Edward Winter presents: Unsolved Chess Mysteries (10)

by ChessBase
7/18/2007 – Did Tsar Nicholas II award the ‘grandmaster’ title to the five finalists of St Petersburg, 1914? What connection exists between the Morphy family and Murphy beer? Can the full score of one of Pillsbury’s most famous brilliancies be found? Did a 1940s game repeat a position composed 1,000 years previously? Edward Winter, the Editor of Chess Notes, presents new mysteries for us to solve.

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Unsolved Chess Mysteries (10)

By Edward Winter

The five grandmasters

The term ‘grandmaster’ can be traced back to the first half of the nineteenth century, but a particular mystery concerns the well-known story of the grandmaster title being conferred by Tsar Nicholas II upon Lasker, Capablanca, Alekhine, Tarrasch and Marshall for being the finalists at St Petersburg, 1914. The claim appeared on page 21 of Marshall’s book My Fifty Years of Chess (New York, 1942), but already in an article ‘Things I Never Knew’ on page 149 of Chess Review, October 1940 Fred Reinfeld quoted the following passage from an article by Robert Lewis Taylor in The New Yorker of 15 June 1940:

‘[A grandmaster] is a master who has either won, placed, or showed in a major tournament or been named a Grand Master by Tsar Nicholas II of Russia. The Tsar, it seems, was a rather arbitrary chess fan who enjoyed watching matches, and when he saw a player he liked the looks of, he just slapped the title on him.’

Had the story about the Tsar appeared in print before then? For background details, see pages 315-316 of Kings, Commoners and Knaves and pages 177-178 of A Chess Omnibus.

St Petersburg, 1914 (Deutsches Wochenschach, 7 June 1914) Click to enlarge

C.N. 2139 noted that page 119 of the second volume of Complete Games of Alekhine by V. Fiala and J. Kalendovský (Olomouc, 1996) offered a strange twist by quoting an interview with Alekhine in El Debate of 28 May 1922. Asked whether he had started to play chess at a very early age, he replied:

‘I have played chess since the age of seven and when I was 14 I was named a master by the Tsar himself when I won the national tournament in St Petersburg.’

For 14 read 16. The event in question was the St Petersburg, 1909 All-Russian tournament, but is there any more evidence of the Tsar’s involvement in that event than there is, at present, concerning St Petersburg, 1914?

Tailpiece: On page 265 of Chess Digest Magazine, December 1974 a chess writer not famed for accuracy stated: ‘Czar Nicholas I coined the title of “Grandmaster” when he sponsored the great St Petersburg tournament in 1914.’ Nicholas I lived from 1796 to 1855.

Problem picture

C.N. 2716 quoted from page 179 of the 7 November 1908 Chess Weekly:

‘In the Manhattan Chess Club there is a picture of an old man apparently trying to solve a chess problem. The position on his board is:

There is a mate in six here by 1 Be4 f5 2 b3 f4 (if 2…fxe4 3 knight mates) 3 c5 f3 4 Bc6 e4 5 Nf7 e3 6 fxe3 mate. Can anyone find a shorter mate? Incidentally, this is one of a very few chess pictures in which there is a sane position on the pictured board. Usually there are two white kings or a king is two or three times in check.’

The Weekly missed the point of the composition, which is a mate in four (1 Be4 f5 2 Ke1, etc.). Can further information be discovered about the problem or the picture?

Morphy and beer

In October 1994 Hassan Roger Sadeghi (Lausanne, Switzerland) sent us a beer-mat (Murphy’s Irish Stout) and pointed out that the coat-of-arms was identical to that of Morphy’s family.

The black and white illustration above comes from page 2 of Life of Paul Morphy in the Vieux Carré of New-Orleans and Abroad by Regina Morphy-Voitier (New Orleans, 1926), where the family coat-of-arms is described as follows:

‘Morphy, alias Murphy. Quarterly argent and gules; four lions rampant interchanged, over all on a Fesse Sable three garbs or, Crest; a lion rampant holding a garb. (No Motto.)’

Can anything more be discovered about the connection between Morphy, Murphy and beer?

