The Great Burn (1848-1925)

10/11/2008 – With Amos Burn currently the subject of much interest, we look at two of his spectacular wins from Richard Forster’s volume published by McFarland: a neglected miniature, played at odds, which James Mason described as one of the most brilliant breakdowns on record, and a fine sustained attack against Ossip Bernstein. From over a century ago, enjoy some highly entertaining chess.

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The Great Burn (1848-1925)

Many entries have already been received in our latest quiz, for which the main prize is a copy of Amos Burn A Chess Biography by Richard Forster (McFarland & Company, Inc., 2004). The book will be inscribed by Anand, Kramnik and Forster, the closing date for entries being Monday, 13 October.


Amos Burn

To illustrate Burn’s prowess we are grateful for permission to reproduce two annotated games from Forster’s volume.

Amos Burn–George Whitehead
Offhand game, Liverpool Chess Club, Spring 1896
Odds of the queen’s knight

[Notes in quotation marks by James Mason in the British Chess Magazine, July 1896, pp. 289–90. Other notes by Richard Forster.]

1 e4 e5 2 Nf3 Nc6 3 Bc4 Be7

“A good move, avoiding many troublesome opening attacks, in which Ng5 is a prominent feature. It would also be well to follow on 4 … d6, in order to play the knight, without fear of disturbance from e4–e5, ready for immediate castling. Numberless games at this [sic] odds are lost simply because the defender allows himself to venture upon active combination while yet the forces are partly and unequally developed—with the difference in favour of his adversary. The piece does not come into real account at all; and often might better have no existence. Generally speaking, the first great object of the player receiving rook or knight odds should be—to castle.” —Mason.

4 d4 exd4 5 c3 d6 6 Qb3 Ne5

“Black is already in difficulties, owing to the time lost by 4 … exd4. His king is forthwith brought in question. Perhaps 6 … Na5, to be rid of the bishop in case of 7 Bxf7+, would be better. Very likely the alarming nature of the attack consequent on this way of exchanging was not suspected.” —Mason.

7 Nxe5 dxe5 8 Bxf7+ Kf8 9 0–0 Nf6 10 f4

“The mass of White’s forces now readily combine against Black’s king, and almost anything may happen.” —Mason.

10 … Qd6

“The queen’s movements hereabouts are apparently unfavourable. But the piece must be retained at all hazards. If, say, 10 … Bd6, then 11 cxd4, and the defence might be no easier.”—Mason.

11 fxe5 Qxe5 12 Bf4 Qxe4

13 Rae1

“The greater freedom of the rook when the knight is given is a circumstance the odds-giver does often forget when shaping his earlier operations. Its effect in the present instance may well be noticed.”—Mason.

13 … Qc6 14 Bg5 Qb6

“This seems good enough, but results in one of the most ‘brilliant breakdowns’ on record. Yet what is he to do? If, for example, 14 … Bd7, then something like 15 Bh5 Be8 16 Rxf6+ Bxf6 17 Rxe8+ etc. might follow.”—Mason.

15 Rxf6! Qxb3

Obviously, all three ways of taking the rook lose instantly.

16 Bh5+!!

The actual point of Burn’s fantastic combination. If now 16 … Kg8, then 17 Rxe7! Qb5 (defending e8; 17 … gxf6 leads to the game, whereas 17 … Qe6 18 Bf7+ Kf8 19 Rfxe6 Bxe6 20 Bxe6 results in a winning endgame for White).

18 Rxg7+!! Kxg7 19 Rf7+ Kg8 20 Bh6!, and White wins. For example, 20 … Be6 (20 … Qxh5 21 Rf8 mate) 21 Rg7+ Kf8 22Rxc7+ Kg8 23 Rg7+ Kf8 24 Rxb7+ Kg8 25 Rg7+ Kf8 26 Rxa7+ Kg8 27 Rxa8+ and mate.

16 … gxf6 17 Bh6+ Kg8

18 Rxe7!! Qe6

His only hope of preventing mate on e8 and stopping the deadly see-saw mechanism pointed out in the last note. Not even 18 … Qd1+ 19 Bxd1 Be6 20 Bh5 is a remedy.

