Joys of Chess – the most over-rated move

by Prof. Christian Hesse
9/13/2013 – Christian Hesse, PhD from Harvard and Professor of Mathematics, is an avid chess fan and has written many an article for our news page. As a book author he has been successful with entertaining works on chess. Here's an interesting chapter he wrote on one of the most famous moves of chess history: Marshall's 23...Qg3!!! in 1912. Does it really deserve three exclams? Prof. Hesse thinks not.

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The most over-rated move

Taste can be trained only by reflecting not on what was reasonably good, but on what was truly great. For that reason I shall show you only the best works; and when you are well-versed in them, you can evaluate all the others without over-estimating them. – Goethe

There are who knows how many collections of the most fascinating, the greatest, the most spectacular, the most beautiful, etc. moves ever played. In his list The 110 Most Fantastic Moves Ever Played chess columnist Tim Krabbé awards third place to the move 23...Qg3, played in 1912 at the 18th Congress of the German Chess Society by Frank Marshall against Stepan Levitsky, as in the diagram.

Levitsky,Stepan Mikhailovich - Marshall,Frank James [C10]
Breslau, 1912
1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 c5 4.Nf3 Nc6 5.exd5 exd5 6.Be2 Nf6 7.0-0 Be7 8.Bg5 0-0 9.dxc5 Be6 10.Nd4 Bxc5 11.Nxe6 fxe6 12.Bg4 Qd6 13.Bh3 Rae8 14.Qd2 Bb4 15.Bxf6 Rxf6 16.Rad1 Qc5 17.Qe2 Bxc3 18.bxc3 Qxc3 19.Rxd5 Nd4 20.Qh5 Ref8 21.Re5 Rh6 22.Qg5 Rxh3 23.Rc5

23...Qg3 0-1.

In 1998 the publisher of the British Chess Magazine, GM Murray Chandler, published the list of the 10 Most Amazing Chess Moves Ever Played on the Board. In this anthology Marshall’s move even takes first place. So, according to Chandler, it is the most amazing move ever played in a game. Harold Schonberg wrote in his book Grandmasters of Chess: ‘It was Marshall who played one of the most sensational moves in chess history.’ All these are weighty expressions of opinion. The non-verbal expression of opinion ‘!!!’ is that of the grandmasters and chess book authors Soltis and Fine.

Here we should like to be somewhat heretical and set our opinion against all of these connoisseurs, authorities and eminent judges. We shall demonstrate why it is somewhat necessary to detract from all the laudatory comments which have been showered on Marshall’s 23...Qg3. Quite deliberately and to stir things up, we shall award the move a superlative of a very different sort, that of the most frequently and most strongly over-rated move in the whole history of chess.

How can one think this? Let us first look at the lively formation with the critical eyes of the devil’s advocate. White, who is attempting to restore the material balance, has just attacked the black queen with his rook. Thus the first thing a player of the black pieces would naturally consider is finding a new post for his queen. At first glance not many squares would make much sense, perhaps a3, b4 or b2. Any one of these queen moves, moreover, brings Black a winning advantage, since the impertinent black rook cannot be captured on account of 24...Nf3+ winning the queen, and so it can save itself. One would even be correct in claiming that there are half a dozen winning moves here. Among these are 23...Qe3 and 23...Ne2+. These reflections are elementary and made in mere seconds.

A second look at the position reveals in addition that Black can even mount an attack on the king off the cuff. Both the knight and the black queen can head for the white king – the knight with check on e2, the queen with a mating threat from g3. Analysing the latter move only three moves deep, we find the variation: 23...Qg3 24.Qxg3 Ne2+ 25.Kh1 Nxg3+ 26.Kg1 Ne2+ and Black wins. Both 24.hxg3 and 24.fxg3 are refuted by Black in one or two moves. So White’s best reaction is 24.Qxg3 and in this variation Black remains a knight up. Marshall’s move is therefore not the start of some fireworks but an ingenious exchange of queens in a position in which Black is a knight ahead. If only it had at least forced mate!

A temporary conclusion: the facts that there is a collection of winning recipes, that the whole conception is not very deep – it merely consists of two or three-movers – and that mate is not achieved are shortcomings that in my opinion speak against awarding it a high or even the highest of evaluations.

