Edward Winter's Chess Explorations (57)

2/6/2011 – ‘A most extraordinary game in that the final moves were wholly unexpected’, wrote one commentator. But what is the truth about the brilliancy, with a full range of suggestions regarding the loser’s identity? And what can be discovered about a master’s painting of the spectacular conclusion? The Editor of Chess Notes looks at a miniature with a unique checkmate.

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Chess Explorations (57)

By Edward Winter

The diagrammed position on the cover of W.E. Napier’s book comes from a famous miniature won by Hermann Helms, and Napier wrote: ‘Besides brilliancy, there is a debonair flow from the first move.’ Giving the score on pages 192-193 of The Golden Treasury of Chess (Philadelphia, 1943) Francis J. Wellmuth observed: ‘A most extraordinary game in that the final moves were wholly unexpected.’

1 d4 f5 2 Nf3 Nf6 3 c4 e6 4 Nc3 b6 5 e3 Bb7 6 Bd3 Bd6 7 a3 a5 8 O-O O-O 9 Qc2 Nc6 10 e4 fxe4 11 Nxe4 Nxe4 12 Bxe4

12...Nxd4 13 Bxh7+ Kh8 14 Nxd4 Qh4 15 g3 Qxd4 16 Bd3 Rf3 17 Be3 Qe5 18 Rae1 Raf8 19 Bxb6 Qh5 20 Be3 Qh3 21 Be4

21...R8f5 22 Bxf5

22...Qg2+ 23 Kxg2 Rxg3 mate.

There are many discrepancies in the details surrounding the game. Pages 213-214 of the (truly dreadful) book Treasure Chess by B. Pandolfini (New York, 2007) stated that the opponent of ‘Herman Helms’ (Hermann is the correct spelling) was ‘Samuel Smyth’. Some sources give the surname as ‘Smith’. See, for instance, pages 183-184 of the Schachjahrbuch für 1915/16 by L. Bachmann (Ansbach, 1917), which had ‘J. Ferguson Smith’. Similarly, when the game was published on page 138 of Schnell Matt! by C. Hüther and L. Bachmann (Leipzig, 1924) White was named as ‘J.F. Smith’. On the other hand, ‘J.F. Smythe’ was the version offered when the game was included on page 185 of the July-August 1919 issue of the American Chess Bulletin (editor: H. Helms). However, that was an item reproduced from the New York Evening Post, with the moves merely incorporated within an annotation to another game.

An early appearance of the Helms miniature in a book was on pages 97-98 of Chess by David A. Mitchell (Philadelphia, 1917). He stated that White was J.F. Smyth, and a specific date for the game was given: 23 May 1915. Working backwards, we have found the score (probably its first publication) on page 3 of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 10 June 1915. Helms’ chess column in that newspaper identified White as J. Ferguson Smyth and stated that the miniature was a practice game played at the Manhattan Chess Club on 28 May 1915:

Nearly three decades later the game re-appeared in the American Chess Bulletin. A.E. Santasiere annotated Smyth v Helms on page 12 of the January-February 1943 issue, and his penultimate note read:

‘I wish our friend, the perpetrator of this deed, would relate to us the immediate reactions to this move [22...Qg2+] i.e. how did his opponent take it, the audience, etc., etc.’

Immediately afterwards, Helms elucidated:

‘The encounter was between James F. Smyth and H. Helms at the Manhattan Chess Club, then in the Carnegie Hall Building, early in this century. It was played as a practice game at the invitation of the former, who was to take part in the annual match with Philadelphia. Smyth, a transplanted Englishman, took his defeat like a good sportsman. A certified public accountant, his travels took him to the Pacific Coast, where he died in San Francisco.’

The match referred to was held in Philadelphia on 30 May 1915. Unfortunately, no player named J.F. Smyth was listed in the report on page 131 of the July-August 1915 American Chess Bulletin, although one member of the Manhattan Chess Club’s team was ‘M. Smith’.

This photograph comes from page 152 of the July-August 1917 American Chess Bulletin:


Hermann Helms

On page 50 of the February 1963 Chess Life John W. Collins wrote that in 1950 Santasiere produced an oil painting of the position preceding 22...Qg2+, and page 34 of the February 1963 Chess Review reported that the painting ‘hangs in the Marshall Chess Club’. Santasiere’s obituary on page 160 of the March 1977 Chess Life & Review related that ‘he had painted over 400 canvases’, but what details can be found about a painting depicting the Helms game?

A photograph from page 110 of the April 1943 Chess Review:


Anthony Edward Santasiere

As regards the 23-move brilliancy, the evidence currently available suggests the following:

James Ferguson Smyth v Hermann Helms
Practice game, Manhattan Chess Club, New York, 28 May 1915.


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All ChessBase articles by Edward Winter


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, over 6,930 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. Signed copies of Edward Winter's publications are currently available.


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