Harry Nelson Pillsbury, the American tragedy

6/17/2006 – One hundred years ago, on June 17 1906, one of the brightest chess talents of all time passed away – at the age of just 33. But Harry Nelson Pillsbury was never forgotten, and in fact became an immortal legend of the game. Small wonder, when he stood up to the world champions and performed prodigious feats of mental skill. A look back with Garry Kasparov.

Harry Nelson Pillsbury, 1872–1906

Harry Nelson Pillsbury was born on December 5, 1872, in Somerville, Massachusetts. At the age of 16 he started playing chess, and two years later was beating the best players in the city. In April 1892, Pillsbury played a match against World Champion Wilhelm Steinitz, who gave the 20-year-old a pawn and move odds. Pillsbury won 2:1. Soon he was challenging top players in New York. In 1897 (until his death) he won the United States Chess Championships.

In 1895 the Brooklyn chess club sponsored his trip to play in the Hastings 1895 chess tournament, which he sensationally won, in spite of the fact that all the greatest players of the time were participating (they included reigning world champion Lasker, former world champion Steinitz and challenger Mikhail Chigorin).

Pillsbury was famous for his blindfold skills. He could play checkers and chess and a hand of whist simultaneously, while reciting a list of long words that had been shown to him for just a few seconds. In 1900 he played blindfold against the 20 strongest players of the Franklin Chess Club in Philadelphia, and won with a score of +14, =5, –1. In 1902 he played 21 simultaneous games against the players in the Hannover Tournament, scoring +3 =11 –7.


Pillsbury before the start of a simultaneous exhibition in 1897. He was one of the greatest simultaneous players in history, usually taking on the strongest players in the the town or state, often in blindfold play.

Unfortunately this exceptional talent suffered from poor health, and tragically succumbed to syphilis on June 17, 1906, at the age of only 33. He was buried in Laurel Hill Cemetery in Reading, MA.


Kasparov on Pillsbury

In Volume One of his series My Great Predecessors Garry Kasparov devotes twelve pages (126-138 in the chapter on Emanuel Lasker) to the "American Tragedy". He starts with a description of the Hastings 1895 tournament, where "suddenly the hitherto unknown young American Harry Nelson Pillsbury intervened in the battle of the stars." Pillsbury lost the first round to Chigorin, but then he set up a furious pace, scoring 9½ points in the next ten games.


Garry Kasparov with vol. 1 of his very successful book series

Chigorin and the newly-fledged world champion Lasker performed no less brilliantly in this tournament. Three rounds before the finish the position of the leaders was as follows: Lasker 14½, Chigorin 14, and Pillsbury 13½ (each out of 18 games). However Tarrasch beat Lasker in the 19th round, and in round 20 Chigorin lost to Janovsky in just 16 moves. Pillsbury, on the other hand, won his three concluding games and finished ahead of all the greatest players of his day.


Click to enlarge

After this surprise victory by the American upstart the position at the top of the chess world became unclear. The world champion did not seem to be the dominating force, and in some ways five players were vying for the top place. One of them, Tarrasch, did not participate in the next great event, the St Petersburg match-tournament of 1895-96, which took place with four players: Lasker, Steinitz, Chigorin and Pillsbury. It was held as a sextuple round robin – each player facing the other three six times.

In his book Kasparov describes the event as follows: "The first half of the match-tournament developed into a fierce race between Pillsbury and Lasker. Initially the lead was seized by the energetic 23-year-old American. He was paired against the world champion in the very first round. As White Lasker played extremely badly against a Petroff Defence and suffered an opening catastrophy."

