Tuesday, August 30, 2005

First American Chess Congress, New York 1857

I have been looking at The Book of the First American Chess Congress by Daniel Willard Fiske (New York 1859), which you may be able to find still in the 2002 Olms Reprint edition reviewed at Chess Cafe. It is a fascinating read, and practically indispensable for anyone interested in the history of the game. After all, not only is the famous First American Chess Congress itself of historical interest, but Fiske's 563 page tournament book is filled with all of the history and lore of chess up to that point. Its first chapter, in fact, undertakes a history of chess from its origins to the present day (in 46 pages) and its ninth chapter, which is longer than the sections on the tournament, offers up “Incidents in the History of American Chess” (in 200 pages) beginning with Ben Franklin and ending with a biography of Paul Morphy. There are also numerous short pieces on various topics, including an interesting article by Lowenthal on opening theory for those spotting pawn and move (which leaves Black without his f-pawn), a section on chess problems (including all problems submitted for the puzzle tournament), an article on various methods of recording chess games (which fails to mention the wonderfully modern algebraic notation deployed by Lowenthal in his article), and considerable detail about everything that happened at the Congress itself (including the dinner speeches made before it began). Its omnibus quality alone makes it a wonderful little companion since you are always discovering little things that are new.

As something of a chess bibliophile, I was naturally interested in the section on "American Chess Bibliography" which attempts to list and describe all of the chess literature published in America from 1734-1859. One of the texts described is titled "The Elements of Chess; a treatise combining Theory and Practice, and comprising the whole of Philidor's Games, and explanatory notes, new modeled; and arranged upon an original plan" (Boston 1805) which makes the following proposal, described by Fiske: "In the appendix the editor proposes a complete revolution in the nomenclature of the game. After some remarks on the unsuitableness of the names of the pieces, he says: 'Impressed with a strong desire to see an amusement of such antiquity, of such fascinating attractions, freed from every encumbrance, the writer of these remarks proposes in the following sketch to substitute other names more expressive of the respective powers of the pieces; more suitable to the dignity of the game; more descriptive of the military character; and better adapted to our feelings as a citizens of a free republic.' He then gives a scheme of the change which he advocates, thus:

Old Names
King's Rook
King's Bishop
King's Knight
Queen's Rook
Queen's Bishop
Queen's Knight

New Names
First Colonel
First Major
First Captain
Second Colonel
Second Major
Second Captain

Philidor's first game is next given 'to show the effect of the new moves.' Such expressions as 'Fifth Pioneer at 36;' 'Third Pioneer takes the General;' 'Major covers the check at 52;' and 'Governor castles,' present a strange appearance to the eye of the chess-player. Nor is the feeling diminished by the perusal of such notes as this: 'You advance this Pioneer two squares to obstruct your adversary's first Colonel in his intended attack on your sixth Pioneer'" (pp. 487-488).

The games themselves are actually more interesting than I had supposed. But then again I get some enjoyment out of playing over contemporary amateur games. The Chessmetric site (http://www.chessmetrics.com/) would suggest that Morphy was rated in the 2700 range, with Louis Paulsen going from 2550 in 1857 to the 2700 range during his Post-Morphy peak in 1862-1864. But anyone who plays through these games from long ago will have a completely different impression. The best players at New York 1857 seem hardly as good as most Class A or even Class B players today, with the exception of Morphy (just master strength in my view) and Paulsen (about expert level). It is pleasant to entertain the fantasy of being transported back in time to completely destroy most of these guys, and then to give Morphy a much tougher time than any of his other opponents were able to offer. Morphy might even have been beatable by an expert player, especially considering the number of errors he made in his games. The biography by Sergeant, for example, does a good job of laying bare the Morphy myth with its scrutiny of his play. And Fritz is merciless.

Tim Krabbe has most of the games from New York 1857 in a ZIP file on his site to download. My impression is that he has all of the actual tournament games but none of the side games (including blindfold games and others) that fill the book. I have also put together a set of selected games, but you might wait to look at it until I have posted puzzle positions drawn from them.


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