Edward Winter presents: Unsolved Chess Mysteries (11)

by ChessBase
8/1/2007 – Did Alekhine attempt suicide in 1922? Why is 1 b4 often called the Hunt Opening? What are the origins of the chess proverb about the gnat and the elephant? Does Gone with the Wind include music composed by a chess theoretician? These and other mysteries from Chess Notes are discussed by the historian Edward Winter. Readers are invited to join the hunt for clues.

ChessBase 17 - Mega package - Edition 2024 ChessBase 17 - Mega package - Edition 2024

It is the program of choice for anyone who loves the game and wants to know more about it. Start your personal success story with ChessBase and enjoy the game even more.


Unsolved Chess Mysteries (11)

By Edward Winter

Blackmar the composer

From the 1939 film Gone with the Wind

From pages 8-9 of the Chess Digest publication Blackmar-Diemer Gambit edited by K. Smith and J. Jacobs (Dallas, 1977):

‘Blackmar himself seems the epitome of the Southern gentleman: Born on 30 May 1826 in Bennington, Vermont, he later moved to Jackson, Louisiana, where by 1845 he was a Professor of Music at Centenary College. In 1856, Blackmar opened the first piano and music store in Jackson, Mississippi. Four years later, in 1860, he founded together with his brother a music publishing house in New Orleans. There, Blackmar arranged and/or published a number of famous songs of the Confederacy, among them The Bonnie Blue Flag, The Dixie War Song and The Southern Marseillaise. One of his own compositions later became a part of the musical score to the Clark Gable-Vivien Leigh film version of Gone with the Wind. Blackmar was also an able, enthusiastic chessplayer and a charter member of the Chess, Checker and Whist Club of New Orleans.’

Gary Lane, who was writing his own monograph on the Blackmar-Diemer Gambit, asked in C.N. 2063 whether the claim about Gone with the Wind was true. As indicated in C.N. 2199, we have no details, even after contacting the Chess Digest editor, the late Ken Smith. In reply to our enquiry about the source of the information in his 1977 book Mr Smith replied, ‘Don’t remember’, ‘All information I had was given’ and, even more disconcertingly, ‘I don’t know what book this is. Anyway I have no copy’.

C.N. 3753 mentioned that our collection contained two (undated) musical scores: Gavotte Moderne (published by Blackmar & Co., 647 Market St., San Francisco) and The Songs and Ballads of Mlle Parepa (published by A.E. Blackmar, 167 Canal Street, New Orleans):


C.N. 3800 reported an earlier reference to A.E. Blackmar and Gone with the Wind, on page 3 of Discover The Blackmar-Diemer Gambit, volume 1 by Anders Tejler (Dallas, 1971), a book for which Ken Smith was billed as the editor:

‘Armand Edward Blackmar was born in Bennington, Vt. on 30 May 1826. By 1845 he was Professor of Music at Centennary [sic] College, Jackson, La. In 1856 he founded the first piano and music store in Jackson, Miss. By 1860 he and his brother opened a music publishing house in New Orleans, La. Here was published a famous song of the Confederacy: The Bonnie Blue Flag. Blackmar arranged the music for various songs, including the Dixie War Song and the Southern Marseillaise. When New Orleans was taken in 1862, Blackmar remained in the city; his brother, H.C. Blackmar, continued publishing patriotic music for the Confederacy in Augusta, Ga. At the end of the Civil War, the music house of Blackmar was confiscated and he was subjected to a heavy fine. One of Blackmar’s musical compositions was heard in the music to the film Gone with the Wind. Blackmar died in New Orleans on 28 October 1888. He was not only an eminent pianist but also a very good violinist. He was a chess expert, a charter member of the Chess, Checkers and Whist Club of New Orleans.’

Can these statements (similar, but not identical, to the passage quoted above) be corroborated?

Not Capablanca

Small photographs of chess personalities frequently appeared at the top of pages of the Chess Amateur, and C.N. 3636 noted that the September 1910 issue (page 354) had the following:

This is evidently not Capablanca, but how did the mix-up occur?