19 Rg7+ Kf8 20 Rd7+! Kg8 21 Rd8+ and mates next move. [Click to replay]

Even today this game remains virtually unknown. But supposing Morphy had played it …



Ossip Bernstein

Amos Burn–Ossip Bernstein
International Tournament (Round 30)
Ostend, 11 July 1906
Queen’s Gambit (Slav Exchange) [D10]
[Notes by Richard Forster.]

1 d4 d5 2 c4 c6 3 cxd5 cxd5

The Slav Exchange Variation suited Burn’s style of play very well. It is sound and solid, but still offers plenty of attacking possibilities to an inventive mind.

4 Nc3 Nc6 5 Bf4 e6 6 e3 Qb6 7 Qd2 Bd7 8 Nf3 Nf6 9 Bd3 Be7 10 Rc1 Nh5 11 Bg3

Modern players would perhaps prefer 11 Be5!?, trying to provoke a weakening pawn move.

11 … Nxg3?!

This can wait. 11 … Rc8 is the logical continuation.

12 hxg3

Black has obtained the two bishops, but at a greater cost than is apparent at first sight; opening the h-file for White’s rook has made castling on the king’s side rather uncomfortable and nor is castling on the queen’s side very attractive, as White is ready to launch a quick attack there. Unless he wants to relieve his pressure on the h-file, White cannot castle either, but Burn shows that he does not need to. Once the white king is out of the danger zone, a central break with e3–e4 becomes a serious prospect, exposing the enemy monarch to an enduring attack.

12 … Qa5

13 Kf1!

A plan quite similar to the one adopted in his 1897 game with Cohn. Of course, after 13 0–0 0–0 or 13 Rxh7? Rxh7 14 Bxh7 g6 Black stands well.

13 … Rc8 14 Kg1!

An important move. Before committing himself, Burn takes his king further away from the centre. Now the two rooks can be connected at any time and there is no danger of a fatal check on the first rank, as the king can always hide on h2.

14 … h6 15 Bb1 a6

After 15 … 0–0 16 a3, followed by 17 Qd3, White develops a threatening attack.

16 Qe2

With the intention of opening up the centre by 17 e4! dxe4 18 Nxe4, with a dangerous initiative. For example, after 18 … Qd5 19 Qe3 0–0 White has a forced win by 20 Rc5! Bxc5 21 Nf6+! gxf6 22 Qxh6, and mate follows.

16 … Qb6

By increasing the pressure on d4 and b2 Bernstein prevents 17 e4. It could now be safely answered by 17 … dxe4 18 Nxe4 Nxd4 or 18 Qxe4 Qxb2.

17 Na4 Qb4 18 Nc3

18 Nc5 promises a slight but enduring positional advantage.

18 … Na5

“Black is already embarrassed for a continuation, and it is more creditable to his pluck than to his judgement, in this instance, to have declined Burn’s offer of a draw.” (Leopold Hoffer in The Field, 14 July 1906.)

19 Ne5 Nc4

Burn’s set-up may look harmless, but its latent energy can be released at any moment. For example, 19 … Bb5? 20 Qg4 Bf6 21 Bg6! 0–0 22 Bxf7+ Rxf7 23 Qxe6 and wins. The text move invites a different combinational outburst.

20 Nxd7!

The kind of exchange which is either very good or very bad.

20 … Kxd7 21 Nxd5!!

Putting an end to the black king’s quiet life. The white pieces harass him through until the end of the game.

21 … exd5 22 Bf5+ Kd6

A sad necessity. After any other king move White wins material with 23 Bxc8 and 24 b3.

23 Qg4!

The fine point of Burn’s combination and stronger than 23 Bxc8 Rxc8 24 b3 after which Black can still defend with 24 … Nb6.

23 … Rcg8

This odd-looking move is forced; otherwise Black loses material. After the greedy 23 … Qxb2 24 Rb1 Qxa2 25 Rxb7 he also succumbs quickly.

24 b3! Kc7

The extra piece must be returned, because knight moves allow 25 Qf4 mate, whereas 24 … Qa3 and 24 … Qd2 are met by 25 Rc2.

25 bxc4 dxc4

Thus the material balance is restored and a sharp middle-game with opposite-coloured bishops lies ahead. As on earlier occasions, Burn shows himself well-versed in the dynamic battle ensuing from such a configuration. Nevertheless, on his very next move he misses the opportunity to win a pawn by 26 Be4!, when Black cannot simultaneously defend b7, c4 and f7.