Lasker,Emanuel - Pillsbury,Harry Nelson [C42]
St Petersburg 9596 St Petersburg (1), 1895
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.Nxe5 d6 4.Nf3 Nxe4 5.d4 d5 6.Bd3 Be7 7.0-0 Nc6 8.Re1 Bg4 9.c3 f5 10.Qb3 0-0 11.Bf4 Bxf3 12.gxf3 Ng5 13.Kg2 Qd7 14.Qc2 Ne6 15.Bc1 Bd6 16.Nd2 Rae8 17.Nf1

Kasparov gives full analysis of the spectacular continuation of this game. It ended with 17...Nexd4! 18.Qd1 Rxe1 19.Qxe1 Nxf3!! 20.Kxf3 f4! 21.Qd1 Ne5+ 22.Ke2 Qg4+ 23.Kd2 Qxd1+ 24.Kxd1 Nxd3 25.Ke2 Ne5 26.f3 Re8 27.b3 Ng4+ 28.Kd2 Ne3 29.Bb2 Ng2 30.h3 Bc5 31.Nh2 Bf2 32.c4 dxc4 33.bxc4 h5 0-1.

Pillsbury beat Lasker in their second encounter as well and easily drew the third. Then came the fateful fourth encounter, on January 4th 1896, between the tournament leader and the reigning world champion. Kasparov summarizes: "Had Pillsbury won – and he was playing White – the outcome of the match-tournament would have been practically decided. The ultra-talented American would have clearly become the No. 1 challenger, and Lasker would possibly have to play an official match with him for the world championship, under conditions highly unfavourable for him... But things turned out differently."

In My Great Predecessors I this fateful 10th round game is analysed very intensely. After the book was published Kasparov traded notes with readers and published a follow-up evaluation of the key moments of that memorable game on our web site. The analysis is given below for you to replay and download.

Pillsbury lost the game against Lasker, and Kasparov comments: "A tremendous human drama, which was also of historic importance! Pillsbury was so broken-hearted that he suffered a further five defeats (!) an in the end did not even take second place. According to some sources, it was then that he began to show the first signs of the illness that ten years later was to send him to his grave. It was written that a sudden diagnosis, supplied the very day before the fatal game, shocked the young master. In any event he himself complained of serious headaches, sleeplessness and neurosis, due to which several of his games were moved to different days... Who know for how long Pillsbury suffered that tragic day in St. Petersburg, remembering his missed chances."

Kasparov quotes Alekhine, who many years later characterised the "American meteor" thus: "Pillsbury was, after Morphy, undoubtedly the greatest chess talent of the USA. However, their careers were completely different: whereas Morphy slowly, quietly and joylessly extinguished the candle of his life, Pillsbury aspired for the candle of his life to burn constantly at both ends. 'Wine, women and not harmless songs, but strong cigars' – that was Pillsbury's principle of life."


Pillsbury with cigar at the Manhattan Chess Club in 1893


Follow-up to My Great Predecessors

By Garry Kasparov

This article by Garry Kasparov was part of a whole series that appeared on our web site. In them the author presented and evaluated analysis that has been submitted to him after the publication of volume one of his series "My Great Predecessors". It also contained discoveries that were made too late to be included in the book.

The discoveries in the following game, which Lasker considered the best in his career, are significantly more wide-ranging. They were revealed by the St Petersburg first category player Sergey Sorokhtin.

H. Pillsbury – Em. Lasker [Game 41, p.132-135]
St Petersburg 1895/96, 10th round, Queen’s Gambit D50

1 d4 d5 2 c4 e6 3 Nc3 Nf6 4 Nf3 c5 5 Bg5 cxd4 6 Qxd4 Nc6 (6...Be7!?) 7 Qh4?! (7 Bxf6! – Volume 1 Game No. 42) 7...Be7 8 0–0–0?! Qa5 9 e3 Bd7 10 Kb1 h6! 11 cxd5 exd5 12 Nd4 0–0! 13 Bxf6. After 13 Bxh6?! I considered 13…gxh6 14 Qxh6 Ne4 to be sufficient, but, of course, the immediate 13…Ne4! (Zaitsev) is even stronger.


