Edward Winter presents: Unsolved Chess Mysteries (8)

6/18/2007 – 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 puzzles?

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Unsolved Chess Mysteries (8)

By Edward Winter

Resignation quote

In C.N. 2356 Daniel King (London) asked who originated the well-known observation ‘No-one ever won a game by resigning’. It is often attributed to Savielly Tartakower, but where, if anywhere, did he write it, and was he the first?

C.N. 3374 reported that the following quote appeared on page 121 of Tartakower’s Die Hypermoderne Schachpartie (Vienna, 1924-25), in a note to Black’s 33rd move in Maróczy v Chajes, Carlsbad, 1923:

‘Der transatlantische Meister Chajes steht auf dem Standpunkt, dass man durch das Aufgeben noch keine Partie gerettet hat.’

This may be translated as ‘The transatlantic master Chajes is of the view that no player has ever saved a game by resigning’. It is unclear, though, whether Tartakower was suggesting that Chajes himself had made the remark in question.

Oscar Chajes

Healthy opponent

Another well-known quote was the subject of an enquiry by John Nunn (London) in C.N. 2051:

‘Everybody knows the chess aphorism concerning the player who commented that he had never beaten a healthy opponent, but who originally said this and what was the exact quote? I have asked several grandmasters, and received a range of answers. Most went for Tartakower, but in the back of my mind I have the idea that it was Bogoljubow.’

Pending the discovery of more details, in that item we quoted Charles Tomlinson from pages 54-55 of the February 1891 BCM:

‘Few men will admit the superiority of an opponent, and he who loses finds generally something in himself to account for defeat; or, as Löwenthal once remarked to me, “He always has a doctor‘s certificate in his pocket!”’

A number of readers subsequently referred us to an (unsubstantiated) assertion by B.H. Wood in the 1949 Illustrated London News and reprinted on page 10 of Fred Reinfeld’s The Treasury of Chess Lore (New York, 1951):

‘It was old Burn, veteran British master of the ’90s, who was heard to remark plaintively towards the end of his long life that he had never had the satisfaction of beating a perfectly healthy opponent.’

The same passage (with a repetition of the word ‘never’) was reproduced by Wood on page 78 of CHESS, January 1952, but it has proved impossible to find any link between the quote and Amos Burn. In C.N. 4187, however, we reported that page 2 of Chess Pie, 1936 had an article entitled ‘Humours of Chess’ by E.B. Osborn (‘Literary Editor of the Morning Post’). It concerned H.E. Bird (‘most lovable of all the old masters’), with whom he was personally acquainted. Osborn remarked:

‘Dear Old Bird would say that he had hardly ever beaten a healthy player.’

The question is thus whether B.H. Wood, writing over a decade later, had the Osborn article in mind but mistakenly referred to Burn instead of Bird.

Henry Edward Bird

‘Glorious massacre’

A well-known nineteenth century brilliancy:

1 e4 e5 2 d4 exd4 3 c3 dxc3 4 Bc4 cxb2 5 Bxb2 Qg5 6 Nf3 Qxg2 7 Bxf7+ Kd8 8 Rg1 Bb4+ 9 Nc3 Qh3 10 Rg3 Qh6 11 Qb3 Bxc3+ 12 Qxc3 Nf6

13 Rg6 hxg6 14 Qxf6+ gxf6 15 Bxf6 mate.

The questions discussed in C.N. 2570 were who played this game and when.

‘Paris in 1879 was the scene of this glorious massacre. Schnitzler (White) was the winner and Alexandre (Black) his unfortunate victim.’ So wrote John Walker on page 63 of 64 Things You Need to Know in Chess (London, 2002). Page 149 of Irving Chernev’s 1000 Best Short Games of Chess (New York, 1955) had ‘Berlin, 1879’, whereas some other sources state ‘1869’. The players’ names were given with a little more information (i.e. ‘G. Schnitzler’ and ‘A. Alexandre’) in J. du Mont’s 200 Miniature Games of Chess (London, 1941) – see pages 82, 282 and 285 – and, indeed, on page 28 of John Walker’s book Chess for Tomorrow’s Champions (Oxford, 1983 and London, 1995). As regards Black’s identity, it should be recalled that Aaron Alexandre died in 1850. Concerning White, there are plenty of references to, and other games by, Georg Schnitzler in the Deutsche Schachzeitung of the mid- and late-1800s. For example, page xi of the index to the 1862 volume listed him as an architect from Düsseldorf, and there was the briefest of mentions of his death (in London in 1887) in the July 1889 Deutsche Schachzeitung, page 201. The game was included in the book Chess Sparks by J.H. Ellis (London, 1895), where (page 84) the heading was ‘Played about 1879’, ‘G. Schnitzler’ and ‘Alexandre’.