Pillsbury’s single bishop mate

A famous win by Pillsbury (Black) was discussed in C.N. 2910 (see pages 261-262 of Chess Facts and Fables):

Play went 1 Qh4 Qf7 2 Bxe4 Qf1+ 3 Bg1 Qf3+ 4 Bxf3 Bxf3 mate.

No precise information is available on the opponent’s name, the date or the venue. Page 115 of Queen Sacrifice by I. Neishtadt (Oxford, 1991) stated that the game was played in a blindfold simultaneous display. Page 73 of Blunders and Brilliancies by I. Mullen and M. Moss (Oxford, 1990) claimed that it occurred in a simultaneous exhibition in the United States in 1902, whereas page 253 of Harry Nelson Pillsbury American Chess Champion by Jacques N. Pope (Ann Arbor, 1996) – which is by far the best-researched book on the American master – reported that the occasion was a knight odds game in 1899 and that the position appeared in the Literary Digest of 25 November 1899.

It seems that chess periodicals of the time were inattentive to Pillsbury’s unique combination. As mentioned in C.N. 2940, it appeared on page 208 of the December 1901 issue of Checkmate, but, otherwise, the first instance we have found of the position being given star billing in a chess magazine comes after Pillsbury’s death, on page 16 of the January 1907 BCM:

‘Mr W.E. Napier recently gave in his column in the Pittsburgh Dispatch (USA) the following diagram which illustrates Pillsbury’s pet position. The play is so piquant and the finale so charming that we are not surprised to learn that the position was a favourite with Mr Pillsbury. We have, of course, seen text-book examples of mate with a single bishop, but we do not recollect having before met with a specimen from actual play. Mr Napier says:

“There was nothing on the chessboard that used to amuse Pillsbury so much as the appended position which occurred in one of his simultaneous exhibitions. I have seen him show it repeatedly, with infinite relish for its humour. It is the sort of hair-breadth escape that he, as, indeed, all master players, would contrive in exhibition play. He chuckled more over this situation than anything he ever ‘brought off’, and was always fond of talking about the career of his ‘lone bishop’.”’

Harry Nelson Pillsbury (sketch from life by Mrs G.A. Anderson, Chess Pie, 1922, page 66)

If the position arose shortly before its appearance in the Literary Digest of 25 November 1899 this suggests a game from Pillsbury’s tour of the United States that autumn. In case readers suitably placed can undertake research in the local newspapers, we therefore give below the dates of Pillsbury’s displays during the first part of that tour, as gleaned from the final two issues of the American Chess Magazine, October-November 1899 (pages 158-160) and December 1899 (pages 233-235):

October (exact dates?): Philadelphia, PA
20 October: Bridgeport, CT
21 October: Brooklyn, NY
23 October: Somerville, MA
26 October: Winooski, VT
27 October: Springfield, MA
30 October: Providence, RI
4 November: Bayonne, NJ
9 November: Philadelphia, PA
13 November: Washington, DC.

Zukertort’s quiet winning move

As reported in C.N. 2612, the Brooklyn Chess Chronicle (15 January 1886, page 56) had this win by Zukertort against an unnamed opponent: 1 e4 e5 2 Nc3 Nf6 3 f4 d6 4 Nf3 Nc6 5 Bc4 Bg4 6 O-O Be7 7 d3 Nh5 8 fxe5 Nxe5 9 Nxe5 Bxd1 10 Bxf7+ Kf8 11 Bxh5+ Bf6 12 Rxf6+ gxf6 13 Bh6+ Ke7 14 Nd5+ Ke6 15 Bf7+ Kxe5

16 c3 Resigns.

The occasion is said to have been an 11-board blindfold simultaneous display in Ottawa in 1884. Moves 8-16 were given on page 90 of the November 1885 Chess Monthly (which was co-edited by Hoffer and Zukertort) as being from ‘a game played simultaneously blindfold with 11 others in January 1884, at Ottawa, at the meeting of the Canadian Chess Association’. Even so, many other sources, such as page 188 of Irving Chernev’s 1000 Best Short Games of Chess (New York, 1955), give the occasion as ‘Leipzig, 1877’. Can anyone iron out the discrepancy?

