Amos Burn: The Tenacious Englishman (December 31, 1848 - November 25, 1925)

by Eugene Manlapao
12/9/2022 – Amos Burn was one of the world’s leading players in the late 19th century. Competing mainly as an amateur in his long career, he was a highly successful player, theoretician, and journalist. Eugene Manlapao takes a look at the life, the career, and the games of this great English player. | Photo Source: www.liverpoolmuseum.org

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Burn was born on December 31, 1848, in Hull, England, the seventh child of Amos Sr. and Mary Burn. His father was a timber broker and merchant who prepared him for a business career. After finishing his primary education, Amos Sr. sent him to Liverpool, then one of England’s most important trading centers. There, Burn apprenticed with a shipping firm.  

Burn had been bent on following in his father’s footsteps and had not considered any other occupation, but in Liverpool he became acquainted with John Soul. Soul was one of the city’s strongest players in the 1850s to 60s, and had competed in the 1857 Manchester Tournament, a strong event that included Adolf Anderssen and Johannes Lowenthal. He introduced Burn to the Liverpool Chess Club in 1867 and became his first mentor.  

Burn learned the game at the rather late age of 16. His first competitions were in the club, and in 1868 he participated in a handicap event. As these handicap tournaments ran back in the day, players were grouped into classes, with those of the higher-class giving odds of material or moves or both to those below them. Burn’s talent must have been very apparent, as barely a year after learning the game he was classed a rank below the club’s top players. He finished clear first with 24 wins against a single loss.

Amos Burn | Picture source: British Chess News

By 1869, Burn had become one of Liverpool’s best players, and he was included in the club’s seven-man team that was to face that of its rival, the Manchester Chess Club. Liverpool won the match, 11-2, with Burn winning his two games.

The following year, 1870, Burn’s business ventures brought him to London. His stay in the British chess Mecca for close to a year brought him into close contact with great English players such as Howard Staunton, Johannes Lowenthal, George Alcock Macdonnell, and Henry Bird, as well as the rising stars, Cecil De Vere and Joseph Henry Blackburne.

More significantly, Burn befriended Wilhelm Steinitz, who became his second mentor. Steinitz, who was born in Austria but moved to England to pursue his chess ambitions, was possibly the world’s best at that time and in 1866 he had defeated Anderssen in a match. A thinker by nature, Steinitz new insights into the game would later become the foundations of modern, classical play.  

Burn, a keen student, was one of the first followers of the classical school. Like his illustrious teacher, he developed into a highly positional, solid, and defensive player. He was less adventurous, however, a trait that very often put Steinitz in trouble.

Burn and Steinitz’s warm relationship would last. Burn would always remember that “in his early days, he was a pupil of Steinitz.” Steinitz would later settle in New York, USA, and he would fondly recall Burn many years later as an “intimate friend and former pupil of mine of whom I am very proud.”

Wilhelm Steinitz | Photo: Austrian National Library

Before leaving London, Burn participated in the British Chess Association’s Third Challenge Cup of 1870. Blackburne and John Owen were the strongest contenders but Burn tied for first with John Wisker. He settled for second, however, after losing the play-off to Wisker.

From a promising provincial player, Burn had polished himself into a master in London. Despite his surprising successes and encounters with chess professionals such as Steinitz, De Vere, and Blackburne, he resisted the lure of turning one himself. With all his business concerns settled, he returned to Liverpool in 1871.  

For the next fifteen years Burn worked as a full-time merchant. His ventures kept him moving about, and he reached as far as the USA trading goods like iron and sugar. While he did not quit chess altogether, he had to play less frequently and less seriously.

Between 1871 and 1886, Burn limited himself to local competitions. He played mainly in events arranged by the Counties Chess Association, an organization that opened membership and ran competitions exclusively among amateurs in the provinces. He also participated in club tournaments and was champion of his Liverpool club in 1874.

Burn also tried his hand at chess journalism and ran a column in the weekly Albion beginning in 1872. In 1879, he married Martha Ann Jager, a sugar refiner’s daughter, and had two daughters by 1881. Organizational matters also kept him occupied, and he served the Liverpool Chess Club in various capacities such as secretary and president.

Only when he had attained financial stability did Burn return to top-level chess. In May 1886, he faced Henry Bird in a match that was initially set as a race to five but extended to ten. Bird took an early two-game lead but Burn fought back and came within a game of winning at 9-8. Bird tied it at 9, and the match was then agreed drawn. The two English masters fought hard, with all the 18 games they played decisive. 

Henry Edward Bird | Photo: Wikipedia

In August of the same year, Burn played another high-profile match against the powerful George Henry Mackenzie. The American won the first four games, but in a display of doggedness that he would come to be known for, Burn racked up four wins of his own in the next six games. Mackenzie had to return to New York after ten games, and the match was also agreed drawn.