Marshall’s move could perhaps still be rated highly for originality. But in the strictest sense of the term, we cannot consider the originality to be there. A merely superficial search of previous games from the history of chess rapidly uncovers some earlier examples of a queen appearing on g3 or g6 in front of a row of three opposing pawns and thus forcing victory. We have even met one example of this in the chapter on immortality. It is the move 18.Qxg6!!! from the game Fox-Bauer (Antwerp 1901). Here are two more illustrations of the theme:

[Event "Karlsbad"] [Site "?"] [Date "1896.??.??"] [Round "?"] [White "Tietz"] [Black "Maader"] [Result "1-0"] [SetUp "1"] [FEN "4r1k1/2p1bppp/1p4n1/1n1N1qPQ/1PR5/1B6/8/3R2K1 w - - 0 1"] [PlyCount "7"] [SourceDate "2013.09.11"] {Black seems to be doing quite well - he has three pawns for the exchange and his king has a fortress which can stand up to anything. But White had a different take on the position. And he was correct! After} 1. Qxg6 $3 {Black almost fell from his chair.} ({The only alternative} 1. Nxe7+ {heads into uncertain territory after} Nxe7 2. Rf1 Qg6 3. Qxg6 Nxg6 4. Rc5 {[%cal Rb3f7, Yf1f7]} Nd6 5. Rxc7) {Here too there are three ways to capture the white queen. Black chose:} 1... hxg6 ({However, a more stubborn line was} 1... Qe5 2. Qh5 Bxg5 3. Qh2 Be3+ {after which there is an advantage for White, but it would be wearisome to convert it.}) ({After} 1... Qxd5 2. Rxd5 hxg6 3. Rxb5) ({and especially after} 1... fxg6 2. Nxe7+ Kf8 3. Nxf5 gxf5 4. Rd5) ({or} 1... Qxg6 2. Nxe7+ Kf8 3. Nxg6+ hxg6 4. Rd5 {White's advantage is even greater.}) 2. Nxe7+ Rxe7 3. Rd8+ Kh7 4. Rh4# 1-0

Accepting that this queen move, since it is a capture, is not up there in terms of beauty with Marshall’s move, it does nevertheless rob it of its status as the first-born. And in the earlier history of chess there is another variation of the move which does not involve a capture. That is our second example:

[Event "Berlin"] [Site "?"] [Date "1898.??.??"] [Round "?"] [White "N.N."] [Black "Caro"] [Result "0-1"] [SetUp "1"] [FEN "3r4/kbq2pp1/pb2p1p1/7n/B7/1PP5/1QP2PPP/RN3RK1 b - - 0 1"] [PlyCount "7"] [SourceDate "2013.09.11"] {Caro also wins here with a lionhearted leap of the queen against the wall of pawns:} 1... Qg3 $3 {A lovely piece of diagonal work by the queen, who does not put on the brakes until she is right in front of the palace guard. At the same time it is the best move and sets up mate in five moves.} 2. hxg3 ({Or} 2. Bc6 Qxf2+ 3. Rxf2 Rd1#) {Unlike Marshall, Caro even still had to find a quiet and beautiful continuation to achieve a rapid mate:} 2... Rh8 $1 3. Bc6 Nxg3 4. Rxa6+ Bxa6 {and the knock out on the next move with 5...Rh1#. Unlike in Marshall's situation, the winning move brings about mate in the quickest possible fashion.} 0-1

So, Marshall’s move has some competition – three equally original and previous examples. All three moves are just as unexpected and directly led to the end of the games, and as far as Fox and Caro were concerned both forced mate.

Let us close this slightly polemical section with a quiet queen move in a sharp position. In my opinion this move should rank above Marshall’s in any list of the most amazing moves. An unobtrusive move by a dashing queen with which its copyright owner Amos Burn not only avoids a loss but even lays the foundations for victory in an otherwise forlorn position. For that reason it could be called Burn’s move:

George Alcock MacDonnell-Amos Burn, Liverpool 1910

Black to move

Things do not look good for Black: even a short inspection clearly shows us the sorry state of the black king. If White had the move here, then Black would be mated in only a few moves. And Black even obviously loses with all conventional defensive plans, for example 33...Qd8 34.Rxg5+ Kh7 35.Bg4 Kh8 36.Kg3 Rh7 37.Bh5, and the knight is lost. The same happens after 33...Kh8 34.Qxg5. Something similar after 33...Qf8. If any flash of genius is to save Black, then it will have to come immediately.

The constellation of white pieces in the south-east corner inspired the black queen to try the well-tempered, real-time, forward dive 33...Qg4!!!. A silent, geometrically appealing queen sacrifice of the very highest class. From a great distance, the queen moves on to a triply defended square without making a capture or giving a check, and without any protection for herself. Totally acrobatic – no safety net whatsoever.

