Philidor | Morphy | Tarrasch | Lasker | Pillsbury | Rubinstein | Niemzowitsch | Capablanca | Reti | Alekhine | Najdorf | Reshevsky | Khan
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Harry Nelson Pillsbury

Another worthy candidate for the title of World's Most Interesting Chess Player was the American, Harry Nelson Pillsbury (1872-1906). He only lived 34 years, which means that although he lived 2 years longer than musical composer Franz Schubert, he lived one year less than Wolfgang Mozart.

Pillsbury grew up in Philadelphia and made a name for himself at the Franklin Chess Club. (By the way, the first chess book published in Russia was in the 18th century, it was Benjamin Franklin's "The Morals of Chess").

He was born in Somerville, Massachusetts, on Dec 5, 1872, but didn't learn the chess moves until Thanksgiving Day 1888, when he was 16.

Only 2 years later, in 1890, while he was not quite 18, Pillsbury played a series of Evans Gambits with the veteran Baltimore expert, H.N. Stone, one of the inventors of the Stone-Ware defense in the Evans, and smashed him 5-2. The point is that within 2 years of learning how chess was played, he played an enormous opponent, and historical chess figure, and crushed him at his own opening.

In April 1892, the World Champion Wilhelm Steinitz, paid a visit to Boston, and played a 3 game match against Pillsbury, now the strongest player in America. Steinitz gave him Pawn and Move odds. Pillsbury won 2-1.

There were somewhat lackluster results in the next few years, but in 1894, he championed the Brooklyn Chess Club to victory in the Metropolitan tournament in New York, and, as Paul Morphy 38 years before, he had wealthy admirers that financed his trip over the Atlantic to play the greatest in the Old World.

In this case, it was the great tournament in Hastings, England, 1895. He was only 22 years old. The great World Champion, and favorite, Dr. Lasker was there, the ex-champion Wilhem Steinitz was there, and the champions from England, France, Russia and Italy were all there for him to meet. He won the tournament, brilliantly.

As of this result, he received an invitation to a quadrangular tournament in St. Petersburg, Russia, in the winter of 1895. His opponents were World Champion Dr. Lasker, ex-World Champion Wilhem Steinitz, and a perennial challenger to the World Championship, the Russian Champion Mikhail Tchigorin. The four players would play 6 games against each other. Lasker crushed the field, with Steinitz second, Pillsbury third, and Tchigorin last.

During this time in Russia, Pillsbury contracted the syphilis disease. His play was spotty from here on through his life.

In 1896 he played so-so at Nuremberg, but rejoiced when he beat Lasker, Steinitz and Tchigorin in successive rounds. His problem was that he prepared for those three, and beat them, but lost to most of the weaker players. His score gave him a tie for III/IV with Dr. Tarrasch, still not bad. Lasker won the tournament.

Pillsbury returned to America and was (get this) challenged by the American Champion Showalter. Showalter knew that Pillsbury, with his European record, made his own American championship title superfluous. They engaged in a chess match, and Pillsbury won.

Showalter remained American Champion, however, because Pillsbury insisted that he didn't want the title. So I now quote Pillsbury from the "New Englander" at the time: "I was not seeking the match, and even if I should win I shall leave Showalter in possession of the title; I am not in search of any title but one." He still had aspirations for a match with Dr. Lasker.

Showalter had huge backers, and a rematch (for 3 months) was set in New York in 1898. Pillsbury won 7 games to Showalter's 3. This was an official championship match, so Pillsbury was officially American Champion, even though he resented having that title.

From 1890 to 1900 Pillsbury worked the automaton Ajeeb in Coney Island, New York. In 1900 he went on a seven month nation-wide tour in which he gave over 150 exhibitions and travelled 40,000 miles.

Pillsbury then went back to Europe, because that was where the best players were. He did pretty well in all of the tournaments he played in, but Dr. Lasker consistently came in first.

Although his disease was debilitating him, he was always so awesome, that even the World Champion was always scared of him.

In 1896, Lasker beat Pillsbury in a Ruy Lopez, with a tremendous rook sacrifice. In 1904, the last year that he played active chess, Pillsbury beat Lasker, with the same opening, but with a different 7th move at Cambridge Springs, PA, USA. He waited 8 years to do that. It is one of the most classic chess games to date. It is also one of the greatest retaliations on record. Dr. Lasker, who was always so precise, was completely taken off guard.

Pillsbury died in July 1906, of syphilis at the age of 34. He was considered one of the top 10 checker players in the country, and definitely the best chess player.

One more note: Pillsbury, during his age, was the best blindfold chess player in the world. His highest limit was 21 opponents. But what makes him so interesting to me, (although his career was great), was what he could do in one evening. This is what raises Pillsbury to an immortal level.

Pillsbury would give simultaneous exhibitions playing 10 chess players and 10 checker players, while playing whist. But read on ...

Once, right before performing this feat, he was given a list to memorize by 2 university professors: Antiphlogistine, periosteum, takadiastase, plasmon, ambrosia, Threlkeld, strepococcus, straphylococcus, micrococcus, plasmodium, Mississippi, Freiheit, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, athletics, no war, Etchenberg, American, Russian, philosophy, Piet Potgelter's Rost, Salamagundi, Oomisellecootsi, Bangmanvate, Schlechter's Nek, Manzinyama, theosophy, catechism, and Madjesoomalops.

After a few minutes he was able to recite the list forward and backward. He was able to recall the list forward and backward the following day.

An amazing man.

-----Terry Crandall

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Philidor | Morphy | Tarrasch | Lasker | Pillsbury | Rubinstein | Niemzowitsch | Capablanca | Reti | Alekhine | Najdorf | Reshevsky | Khan