Mikhail Tchigorin, Emanuel Lasker, Harry Nelson Pillsbury and Wilhelm Steinitz at the St Petersburg tournament of 1895-1896.

13...Bxf6 14 Qh5 Nxd4 15 exd4 Be6! (Lasker already knows how to respond to the advance of the f-pawn) 16 f4 (16 Ne4? Bxd4!; 16 Bc4 Rfd8! and …Rac8) 16...Rac8 17 f5.

17...Rxc3!! 18 fxe6. I rejected 18 bxc3 because of the quiet move 18...Bd7!! – after 19 Qf3 Rc8 Black has a decisive attack: 20 Rc1 Bxd4 21 cxd4 Bxf5+ and …Qb4+; 20 Kb2 Bxf5 21 Be2 Be4 22 Qh3 Rc6; 20 Rd3 Bb5 21 Re3 Bxd4 22 Bxb5 (22 cxd4 Qb4+ 23 Rb3 Qe1+) 22...Qxb5+ 23 Ka1 Bxe3 (or 23...Bf6!? 24 Rb1 Qc5 25 Rxb7 d4) 24 Qxe3 Qc4 25 Kb2 Rc6.

But, in addition, Black also wins by 18...Rc8! 19 fxe6 (19 Rd3 Rc6) 19...Qxc3 20 exf7+ (20 Qxf7+ Kh8 21 Qg6 Qb4+) 20...Kf8 21 Qe2 Bxd4 22 Qe8+ Rxe8 23 fxe8Q+ Kxe8 24 Rxd4 Qxd4 (Sorokhtin).

18...Ra3!! The point of the combination! This paradoxical rook sacrifice forces the white king to begin a fight for its own existence.

19 exf7+? It also seems hopeless to play 19 bxa3! (19 e7? Re8! 20 bxa3 Qb6+ etc.) 19…Qb6+ 20 Kc2 (20 Ka1? Bxd4+ 21 Rxd4 Qxd4+ 22 Kb1 fxe6! 23 Be2 Qe4+ 24 Ka1 Rf2 and wins) 20...Rc8+ 21 Kd2 Qxd4+ 22 Ke1 (22 Bd3? Rc2+!! 23 Kxc2 Qb2 mate), but after 22...Qc3+ the e6 pawn serves as a shield for the king and by 23 Ke2 Qc2+ 24 Rd2 Qe4+ 25 Kd1! Qb1+ 26 Ke2, or 23 Rd2 Qe3+ (23...fxe6 24 Qe2 Bg5 25 Qxe6+ Kh8 26 Qe2) 24 Kd1 Bb2 25 Qxf7+ Kh8 26 Bc4! Rxc4 27 Qf8+ Kh7 28 Qf5+ White gains a draw.

But in turns out that Black has a completely unexpected resource: 22…Qe3+! 23 Be2 fxe6 24 Qh3 Bc3+ 25 Kf1 Rf8+ 26 Bf3 Ba5!! 27 Qg3 Bb6 (Sorokhtin) and White, despite his extra rook, is lost – 28 h4 e5 29 Rxd5 e4 30 Rd7 Qc3!.

On the other hand, after 19 bxa3! Qb6+ far more tenacious is 20 Bb5! (Pillsbury’s method of defence, but without the inclusion of 19 exf7+? Rxf7) 20…Qxb5+ 21 Ka1.


Analysis diagram

Sorokhtin now gave 21...Rc8 22 exf7+ Kf8 23 Qh3! Rc2 24 Qb3, parrying the attack, 21…Qc4 (21...Qc5 22 Qg4) 22 Qg4 Re8!? 23 Rhe1! fxe6 24 Re3 h5 25 Qf4 e5 26 Qf1 Qxf1 (there is nothing particular to be gained by keeping the queens on) 27 Rxf1 e4 28 Rd1 Rc8 29 Rb3 and Black’s advantage is far from decisive, or 21...fxe6 22 Qg4 e5 (?! – G.K.) 23 Qe6+ Kh8 24 dxe5 Re8 25 Rxd5 Bxe5+ 26 Qxe5 Rxe5 27 Rxb5 Rxb5 28 Rd1 with a probable draw.