Position before 5...Qg5

The game-score appeared on page 125 of Nordisches Gambit by Ingo Firnhaber (Düsseldorf, 1989) as ‘Schnitzler-Alexandre, Berlin, 1879’, whereas in the discussion of the game on pages 106-107 of Danish Gambit (Coraopolis, 1992) W. John Lutes gave ‘Paris, 1869’ and claimed that Firnhaber had put ‘Berlin, 1869’. Below, furthermore, is a puzzling remark about 5…Qg5 in Lutes’ book:

‘Alexandre’s Defense. “Recommended in 1872 by the Deutsche Schachzeitung, but clearly inferior.” du Mont: The Chess Openings Illustrated: Centre Game and Danish Gambit, 1920, page 73.’

The trouble with du Mont's statement is that far from recommending 5…Qg5, the 1872 Deutsche Schachzeitung (April issue, page 115) gave the move a question mark. That was in the game Elson-Whiteman, played in the United States. No 1872 issue seems to contain any mention of either ‘Alexandre’ or Schnitzler.

Mention may also be made of a game with 5…Qg5 (between W. Hockin and W. Searle) on page 178 of the Chess Players’ Chronicle, 1872 (where the queen move is described as ‘apparently quite untenable’), but the truth about the ‘glorious massacre’ has yet to be discovered.

The Dragon Variation

When did the term ‘Dragon Variation’ in the Sicilian Defence first appear in print? C.N. 3311 quoted from page 43 of the February-March 1925 Tijdschrift van den Nederlandschen Schaakbond. After the moves 1 e4 c5 2 d4 cxd4 3 Nf3 Nc6 4 Nxd4 Nf6 5 Nc3 d6 6 Be2 g6, H. Weenink referred to ‘De “drakevariant” van den Siciliaan’.

That, though, seems an unimpressively late citation. Can readers do better? Page 148 of Kings, Commoners and Knaves mentioned that in his autobiographical work Izbrannyye partii (Moscow, 1953) F. Dus-Chotimirsky claimed to have invented the name ‘Dragon Variation’. He stated (see pages 57-58) that his astronomy studies had led him, in 1901, to see a resemblance between the black pawn formation and ‘the pattern of Draco the Dragon in the northern sky’.

Breyer Defence in the Ruy López

C.N. 1939 requested information about the origins of the Breyer Defence in the Ruy López (1 e4 e5 2 Nf3 Nc6 3 Bb5 a6 4 Ba4 Nf6 5 0-0 Be7 6 Re1 b5 7 Bb3 d6 8 c3 0-0 9 h3 Nb8), as featured in the Fischer v Spassky matches. When did Breyer play it or write about the line? Also, when was his name first attached to it? In C.N. 2004 Iván Bottlik (Budapest) drew attention to his account on page 221 of volume three of Magyar Sakktörténet (Budapest, 1989). Below is his English translation:

‘Here is the situation regarding the puzzle of the Breyer Defence in the Ruy López. This term has been adopted by chess literature throughout the world, although no-one has so far managed to discover a game played by Breyer with 9...Nb8. There is no trace of it even in his writings. The term has become so well established that Vienna chess players told Gideon Barcza in 1955 that this move had been recommended by Breyer. (Breyer visited Vienna regularly and also played in tournaments there in 1920 and 1921.)

A 1955 text by a Viennese contemporary of Breyer, the International Master and renowned theoretician Hans Müller, contains decisive information and confirms that this variation did indeed originate with Breyer. In Schach Echo, 1955, page 247, he writes as follows in explaining a game with the move 9...Nb8: “This strange, though well thought out, retreat was first recommended by the Hungarian master G. Breyer in one of his essays as an improvement on the classical Chigorin Defence.”

