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Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Blackburne and Morphy

Joseph Henry Blackburne (10 December 1841 – 1 September 1924), known as "The Black Death", dominated British chess during the late 1800’s. He was unusual in that he learned chess at the late age of 18 but quickly became a strong player. His professional career lasted over 50 years. He was also noted for heavy drinking especially during exhibition games and occasionally became violent when drunk. He was once quoted as saying, "Whiskey clears my brain and improves my chess play."


The player who inspired Blackburne was Paul Morphy. In the opening he developed his pieces quickly, tried to avoid the loss of time, and aimed at sacrificial attacks, often describing his brilliant combinations as, “A little bit of Morphy.” Such a comment revealed how little Morphy’s style of play was understood by players of Blackburne’s day. Blackburne’s style was more in the style of Anderssen, Kieseritsky, Bird or any number of players of the era, all of whom were able to capable of conjuring up brilliant attacks.

Morphy’s attacks, as brilliant as they were, owed their brilliancy to his superiority in positional play and he was far from exceptional in making brilliant sacrifices. Players like Capablanca, Alekhine, Marshall and Spielmann, et al were also capable of brilliant sacrifices. When Steinitz came along with his cramped defensive play it seemed bizarre to players of the day. It was hoped that Blackburne would show the superiority of his style when he faced Steinitz in a series of matches, but the results proved disastrous.

Blackburne and his “Morphy style” was defeated by Steinitz in a match in 1863 by a score of 7-1 with 4 draws, in 1870 by a score of 5 straight wins for Steinitz and again, in 1867, by a score of 7 straight wins for Steinitz. It was then that players began to think that maybe there was something to be said for Steinitz’ theories. The truth is that Blackburne did NOT play in the style of Morphy because he had no concept of Morphy’s play being based on superior positional understanding.

In this post we will look at one of Blackburne’s games against Steinitz and compare the two styles. In a future post we will take a look at Morphy’s approach from the same opening. In this game Steinitz parried Blackburne’s tactical threats with great alacrity with the exception of his move 26…Rd7? which was the result of positional over-finessing. Had he played the more natural 26…Rde8 he would not have allowed Blackburne the opportunity to crash through with his attack. You can’t blame the players for missing the refutation though because all the great players of the past who have annotated the game missed it. In fact the game was so complicated from that point on that several annotators gave inferior suggestions!

Even though many of these old games have such mistakes, it takes nothing away from the greatness of the players who created them nor does it take anything away from the players who examined them. Without the benefit of Rybka, Fritz and a host of other strong engines, it’s not surprising that they occasionally missed tactical shots.

In the final analysis, Blackburne was unsuccessful in threading his way through the complications he, himself, had brought about and in the end it was Steinitz’ positional play that won out as proven by their match scores. Still, one cannot help but admire Blackburne’s cleverness in this game just as you cannot help but admire the risks taken by players like Tahl and Nezhmetdinov even if their ideas later turned out to be unsound.

You can download full view books and magazine articles about Blackburne from Google books including the Steinitz-Blackburne Match of 1876 and a 331 page tome of his games annotated by Blackburne, himself.

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