including a first-round victory with the black pieces.

In the second half, however, Pillsbury became ill. He did not win a single game and dropped into third place ahead of only Chigorin. It is unclear whether Pillsbury contracted the syphilis that eventually claimed his life or simply came down with a case of the flu. Regardless, Lasker wound up winning the tournament by two points over Steinitz.

Later Career

After third place finishes later in 1896 at Nuremberg and Budapest, Pillsbury returned home and played a match against Jackson Showalter in 1897. While Showalter and the U.S. press considered it a national championship match, Pillsbury insisted that the U.S. championship was not at stake. He nearly lost the match, but a critical game 14 win (below) turned the tide, and Pillsbury wound up winning by a score of +10 -8 =3.


Pillsbury easily defeated Showalter in another match in 1898 and accepted the title of U.S. Champion at this point. He held the title with no further matches until his death.

Internationally, Pillsbury continued to compete: he tied Tarrasch at Vienna 1898 for first place (but lost a four-game playoff—2½ to 1½—to him), tied for second (albeit 4.5 points behind Lasker) at London 1899, and second at Paris 1900 (two points behind Lasker). He finally won another tournament in Munich in 1900, but Lasker was not involved. 

Additionally, an easy tournament victory in Buffalo in 1901 solidified Pillsbury’s position as America’s strongest player. By 1904, however, he would finish with a losing score in Cambridge Springs, Penn., in a tournament that fellow American Frank Marshall won by two points. The event was still notable for Pillsbury, however, as he defeated Lasker one final time.

Nonetheless, the 1904 tournament was also the last one (of any strength) that Pillsbury played in. On June 17, 1906, he passed away of syphilis at the age of just 33.

Legacy

One of the major disappointments in the history of chess was that the world never saw a championship match between Pillsbury and Lasker. Such a match seemed likely midway through the St. Petersburg tournament, when Pillsbury had a positive score against Lasker and a tournament victory would have been his second major one in two years.

Despite the disappointing conclusion at St. Petersburg, if one counts an exhibition game in 1900 in the record, Pillsbury in his lifetime scored evenly against Lasker: five wins and five losses. And it is worth noting that Lasker was at or very near the top of his form over the entire stretch of Pillsbury’s career. But Pillsbury never equaled the success he enjoyed at Hastings in 1895, and they never played for the world championship. Given their record against each other, it would likely have been a very competitive match.

Harry Pillsbury
Pillsbury in undated photo. Wikipedia (public domain).

Although his career was cut short by illness, Pillsbury’s sudden, meteoric rise and his record against Lasker at his peak left quite a legacy.

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