In this explanation, Müller quotes from memory several of Breyer‘s observations. There is therefore no doubt that at some point he saw the essay. Unfortunately, so far neither we nor any foreign researchers into Breyer‘s life and work have been able to find any further trace.

Nevertheless, the term “Breyer Defence” can be justified by Müller’s text.’

Mr Bottlik’s letter to us added:

‘It is several years since I wrote the above, but neither I nor others have been able to make any progress whatsoever. Concerning the “essay” mentioned by Müller, it should be noted that either it existed in manuscript form and was lost (like the manuscript of Breyer’s book on the ending rook and bishop versus rook) or else it was published somewhere and remains to be discovered.’

See also page 12 of Iván Bottlik’s well-researched monograph Gyula Breyer Sein Leben, Werk und Schaffen für die Erneuerung des Schachs (Unterhaching, 1999).

Finally, below is the front cover of a small monograph on the ‘Breyer Defence’ by L.S. Blackstock and R.G. Wade:

Page 1 states regarding 9...Nb8:

‘This interesting manoeuvre was first suggested by Breyer as early as 1911 although exactly where is not clear, and it did not appear in games until the early 1950s when Borisenko and Furman did a great deal of pioneer work on the defence.’

Which beautiful game?

As reported in C.N. 2122, in section 33 of Chess Fundamentals (London, 1921) Capablanca annotated the game Janowsky v Kupchik, Havana, 1913, which began 1 d4 d5 2 c4 e6 3 Nc3 Nf6 4 Bg5 Be7 5 e3 Nbd7 6 Bd3 dxc4 7 Bxc4 Nb6. At this point the Cuban says that the normal course, 7...0-0 followed by 8...c5, is more reasonable and he recommends as a ‘beautiful illustration of how to play White in that variation’ the game between Janowsky and Rubinstein, St Petersburg, 1914.

Since that encounter began 1 d4 d5 2 Nf3 c5 3 c4 e6 4 e3 Nf6 5 Bd3 Nc6 6 0-0 dxc4 7 Bxc4 a6 8 Nc3 b5 9 Bd3 cxd4 10 exd4 Nb4 and was won by Black, who did not castle until his 17th move, it would seem that Capablanca was thinking of a different game. But which one?

Below is an inscription by Capablanca in one of our copies of his Havana, 1913 tournament book:

1,000-game simultaneous display

From the ‘Simultaneous Display’ entry in Harry Golombek’s The Encyclopedia of Chess (London, 1977 and Harmondsworth, 1981):

‘It is also reported that a certain Dr Backer played 1,000 games in San Francisco, 1938 with the result +343 –138 =519.’

Golombek’s words appeared in the section on exhibitions given on a replacement basis (i.e. with new games beginning as others are completed).

Whether such a display ever occurred was a question raised in C.N. 899 by Hugh Myers (Davenport, IA, USA), who pointed out that ‘Backer’ is usually given as ‘Basker’. Our correspondent quoted from page 122 of the March 1938 BCM (of which Golombek was then the General Editor):

‘San Francisco. A certain Dr Basker has succeeded in performing the herculean task of playing 1,000 boards simultaneously. His results were (after four days’ play) 343 wins, 138 losses and 519 draws.’

As noted in C.N. 3230, the story was widely reported. For example, the following appeared on page 100 of the Australasian Chess Review, 30 April 1938:

‘A certain Dr Basker, of San Francisco, is reported to have played 1,000 games simultaneously. After four days’ play, he finished up with a score of 343-137 [sic], and 519 draws. We assume that his opponents came along in relays or waves, with day and night shifts.’

Finally, from page 337 of CHESS, 14 June 1938:

‘Several magazines and journals have reported that a certain Dr Basker, of San Francisco, has played 1,000 opponents simultaneously, winning (after four days’ play) 343, drawing 519, losing 138. We believe the whole thing is a hoax.’

Whether this ‘certain’ Dr Basker ever existed is uncertain.

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

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    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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?

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