And this queen move is also, by a long chalk, the best move in the position. At first sight it is a completely irrational sacrifice. Its logic does not become clear at first glance. Yet it does all sorts of things: the bishop on g5 is protected, the file with the white rook and black king on it is blocked, and the bishop diagonal d1-h5 is cut, with the very useful side-effect that Black’s own threat of 34...Nf3+ becomes pressing. With this wonderful move Burn cuts the web of white threats against his king to pieces and conjures up out of nowhere a pointed counter-attack which changes the evaluation of the position in his favour. As we have seen, nothing else brings Black any joy. 34.Rxg4! In the circumstances, a good parry. 34...Nf3+ 35.Kg2. 35.Kg3 seems somewhat better. 35...Nxd2 36.Rxg5+ Kh6! The white pawns on the queenside are very susceptible. 37.h4. Had he played 35.Kg3, he could now advance with 37.Kg4, which is stronger. 37...Nxb3 38.Rf5 Nxa5 39.Be2 Kg7 40.h5 Rf7. Also worth considering was 40...Nb3 41.Rg5+ Kh8 42.Kf1 Rg7. 41.Rg5+ Kh8 42.h6?! There was still some hope after 42.Rg6 Rg7 43.Rxg7 Kxg7 44.Kg3, even though it is hardly a counter-argument.

42...Rf6!, and a further pawn is inevitably lost and with it the game. After a long period of analysis Fritz evaluates this position as 1.78 pawns in favour of Black. Shredder considers Black’s advantage to be even greater. The rest is just an anti-climax. 43.Rh5 Rf4 44.Rg5 Nxc4 45.Bd3 Nb2 46.Bc2 c4 47.Rg7 Nd3 48.Bb1 Rxf2+ 49.Kg3 Rb2, and White raised the white flag in surrender. 0-1.

[Event "Liverpool Offhand "] [Site "?"] [Date "1910.??.??"] [Round "?"] [White "MacDonnell, George Alcock"] [Black "Burn, Amos"] [Result "0-1"] [ECO "C41"] [Annotator "Hesse,Ch"] [PlyCount "98"] [EventDate "1910.??.??"] 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 d6 3. d4 Nd7 4. Nc3 Ngf6 5. Bc4 Be7 6. O-O O-O 7. Re1 c6 8. d5 c5 9. Bg5 h6 10. Be3 Kh7 11. h3 Nb6 12. Bd3 Bd7 13. a4 Rc8 14. a5 Na8 15. b3 Nc7 16. Ne2 Nce8 17. c4 Ng8 18. g4 g6 19. Ng3 Ng7 20. Qd2 Rc7 21. Kh2 Qc8 22. Rg1 f5 23. gxf5 gxf5 24. exf5 Nxf5 25. Nh5 Kh8 26. Rxg8+ Rxg8 27. Bxh6 Be8 28. Bg7+ Rxg7 29. Nxg7 Kxg7 30. Rg1+ Bg6 31. Ng5 Nh4 32. Bxg6 Bxg5 33. Bh5 Qg4 $3 ( {Black even obviously loses with all conventional defensive plans, e.g.} 33... Qd8 34. Rxg5+ Kh7 35. Bg4 Kh8 36. Kg3 Rh7 37. Bh5 {and the knight is lost.}) ({ The same happens after} 33... Kh8 34. Qxg5) ({Something similar after} 33... Qf8) 34. Rxg4 $1 Nf3+ 35. Kg2 (35. Kg3 {seems somewhat better.}) 35... Nxd2 36. Rxg5+ Kh6 $1 37. h4 {Had he played 35.Kg3, he could now advance with 37.Kg4, which is stronger.} Nxb3 38. Rf5 Nxa5 39. Be2 Kg7 40. h5 Rf7 ({Also worth considering was} 40... Nb3 41. Rg5+ Kh8 42. Kf1 Rg7) 41. Rg5+ Kh8 42. h6 $6 ({ There was still some hope after} 42. Rg6 Rg7 43. Rxg7 Kxg7 44. Kg3) 42... Rf6 43. Rh5 Rf4 44. Rg5 Nxc4 45. Bd3 Nb2 46. Bc2 c4 47. Rg7 Nd3 48. Bb1 Rxf2+ 49. Kg3 Rb2 0-1


The Joys of Chess is an unforgettable intellectual expedition to the remotest corners of the Royal Game. En route, intriguing thought experiments, strange insights and hilarious jokes will offer vistas you have never seen before.

The beauty, the struggle, the culture, the fun, the art and the heroism of chess – you will find them all in this sparkling book that will give you many hours of intense joy.

Christian Hesse is a Harvard-trained professor of Mathematics who has taught at the University of California, Berkeley (USA), and since 1991 at the University of Stuttgart. He has written a textbook called 'Angewandte Wahrscheinlichkeitstheorie'.

Chess and literature are his main hobbies, and he also likes fitness and boxing. His heroes are the ones who fall to the bottom and rise again, fall and rise again…

From the foreword by World Champion Vishy Anand: "A rich compendium of spectacular highlights and defining moments from chess history: fantastic moves, beautiful combinations, historical blunders, captivating stories, and all this embedded into a plentitude of quick-witted ideas and contemplations as food for thought."


Topics Hesse

Christian Hesse holds a Ph.D. from Harvard University and was on the faculty of the University of California at Berkeley until 1991.
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