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- Chess History and Reminiscences - 4/38 -


The Chess Opening, Considered Critically and Practically. By H. E. Bird. London: Dean & Son, 160, Fleet Street.

The public record of chess matches and great tournaments places the name of the author of this work above that of any living English competitor for chess honours, excepting Mr. Blackburne. It is therefore all the more disappointing to find that Mr. Bird's book has not done justice to his great reputation as a player. The author's chief defect as an analyst arises probably from one of his distinguishing qualities as a practitioner over the board. Few chess masters could excel Mr. Bird in rapid survey of position and in the formation and execution of surprising maneuvers, which, though not always sound--and sometimes, as he admits, even eccentric--tend to raise confusing complications, difficult for the adversary to disentangle at a quick rate. These qualities make Mr. Bird one of the most dangerous opponents in "skittle play," or in matches regulated by a fast time limit; but they prove almost antagonistic to the acquirement of excellency as an author on the game. For the first-class analyst is not merely expected to record results, but to judge the causes of success or failure from the strictly scientific point of view, and he has often to supplement with patient research the shortcomings of great masters in actual play. In such cases every move of a main variation becomes a problem which has to be studied for a great length of time; and the best authors have watched the progress of different openings in matches and tournaments for years, and pronounced their judgment only after the most careful comparisons, Mr. Bird is, however, too much of an advocate to be a good judge, and he evinces great partiality for ingenious traps and seductive combinations, which form an attractive feature of his own style in actual play, but which mostly occur only in light skirmishes. Moreover he often treats his duties as an analyst in a cavalier fashion. In his quotations from other authors he embodies variations which stand already severely condemned by first-class chess critics in various chess periodicals; and his original researches contain a considerable portion of "skittle" analysis, which does not bear cursory examination.

We have no room for lengthened demonstrations, and must confine ourselves to a few instances of the latter description, all occurring in the compiler's new additions. On page 6, he overlooks the winning of a clear piece which White can effect by Q to R4, followed by P to QR3 if the B be defended. On page 22 Black can win a piece on the 16th move by P to KB4, followed by P to KKt3, and there is no chance of any counter-attack by P to KKt4, for Black may afterwards interpose the B at K4, and get the K into the corner. On page 105 a piece can be won by Black on the l0th move by B to Q5, for the Kt has no retreat, a mate being threatened at KB3. The ending of a game between Messrs. Bird and MacDonnell affords a still more remarkable illustration. There is abundant proof that the author must have examined the position at least more than once, for, by a singular error, the identical ending appears twice in the book--on pages 183 and 197,--each time with a large diagram. On each occasion a win is demonstrated for White in nine moves, while at least a piece can be gained at once by Q to K7, followed accordingly by P to Q6 dis. ch., or B to KKt5. Mr. Bird would be annoyed to make such oversights over the board; and there is no excuse for such shallow examples being recommended to the student without the least comment on their weak points.

As regards the general arrangement, we have to remark that the variations sometimes seem to have been examined loosely and separately, irrespective of their relation to each other, or to the main propositions of the author in reference to the form of opening he deals with; and the brevity or length of space assigned to different forms of play have apparently been decided in a whimsical and arbitrary manner. For instance, on page 29, in the Philidor's defence, 7. Kt to KB3, is described to afford the most satisfactory and secure opening for Black. On the next page the move is repeated under the separate heading, Example II, and it looks odd enough that one single move should have received such prominence, the only addition being, "Won by Harrwitz in 40 moves," as if it were to be forced by Black in that number, while at the time the positions show little difference. But, stranger still, four pages later on (page 34) the identical variation reappears, taken from the same game between Morphy and Harrwitz (though this is not stated), with three more moves on each side added to it, but this time the remark is made, that "White has a good position." To take another example. On page 78 there is a repetition of 10 moves on each side, merely for the purpose of indicating a different 11th move for White. It is scarcely necessary to point out that in each case the stronger move should have been inserted in the main variation, while the weaker one could have been disposed of in a foot-note of one line.

While on this subject we cannot refrain from mentioning the frequent references to "Chess Masterpieces," a work previously published by the author, which contained a collection of fine games partly reproduced from Howard Taylor's "Chess Brilliants," and other publications, with additions mostly from Mr. Bird's own practice. We must confess that some of the so-called variations extracted from the "Masterpieces," appear to be nothing more than advertisements. Notably, on page 157, four "examples" are given, which do not go beyond the 4th move, and leave no mark on the positions, and then we are gravely informed, in a manner already described, that White or Black won in so-and-so many moves.

We notice with great pleasure the handsome and courteous manner in which almost all the prominent chess masters of the day are mentioned in the book, and the sense of fairness evinced by Mr. Bird in the selection of variations and examples from his own practice, irrespective of his victory or defeat. But his chess historical references are unreliable, and he often wrongly ascribes the adoption of certain variations to different players in a manner which could have been easily rectified by taking a little more trouble. This is not unimportant, for the reputed strength of a player is evidence of the strength of an opening he favours in matches and tournaments. We can only adduce a few instances which are more within the writer's personal knowledge.

The statement about 5. Q to K2, in the Buy Lopez, on page 16, is much confused. The move was adopted by Mr. Blackburne in the final tie match of the Vienna tournament, but it never occurred in the first game of the Steinitz-Blackburne match, as Mr. Bird can convince himself from his own book, where the latter game is published in full on page 171. Steinitz is also erroneously credited with strongly favouring the attack in the Scotch Gambit, for we do not remember a single game on record in which he ever adopted that form of opening as first player. On the other hand, a variation in the Evans Gambit is ascribed to Zukertort, which actually occurred first in a game between Steinitz and Blackburne, played in the London Grand Tournament of 1872. This error seems to have been quoted from Staunton and Wormald's "Chess Theory and Practice."

A few more words about the problems at the end of the book and we have done with the details. There are about a dozen compositions mostly by high-class American authors, and some of them of very good quality; but, unfortunately, Mr. Bird has omitted to indicate their solutions. We must suppose this to be due to an oversight, as he gives the key moves of the four problems by English composers. The omission is deplorable, for many students would wish to appreciate the author's idea, and the merits of the construction, if they fail to solve the problem. To quote an instance from our own experience; we could not find any solution to the problem on page 224, which composition, we conclude, is either of the highest order or suffers from the gravest of all faults, that of being impossible. In either case we should have liked to examine the solution.

Our judgment of the book, on the whole, is that it cannot be ranked in the first class with the works of Heydebrand, Zukertort, Staunton, Lowenthal, Neuman and Suhle, Lange, &c.; but it will satisfy the demands of the great number of lovers of the game who do not aspire above the second rank. Mr. Bird's ability and ingenuity is beyond doubt, and there is ample evidence of his qualifications in the book before us, but he has not yet acquired that element of genius which has been defined as the capacity for taking pains. Mr. Bird could produce a much better book than this, and we hope he will.

Variously estimated from 3,000 to 1,000 B.C. CHATURANGA. The Primeval Hindu Chess.

bp--krnb np--pppp rp------ kp------ ------pk ------pr pppp--pn bnrk--pb

[Diagram of a Chaturanga board with 4 armies. Yellow is in upper left. Black is in upper right. Green is in lower left. Red is in lower right.]


The Medieval and Modern Chess. White RNBKQBNR PPPPPPPP -------- -------- -------- -------- pppppppp rnbkqbnr Black

[Diagram of a standard chessboard, white pieces at the top, black pieces at the bottom.]

Derived from the Persian Chatrang, 537-540 A.D.


833-842. Problem I. by the Caliph MU'TASIM BILLAH. Black

Chess History and Reminiscences - 4/38

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