George Henry MacKenzie

Between his matches with Bird and Mackenzie, Burn participated in his first international tournament, the British Chess Association’s (BCA) Second Annual Congress of 1886 in London. Even before his 15-year hiatus, Burn had earned the respect of his fellow-Englishmen, but he was yet unknown internationally. He thus surprised everyone with his joint first-place finish with Blackburne, ahead of a strong field that included Isidor Gunsberg, Jean Taubenhaus, Samuel Lipschutz, Mackenzie, Emil Schallop, and Johannes Zukertort. He lost the play-off, however, to Blackburne.

The tournament seemingly opened the gates for Burn to international competition. The following month, he won another international tournament in Nottingham, with the field composed of most of the strong players who had participated in London. His score of seven wins and two draws in nine games was good for clear first, this time.

From 1886 to 1912, Burn would participate in twenty-two international tournaments. Among these were New York 1889 (5th), Hastings 1895 (12th), Paris 1900 (5th), St. Petersburg 1909 (15th), and San Sebastián 1911 (13th).

Apart from his first two international tournaments where he either won or shared first place, Burn had two other worthy performances. In Breslau 1889, or the Sixth German Congress, he placed a strong 2nd behind Siegbert Tarrasch. The German Tarrasch was on the rise and the event was one of the five international tournaments he would win in a six-year stretch from 1888-1894. Burn’s only loss was to Simon Alapin, and he could have closed the gap between him and Tarrasch if he had converted his winning game against him in the final round.

Breslau 1889 - Final standings after 17 rounds

Name 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 Pts.
Siegbert Tarrasch   ½ 1 ½ 1 ½ ½ 1 1 1 1 ½ ½ ½ 1 1 ½ 1 13.0 / 17
Amos Burn ½   1 ½ ½ 1 1 ½ ½ ½ 1 ½ 1 1 0 ½ 1 ½ 11.5 / 17
Jacques Mieses 0 0   ½ ½ ½ 1 1 0 ½ 0 1 1 1 1 1 ½ 1 10.5 / 17
Johann Hermann Bauer ½ ½ ½   ½ 0 ½ ½ 1 ½ 1 1 1 ½ ½ 0 ½ 1 10.0 / 17
Isidor Gunsberg 0 ½ ½ ½   ½ 0 ½ ½ 1 1 0 1 1 0 1 1 1 10.0 / 17
Curt Von Bardeleben ½ 0 ½ 1 ½   0 1 1 ½ 0 ½ 1 1 1 1 0 ½ 10.0 / 17
Louis Paulsen ½ 0 0 ½ 1 1   0 1 0 1 1 1 1 0 0 1 1 10.0 / 17
James Mason 0 ½ 0 ½ ½ 0 1   1 1 ½ 0 0 ½ 1 1 ½ 1 9.0 / 17
Joseph Henry Blackburne 0 ½ 1 0 ½ 0 0 0   1 0 1 1 0 1 1 1 1 9.0 / 17
Johann Nepomuk Berger 0 ½ ½ ½ 0 ½ 1 0 0   1 1 1 ½ ½ ½ ½ ½ 8.5 / 17
Emil Schallopp 0 0 1 0 0 1 0 ½ 1 0   0 0 ½ 1 1 1 1 8.0 / 17
Johannes Metger ½ ½ 0 0 1 ½ 0 1 0 0 1   ½ ½ 0 ½ ½ 1 7.5 / 17
Johannes Minckwitz ½ 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 0 0 1 ½   1 1 0 1 1 7.0 / 17
Alexander Fritz ½ 0 0 ½ 0 0 0 ½ 1 ½ ½ ½ 0   1 ½ 1 ½ 7.0 / 17
Simon Alapin 0 1 0 ½ 1 0 1 0 0 ½ 0 1 0 0   1 0 ½ 6.5 / 17
Max Harmonist 0 ½ 0 1 0 0 1 0 0 ½ 0 ½ 1 ½ 0   1 ½ 6.5 / 17
Emanuel Stepanovich Schiffers ½ 0 ½ ½ 0 1 0 ½ 0 ½ 0 ½ 0 0 1 0   1 6.0 / 17
George Hatfeild Gossip 0 ½ 0 0 0 ½ 0 0 0 ½ 0 0 0 ½ ½ ½ 0   3.0 / 17

 

His greatest success, however, came in Cologne 1898. Before the last round, Burn was tied for the lead with Mikhail Chigorin and Wilhelm Cohn. Burn won his final game against Schallopp, while Chigorin lost to his old nemesis Steinitz and Cohn to Jackson Showalter. Burn was turning 50, and this victory placed him alongside Emanuel Lasker as masters who won super tournaments at quite an advanced age.

