At the closing banquet for the Hastings (1895) tournament, Chigorin announced that the top prizewinners had been invited to St. Petersburg for a match-tournament to begin in December of that year. The top three finishers (Pillsbury, Chigorin, and Lasker) plus fifth-place finisher Steinitz agreed to play; fourth-place finisher Tarrasch declined. Even so, St. Petersburg was enormously strong; the top five places on the December 1895 Chessmetrics list are occupied by Lasker, Tarrasch, Chigorin, Steinitz, and Pillsbury respectively. Each entrant played six games against the other three.
St. Petersburg 13 Dec 1895 - 27 Jan 1896
The tournament began on December 13, 1895 with 23-year-old Harry Nelson Pillsbury, the victor at Hastings, crushing the 26-year-old world champion, Emanuel Lasker (Lasker vs Pillsbury, 1895). After three cycles (half the tournament), Pillsbury held the lead, having scored 2 1/2 out of 3 against Lasker and 3 out of 3 against Chigorin. But Lasker's 2 1/2 out of 3 against both Steinitz and Chigorin, combined with Pillsbury's loss and two draws against Steinitz, kept it close. At the midpoint, the score stood: Pillsbury 6 1/2 out of 9; Lasker 5 1/2; Steinitz 4 1/2; Chigorin 1 1/2.
Emanuel Lasker 11.5 XXXXXX 11=01= 00=1== 1=11=1
Wilhelm Steinitz 9.5 00=10= XXXXXX 1==111 01100=
Harry Nelson Pillsbury 8.0 11=0== 0==000 XXXXXX 11100=
Mikhail Chigorin 7.0 0=00=0 10011= 00011= XXXXXX
The second half of the tournament began on January 4, 1896, with Lasker facing Pillsbury and scoring perhaps the greatest victory of his long career (Pillsbury vs Lasker, 1896). Pillsbury lost his next two games to Chigorin and Steinitz, so at the end of the fourth cycle Lasker, despite a loss to Steinitz, led the field by a point, and Steinitz had caught up to Pillsbury. In the fifth cycle, Pillsbury again lost to Chigorin and Steinitz, finally ending his miserable run of five straight losses with a drawn game against Lasker on January 19, 1896. Lasker, meanwhile, had beaten Steinitz and drawn with Chigorin, so that after five cycles the identity of the winner was scarcely in doubt, and Pillsbury had fallen to third place: Lasker 9 1/2, Steinitz 7 1/2, Pillsbury 7, Chigorin 6. In the sixth and final cycle, Lasker beat Chigorin and drew with Steinitz and Pillsbury to coast home with 11 1/2 out of 18, two points ahead of Steinitz, who beat Pillsbury (for the fourth time in the tournament!) and drew with Chigorin. Pillsbury also drew with Chigorin and so was able to avoid falling into last place. Final standings: Lasker 11 1/2 (+8-3=7), Steinitz 9 1/2 (+7-6=5), Pillsbury 8 (+5-7=6), Chigorin 7 (+5-9=4). It was a fine result for Lasker, solidifying his position as world champ, and creditable for the 59-year-old Steinitz. But it was a great disappointment for Pillsbury and Chigorin.
The prizes were: first 50 pounds sterling, second 30 pounds, third 20 pounds, fourth 10 pounds, plus four pounds for a win, two pounds for a draw, and 1 pound for a loss. (I am quoting from a British tournament book, so I don't know if the authors converted ruble prizes into pounds sterling, or whether the prizes were paid in pounds.) Lasker received 99 pounds, Steinitz 74 pounds, Pillsbury 59 pounds, and Chigorin 47 pounds. All players received traveling expenses and incidentals. According to Soltis' <Why Lasker Matters>, there were no brilliancy prizes.
The head-to-head matchups were intriguing. Pillsbury beat Lasker (3 1/2 - 2 1/2) and Chigorin (3 1/2 - 2 1/2) while scoring a horrible 1-5 (two draws, four losses) against Steinitz -- a result that is even more remarkable when you consider that, outside of this tournament, Pillsbury had a +5-0=2 score against the first world champion! (<Calli>) Lasker beat Steinitz 4-2 and Chigorin 5-1 but, as noted, lost his mini-match to Pillsbury.
Equally intriguing were the varied fortunes of Chigorin and Pillsbury, compared with the consistency of Lasker and Steinitz. Lasker scored 5 1/2 in the first half, and 6 in the second. Steinitz scored 4 1/2 in the first half, and 5 in the second. Chigorin managed only one win and one draw in the first half of the tournament, but in the second half scored 5 1/2 out of 9, just a half-point less than Lasker. Pillsbury's reversal of fortune was even more dramatic: in the first half he scored five wins, one loss, and three draws to lead the field, but in the second half he obtained three draws, six losses and not a single win.
Many explanations have been offered for Pillsbury's collapse. It has been said that he caught syphilis from a St. Petersburg prostitute, which caused his poor performance in the second half; it has even been suggested that he received the diagnosis of the disease on the day of his dramatic fourth-cycle encounter with Lasker. (OMGP I, p. 135.) These stories don't seem credible to me. If Pillsbury was infected with syphilis in St. Petersburg, he probably would not have suffered any serious symptoms there. It is also unlikely that he would have been diagnosed as having the disease immediately after catching it; no blood test for syphilis existed in 1895-96. On the other hand, there is no question that Pillsbury was unwell during the second half of the tournament; many of his games had to be postponed. <Calli> has uncovered an article from the Brooklyn Eagle in January 1896 saying that Pillsbury was still suffering from "influenza" that had afflicted him during the second half of the tournament. The symptoms of second-stage syphilis are apparently not that different from severe flu; if Pillsbury had caught syphilis <before> the St. Petersburg tournament, the second stage might have manifested itself during the tournament. Alternatively, of course, he could have just caught the flu.
Finally, it is worth noting that St. Petersburg posed unusual problems for a 19th century master. "Supertournaments" where every player was a leading master, like Corus or Linares today, were rare back then. Major international tournaments like Hastings or Nuremburg included a number of local masters, who were easy prey for the likes of Pillsbury, Chigorin, Steinitz and Lasker. But at St. Petersburg 1895-1896, there were no weak opponents. A master in bad form, like Chigorin in the first half of the tournament or Pillsbury in the second half, could expect no mercy.
Later in 1896, the St. Petersburg masters plus many others gathered in Dr. Tarrasch's hometown of Nuremburg. Lasker again emerged the winner. Pillsbury tied for 3rd-4th with Tarrasch; Steinitz finished sixth and Chigorin finished in a tie for 9th-10th. Late in the year, Lasker and Steinitz returned to St. Petersburg for their rematch. Lasker overwhelmed his opponent, 10:2 with 5 draws.
As for Pillsbury, the St. Petersburg tournament book, echoing Paradise Lost, said: "Pillsbury is still young, and the chess world is all before him. A match between Lasker and Pillsbury would be interesting from many points of view." But it was not to be. Pillsbury continued to play strongly, but never repeated his feat at Hastings of winning a leading international tournament. His last major tournament was Cambridge Springs, where he finished in a tie for 8th-9th. But he did have the pleasure of defeating Lasker in the same variation that had brought him disaster at St. Petersburg on January 4, 1896: Pillsbury vs Lasker, 1904.
The main source for this collection was The Games of the St. Petersburg Tournament 1895-1896 by James Mason and W.H.K. Pollock.
Original collection: Game Collection: St. Petersburg 1895-96, by User: keypusher