Lasker v Capablanca, 1921

The illustration below comes from page 75 of the April 1921 issue of La Stratégie:

C.N.s 814 and 2470 drew attention to the strange claim that on 26 April 1921 Capablanca scored a fifth win (a Queen’s Gambit Declined) in 25 moves. Of course, the final match score was +4 –0 =10, and there were only 14 games, but we are still unable to answer the question raised in C.N. 814: how did La Stratégie come up with a 15th?

Repetition of position?

C.N. 3168 quoted The Oxford Companion to Chess by D. Hooper and K. Whyld (first edition, page 321, in the entry on ‘Spurious Games’):

‘Equally false is the claim made by I. Chernev in The Fireside Book of Chess (1949) that [a position given by the Companion in the Forsyth notation] occurred in a game Jørgensen-Sørensen, 1945. White mates in three beginning 1 Nh5+ Rxh5 2 Rxg6+. How could the players possibly have arrived at such an unusual position? In fact this is a 9th-century mansuba by al-‘Adlī.'

In reality, the Fireside Book (co-authored by F. Reinfeld and I. Chernev, with no indication as to which of them wrote which parts) itself mentioned the ninth-century precedent. Indeed, that was the very purpose of the Americans’ item, which appeared on page 84 of their anthology:

‘Do you believe in reincarnation of chess ideas? The diagram shows a position which occurred in a game played in 1945 between Jorgensen and Sorensen. This identical position is described by al-Adli in an Arabian manuscript dating back to the ninth century!

Jorgensen mated in three moves (thereby solving al-Adli’s problem) by 1 Nh5+ Rxh5 2 Rxg6+ Kxg6 3 Re6 mate!’

On pages 110-111 of an earlier book, Challenge To Chessplayers (Philadelphia, 1947), Reinfeld gave the same position with the same players named but, this time, with the caption ‘Storkovenhagen, 1945’. That appears to be a misspelling/miscopying of Storkøbenhavn (i.e. Greater Copenhagen) and suggests that Reinfeld took the position from a Danish source. But, if so, which? Incidentally, whereas his Fireside book referred to ‘this identical position’, in Challenge To Chessplayers Reinfeld wrote: ‘The position is almost [our italics] identical with the setting of a problem composed 1,000 years ago.’

The Companion was certainly right to ask how such a position could have occurred in actual play (what might Black’s last move have been?), but the truth about the alleged coincidence has yet to be established. In C.N. 3068 Calle Erlandsson (Lund, Sweden) pointed out that the ninth-century al-‘Adlī position was given by Poul Hage on page 455 of Alt om Skak by B. Nielsen and A. Christensen (Odense, 1943), i.e. just two years before the two Danish-sounding players were purported to have had the same position in a game. Our correspondent added that the Danish magazine Skakbladet published no Jorgensen v Sorensen game in either 1945 or 1946. On the other hand, we have noted that in 1946 Chess Review published two games by a player named (F.A.) Sorensen of Pittsburgh and that on page 470 of the May 1899 American Chess Magazine Samuel Tinsley stated that a very similar position had been ‘published in the Glasgow Herald in 1894 as a fine ending from actual play recently. It is fair to state that Mr Forsyth pointed the whole thing out at once in the Glasgow Herald’.

Can a reader find out exactly what the Herald published, or shed light on any aspect of the affair?


A report in CHESS, 14 October 1936 (page 60) regarding the Philadelphia, 1936 tournament was quoted in C.N. 3029:

‘In his game with Santasiere, Fox made a three-move combination to win a pawn, and when he grasped it victoriously, lo and behold it turned out to be one of his own pawns. Certainly one of the most remarkable tricks fatigue has ever played on a participant in a gruelling tournament.’

Can the game-score be found?

Submit information or suggestions on chess mysteries

Edward Winter is the editor of Chess Notes, which was founded in January 1982 as "a forum for aficionados to discuss all matters relating to the Royal Pastime". Since then around 5,000 items have been published, and the series has resulted in four books by Winter: Chess Explorations (1996), Kings, Commoners and Knaves (1999), A Chess Omnibus (2003) and Chess Facts and Fables (2006). He is also the author of a monograph on Capablanca (1989).

Chess Notes is well known for its historical research, and anyone browsing in its archives will find a wealth of unknown games, accounts of historical mysteries, quotes and quips, and other material of every kind imaginable. Correspondents from around the world contribute items, and they include not only "ordinary readers" but also some eminent historians – and, indeed, some eminent masters. Chess Notes is located at the Chess History Center.