On the subject of Capablanca, page 176 of A Chess Omnibus reproduced from page 48 of Chess Pie, 1922 a photograph of the problemist Antonio Bottacchi (1900-1969) which, we suggested, bore quite a resemblance to the Cuban:

This picture of Bottacchi may be compared with a photograph of Capablanca (seated in centre) which C.N. 4741 reproduced with permission from page 102 of San Sebastián 1911: El primer SuperTorneo de Ajedrez by Máximo López (Sta Eulalia de Morcin, 2006):

Click to enlarge

We have sought other photographs of Bottacchi, and in C.N. 4217 Michael McDowell (Westcliff-on-sea, England) pointed out that there was a small one in the ‘Good Companion Chess Board No. 2’ in The Good Companion Two-Mover by G. Hume and A.C. White (Stroud, 1922). He also commented:

‘In September 2005 the Italian problemist Oscar Bonivento published a collection of Bottacchi’s problems, Realismo e Romanticismo nell’arte problemistica di Antonio Bottacchi in 432 problemi commentati. It contains four photographs of him. Two of them confirm a certain resemblance between the young Bottacchi and the young Capablanca, although this disappeared over time as the former became rather portly.’

The Hunt Opening

In C.N. 4009 Marek Soszynski (Birmingham, England) asked:

‘Are there any games extant by Joseph Hunt (1851-1920) supporting his being described as “The Originator of the Hunt Opening (1 b4)”?’

Joseph William Hunt

We observed that it was in the 1890s that the opening gained in familiarity (after Schlechter’s quick defeat of Fleissig in 1893, a famous game often misdated 1895), but at that time the heading ‘Irregular Opening’ was generally used. Hunt’s name was associated with 1 b4 only occasionally (e.g. on page 203 of La Stratégie, 15 July 1895). On the other hand, neither the obituary of Hunt in the BCM (July 1920, page 227) nor the autobiographical feature on pages 384-387 of the September 1902 issue mentioned the opening. The latter item does, however, contain the following information:

‘The only public tournament I ever entered was that of the Counties’ Chess Association, held at Oxford. There I was fortunate enough to draw with the Revs. Owen and Skipworth, and beat Trenchard, though I was nowhere after all.’

That tournament was in 1891, but did Hunt play 1 b4 in any of his games?

The most famous quote about chess?

A candidate for the most famous of all quotes on the game is ‘Chess is a sea in which a gnat may drink and an elephant may bathe’, but is it authentic? C.N. 3587 observed that although this ‘Indian proverb’ may have an ancient ring to it, we had found no appearance in chess literature until Norman Knight gave it on page 145 of his anthology Chess Pieces (London, 1949). It was then picked up by other writers (e.g. by Irving Chernev, on the inside front cover of Chess Review, September 1950 as the ‘thought for the month’).

In C.N. 4498 Christian Sánchez (Rosario, Argentina) reported that a similar quote, claimed to be an ‘old Indian proverb’, was given by George Koltanowski at the start of an article on pages 154-157 of the May 1936 issue of El Ajedrez Español:

‘La partida de ajedrez es como el Océano, donde un mosquito puede cruzar y un elefante puede ahogarse.’

As our correspondent pointed out, this has a different meaning: ‘The game of chess is like the ocean, which a gnat may cross and where an elephant may drown.’ It is not known in which language Koltanowski wrote his article for El Ajedrez Español or, of course, whether the ‘old Indian proverb’ had appeared in print before May 1936.

The whole subject is murky. N. Knight’s above-mentioned book had a chapter entitled ‘Chess in Proverb’, which contained 14 alleged specimens. Among the others were:

  • ‘Though thine antagonist be an ant, imagine he were an elephant (Turkish Proverb)’;
  • ‘You may knock your opponent down with the chessboard, but that does not prove you the better player (English Proverb)’;
  • ‘Three common things of the world, – A Wife, a Chess-board and a Harp (Welsh Proverb)’;
  • ‘One gets to know people well when playing at chess and on journeys (Russian Proverb)’.