Cologne 1898 - Final standings after 15 rounds

Name 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 Pts.
Amos Burn   ½ ½ 1 1 0 ½ ½ 1 1 ½ 1 1 1 1 1 11.5 / 15
Mikhail Ivanovich Chigorin ½   ½ 0 0 1 ½ 1 0 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 10.5 / 15
Rudolf Rezso Charousek ½ ½   ½ 0 1 ½ 0 1 1 1 ½ 1 1 1 1 10.5 / 15
Wilhelm Cohn 0 1 ½   ½ 0 ½ 1 1 0 1 1 1 1 1 1 10.5 / 15
William Steinitz 0 1 1 ½   0 0 1 1 1 1 ½ 1 1 0 ½ 9.5 / 15
Jackson Whipps Showalter 1 0 0 1 1   ½ ½ 0 1 0 1 0 1 1 1 9.0 / 15
Carl Schlechter ½ ½ ½ ½ 1 ½   ½ 1 ½ ½ 0 ½ ½ 1 1 9.0 / 15
Johann Nepomuk Berger ½ 0 1 0 0 ½ ½   ½ 0 ½ 1 1 1 ½ 1 8.0 / 15
Dawid Markelowicz Janowski 0 1 0 0 0 1 0 ½   1 0 1 1 0 1 1 7.5 / 15
Emanuel Stepanovich Schiffers 0 0 0 1 0 0 ½ 1 0   0 ½ 1 1 1 1 7.0 / 15
Ignatz Von Popiel ½ 0 0 0 0 1 ½ ½ 1 1   ½ ½ ½ 1 0 7.0 / 15
Hermann Von Gottschall 0 0 ½ 0 ½ 0 1 0 0 ½ ½   1 ½ ½ ½ 5.5 / 15
Arved Heinrichsen 0 0 0 0 0 1 ½ 0 0 0 ½ 0   0 1 1 4.0 / 15
Adolf Albin 0 0 0 0 0 0 ½ 0 1 0 ½ ½ 1   0 ½ 4.0 / 15
Alexander Fritz 0 0 0 0 1 0 0 ½ 0 0 0 ½ 0 1   ½ 3.5 / 15
Emil Schallopp 0 0 0 0 ½ 0 0 0 0 0 1 ½ 0 ½ ½   3.0 / 15

 

After Breslau 1912, Burn, at 63, retired from international competition. He would spend the next thirteen years for another endeavor that would enhance his chess legacy – journalism.

In 1913, Leopold Hoffer, the long-time editor of Britain’s leading chess column in The Field, passed away. The owners, aware of the fame and reputation of their column, took time and care to choose his successor and finally selected Burn.

Amos Burn | Photo: Wikipedia

Burn had to move from Liverpool to London permanently to fulfill his editorial commitments, and his thoroughness as a practical player set the standards for outstanding annotation. He continued to be a familiar figure in the strongest tournaments, no longer a participant but a reporter for The Field. In the great St. Petersburg 1914, for instance, Burn declined the invitation to play but produced more than a dozen annotated games a week and wrote detailed reports of each round. Magazines and papers the world over would quote his annotations and opinions.  

Burn passed away on November 25, 1925, when he suffered a stroke while annotating some games.

Battling the top masters of the Romantic and Classical era in his long career, Burn came to be known as an uncompromising, tough competitor. Gunsberg called him the “Invincible English Bulldog,” He certainly did not refer to Burn’s quiet and unassuming nature, but to his competitive character. Burn would tenaciously win superior positions or save lost ones. Aron Nimzowitsch, on the other hand, considered him one of the greatest defensive players of their times, along with Steinitz, Lasker, Ossip Bernstein, Oldrich Duras, and Louis Paulsen.

His association with Steinitz and preference for the slow, maneuvering game helped spread the Classical principles. As a theorist, the French Defense became one of his weapons, and he popularized the Burn Variation of the opening’s classical line. As a columnist, finally, he left outstanding annotations of hundreds of master games that are as enlightening and enjoyable today as they were back then.  

Despite being an amateur whose career overlapped with that of the old masters such as Steinitz, Chigorin, Blackburne and Gunsberg, and the modern ones such as Tarrasch, Akiba Rubinstein, Lasker, Jose Raul Capablanca, and Alexander Alekhine, Burn remains an outstanding figure of the late 19th and early 20th century chess.  

Games

1.     Blackburne vs. Burn - Blackburne builds a strong attack, but Burn turns the table with tenacious defense.

 

 

2.     Charousek vs. Burn – In another French Defense game, Burn impresses with his defensive skills.

 

 

3.     Burn vs. Bernstein – One of Burn’s finest attacking efforts. Bernstein is given no respite.

 

 

4.     Chigorin vs. Burn – Another superb attacking game, this time against the great Chigorin.  

 

 

5.     Burn vs. Steinitz – Burn displays his positional skills and outplays his former mentor, the first World Champion.

 

 

6.     Burn vs. Alekhine – Burn drags the young and future World Champion Alekhine into a Knight vs. Bad Bishop ending, and scores another fine, positional win.

 

 

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Eugene holds a degree in Bachelor of Arts, Creative Writing, which he obtained from the University of the Philippines, Diliman. Chess and writing are his passions, and one often completely absorbs him that he totally neglects the other. His other interests include classic literature, biographies, powerful memoirs, sports, and the visual arts. He spends his spare time doting on his two lovely daughters.
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