Articles by Edward Winter

  • Edward Winter presents: Unsolved Chess Mysteries (1)
    14.02.2007 – Since Chess Notes began, over 25 years ago, hundreds of mysteries and puzzles have been discussed, with many of them being settled satisfactorily, often thanks to readers. Some matters, though, have remained stubbornly unsolvable – at least so far – and a selection of these is presented here. Readers are invited to join in the hunt for clues.

  • Edward Winter presents: Unsolved Chess Mysteries (2)
    12.03.2007 – We bring you a further selection of intriguing chess mysteries from Chess Notes, including the origins of the Marshall Gambit, a game ascribed to both Steinitz and Pillsbury and the bizarre affair of an alleged blunder by Capablanca in Chess Fundamentals. Once again our readers are invited to join the hunt for clues.

  • Edward Winter presents: Unsolved Chess Mysteries (3)
    27.03.2007 – Recently-discovered photographs from one of Alekhine’s last tournaments, in Spain in 1945, are proving baffling. Do they show that a 15-move brilliancy commonly attributed to Alekhine is spurious? And do they disprove claims that another of his opponents was an 11-year-old boy? Chess Notes investigates, and once again our readers are invited to join in the hunt for clues.

  • Edward Winter presents: Unsolved Chess Mysteries (4)
    10.04.2007 – What would have happened if the score of the 1927 Capablanca v Alekhine match had reached 5-5? Would the contest have been declared drawn? The affair has been examined in depth in Chess Notes. Here chess historian Edward Winter sifts and summarizes the key evidence. There is also the strange case of a fake photograph of the two masters. Join the investigation.

  • Edward Winter presents: Unsolved Chess Mysteries (5)
    30.04.2007 – We bring you a further selection of mysteries from Edward Winter’s Chess Notes, including an alleged game by Stalin, some unexplained words attributed to Morphy, a chess magazine of which no copy can be found, a US champion whose complete name is uncertain, and another champion who has vanished without trace. Our readers are invited to join in the hunt for clues.

  • Edward Winter presents: Unsolved Chess Mysteries (6)
    19.05.2007 – A further miscellany of mysteries from Chess Notes is presented by the chess historian Edward Winter. They include an alleged tournament game in which Black was mated at move three, the unclear circumstances of a master’s suicide, a chess figure who was apparently unaware of his year of birth, the book allegedly found beside Alekhine’s body in 1946, and the chess notes of the poet Rupert Brooke. Join in the hunt for clues.

  • Edward Winter presents: Unsolved Chess Mysteries (7)
    02.06.2007 – The chess historian Edward Winter presents another selection of mysteries from Chess Notes. They include an alleged game by Albert Einstein, the origin of the Trompowsky Opening, the termination of the 1984-85 world championship match, and the Marshall brilliancy which supposedly prompted a shower of gold coins. Readers are invited to join in the hunt for clues.

  • Edward Winter presents: Unsolved Chess Mysteries (8)
    In this further selection from Chess Notes historian Edward Winter examines some unauthenticated quotes, the Breyer Defence to the Ruy López, the origins of the Dragon Variation, the contradictory evidence about a nineteenth century brilliancy, and the alleged 1,000-board exhibition by an unknown player. Can our readers help to solve these new chess mysteries?

  • Edward Winter presents: Unsolved Chess Mysteries (9)
    Why did Reuben Fine withdraw from the 1948 world championship? Did Capablanca lose an 11-move game to Mary Bain? Was Staunton criticized by Morphy for playing ‘some devilish bad games’? Did Alekhine play Najdorf blindfold? Was Tartakower a parachutist? These and other mysteries from Chess Notes are discussed by Edward Winter. Readers are invited to join in the hunt for clues.

  • Edward Winter presents: Unsolved Chess Mysteries (10)
    15.07.2007 – Did Tsar Nicholas II award the ‘grandmaster’ title to the five finalists of St Petersburg, 1914? What connection exists between the Morphy family and Murphy beer? Can the full score of one of Pillsbury’s most famous brilliancies be found? Did a 1940s game repeat a position composed 1,000 years previously? Edward Winter, the Editor of Chess Notes, presents new mysteries for us to solve.

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