30 July 2013

Pillsbury -- Lasker, St. Petersburg 1895

Following Harry Nelson Pillsbury's debut at Hastings 1895, winning his first master tournament, he joined three other top players for a six week event in St. Petersburg, Russia. Pillsbury, World Champion Emanuel Lasker, recently deposed World Champion Wilhelm Steinitz, and Mikhail Chigorin each played six games against each of the others. Pillsbury started well, smashing Lasker the first day from the Black side of a Russian Defense.

At the half-way point Pillsbury led Lasker by one-half point. Steinitz was another point behind. Then, in the fourth round, Lasker busted Pillsbury's Queen's Gambit and sent the youth into a slump, losing five of the next eight games. Lasker went on to win the tournament, and Steinitz passed Pillsbury for second place. Pillsbury finished the event with a plus score against Lasker 3 1/2 - 2 1/2, and the same score against Chigorin, but a terrible 1 - 5 against Steinitz.

While going through the Encyclopedia of Chess Openings C67 classification, I grew interested in the second cycle game Pillsbury -- Lasker. It is the main reference game for line 5 of C67.

Opening study provoked my interest in this game, but the endgame sustained it.

The opening line in ECO ends with equality, but Pillsbury outplayed Lasker in the endgame. Lasker had a bishop for Pillsbury's knight, and there were pawns on both sides of the board. Lasker's bishop was rendered impotent through Pillsbury's precise play and a few errors by Lasker. The ChessBase Monograph CD World Champion Emanuel Lasker (2002) has this game annotated (in German) by Karsten Müller.

As near as I can tell, Steve Meyer, Bishop Versus Knight: The Verdict (1997) lacks analysis of this game. Nor can I locate a reference to it in Karsten Müller, and Frank Lamprecht, Fundamental Chess Endings (2001). Nonetheless, it is an important and instructive ending.

Pillsbury,Harry Nelson -- Lasker,Emanuel [C67]
St Petersburg 1895-1896, St Petersburg (2.3), 25.12.1895

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Nf6 4.0–0 Nxe4 5.d4 Be7 6.Qe2 Nd6 7.Bxc6 bxc6 8.dxe5 Nb7 9.b3 0–0 10.Bb2 d5 11.exd6 cxd6 12.Nbd2 Bf6 13.Bxf6 Qxf6 14.Rfe1 Nc5 15.Ne4 Nxe4 16.Qxe4 Bd7 17.c4 Rfe8

White to move

From this point, ECO continues to move 20 in the notes, giving equality for the diagram, and for the end of the quoted line. No other game in ChessBase online continues with 12...Bf6, and only two continue with 12...Re8. Müller notes that 6.Qe2 is played only sporadically in our era, although it was popular in the late nineteenth century. The ChessBase database reveals that 9.b3 is a rare move, even though that move is commonly found in lines of the Berlin Defense that contain 5...Be7.

18.Qd4 Rxe1+ 19.Rxe1 Qxd4 20.Nxd4 Kf8

According to Müller, "the resulting endgame should be balanced."


Black to move


Andrew Soltis, and Ken Smith, Pillsbury the Extraordinary (1990) offer brief comments on this game, which the authors note, is "not published often due to four slight mistakes by Lasker" (27). Soltis, Why Lasker Matters (2005) does not mention this game, but offers Lasker's critical win over Pillsbury at the start of the fourth cycle. Soltis and Smith opine that 21...a5 was Lasker's second mistake, noting "this pawn will become weak" (27). They do not offer an alternative.

Should Black have tried 21...a6, placing the isolated pawn on a square where it can be protected by the bishop? Perhaps the immediate 21...Re8 is better.

Black's bishop has no targets, and there is no way for him to fix a chain of White pawns on light squares. Is Black already worse in this ending?

Lasker's move threatened a5-a4, when he might be able to swap off his weakest pawn. Pillsbury quickly put an end to this plan.

22.a4 Re8 23.Rxe8+ Kxe8

White to move

Now the rooks are gone.

24.Ke2 Kd8 25.Kd2 Kc7 26.Kc3 Kb6 27.f4

Müller notes that 27.b4 would have been a blunder.

27...h5 28.h3 Kc5

White to move

While Soltis and Smith find fault with Lasker's 27...h5, Müller begins his serious analysis with move 29.

29.f5 g6

Müller, "Vermutlich unterschätzte er die Wendigkeit des weißen Springers." Lasker probably underestimated the maneuverability of the white knight. Müller marks White's 29.f5 as dubious, but offers no alternative. 29...g6 is an error. After 29...d5! Black can play for a win, according to Müller.

30.f6 d5 31.cxd5 Kxd5

Müller suggest 31...exd5, offering a line in which both Black's a-pawn and White's f-pawn are destined to promote on the same move. He evaluates the line as equal.

32.Nf3 Ke6 33.Nd2 Kxf6 34.Nc4

Black to move


Müller marks this move as dubious, suggesting 34...Kg5 as more accurate. Playing out his suggestion against Stockfish 3, I was able to find 35.Nb6 Bf5 36.b4 axb4+ 37.Kxb4 c5+ (an essential clearance sacrifice) 38.Kxc5 Be4 (a critical fork) 39.g3 h4 40.gxh4+ Kxh4 41.Nd5 (as in the game, attempting to obstruct the bishop's efforts) 41...f5 (if White's pawn cannot be stopped, Black's, too, will promote) 42.a5 Bxd5 43.Kxd5 f4 44.a6 f3 45.a7 f2 =.

35.Nxa5 Ke5?

This error allows White's knight to gain a tempo attacking the king. In pawn races, tempo can be everything (as everyone knows who reads Mark Dvoretsky, Dvoretsky's Endgame Manual).

After 35...Kg5, Müller gives 36.Kd4 Kf4 37.Nc4 Kg3 38.Nb6 Bg4 39.a5 Be2.


White has a decisive advantage.

Black to move

36...Kf4 37.Nb6

The knight harasses the bishop, gaining time.

Bf5 38.Kd4 Be4 39.a5 c5+ 40.Kxc5 Bxg2

White to move

The bishop appears helpless to stop White's a-pawn, while Black's pawns have too far to go.

41.a6 g5 42.Nd5+ Ke5 43.Ne3 Bf3 44.b4

Black to move


44...f5 seems like the best try. However, after 45.b5 g4 46.Nxg4+! fxg4 47.b6 g3 48.b7, and Black's king must step out of the coming check, which gives White time to cover g1.

45.b5 Be2 46.Nd5 1–0

In Lasker's Manual of Chess, the World Champion wrote about his loss of time in the opening (a French Defense) in another instructive loss to Pillsbury: Pillsbury -- Lasker, Nuremburg 1896. That game is frequently annotated. This less well-known game, however, is an excellent illustration of time in an ending of bishop versus knight. The bishop's ability to waste time is often an advantage, but here Lasker's errors in the placement of his king rendered his cleric impotent.

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