26 Rb1?! Qd6 27 a4 g6 28 Bc2

Now 28 Be4?! f5 would force White to play an unclear piece sacrifice.

28 … f5 29 Qf3 b6

30 g4!

A fine strategic idea. Burn slightly loosens his king’s shelter, but greatly enhances the scope of his bishop.

30 … fxg4 31 Qxg4 g5?

An unfortunate decision which deprives Black of all counter-play on the king’s side and cedes total control of the light squares to his opponent. Correct is 31 … h5, after which White does not have such a free hand on the king’s side as in the game.

32 Be4 Kb8 33 g3! Ka7 34 Kg2

In Karpovian style Burn has cleared with his last two moves the way for the transfer of the king’s rook to the queen’s side, where Black’s position soon becomes critical. Mainly as a result of his 30th move he has not only a sounder pawn structure but also the vastly superior bishop.

34 … Rb8 35 Rhc1 Rhc8

Settling for a pure defensive battle. The attempt to obtain counter-play with 35 … h5 36 Qf5 h4 is easily fended off after 37 Rxc4 hxg3 38 fxg3 (or even 38 Rbc1!).

36 Rc3 Rc7 37 Rbc1 b5

Virtually forced, since after 37 … Rbc8 38 Bf5 the c-pawn must fall. The battle takes on a rather unusual form now, reminiscent of the future Botvinnik Variation in the Semi-Slav Opening. Black’s pawn duo on the queen’s side must shelter the king, but it may at any time also become a dangerous attacking weapon.

38 axb5 axb5

39 R3c2!!

An excellent move, threatening to double his rooks on the a-file with devastating effect.

39 … Qa6

The other way to oppose White’s plan is 39 … Kb6, but then White has 40 Ra2! Ra7 41 Rb2! (threatening to take the c-pawn) Ra4 (if 41 … Rc7 42 Qf5). Now 42 Qf5 can be met by 42 … Ka6, but 42 Bf3! offers a multitude of promising attacking possibilities.

40 Qf5 Ba3!?

The bishop is intended to help the advance of the pawns. The immediate 40 … b4 runs into 41 Rxc4! Rxc4 42 Qd7+ Kb6 43 Qe6+! and wins.

41 Ra1 b4 42 Qe5!!

Another most powerful stroke, revealing the fragility of Black’s position.

42 … Rbc8

The only move. After 42 … Qb6 43 Rca2! (threatening 44 Rxa3+) or 42 … Rcc8 43 Qe7+ Kb6 44 Rb2! Black’s position collapses. It is amazing how little value the connected passed pawns have in these lines.

43 Bf5! Qb7+

Or 43 … Qc6+ 44 d5 etc.

44 Kg1 Qc6

A sad necessity. If the attacked rook moves, White answers 45 Rb2!, with the deadly threats 46 Rxa3+ and 46 Rxb4.

45 Bxc8 Rxc8 46 Qe7+ Kb6

47 Rxa3!

Burn’s technique is impressive. At the first opportunity he returns the exchange to continue the attack on Black’s king.

47 … bxa3 48 Qxa3 Ra8 49 Qb4+ Kc7 50 d5!

Avoiding the last sly trap 50 Rxc4?? Ra1+ 51 Kh2 Rh1 mate.

50 … Qxd5 51 Rxc4+ Kd8

52 e4!

It is still not too late to fall for 52 Rd4? Ra1+.

52 … Qd1+ 53 Kg2 Ke8 54 Rc7 Qd8 55 Qb5+

Black resigned. [Click to replay]

An exceedingly fine attack by Burn in, it may be noted, round 30.

Years later Bernstein related the following anecdote, but whether it referred to this game or one of his other two losses against Burn is not known: “I have always been a sworn enemy of draws, and many games I have spoiled by playing too sharply ‘for a win.’ In one tournament the old master Burn, with whom I had very friendly relations, had offered me a draw on the 12th move. I declined, played for a win and ended up in a dead-lost position. Jokingly I now offered a draw to Burn myself. Giving me a witty look from behind his spectacles, he replied, pulling together his bushy eyebrows: ‘If you had accepted my draw offer then, I would have accepted yours now.’ Upon which I resigned the game at once.” Source: Turnierprogramm 37. Schweizerisches und Internationales Schachturnier, Zürich 1934 (Zurich, 1934), p. 13.


Amos Burn

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