Combinational miniature

‘There never was a game so short but so extraordinary in combinational content. Arthur Feuerstein, an exceptionally talented master, gives us this gem.’ So wrote William Lombardy when introducing the following game on pages 273-274 of Modern Chess Opening Traps (New York, 1972):

1 d4 Nf6 2 c4 c6 3 d5 cxd5 4 cxd5 g6 5 Nc3 Qa5 6 g3 Ne4 7 Qd4 Nxc3 8 Bd2 Qxd5 9 Qxc3 Nc6 10 Qxh8 Nd4 11 Rc1 Qxh1 12 Qxd4 Qxg1

13 Qxa7 Resigns.

Quoting this in C.N. 3401 we noted that no details of the occasion of the game were supplied by Lombardy but that on page 381 of the December 1955 Chess Review John W. Collins’ ‘Postal Games’ column presented it as having been played by A. Feuerstein and J.E. Bennett. It also appeared on page 103 of Modern Chess Miniatures by L. Barden and W. Heidenfeld (London, 1960), as ‘Feuerstein-Bennett, New York, 1955’. However, a number of databases give it as a 1954 correspondence game in England between Peter James Oakley and W. Nash.

In C.N. 3404 Aben Rudy (Scottsdale, AZ, USA) reported that he had brought our item to the attention of Arthur Feuerstein, a lifelong friend. Mr Feuerstein recalled winning the 1955 postal game against Bennett and commented:

‘This was probably my first “brilliancy”. How odd that the identical game was played in 1954. I certainly had no knowledge of it at the time.’

What can be discovered about Oakley v Nash?

Did Alekhine attempt suicide?

Alexander Alekhine

C.N. 790 (see pages 119-120 and 263 of Chess Explorations), reported on a claim that shortly before the Vienna, 1922 tournament Alekhine tried to kill himself. On 27 June 1984 the late James J. Barrett (Buffalo, NY, USA) wrote to us:

‘Did you know that Alekhine once plunged a knife into his abdomen while in a hotel lobby, in the presence of his friend Edmond Lancel? I have never seen a reference to this episode in all the Alekhine material I have read.’

Edmond Lancel

Mr Barrett subsequently provided particulars, i.e. an extract from Lancel’s article about Alekhine on pages 1152-1153 of the April 1946 issue of L’Echiquier Belge. Below is the relevant passage, in our translation:

‘Alekhine took a few days off to rest in Aachen, where I was staying. Since the beginning of the year, we had been together on several occasions. We spent the evening of his birthday together at the Hotel Corneliusbad. He confided in me, talked to me about his life and showed me pictures of people close to him. We played, as we often did, several training games in preparation for the important Vienna tournament, which was to take place from 13 November to 2 December. Around three o’clock in the morning, without any warning whatsoever, in the grand hall of the hotel which was deserted except for my partner and myself, Alekhine suddenly tried to commit suicide in a moment of despair by stabbing himself in the stomach, and fell unconscious at my feet. I alerted the people at the hotel; the director, doctor, ambulance and police were summoned. The situation appeared extremely serious, and Alekhine did not regain consciousness. However, thanks to the rapid and energetic intervention of those called, he came around and a few days later he had recovered. Nonetheless, this incident was significant, occurring as it did shortly before the Vienna tournament. I did my best to dissuade my old friend from participating, for I was sure that he would not do well. My efforts were in vain; he insisted on playing ...’

Can any corroboration of this story be found?

Submit information or suggestions on chess mysteries

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.

  • Edward Winter presents: Unsolved Chess Mysteries (11)
    Did Alekhine attempt suicide in 1922? Why is 1 b4 often called the Hunt Opening? What are the origins of the chess proverb about the gnat and the elephant? Who was the unidentified figure wrongly labelled Capablanca by a chess magazine? Does Gone with the Wind include music composed by a chess theoretician? These and other mysteries from Chess Notes are discussed by the historian Edward Winter. Readers are invited to join the hunt for clues.

Reports about chess: tournaments, championships, portraits, interviews, World Championships, product launches and more.


Rules for reader comments


Not registered yet? Register