True, in this last variation grandmaster Zaitsev suggested the quiet 22...Re8! 23 Rhf1 h5 24 Qf3 (24 Qxh5? Bxd4+) 24...Rc8 25 Rd2 e5 with excellent compensation for the exchange: 26 Qf5?! Qc4 27 Rfd1 e4 28 Qe6+ Kh8 29 Qf5 h4 30 g3 e3!. However, 26 a4 Qc4 27 Rfd1 is stronger, and if 27…exd4, then 28 Rd3 (Sorokhtin).

In any case this was better than the game continuation, which could have led to a rapid defeat for White.


Emanuel Lasker and Harry Nelson Pillsbury in 1895

19...Rxf7 20 bxa3 Qb6+ 21 Kb5! Qxb5+ 22 Ka1 Rc7? In time trouble Lasker misses a simple win – 22...Qc4! 23 Rd2 Qc3+ or 23 Qg4 Re7! (threatening …Re4 or …Re2) 24 Rhe1 Kxd4+ 25 Qxd4 Rxe1 etc.

23 Rd2 Rc4 24 Rhd1? 24 Re1! would have led to a pretty draw: 24…Qa5! (24...Rxd4? 25 Re8+ Kh7 26 Qf5+ g6 27 Qxf6 Qxe8 28 Qxd4 and wins) 25 Re8+ Kh7 26 Qf5+ g6 27 Re7+!! Kxe7 28 Qf7+ Kh8 29 Qe8+ Kg7 30 Qe7+ with perpetual check.

24...Rc3? (24...Qc6! 25 Kb1 Kg5 26 Qe2 Kxd2 27 Qxd2 Qd6 would have won) 25 Qf5 (25 Re1!?) 25...Qc4 26 Kb2? A fatal mistake. 26 Kb1! Rxa3 27 Rc1! would have set Black unpleasant problems: 27...Qb5+ 28 Ka1 Qa5 29 Rc8+ Kf7 30 Rb2.

26...Rxa3!! (this is some kind of mysticism: the second rook is also sacrificed on the very same square!) 27 Qe6+ Kh7. There was a cleaner win by 27...Kh8 28 Qe8+ (28 Kb1 Bxd4) 28...Kh7 29 Kb1 (29 Kxa3? Qc3+ 30 Ka4 a6) 29...Bxd4 30 Qe2 Qb4+ 31 Rb2 Bxb2 32 Qxb2 Qe4+ 33 Ka1 Ra4 etc.

28 Kxa3. I suggested 28 Qf5+ (but not 28 Kb1? Bxd4! 29 Qf5+ g6! 30 Qd7+ Bg7 and wins) 28…Kh8 29 Kb1! Rxa2! 30 Rxa2 Qb3+ 31 Kc1 Bg5+ (31...Qxa2 32 Qc8+ Kh7 33 Qc2+) 32 Rad2 Qc3+ 33 Qc2 Qa1+ 34 Qb1 Qc3+ with perpetual check.

However, after 28...Kg8! 29 Kb1 (29 Qe6+ Kh8! 30 Qe8+ Kh7 and wins, as in the note to Black's 27th move) 29...Bxd4! 30 Re1 Qb4+ 31 Kc1 Qc3+ 32 Qc2 Qa1+ 33 Qb1 Rc3+ 34 Rc2 Be3+ 35 Rxe3 Qxb1+ 36 Kxb1 Rxe3 Black would also have won, although not so prettily as in the game (Sorokhtin).

28...Qc3+ 29 Ka4 b5+! 30 Kxb5 Qc4+ 31 Ka5 Bd8+ 0-1.


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